The witch’s knife plunged deep into the lion’s heart, and the majestic creature quivered and died. For a few seconds, complete silence descended on the movie theater. A slight sniffling beside me broke the stillness, and that’s when I heard my 9-year-old daughter whisper a rather profound word of wisdom to her friend—wisdom that reminds us of an important truth about the New Testament Gospels.
A few months earlier, my daughter Hannah had heard the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was being adapted into a feature film. I told her she wouldn’t be allowed to see the movie until she first read the fantasy novel by C. S. Lewis. Then I added a challenge: if she read all seven books in the series before the movie’s release, I’d take her and her friend Lacey to see it on opening day. Three weeks later, Hannah had devoured all of the Chronicles of Narnia. So, on the afternoon of its release, I ended up in a packed theater with two girls, watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Since Hannah had already read the book, the storyline of the film was familiar to her—but her friend hadn’t yet read it. For Lacey, the tale of the lion who returns from the dead after giving his life to save a traitor was all new. Still, when the witch’s knife fell and Aslan the lion died, both children were moved to tears. The difference was that Hannah knew what happened next. It was in that moment that I heard Hannah lean over and whisper words of comfort to her friend: Don’t worry; I read the book. He doesn’t stay dead.
That’s what we as Christians believe as we read the New Testament.
For nearly 2,000 years Christians have confessed together that, because the one who died on Good Friday didn’t stay dead, our despair can never have the final word. And unlike the resurrection of Aslan the lion, the resurrection of Jesus is no fantasy. It happened in history, and Jesus himself has promised that everyone who trusts him will share in his new life. So as Christians we declare: Don’t worry; I read the book. He didn’t stay dead.
The New Testament Gospels, Reliable Testimony or Telephone Game Gone Bad?
But how sure can we be that the story of Jesus and his resurrection really happened? What if the New Testament authors never intended their words to be taken as reliable reports about Jesus’s life in the first place? What if their writings contained far more fantasy than history?
Those are precisely the scenarios that some skeptical scholars have popularized over the past few decades. For example, Bart Ehrman writes:
[The New Testament Gospels were] written 35 to 65 years after Jesus’s death, not by people who were eyewitnesses, but by people living later. . . . After the days of Jesus, people started telling stories about him in order to convert others to the faith. . . . Stories were changed with what would strike us today as reckless abandon. They were modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up. (Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, 259)
Religious writer Reza Aslan similarly claims, “The Gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life” (Zealot, xxv–xxvi).
Ehrman compares the spread of the Christ stories to “Telephone”—the children’s game where one person in a circle whispers a sentence to someone else, then that person whispers what they hear to the next person, and so on, all the way around. At the end, the first and the last persons reveal their sentences, and everyone laughs at how much the original changed along the way. Here’s how Ehrman has repeatedly depicted the development of the stories of Jesus:
Imagine playing “Telephone” . . . over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across!) with thousands of participants from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts. . . . Stories based on eyewitness accounts are not necessarily reliable, and the same is true a hundredfold for accounts that—even if stemming from reports of eyewitnesses—have been in oral circulation long after the fact. (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 47, 52; see also Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 146–147).
It’s true that several years stand between the life of Jesus and the first surviving texts about him. Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Thessalonians are some of the earliest writings in the New Testament, after all, and these letters were penned around AD 50. Two decades stand between the time Paul wrote his first letters and the days Jesus walked and talked with his disciples. The New Testament Gospels were written even later than Paul’s letters, sometime between AD 50 and AD 100.
Nevertheless, when I look at the New Testament texts in their cultural contexts, I find that skeptical suppositions quickly fall apart. In fact, each time I study New Testament origins I’m more and more convinced the New Testament traditions are traceable to reliable testimonies from trustworthy witnesses—not to an ancient game of Telephone gone bad.
A Crucial Difference Between the First Century and Today
Suppose you need to remember a list of items today. How will you make certain you don’t forget anything?
If you’re like me, you’ll use a fountain pen to inscribe each item in a Moleskine journal. Or you may grab a ball-point pen and scrawl the list on the palm of your hand. If you’re more technologically inclined you may tap your to-do list into your smartphone. The precise tools may change, but the pattern remains the same: in contemporary Western culture, if we need to remember something, we write it down. Throughout the past 500 years, civilizations with European roots have developed a deep reliance on reading and writing for memory.
