How Reliable are the Gospels?

I have some links to share and discuss. I want to have a look at the possibility that there is a big difference between real events that happened 2,000 years ago and the way that the Bible eventually got them written down. I’m not going to have a look at the actual contents of the Gospel, just the research that suggests and challenges their reliability.

Here’s the first link: it’s called the Grandfather Gospel Challenge. The challenge is pretty simple, to write the gospel account of your grandfather, after his death. You can use all the resources that are available to you, which will well exceed what any Biblical authors had, for sure. You can even pick any deceased grandparent, a freedom the authors of the Gospels surely didn’t have (they had to write about Jesus). There are bonus points for documentation of your grandparents’ resurrection, where available.

This is a fair challenge; it’s exactly what the gospel authors had to do while the story of Jesus was an oral tale only. Can you do it? Apparently no one has done this to anything like the detail of the gospels yet. Interesting.

Couple, if you can, that challenge with the following information from Sam Harris: we invent myths of living people and have eye-witness accounts. Even today first-hand accounts of miracles are common. Obviously we have my-grandma-recovered-in-hospital type miracles, but they are not the ones of interest. People tell stories and give accounts of Hindu gurus who suspend the laws of nature without corroborating evidence. Walking-on-water and raising-the-dead type miracles have educated people attesting to them in this decade. So even if the gospels got written contemporaneously to the recorded events, it’s no more evidence that Jesus was the son of God than it is evidence modern-day mystics are Jesus. So I give to you the Sam Harris/Sathya Sai Baba Challenge:

“Consider, as though for the first time, the foundational claim of Christianity. The claim is this: that miracle stories of a sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba become especially compelling when you set them in the pre-scientific, religious context of the first century Roman Empire decades after their supposed occurrence.”

When time elapses between an event and when it got recorded, there is another variable to consider: the role of memory. A chemical called muscimol (a psychoactive chemical present in many mushrooms of the ‘magic’ variety) is well established as something that blocks memories from forming. That is to say having a high level of muscimol in your body will inhibit your ability to form or keep memories of events that happen. It has an even more loveable (and not-at-all sinister) side-effect: that it can disrupt, or entirely block, memories that you recall while it’s in the blood stream. This is because when you recall a memory, you reform it and according to a new context, new memories and ways to tell the story to others.

I’m not suggesting that the authors of the gospels, or even the original orators of the stories of the gospels, were on magic mushrooms (although, they saw a zombie, so it’s not entirely ruled out yet). Instead the suggestion is that memories can be very unreliable. Memories are context specific, and you subtly alter versions of a story that you recall. To share a quote from the linked Blog (Something Surprising) to show how this might manifest itself anecdotally:

“When I tell the story of an event the first time I’m certain that it is less interesting than when I tell it for the fifth time.  It’s not that I am making up the story or deliberately embellishing it.  But as time goes on, responding to the questions that people ask me about the story I know that I see different aspects and different perspectives.  I report the order of events slightly more interestingly in order to make it clearer to listeners”

Imagine the implications of the things I have mentioned so far on the reliability or validity of any story; it is a challenge to write about things that happened long ago, people’s first-hand accounts are inherently unreliable and everyone’s memory fails them on details.

There’s one more interesting thing: group conformity (also known as “herd behaviour” or “flock mentality”). In its basic form, it states that: a person that holds beliefs that are different from the acknowledged majority-held belief betrays themselves and pretends to agree with the herd. They don’t sincerely hold the belief, but in the name of conformity they will pretend. This can explain how, as a story evolves into an ever-more-outlandish state, people will comfort to feigned belief and the story will become memetic (like going viral, just without the hardcopy).

So, how reliable are the gospels?

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6 thoughts on “How Reliable are the Gospels?”

  1. I don’t think you gave enough credit to those that tell the story they way they want to have remembered it. They don’t intentionally embellish but people that want to remember that a miracle happened or some transcendent event happened will remember that way and describe it so.

    1. I was thinking of writing another post on that sort of issue: the fact that the Gospels are a minimum of 30 years after the fact, the fact that it was an oral tale until then, the fact that the story was told for the purpose of conversion, the disagreements between the gospels…
      But you’re right, we all know people remember things the way they want to… or at the very least, tell it the way they want people to believe it.

  2. When I read Paul’s work the only thing I take away from it is that he was creating his own religion. He was successful in that he succeeds in wresting from the Jews what was good and redistributing it to the gentiles. A bronze age robin hood if you will. I have no doubts that were he alive today, he’d be marketing oil to Arabic countries and ice to Siberians.

    1. I might need to read the Bible again. I haven’t read it in nearly a decade. I don’t remember feeling any which way about the Gospels except that allowing Paul to suffer because it makes him strong for God is a narcissistic thing to do, and that the Gospels don’t agree on how was where and when.

      I don’t normally pay attention to the Gospels, because so far as I can see they are a case of “He was DEFINITELY dead, and he DEFINITELY came back to life — and I believe that so strongly that I will write it down and people will believe me for thousands of years…”

  3. “I’m not suggesting that the authors of the gospels, or even the original orators of the stories of the gospels, were on magic mushrooms (although, they saw a zombie, so it’s not entirely ruled out yet)”

    Lol 😀 reading these kinds of things keep me sane. Nice read. Thanks.

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