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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: Could the Message of Jesus Have Been Changed by His Own Disciples?

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Could the Message of Jesus Have Been Changed by His Own Disciples?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 7

Jesus was crucified, and rose from the dead, in the year A.D. 30 or 33. Is it possible that the message of Jesus, as well as the events in His life, were radically changed by Jesus followers before they were committed to writing? How do we know what was written accurately reflects the things Jesus said and did? Could they have either knowingly or unknowingly changed the truth about Jesus?

Accusation: The Real Message of Jesus Was Changed by His Disciples

Those who claim the gospels do not reflect Jesus actual words and deeds usually argue in one of two ways. There are those who think the disciples merely exaggerated Jesus story. In other words, His disciples were well-meaning but mistaken. Others believe there was a conspiracy to cover-up exactly what Jesus said and did. In other words, they knew the stories they told were not true but they told them anyway.

Whatever the case may be, what we have in the New Testament is not what Jesus really said and not what Jesus really did. Key facts have been either omitted or altered. This is the accusation.

Some Claim Jesus’ Disciples Exaggerated the Story

Many people who reject the gospel accounts believe the disciples exaggerated what Jesus said and did. They do not necessarily believe that their intentions were evil. Supposedly these men were so impressed with Jesus, and missed Him so much after His death, that they began to exaggerate the stories about Him. They turned Jesus into something He was not; a miracle-working Savior who was God Himself.

As the theory is usually stated, this took some time to occur. The gospels are assumed to have been composed many years after Jesus’ life and ministry. Indeed, it is often contended that the earliest of the gospels, Mark, was not written until some forty years after Jesus’ death. It was during this period that the stories about Him became exaggerated.

Some Claim There Was a Conspiracy

There have also been a number of conspiracy theories. These theories do not think the disciples of Jesus merely changed His message through exaggeration. Instead, they assert that Jesus’ disciples, for whatever motivation, hid the real story of Jesus from the world. In other words there was a deliberate attempt to deceive the people. Of course, those who believe that this is what happened think that they have unearthed the real story of Jesus.

Response: Could the Message Have Been Changed?

Could the real message of Jesus have been changed or actually hidden from the world? What do the facts really say? The evidence is as follows.

1. The Period of Oral Transmission Was Short

To begin with, the period of oral transmission was a short period of time. There was not nearly enough time for the words and deeds of Jesus to be changed. Eyewitnesses, both friendly and unfriendly, were still alive when the gospels were composed.

Furthermore, legends take at least two full generations to develop. This is because eyewitnesses would still be alive in the first generation and there would be people in the second generation who heard the eyewitness testimony for themselves. It is only during a third generation when legends could develop without any control of eyewitnesses or people who heard the eyewitnesses firsthand. Even assuming a late date for the gospels, we are still in this period of time where people would have known the true story of what took place.

2. They Lived in a Memory Culture

There is something else. In the world that Jesus lived people relied on their memory much more than we do today. The culture in which Jesus’ lived was a memory culture. The spoken word was extremely important. People were trained to listen carefully and memorize.

Furthermore, the people were used to memorizing the sayings and teachings of famous teachers. It has been noted that the teachings of Jesus lend themselves to easy memorization. Consequently, we find the authors of the Four Gospels composing their works in a way that would be easy for memorization.

For example, even a modern English version of the Sermon on the Mount, or the Lord’s Prayer, reveals an obvious pattern of rhythm and sentences that have a parallel structure. This would have made these teachings easy to memorize.

In addition, memorization also seems to have played a part in selecting an apostle to replace Judas. After the death of Judas and Jesus’ ascension into heaven, a twelfth apostle had to be chosen. The criterion is listed in Acts 1:21-22:

“So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22 NRSV)

The candidate had to have been someone who was with Jesus from the beginning—he heard everything that Jesus taught. This would imply that this disciple had memorized Jesus’ words.

3. They Tell the Same Story

From the first statement until the last, everything that the New Testament writers record about Jesus testifies to His supernatural ability. They all agree that Jesus performed miracles in their presence. The four gospels tell the same basic story about Jesus, while they differ in details.

Luke, for example, tells us that he was interested in “the truth”:

Most honorable Theophilus: Many people have written accounts about the events that took place among us. They used as their source material the reports circulating among us from the early disciples and other eyewitnesses of what God has done in fulfillment of his promises. Having carefully investigated all of these accounts from the beginning, I have decided to write a careful summary for you, to reassure you of the truth of all you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4 NLT)

He tells the same basic story as the other writers. As we compare them we find that they are in harmony with each other.

