Hearsay in the Bible

How do we really know how accurate the synoptic gospels are? So many of them were recorded decades after the alleged events in question, often by people who were one, two, or more degrees removed from those events. As someone with legal training, I find this very interesting. We’re trained to be suspicious of people repeating assertions made by others, and with good reason. Why? Because it’s much harder to ascertain the veracity of the assertion if the declarant simply wasn’t there. We can’t “test” them because all they can do is repeat the assertion, and we don’t have the opportunity to see how credible they are when they speak to certain details about the events they are referring to.

I think this applies to the Bible as much as anything else - maybe more so. So when people say that Christ said something in the Bible, aren’t they really saying that someone said that someone said that someone said…that Christ said something in the Bible. I’ve also been intrigued by accounts in the Bible that involve no other witnesses that are still there. (E.g. Jesus being tempted in the desert. How did that come to be in the Bible? Did Jesus later tell someone, “I had the most amazing experience recently…”? Maybe, and I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s another factor that leads me (and others) to read the Bible with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Or am I alone in this?

You’re definitely not alone. I wonder about that all the time. A good example is John 17, in my mind one of the most beautiful and stunning passages in all of the gospels. But can you imagine hearing someone make a speech of that length, and then having to write it down word for word the next day? How about remembering it and writing it down word for word years later? Add in the factor of translating it into English many, many centuries later, and even though it stirs up something deep in my soul, I still have to wonder … What exactly am I reading?

I think it is ok to be skeptical in searching for the Truth. But I think it is somewhat of a mistake to try to read ancient Jewish documents through 21st century legally trained eyes. We should be wearing our “Jewish” glasses and that’s probably not very easy for most of us to do.

We have to remember that the Gospels were written in a 1st century Jewish culture, not in 21st century modern times. That culture was very verbal/oral in nature. They passed on information verbally from generation to generation. I think Steve Ray (who visits the Holy Land often) said they still are a very verbal culture and memorize great chunks of the Torah.

Also, I believe historians of the ancient times say that writings that were written mere decades from the time of the events would be considered incredibly reliable. That is better and closer evidence than we have for any other ancient writings that people believe to be reliable such as the writings of Plato, Homer, Caesar, etc.

We don’t know how all of the stories were passed from Jesus to His apostles. But He did spend 3 years very close to them so it doesn’t seem implausible to me that there would be tons of stuff that they talked about that we don’t know about. Some of it probably got written down and some didn’t.

You are not (by far) the first person to wonder about this.

St. Augustine said, essentially, the same thing:

“I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so.” [St. Augistine of Hippo, *Against the Letter of Mani

, 5,6, 397 A.D.]
But, I think that Augustine’s sentiments were related more to the supernatural nature of the Gospels than of their historic pedigree (which seems to be at the core of your question). I don’t think Augustine would have been any more or less believing if the Gospels had all clearly been written by eyewitnesses. I am personally skeptical of MANY claims offered by “eyewitness” testimony (ESP, etc)

Suppose Augustine would have been interested in reading about the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero ruled the Roman Empire (and was, thus, the most powerful person in the western world) for fourteen years, and is widely considered to have died of natural causes (unlike many other Emperors).

How many contemporary (firsthand) accounts would Augustine have found about Nero? Well, obviously we have no way to know - there may have been contemporary accounts about Nero (or Jesus) available to Augustine which have not survived to this day.

But, of the accounts of Nero which have survived to this day, there is ONE that is hardly “contemporary” (it was written by a man who wrote FIFTY YEARS after Nero’s death, and was just a young boy during his reign), and the NEXT TWO “most contemporary” accounts were written 150 years after Nero’s death.

There are NO contemporary historical account of the EMPEROR NERO.

Are we not forgetting that there is the Holy Spiri of God guiding the church?

