Philosopher and author of Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels, Lydia McGrew, explores some of the characteristics of testimony within the Gospel narratives
No doubt all of us, at times, have told anecdotes about things that have really happened to us. And, if we’re lucky, we’ve had the chance to listen to such true anecdotes, not only from our contemporaries, but also from those of a previous generation – parents and grandparents – and thus to learn about things that might otherwise be lost once the rememberers have passed away.
Without thinking about it consciously, we’ve had a chance to get to know the texture of testimony. What does it sound like when someone tells what he remembers truthfully, without embellishing or changing the facts but also, necessarily, telling what struck him at the time, what he saw from his perspective, and what happens to come back to memory now?
Of course, partial memory can be wholly truthful. A man who says that he proposed to his wife on the 21st of June can be speaking with complete truthfulness even if he doesn’t happen to remember, or if he does remember but doesn’t mention, what she was wearing at the time.
When it comes to the Gospels, our best sources on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, we should take seriously the proposal that these books are accurate, historical memoirs of this kind. Some of the Gospel authors (most notably Mark and John) are traditionally supposed to have been Jesus’ own disciples. And while scholars have debated this, as they debate everything connected with the Gospels, the case for traditional authorship is strong.
Similarly, Mark is supposed to have learned the contents of his Gospel from the prominent disciple Peter, and Luke, though not a disciple himself, was a companion of the Apostle Paul and emphasises that he has followed everything carefully from the beginning (Luke 1:3). In other words, it is entirely plausible (and I would argue highly probable) that the accounts contained in all four Gospels come either directly or at very few removes from people who were witnesses.
What is exciting is that this memoir view of the Gospels is not just a supposition. Still less is it a blind postulate assumed by pious Christians but otherwise indefensible. It is borne out by their content. The Gospels contain evidence that they are true memoirs in the intrinsic texture of their narratives, in their subtle, casual, accurate connections with outside sources, and in the interlockings between them.
What do I mean by their intrinsic texture? Go back to the illustration of a man telling about the day he proposed to his wife. If you’ve listened carefully to such anecdotes, you may have noticed that, given enough leisure to tell the story, people often include unnecessary details. Even if he doesn’t remember what his future wife was wearing at the time, the storyteller may remember what kind of car he was driving, and he may very well mention it even though the make and model have nothing to do with the story otherwise. That is how memory works. There is a certain randomness in the way that our memory selects what is salient – what sticks out to us when we call up a scene.
The Gospels are the same way. Mark and John are especially filled with these unnecessary details that serve no special purpose in the story but appear to have made it into the narrative ‘just because’ –just because the person who told about the events happened to remember them and believed them to be true.
Thus we have the approximate amount of liquid that the jars could contain at the marriage at Cana (John 2:6), the five porches surrounding the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2 – this detail is externally confirmed by archaeology), the pillow on which Jesus slept in the boat in the midst of a storm (Mark 4:38), the exact place where the colt was tied before he was fetched by Jesus’ disciples (Mark 11:4), and many more. Nor are Matthew and Luke entirely lacking in such details. Matthew alone mentions the flute players at the house of Jairus after his daughter’s death (Matt 9:23), and Luke tells us specifically that Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree (Luke 19:4), as opposed to a sycamine tree (Luke 17:6).
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Peter’s unexpected coat
Rather surprisingly, and incorrectly, some biblical scholars seem to regard the presence of unnecessary details as a mark of untruth rather than a mark of truth. The famous late New Testament scholar CH Dodd ranks the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as less factual precisely when they contain such incidental, unnecessary details.1 So, for example, Dodd treats it as a mark against the historicity of the account in John 21 of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance by the Sea of Galilee that Peter puts on his coat before jumping into the water (John 21:7). But Dodd has it exactly backwards. Driven by the assumption that the Gospels cannot be anything so simple and obvious as truthful witness testimony, Dodd classifies such trivial details as the marks of invention.
On the contrary, the mention of Peter’s putting on his coat before jumping into the water is so unexpected and so pointless that it is difficult to imagine someone making it up. Would it not be more understandable that someone would take off an item of clothing before diving into the water from a boat and swimming to shore? John does not ‘do’ anything with this detail. He neither explains it nor expounds any deeper meaning it might have. He merely states it.
