The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Oral Tradition

There was a period of between forty to sixty years of oral tradition before the gospels came to be written.

Most Christian fundamentalists, while admitting to the existence of a period of oral transmission, claim that the time elapsed from Jesus life to the writing of the gospels was too short for any false or erroneous material to have been included. Besides, they normally add, people who knew Jesus were around during the time of the gospels publication. Had it contained false material these eye witnesses would have surely pointed it out.

We will look at these two claims:

The answer to both the above questions is "No".

The Period of the Oral Tradition

Our considerations elsewhere have given us probable dates for the composition for each of the gospel. To summarize, these dates are





70-105 CE

90-110 CE

95-140 CE

90-140 CE

Any attempts to be more exact by putting a single date on the composition is not warranted by the available evidence.

The dating of the source document Q is uncertain [a]. Scholars used to put 50 CE as the date for the composition of Q. [1] However 50 CE is certainly a bit too early for Q for a few reasons. Firstly we do not find any references to it in the epistles of Paul, which was written between 51 and 64 CE. Secondly, there is a section in Q known as Jesus’ Lament Over Jerusalem that is almost certainly a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Luke 13:34-35
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who sent to you, how often I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

Thus Q, in the form that it was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, must be a post 70 CE document.

Now if the traditional date of 30 CE as the death of Jesus is accepted, the dating of the synoptics show that the earliest gospel, Mark, did not appear until at least four decades after that. In the case of Matthew, Luke and John, these were written more than sixty years after the events they purport to describe.

How were the stories concerning Jesus passed down through the four to six decades? The answer is obvious, the stories and sayings of Jesus were handed down orally.

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Were There Eyewitnesses Around to Protect the Integrity of the Gospels?

Who, among the apostles were around to check the documents?

Peter, as Christian tradition itself tells us, died in the Neronian persecution of 64 CE. James (and probably John as well) [2] the son of Zebedee was killed in 44 CE by Herod Agrippa i (Acts 12:2). These were the three "inner circle" of Jesus apostles. For the rest, the remainder of their lives rests on conjecture and speculation. Tradition supplied them all with martyr's death. [b] However there are reasons to doubt that there were even twelve apostles in the first place (twelve being a symbolic number). We see elsewhere that there is already some confusion as to the names of the apostles had already arose by the time the gospels were put to writing.

Thus apart from Peter, James and John, the witness of the apostles are dubious. So little is known about them that we can't even be certain of their existence, let alone assume that they were the guarantee of the truth of the gospels. As for the minor disciples of Jesus (Luke says there were seventy or seventy-two : Luke 10:1) the uncertainties concerning their existence (again seventy or seventy-two is another symbolism in Jewish numerology and it appears only in Luke-Acts) argues against their being used as the assurance of the gospels veracity.

As for those who heard him preach, they were confined mainly to Galilean peasants and some pilgrims during the Passover in Jerusalem in 30 CE. Many in his audience would not have sufficient knowledge about Jesus' ministry to be in a position to question any tradition about his life. Even for those who do (say some interested Galilean peasants who followed Jesus around the villages and towns of Galilee) how many of them would have been around when the gospels were written? The average life expectancy for a man during the Roman era was only 36 years. [3] Assuming that the worthwhile eye witness were adults during the ministry of Jesus, they would have been around 60 years old by the (earliest possible) time Mark was published around 70 CE. So given the life expectancy of 36, clearly many would have been dead by then.

To add on to this, the conditions before the publication of the gospels were a tumultuous one for Palestine; the Jewish revolt of 66-74 CE clearly took its toll on the natives of that land. It should be remembered that in Jerusalem alone more than one million Jews perished.

Jewish War 6:9:3
[T]he number of those that perished during the whole siege [of Jerusalem-PT] [was] eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army, which, at the very first, occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.

We know from both New Testament and other sources that the headquarters of the early church was in Jerusalem (cf: Acts 15:2ff, Acts 21:17ff, Galatians 2:1, Rome 15:25-26 and also Antiquities of the Jews: 20:9:1). Doubtless many of the Jerusalem Jewish-Christians would have died during this seige. [c]

Galilee, the home of many of the supposed eye-witnesses, was not spared. As Josephus himself tell us:

Jewish War 3:10:9
The Romans never ceased, night or day, to devastate the plains and to pillage the property of the country folk, invariably killing all capable of bearing arms and reducing the inefficient to servitude. Galilee from end to end became a scene of fire and blood; from no misery, no calamity was it exempt.