The bible mostly makes sense if you consider that it’s inspired by God - that is, He led the writers to write what He wanted them to write. Could it be that they got some unimportant historical detail wrong, or didn’t write the exact same words that Jesus said? I suppose that’s possible, but it doesn’t actually matter, because those things that God considered important, they got right.

If you doubt that it is inspired, then I think the place to start isn’t talking about its accuracy in these terms, but rather to back up a bit to discuss what the bible actually is. If the bible is inspired by God, these worries don’t matter because this inspiration guarantees that the bible contains what it should. If the bible is not inspired, then it doesn’t much matter for entirely different reasons.

Either you have faith and believe they were inspired by God and are therefore inerrant with regard to the religious truths necessary for our salvation or you don’t have faith and don’t believe they were inspired by God. There is no middle ground. Believe or don’t believe.

In a largely pre-literate society, the concept of and skills at “oral tradition” were strong. Much of the Old Testament was preserved through oral tradition before being compiled under King David. Additionally, with modern textual studies identifying significant parallels in the Synoptic Gospels, there is some reason to believe in at least some common sources of recorded memories that formed the basis for the Gospels - the so-called “Q Document” (“Quelle” being “source” in German.)

If that’s true, then you may well be right that the Bible is “accurate.” But how do we know that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church? Because the Bible says so? Isn’t that circular reasoning? “The Bible is the truth, because it’s the Word of God, because the Bible says it’s the Word of God.”

What if the Bible is just an assembly of many of the things that have been written about God and Jesus, some fairly accurate, some completely out there, and most somewhere in between? These stories were, after all, compiled by flawed human beings, capable of mistakes and deception/distortion just like anyone else.

But who says there’s no middle ground? You mean that I either have to opt in entirely and believe in a man made of clay/woman made of a rib/talking snake/seven days to create the Earth/etc., or opt out entirely and disregard the value in Jesus’ teachings about love and mercy? That sounds a bit black-and-white to me. Don’t you think that God expects us to use our brains in approaching these questions? I assume that you do, since you’re on an apologetics board.

It goes a little deeper than that though, I have faith and believe in God, but I also question some of the accuracy in the bible we have today, mainly due to interpretation issues. Ive always found it very curious how ‘convenient’ some of the verses tend to be when it comes to authority, Govt, taxes, and some other things.

The adding or lack of just one single word, comma, etc can have SIGNIFICANT implications, its also very very easy to mis-interpret verses, thats why we have so many different religions now.

That is not the main reason why we know. I mean, the bible does tell us (which helps demonstrate consistency, and is useful for discussions with those who believe the bible is accurate but not that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit), but relying on the bible in this way would be circular, as you say, and so we don’t.

It’s a fairly involved thing from first principles, but a short version (each point has supporting arguments, but presenting each would take a while). The first tier: God exists, God created and loves us, humans are fallen. The second tier (follows mostly from the first): If we are fallen and God loves us, God would want to give us a path back. We say that that path is Jesus (again, there are various arguments, and the bible as a historical document, together with the behavior of the early Christians, miracles, etc support this).

This suggests that at least the basic foundation of the bible is sound, and leads to the third tier: Jesus taught us, these teachings are intended to save our souls, this is kind of important.

Combine this with the God loves us thing: what Jesus taught is (ordinarily) necessary to save our souls, and God want this to be possible, therefore it would make sense that God make sure we have actual access to these teachings somehow.

So then, assuming that God actually wants us to know what He taught us and didn’t spend His time teaching here just for fun, the next question would be: what would it look like if He were to preserve this teaching for us? What part of history/the way things are could, if it were what it said it were, actually fulfill the requirement that we have access to what God wants us to know?

That gets you the end result: Scripture together with the Catholic Church as an interpreter. (Again, there are arguments for why there must be an interpreter for Scripture, if Scripture is Scripture, and also for why that interpreter is the Catholic Church, but I’m leaving them out of this post for now.)