Today, this reliance on writing has merged with new technologies such that stories leap almost instantly from eyewitness testimonies to written words. Moments after an event occurs, firsthand reports and secondhand speculations are trending on social media. By the next morning, the story has flooded the front page of every newspaper and news site. Within a few weeks, mass-printed books about the event are crawling up The New York Times bestsellers list.
If you’ve spent your whole life in a culture like this—where information races rapidly from personal experiences to written reports—it’s easy to assume stories can’t circulate reliably for long unless they’re written down. That’s why some Christians become concerned about the reliability of the Gospels when skeptics point out these books were written decades after Jesus’s death.
Why Didn’t George Washington Ride on Air Force One?
The problem with the skeptics’ claims, however, is they’re forcing an ancient culture to fit into the mold of modern expectations. The earliest Christians didn’t live in a culture of widespread writing and literacy. They lived in an oral culture. And in such cultures, experiences didn’t need to be written immediately to be remembered. In fact, people in such contexts were capable of sharing reliable testimonies over the course of decades without ever writing them down.
Criticizing testimonies from ancient oral cultures because they weren’t written down quickly enough is like criticizing George Washington because he never flew in an airplane. It’s expecting persons from another time and culture to follow patterns that didn’t emerge until hundreds of years later.
So why did people in the first century rely so heavily on oral testimonies?
It was partly due to widespread illiteracy. Fewer than half the people in the Roman Empire could read; fewer still were able to write. Oral histories—spoken testimonies to truth, memorized and shared in communities during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses—were far more fruitful forms of information for the illiterate.
Three Truths About Oral Histories and the New Testament Gospels
And what kept these oral histories from degenerating into an empire-wide game of Telephone? At least three things:
1. People in oral cultures were capable of recalling and repeating oral histories accurately.
In the oral culture of the first Christians, many were trained from childhood to memorize entire libraries of laws and stories, poetry and songs. Rhythmic patterns and mnemonic devices were woven into oral histories so that learners could quickly convert spoken testimonies into permanent memories. God worked through this cultural pattern to preserve the truths we read in the New Testament today. That’s why a gap between spoken reports and written records wasn’t a significant cause for concern among the first Christians.
2. Christian communities worked together to keep oral histories true to their sources.
Oral histories weren’t preserved by isolated individuals; they were preserved in communities. This was especially true when it came to early testimonies about Jesus. To be a Christian in the first century was to live enmeshed in a congregation of fellow believers. The stories of Jesus were memorized and shared in the context of a tight-knit fellowship of faith. If one member’s retelling of a story misconstrued the original testimony, others could quickly correct the error.
3. Eyewitnesses kept testimonies connected to the original events.
Early Christian communities weren’t the only checks that kept testimonies about Jesus tied to historical truth. During the decades separating the earthly ministry of Jesus from the writing of the New Testament, living eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus were still circulating in the churches (see Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and Michael Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord). If embellished testimonies had started to multiply among early Christians, eyewitnesses could personally curtail the falsehoods and restate the truth about the events.
Rapid and Reliable Testimony, Written While Eyewitnesses Were Still Alive
The central claim of the New Testament is that Jesus was physically resurrected after being crucified. If this claim arose from decades of embellishment instead of historical truth, then Jesus is dead, the apostles were liars, and our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15:14–17).
But evidences from the first and second centuries reveal that eyewitness testimony about Jesus emerged rapidly and circulated reliably. The New Testament texts relied on testimonies from apostolic eyewitnesses, and all of these texts were completed while the eyewitnesses were still alive. That’s why we can declare with confidence: Don’t worry; I read the book. He didn’t stay dead.
Some portions of this post have been adapted from my book and video series How We Got the Bible.
What is the central problem with Bart Ehrman’s Telephone Game analogy? Suppose that the New Testament Gospels had been written long after the deaths of all the eyewitnesses instead of being written while a significant number of eyewitnesses were still alive. How would that change your perspective on the reliability of the New Testament Gospels? How should the truths presented here shape your worship this Easter Sunday?