Later in the war many Galileans were slaughtered along the shore of the sea of Galilee, Josephus adds:

Jewish War 3:10:9
One could see the whole lake red with blood and covered with corpses, for not a man escaped. During the following days the district reeked with a dreadful stench and presented a spectacle equally horrible. The beaches were strewn with wrecks and swollen carcasses.

Under such a war it is very likely that many of the eyewitness and even followers of Jesus would have perished. As for those who did survive, and doubtless some did, how much reliance can be placed on the testimony of old and broken men? As Hugh Schonfield wrote:

There is something further to be said about the survivors of the war. Early rabbinical literature reveals an inevitable consequence of the conflict, and of the troubled period preceding it, which has to be taken into account. Many, especially of the older generation, were gravely impaired in health and memory. People whose testimony were of importance about past events and practices make contradictory statements, got dates mixed and persons and events confused. It was very natural, but most unfortunate. [4]

Now if this happened to the Jewish elders it undoubtedly happened to the Jewish followers and eye witnesses of Jesus. Those few who remained alive were probably traumatised by the war, unable to relate accurately the events of Jesus's life.

As Jesus confined his teachings mainly to Galilean backwaters it is unlikely that many of his audience and followers would be widely travelled. Furthermore, Christian tradition attributes the location of the gospels’ composition outside Palestinian soil: Mark in Rome, Matthew in Alexandria, Luke in Antioch and John in Ephesus. Of these few remaining, broken and confused eye-witness how many would have been around the location of the gospels when they were first composed to verify their veracity? How many would travel around the Mediterranean telling their version of the story as opposed to the gospels? [d]

Thus the guarantee of eye witnesses so often cited by the fundamentalists disappears before our very eyes.

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Was the Elapsed Time too Short for Mythologization?

The claim that the time elapsed was to short for any falsification of mythologization in the oral transmission is dubious. Rather than argue about how it could or could not have happened. I will give two examples from history where falsification and mythologization did occur within that short a space of time.

Mircea Eliade, in his book Cosmos and History (New York 1959) relates the story behind a legend from a small village in Maramures, Rumania. The legend tells the tale of a young suitor who was bewitched by a fairy, who threw him off a cliff a few days before he was to be married. His body was discovered by some shepherds, who took it back to the village. Upon arrival his fiance spontaneously broke into a beautiful funeral lament.

When a folklorist discovered that the story had only taken place about forty years ago, and that the heroine was till alive, he inquired from her regarding the legend. Her description differs substantially from the popular legend. She described a commonplace tragedy. There was no fairy and no spontaneous funeral lament. Her lover slipped off a cliff bit did not die immediately. He was taken back to the village where he soon died. She participated in the funeral rites which included the customary ritual lamentations.

The collective memory of the village has stripped the story of all historical details and have embellished it with mythical elements. Amazingly, when the folklorist reminded the villagers of the authentic version, they repudiated it and insisted that the old woman's mind and was destroyed by her grief. As Eliade said: "it was the myth that told the truth; the real story was only a falsification." [5]

The second example is a religious one, taken from Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Christendom (1876). It involves the famous sixteenth century missionary, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), who spent many years preaching in India, China and Japan.

After the missionary's death, stories of his power to perform miracles began to circulate. He was supposed to be able to cure the sick, raise the dead, turn sea water into fresh and call fire down from heaven. There was even the fantastic story of how after having lost his crucifix at sea, it was miraculously returned to him by a crab.

Perhaps the most remarkable, and certainly the most useful, miracle ascribed to Francis Xavier was the gift of tongues. It was claimed that he spoke to various tribes with ease in their own languages. The legend was further developed to the point where it was claimed that when he addresses various native tribes at the same time, each heard the same sermon in their own native language! When this proselytizer was canonized (i.e. made a saint) seventy years after his death, the bull of canonization laid great stress on the new saint's gift of tongues.