What if the Bible is just an assembly of many of the things that have been written about God and Jesus, some fairly accurate, some completely out there, and most somewhere in between? These stories were, after all, compiled by flawed human beings, capable of mistakes and deception/distortion just like anyone else.

Then it’s useless.

This is a pretty good argument against Sola Scriptura, but Catholics don’t believe that. (As above) the idea is that God actually wants us to be able to know things, and so makes that possible.

If that was the intent, the bible should have been extremely easy to understand, the whole thing would be simple for everyone, however, the way it is written and arranged, it CAN be very confusing, especially for those with no education, (or ‘deep’ thinking capabilities), which at the time, was most of the population!

So many of them??? More than two degrees removed??? :confused:

Please check your facts.

There are exactly three synoptic Gospels. One was recorded by an eyewitness, Matthew, who was one of the Apostles. The other two were recorded by authors who learned directly from the Apostles.


There are not “so many” synoptic Gospels. There are exactly three.

One was recorded by an eyewitness, Matthew, one of the Apostles.

Another was recorded by Mark who was an assistant to an eyewitness, Peter, also an Apostle.


Again, this is an argument against Sola Scriptura. I agree that the bible has passages that could be read in different ways, but humans being human would say the bible means different things no matter how clear it is (these days, for example, people who claim to follow the bible as the inerrant word of God quiet often completely disregard where St. Paul clearly says “these things are sins”).

The Catholic answer is that the bible has an interpreter, namely the Church. Otherwise it would be vulnerable both to honest and not so honest misinterpretations.

That society require male eye witnesses accounts during those times for something to be regarded to be credible. Sometimes, 2 male witnesses are required for coercive purposes. Paul’s letters are the earliest NT writings. He appeals to eyewitnesses for the validity of his accounts. For example in 1 Cor 15:6 he specifically mentioned that Christ resurrection appearance to the 500 brethren most of whom were alive then. Meaning, one can confirm what he said is true by checking with those still alive.

Looking at the approximate dates the Gospels were written, the apostle John was still alive. If any of those accounts were wrong, he would have spoken out. In fact his Gospel was meant to bolster the other Gospels. Filling in gaps and adding details.

Oral testimony is interesting. If the Apostles were preaching stuff that contradicts each other or just plain wrong, the hearers would have spotted those discrepancies. Remember that this infant Church has many enemies that wanted to see it fail. All the infant Church needed to do is messed up her own message. The Pharisees/Sadducees could easily find data that does not support what was claimed. Whether it is the birth of Jesus, his genealogy, what he preached, the miracles he performed etc if any of these were not true, the Jews would have pounced upon it immediately and destroy the case. It is is not true, it wouldn’t have survived then. The Jews just need one example of a miracle claimed that was false, a hoax, a scam, Christianity would be gone in a second. In fact the best proof is to deny that Jesus ever resurrected. But the evidence is to the contrary. Too many people have seen him.

And his apostles started to do miracles (see Acts). With an obvious display of such power, it is hard to deny that they have got something. If the temple priests can’t do those things these simple fishermen folks are doing, it speaks volume. And these apostles are speaking in the synagogues. Making a case for Jesus. If these fishermen could out argue religious teachers,those with proper training, it must mean their message is valid and better than those religious teachers. And they were able to convert hundreds, thousands. You know how difficult even for a legally trained person to convince a handful of ordinary folks your side of the story.

We don’t have to believe that. If you think we do then you are sadly ignorant about the Catholic faith in general and how we look at Scripture.

CCC 107 The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

The senses of Scripture

CCC 115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

CCC 116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

CCC 117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.

  2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.

  3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

CCC 118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

CCC 119 “It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”
But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.

Thanks. This is one of the better responses I’ve received on the board. It’s logical and coherent and doesn’t resort to simply quoting Bible verses. It still doesn’t “prove” of course that the Bible is a reliable source, but it makes a case for it.

I’d disagree with your last point, though. I think even a flawed Bible can be better than nothing at all. Half a loaf is better than none at all.

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