4. The Writers Dealt Honestly with the Facts

We also find that the gospel writers give an honest portrayal of the facts. We can cite the following examples of the writers telling the truth; ugly as it was on occasions.

A. Jesus Was Betrayed by One of His Own Disciples

Matthew records the story of Judas, one of Jesus’ own disciples that He Himself had chosen, as betraying Him. We read the following account of what transpired:

And suddenly while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared, and with him a large number of men armed with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests and elders of the people. Now the traitor had arranged a sign with them saying, ‘The one I kiss, he is the man. Arrest him.’ While He was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, suddenly arrived. A large mob, with swords and clubs, was with him from the chief priests and elders of the people. His betrayer had given them a sign: “The One I kiss, He’s the One; arrest Him!” So he went right up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!”—and kissed Him. “Friend,” Jesus asked him, “why have you come?” Then they came up, took hold of Jesus, and arrested Him. At that moment one of those with Jesus reached out his hand and drew his sword. He struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear. Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword.” (Matthew 26:47-52)

Jesus personally chose Judas, yet, Judas betrayed Him. This detail was not necessary to record but it was recorded nevertheless.

B. All of Jesus’ Disciples Abandoned Him at His Arrest

The New Testament also records that all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned Him when He was arrested. We read the following in Matthew:

“But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew 26:56 NRSV)

There is no reason to make the disciples out to be cowards if they were not. These men were the leaders in the early church.

C. Peter, the Leader of the Group, Denied Knowing Jesus

The gospels also record Peter denying, or disowning, Jesus. Matthew records what occurred after Jesus was arrested:

Then they spit in his face and hit him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, “You think you are the Messiah! So tell us who hit you!” While Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, a servant girl came up to him and said, “You were with Jesus from Galilee.” But in front of everyone Peter said, “That isn’t so! I don’t know what you are talking about!” When Peter had gone out to the gate, another servant girl saw him and said to some people there, “This man was with Jesus from Nazareth.” Again Peter denied it, and this time he swore, “I don’t even know that man!” A little while later some people standing there walked over to Peter and said, “We know that you are one of them. We can tell it because you talk like someone from Galilee.” Peter began to curse and swear, “I don’t know that man!” Right then a rooster crowed, and Peter remembered that Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows, you will say three times that you don’t know me.” Then Peter went out and cried hard. (Matthew 26:67-75 CEV)

Here is the embarrassing story for Peter that was forever memorialized in the gospels. This man who earlier that night had said that he would die for Jesus later said that he did not know the man.

D. The Disciples Were the First Unbelievers of the Resurrection

Luke tells us that the disciples were the first unbelievers of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, he tells us they thought the stories they heard from the women were nothing but nonsense. Luke writes,

But these words seemed like nonsense to them, and they did not believe the women. (Luke 24:11 HCSB)

This hardly speaks of their great faith. There is more.

E. Thomas Did Not Believe the Initial Reports of the Disciples

Thomas, one of the Twelve, did not believe when he first heard the reports of the risen Jesus by the other apostles. John writes,

Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, who was called Didymus, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord.” Thomas told them, “I refuse to believe this unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my fingers into them, and put my hand into his side.” A week later Jesus’ disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Take your hand, and put it into my side. Stop doubting, and believe.” Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to Thomas, “You believe because you’ve seen me. Blessed are those who haven’t seen me but believe.” (John 20:24-29 God’s Word)

What we find from the New Testament is no desire on the part of Jesus’ disciples to make themselves into some type of heroes. To the contrary, they honestly records their lack of understanding of Jesus on certain occasions, the betrayal of Jesus by one of their own, their abandonment of Jesus when He was arrested, and the denial of Jesus by Peter. In addition, they also tell us that they were the first people to disbelieve the resurrection story! Thus, what we find here is a straightforward account of what truly happened. It is not some attempt to portray themselves in the best possible manner.

5. The Early Enemies of Christianity Did Not Deny the Gospel Accounts

One important point concerns the response of the early enemies of Christianity to the message of Jesus. They did not deny that Jesus worked miracles. On the contrary, they tried to explain away the events. We find an example of this in Mathew’s gospel. We read,

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (Matthew 12:22-24 NIV)

The religious leaders, instead of denying Jesus’ miracles, actually attributed them to the power of Beelzebul.