If one is willing to consider fairly the view that this account is memoir, Peter’s action is not terribly improbable. As a fisherman, no doubt for most of his life, he surely could swim well, and the outer coat would not impede him too much. And, since the Beloved Disciple had just cried out that it was Jesus himself on the shore, Peter may not have wanted to appear before Jesus “stripped for work”, as the story says he was. The combination of plausibility, oddity, vividness and casualness in John’s report of this detail is evidence, could we but see it, that the story is witness testimony rather than invention.
A similar example of a loose end that illustrates testimonial texture is found in John 3:25. John the Baptist’s disciples, the text says, were having “a dispute with a Jew about purification” and came to consult John the Baptist about it. Their complaint is that Jesus’ ministry, which includes baptisms carried out by Jesus’ disciples (John 4:1), is becoming very popular; they apparently feel jealous on behalf of John the Baptist. But what does this have to do with a dispute about purification? We are never told. The reference to purification can lead us to guess that perhaps the disciples of Jesus baptized in some way that was different from the method or ritual requirements used by John the Baptist, but this is no more than a guess.
Nor do the following verses tell us anything more. John the Baptist humbly declares that Jesus must increase while he himself must decrease, that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, but we never learn how or whether this resolves the dispute about purification. Did the disciples of the Baptist decide that the baptism carried out by Jesus’ disciples was superior in some way to their master’s? Or were they content to have the two baptisms carried out in parallel for a while? The narrator gives us no idea. But once again, if we give fair consideration to the idea that the Gospels are memoir and have the texture of memoir, we may well remember that this sort of thing happens in oral memoirs quite often.
If I am speaking of a past winter, I might tell of an accident that happened while driving along Cork St coming to the light at Westnedge, not thinking or stopping to explain that the road becomes rather steep and curvy at that point. Those who live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, may know the intersection well, but my hearers may not. The very unselfconsciousness with which such details are dropped in, while the speaker is busy getting on with his story, is a mark of truth – exactly the opposite of what Dodd thought.
Getting to the truth of the matter
Scholars are sometimes blinded to the texture of testimony because it has been so long since such a view of the Gospels was taken seriously that it never occurs to them. It is also easy to mistake possibility for probability. It is strictly speaking possible that the evangelist made up that bit about Peter putting his coat on rather than taking it off (as part of making up the whole story) because he thought that it would lend an air of verisimilitude to the story.
But such a theory is quite improbable. For one thing, the sort of fiction that uses hyper-realistic, credible, but not over-the-top detail to describe such a scene is modern, not ancient. This is not to deny that there was such a thing as ancient fiction, but it was not at all like this scene in the Gospel of John, which is notable for its restraint rather than its purple prose. For another thing, the detail itself does not seem to serve a purpose in the narrative, considered as a story. It does not, for example, emphasize Peter’s eagerness. That would have been better emphasized by saying that he didn’t pause even for a moment, rather than that he did pause to put on some clothes.
Giving a fair consideration to the memoir model and noticing the texture of testimony in the Gospels is the kind of activity that lay Christians and pastors may find more natural than scholars do. For that very reason, it is likely to be derided by sceptics as naïve or even fundamentalist, the assumption being that it is more objective and more intellectually responsible to prefer invention theories to a memoir view. But both are models about what the authors were doing, and both should be considered in light of evidence.
It is not an especially ‘Christian’ thing to do, it is in no way question-begging, to notice the similarities between the way that truthful witnesses of our acquaintance tell stories and the way that the Gospel authors tell theirs. The texture of testimony found in the Gospels is data in itself and as such, should be of interest to everyone, scholar and non-scholar alike, who is interested in the truth about the Gospels and, ultimately, the truth about Jesus, their central figure.
Dr Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher and author. She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995. She has published extensively in the theory of knowledge, specialising in formal epistemology and in its application to the evaluation of testimony and to the philosophy of religion. She defends the reliability of the Gospels and Acts in four books to date, most recently, Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels.
1 CH Dodd, ‘Appearances of the Risen Christ: A Study in Form Criticism of the Gospels’, in D E Nineham, ed, Studies in the Gospels (Oxford University Press, 1957).
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