quite recently it was supposed by a large majority that the gospels
contained eyewitness testimony of those who had met and accompanied Jesus
of Nazareth. These people had, it was thought, heard him address crowds,
eaten meals with him, and perhaps even seen him tried and crucified. Some
must have known him as a boy or young lad. Others had perhaps been around
at his birth.
It wasn't until later that evidence
demonstrated conclusively that the earliest gospel (Mark) wasn't written
down until (at the very earliest) about 65 and probably not until just
- that is, at least 30 years after Jesus died. Why, we might ask, was
nothing written down before then? There may have been. Most scholars of
the New Testament think that a written source, now lost, was used by the
authors of both Matthew's Gospel and Luke's Gospel (known as "Q"). But
there is no way of dating that source.
In searching for the Jesus of history
one attempts to get at "what really happened" in his life. So it seems
that the gospel authors had to rely on the memory of others for "what
really happened." This means either
 that their source material was
first-hand, gathered from eyewitnesses who were there, or
 that eyewitness material had been
passed on from person to person over some decades.
The first option is possible. If one assumes that Jesus' ministry ran
from 27 to 30 and that an eyewitness was then 20 years old, he or she
would have been about 55 years old in 65. The latest possible date
for Jesus' death is 35 - so an eyewitness for Mark's Gospel might have
around 50 years old at the time of the crucifixion. The Gospels of Luke
and Matthew were written much later - probably 15 or 20 years later. The
chances of them having been able to talk to an eyewitness are very much
lower, probably near zero.
The problem with this conclusion is that
although material in the gospels is often quite vivid, it contains few
characteristics of eyewitness accounts. Just the opposite, in fact.
Almost all serious scholars agree that the material shows every sign of
having been edited, sometimes extensively. Some material is without doubt
the work of the gospel editors.
So the second option is more likely.
Eyewitness accounts of "what really happened" were passed from person to
person. We have no way of knowing how many steps in the process there
might have been in the oral process before anything was written down.
The issue of possible loss of accuracy in such a transmission process is
of considerably greater concern today than it once was. This is because
the capacity of people to remember accurately has been rigorously tested
in laboratory experiments for decades now. The conclusion is clear. The
vast majority of us have faulty memories. Sometimes our memories are so
distorted that they bear little resemblance to "what really happened" .
- When we're under stress we tend to jumble the sequence of events,
perceive important details incorrectly, and fail to notice critical
aspects of an event.
- If something happens quickly and our attention is then distracted,
the memory will fade equally fast.
- If an event doesn't affect us emotionally, it's memory will
- If an event isn't directly relevant to our personal situation, it
will not easily be recalled, if at all.
- If we have a clear memory of something, and then many things happen
between the event and trying to recall it, we'll find it difficult or
impossible to reproduce an accurate account .
Occasional individuals seem to have a "photographic memory". They can,
for example, read a page of a book and then reproduce it exactly. Others
can hear a speech and then recall it more or less word for word. But such
talent is rare. Most of us don't remember well or particularly accurately.
Sometimes our memories are seriously distorted.
Many critics of the Bible I have read on this matter downplay the issue
of accurate memory. But it's a serious concern for anyone who seeks to
know the Jesus of history. In the 21st century we have many types of
mechanical means with which to record events and convey information. In
Jesus' time, there were very few documents. Most records were carried from
decade to decade by word of mouth. Almost none were ever written down.
Another possibility remains. Memory can be trained. With considerable
effort and using well-known techniques, it's possible to improve an
otherwise ordinary capacity to remember. Rather like a marathon runner who
trains over the distance repeatedly until it becomes easier, many (but not
all) of us can with discipline and constant practice learn to memorise and
recall large amounts of data.
This seems to have been the norm in the first century. I have been told
that Jesus was an illiterate peasant. There is no evidence of this.
Indeed, the evidence is if anything to the contrary. DF Watson writes that
it "... it was the father's responsibility to teach the Torah to his sons"
so primary schools took longer to establish than secondary schools. There
were secondary Hebrew schools two centuries before the time of Jesus,
probably in response to the influence of Rome and Hellenism. "Boys learned
the alphabet by writing the letters on a small wax tablet with a stylus
... Reading was a matter of memorization ... Memorization of large
portions of the texts read was the desired result" writes Watson
. Jesus may well have been educated - at
least to the standard of an ordinary lad of his time and place.
My conclusion is that those who gathered material for their gospels may
have had as sources others whose memories had been at least partially
trained. This may not, however, have been the advantage some think it was
[a] the first "believers" are likely to have come from the poorest
sectors of Palestinian society. Evidence from some of the New Testament
letters and elsewhere suggests this. Such people are unlikely to have
gone to school and may not have had the advantage of memory training;
[b] the gospel authors were not particularly interested in recording
what really happened. Theology, not history, was their primary focus.
CL Blomberg  writes,
"All [are] agreed that the teachings of Jesus and the narratives about his
life which comprise the Gospels were transmitted orally over a
considerable period of time before they were ever written down."
I have found a wide range of opinions about the
reliability or otherwise of this oral material. Some think that Jesus'
followers would have taken notes and had discussion groups about the
meaning of his sayings and actions. Others propose that very little of
what really happened has been preserved in the Gospels because so much
corruption of memory took place over the 30 or so years between Jesus'
death and the first written records.
The truth may lie somewhere in-between the two extremes. Research into the
social and economic background of the first century seems to be widening
the scope of what we can guess about Jesus by providing information about
what was normal in his lifetime.
But the hard fact
remains: we almost certainly have no access to eyewitness accounts of
"what really happened". That the parable of "The Labourers in the
Vineyard" in Matthew 20, for example, is exactly "what Jesus really said"
is so extremely unlikely as to be almost impossible in historical terms.
Moreover, the parable has no parallels in other gospels - it occurs only
in Matthew's Gospel (see When Witnesses Disagree).
Because we know that there are no eyewitness accounts in the gospels, we
also know that the parable isn't the recorded words of Jesus.
Why then preserve it as good "bare bones" history (see
Is Jesus History)?
The answer is that the
parable demonstrates so many of the characteristics of the kind of thing
which is well-attested as coming from Jesus, that it's likely to have come
I know of no similar stories or parables in any other literature
of, or close to, his times. So it's not likely that the gospel editor
transposed a similar well-known tale into the mouth of Jesus. Nor is
this the kind of story which relates to the agenda of early Christian
Almost all of the historical sayings of Jesus use an ordinary
event, known to all who would have been listening, to make a point.
This parable is typical of that sort of usage.
In these sayings an ordinary event is "turned around" in such a
way that it would have both attracted attention and have been readily
remembered and recalled. There is a reversal of expectations. Jesus
seems to have been particularly skillful at this.
The parable is inserted awkwardly into its context here. As J C
Fenton argues ,
"... the awkwardness with which the parable fits into this context
indicates that it was not composed by Matthew, but came to him from a
All of the above does not, of course, "prove" anything in the sense
that doubt about the historicity of this parable - or something quite
close to it - is totally excluded. But it is about as close as it's
possible to get to good history. Putting the matter differently, these are
the kind of criteria which exclude some 80% of the Gospels from the body
of "bare bones history".
 Various data quoted in Introductory Psychology, Malim & Birch,
 Dictionary of New
 Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992
 The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Penguin Books, 1963