Finally, if the New Testament account of Jesus was merely an invention or exaggeration, then why didn’t His enemies say so? Those who hated Christ would have denied His miracles if they could have. Yet they attempted to explain His miraculous character by attributing His works to the power of Satan.

Rather than deny that Jesus was a miracle worker, His enemies tried to say His power was demonic. They too, admitted that He performed these wonderful deeds.

We find the same thing with those who lived after the time of Jesus. They never denied His existence. In fact, they never denied that He was a miracle worker. They attempted to give alternative explanations to the miraculous deeds of Jesus that differed from the explanation of the New Testament.

The Gospels Were Written Soon after the Events

There is one other point. The evidence indicates that the gospels were written soon after the events. Matthew, for example, could have been composed as early as ten years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Each of the four gospels was composed in the eyewitness period where people who knew the events, both friendly and unfriendly, could evaluate what they had written. Thus, with respect to the gospel writers, there was no time, as well as no desire, to change the message of their Lord. None whatsoever.

The Testimony of Paul

One final matter that is often overlooked in this discussion is the testimony of Saul of Tarsus, the man who became the Apostle Paul. He wrote a number of letters which became part of the New Testament. From all accounts, his death seems to have taken place somewhere in the 60’s of the first century. Of course, this means that his letters were all composed before that time.

In his letters, he confirms many of the facts recorded in the four gospels. Indeed, from Paul we have the testimony of Jesus’ identity, that He was a miracle-worker who claimed to be God the Son. Paul also testifies that Jesus died for the sins of the world, and of most importance, He came back from the dead three days after His death. Like the four gospels, his letters were written during the time when eyewitnesses to the events were still alive. Consequently, we have another early source confirming the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Conclusion: The New Testament Provides the True Account of Jesus

Therefore, when all the evidence is considered, we should conclude that the New Testament does give us an accurate account of Jesus’ words and deeds. The historical facts make it plain that what we have in the New Testament is the historical truth about Jesus. There is no evidence of exaggeration, myth, or some type of conspiracy.

Summary – Question 7
Could the Message of Jesus Have Been Changed by His Own Disciples?

Those who reject the testimony of the gospels with respect to what Jesus said and did usually argue against their truthfulness in one of two ways.

One way is to assume the accounts of Jesus became exaggerated. As the stories about Him were told and retold He was transformed a simple teacher to a miracle-working Savior. Those who take this position assume the gospels were written some fifty years after Jesus’ life. During this time or oral transmission, the stories became exaggerated. While well-meaning, the ultimate writers of the four gospels made Jesus out to be someone whom He was not.

Others do not believe what occurred was so innocent. Indeed, they believe there was a conscious conspiracy to re-write the truth about Jesus. Whatever the case may be, it is assumed that the end result, the four gospels, do not accurately reflect the words and deeds of Jesus.

While there have been those who have argued that the message of Jesus was changed by His disciples before it was finally put into writing, the evidence does not show this.

To begin with, the period of transmitting the message orally was a short period of time. Indeed, there was not enough time for the changes to occur.

In addition, the culture in which the words and deeds of Jesus were transmitted was a culture used to accurately remembering what famous people said and did.

We also find that the New Testament writers tell the same basic story about the life of Jesus. While differing in details, the main points remain the same.

In addition, these writers honestly deal with the facts. There is not attempt to cover up, or fail to report their own faults. In fact, they tell us that they constantly failed. Indeed, we have the record of the betrayal by one of Jesus’ own disciples, the testimony that all of them abandoned Him the night which He was betrayed, and the fact that the leader, Peter, denied even knowing Jesus. On Easter Sunday morning, when reports of the resurrection were first given to them by certain women we find that they did not believe them! Thus, what we find is honest reporting.

There is also the fact that the early enemies of the Christian faith never denied Jesus’ miraculous deeds. Even the later unbelievers never denied Jesus’ existence or the fact that He was a miracle worker. While they tried to explain away His miracles, they never denied them.

Furthermore, there is much available evidence which shows the gospels were written soon after the events took place. There was not enough time to change the message.

Finally, there is the testimony of Paul. All of his letters were written within a thirty to thirty-five year period after Jesus’ death. He confirms the main facts of the gospel accounts. This provides further testimony to the reliability of their message.

Therefore, the evidence leads us conclude that the gospel accounts have not been changed but rather reflect the true account of what Jesus said and did.

Why Should We Trust the New Testament Account of Jesus' Life? Weren't They Biased? ← Prior Section
Could the Church Have Conspired to Hide the Real Message of Jesus? Next Section →
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