The problem with all these stories about Xavier's gift of tongues is that we know that they are untrue. Throughout his missionary journeys, he and his fellow missionaries wrote many letters to friends and associates. Many of these are still extant today. In none of his letters do we find any reference to the numerous miracles attributed to him. In fact, throughout his letters he constantly referred to the difficulties he faces in the communication of his faith to the different tribes. He tells how he surmounted these difficulties: sometimes by learning just enough of a language to translate the main formulas of the church; by soliciting help from others to patch together some teachings for natives to learn by rote; by a mixture of various dialects; by using sign language; and by using interpreters. Xavier actually relates how, on one occasion, his voyage to China was delayed because his interpreter he had hired for the mission had failed to meet him. [6] It is therefore clear that the miracles attributed to this missionary never happened. But references by Francis Xavier in his letters to the actual situation was quickly forgotten and popular memory had placed the mythological and legendary elements on center stage. We let Andrew White (1832-1918) sum up this section on mythologization:

It is hardly necessary to attribute to orators and biographers generally a conscious attempt to deceive. The simple fact is, that as a rule they thought, spoke, and wrote in obedience to the natural laws which govern the luxuriant growth of myth and legend in the warm atmosphere of love and devotion which constantly arises about great religious leaders in times when men have little or no knowledge of natural law, where there is little care for scientific evidence, and when he who believes most is most meritorious. [7]

The passage above could well be applied to the early followers of Jesus. It is thus shown, without a shadow of a doubt, that mythologization can occur within a short space of time. [e] And, as we have seen from account of the Romanian legend, the presence of eyewitness or even the main protagonists themselves are usually of no hindrance to the process of falsification and mythologization.

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a.In recent years the theological world have seen a resurgence of interest in the study of Q. The dominant hypothesis among theological circles is that Q went through three different stages of documentation (called Q1, Q2 and Q3) with Q1, a collection of aphorisms by Jesus, being the sayings most likely to be authentic. Q2 which contained the apocalyptic sayings of the coming of the kingdom is taken as the second strata added by the “Q people” and is considered non authentic. Q3 depicts a few minor additions which were believed by theologians to have been added after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and definately further away from the historical Jesus. The reader can find a summary of the findings in the book by Button L. Mack The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (1993).
b.The only other death, apart from James the son of Zebedee, that was narrated in the New Testament was that of Judas who died around AD30. The tradition regarding the deaths of the other apostles are very late and unreliable: Andrew was martyred on an X-shaped cross in Patras a Greek city around AD60; Thomas was martyred in India; Bartholomew was flayed alive in Mesopotamia; Philip was crucified in Heirapolis (in modern Turkey); Simon the Zealot was martyred together with the other apostle Judas (not Iscariot) in Persia; and tradition had Matthew martyred at so many different places (in Ethiopia, Persia and around the Black Sea) that the only certainty we have regarding him is that he died; James the Less, if he is identified with James the Just died in AD62.
c.Although Christian tradition maintained, probably correctly, that some of the Jerusalem Jewish-Christians managed to flee to Pella, not many would have been able to escape the seige. It is also significant that Pella early on became known as a center for the "heretical" Jewish-Christians - who did not accept any of the four canonical gospels. According to modern scholarship, the Jewish-Christians did not use any of the canonical gospels and produced gospels of their own : Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Ebionites and Gospel of the Nazarenes. The last sharing similarities with the canonical Matthew. See The Complete Gospels (HarperCollins 1994) by Robert Miller pp.425-446 for more details on these gospels.
d.Actually we do have evidence that the original Jewish followers of Jesus did try to spread his teachings, but not in the way fundamentalist would like. They travelled around the region and actively opposed Paul's teachings about Jesus. We know that Paul's theology about Jesus (connecting Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah, the atoning nature of his death etc) eventualy became standard Christian christology. However based on the evidence of the group called the Nazarenes this was, in all probability, not what the earthly Jesus taught.

So perhaps the ironic result of the fundamentalist insistence on eyewitnesses would be this: what we can discern from probable eyewitnesses historically was that they were actively opposed to what eventually became Christian orthodoxy! However, especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, they were too insignificant in numbers to counter the innovations of Paul and his followers.

e.Indeed modern urban legends are good examples of how myths and legendary stories can spread quickly - even in relatively sophisticated societies. Note also that in urbans legends, just like in many of the anecdotes in the gospels, there are many different versions of the same story. Those interested in urban legends can check out this website. Thanks to Burkhard Plache for pointing out the similarities here.


1.86 Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who Was Jesus?: p31
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p228
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p152
3.Kendig & Hutton, Life Spans: p8
4.Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p186-187
5.Wilkens, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: p10-11
6.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p93-95
7.Ibid: p95

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