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NT Reliability

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Paul and I have been having a discussion in the messages section that, we both acknowledge, is seemingly endless. I had suggested making it public so that others, if interested, could add their 2 cents. Rather than repeat days upon days of posts, I will given the (latest) conclusions and take it from there. If I have not properly represented his positions, Paul will be able to comment from his perspective.

 

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One of my last comments was:

I'm comfortable - as it seems the scholars are - with dealing with what we have (meaning the NT gospels even after acknowledging that there are 'issues' with them such as the absence of all the originals and the reliability of the copies made in the early centuries until we arrive at 'complete versions' of the gospels).

Paul's comments:

1. Dealing with what we have is different than dealing with what actually happened.  That is my only point.  We simply cannot say the Gospels accurately portray the gist of Jesus.  We can go along with it by all means, we can study the hell out of it and we can allow it to speak to us in our lives.  But that is all outside the scope of actually being able to establish that the Gospels are the most accurate reflection of the life and times of Jesus. 

2. The evidence is overwhelming that the Gospels cannot be proven to be the most accurate version of Jesus because we simply cannot know that currently.  There is a lot of evidence that there wasn't a one-size-for-all view of Jesus (this goes to the non canonical gospels and 'heresies') in the immediate decades and centuries following his time, so certainly the potential is there for people to write things that weren't accurate.

2. I  have simply been trying to point out that such a claim (by Thormas that the accuracy of the gospels captures the 'gist' of Jesus because learned scholars say so) cannot be supported by any actual historical or empirical evidence.  

And my latest comments:

I've never thought (or haven't in decades) that the gospels were always (or intended to be) 'historically' reliable - although they do obviously contain history - and I understand the points that Bart Ehrman makes (we had discussions about Ehrman who writes a great deal on these subjects). I content that the gospels contain the essence or the gist of Jesus. Note: by way of explanation, I am saying that the gist found in the gospels is reliable.

You (Paul) said "No scholar can demonstrate that the gospels are an accurate understanding of the Jesus' gist." I say, neither can any scholar or anybody 'demonstrate' that the gospels aren't accurate in their understanding of the gist of Jesus. If we don't have the originals - it cuts both ways: it cannot be demonstrated (i.e. proved) that the gist is accurate (in whole or parts) or that it is inaccurate (in whole or parts).  

This gives you some idea of the discussion.

 

 

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Now we continue:

Speaking about oral traditions, Ehrman, in one of his books and on his blog writes:

"The gist of these stories is more likely to survive relatively intact over the course of time, but not always.   Elements are constantly added to the stories and other elements are deleted or altered.  For that reason it is extremely difficult to separate out the elements that have been added or altered to an “original testimony”  from the gist that represents a “true memory” of the past.

Still, there are ways to do so.  If ........there are certain memories of Jesus that are extensively and thoroughly documented throughout our sources that are completely plausible and that do not appear to represent the biased perspectives of later Christian storytellers.   These would be gist memories that provide a basic outline of what we can say about the historical Jesus. 

Gist Memories of the Life of Jesus

The majority of the narrative, in all our Gospels, is devoted to recounting what Jesus did, said, and experienced prior to his last week in Jerusalem.  If we are looking for gist memories that appear to be true to historical reality among these materials, most scholars would agree with at least the following.

  • Jesus was born and raised a Jew.
  • He came from Nazareth in rural Galilee.
  • As an adult he was baptized by an apocalyptic prophet named John the Baptist, who was preaching the imminent judgment of God and baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for this climactic moment in history.
  • Afterward Jesus engaged in his own itinerate teaching preaching ministry.
  • Like John, he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God.
  • Much of his teaching was delivered in parables and in thoughtful and memorable aphorisms that explained the Kingdom of God and what people should do in preparation for it.
  • As a distinctively Jewish teacher, much of Jesus’ ethical teaching was rooted in an interpretation of the Torah, the Law of Moses, as found in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Jesus’ teachings about the Torah led to controversies with other Jewish teachers, especially Pharisees.
  • Jesus had a number of followers, from whom he chose twelve to accompany him on his preaching ministry.
  • Jesus was occasionally opposed by members of his own family and by people from his hometown of Nazareth.
  • His followers, however, maintained that he spoke the truth, and they may also have claimed that his words were vindicated by the miraculous deeds he performed

Ehrman continues:

"If these gist memories are accurate (so he acknowledges there is always some questions even as he lists what scholars accept), we have a fair outline of information about the man Jesus himself during his public life, beginning with his baptism by John.    We also have numerous questions, too numerous to handle in a short treatment such as this.   Here are some of them.   More exactly, what did Jesus teach?  Did his various famous parables actually go back to him, or were some of them invented, or at least altered, by later story tellers?  Did he really deliver the famous Sermon on the Mount?   Or is that an invention of the evangelist Matthew (it is found only in Matthew 5-7)?  Did Jesus really deliver his famous discourses found in the Gospel of John, such as the one given to Nicodemus where he indicated that one has to be “born again” (or did he mean “born from above”?)?   Did he teach extensively about his own identity?  Did he actually claim to be equal with God?  And what about his activities?  Can we know what actually happened at his baptism by John?  Or how he called his disciples?  Can we know if he did miracles – walk on the water, calm the storm, feed the multitudes, heal the sick, cast out the demons, and raise the dead?   Such deeds are recorded in the Gospels.  Are they true memories?"

 

Me:

There is solid agreement among scholars on some of 'gist' about Jesus, gathered from the NT sources and in many cases, scholarly analysis of those writings have addressed some of the questions listed by Ehrman (for example the Sermon on the Mount, the discourse of John, Jesus' identity, equality with God and others). As the scriptures are reliable on some gist memories (above), are they also reliable in presenting the gist memories of who Jesus was, the essence of the man? I acknowledge "that the Gospels cannot be proven to be an accurate version of the Jesus gist" but neither can they be proven to not be accurate in capturing the gist of Jesus. Therefore to further clarify a previous statement: the reliability of the gospels in remembering the 'gist' of Jesus is recognized by critical scholars and their continuing analysis suggests that they believe their research can further discern his gist.

The gospels are proclamations not histories but, as seen in the list above, they do contain memories, historical memories of Jesus. Do they also contain other memories - not so much of what exactly he said, where or when but rather that these are the 'kinds of things' he is remembered as saying, these are the kinds of things he is remembered as doing? Are "there certain (others) memories of Jesus that are extensively and thoroughly documented throughout our sources that are completely plausible and that do not appear to represent the biased perspectives of later Christian storytellers?" 

Dale Allison, another respected critical biblical scholar writes in his book, 'The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus.' "we should rather be looking for repeating patterns and contemplating the big picture." To this end, he looks to generalizations drawn from the whole rather than individual items. He notes a great number of the traditions about Jesus; he is not concerned with their individual authenticity but rather the pattern they create. Some of these patterns follow: Jesus was an exorcist who interpreted his ministry in terms of the downfall of Satan; thought highly of the Baptist; spoke repeatedly of God as Father; composed parables; came into conflict with religious authorities; and, saw himself as having a starring role in the  eschatological drama that was unfolding.  Allison goes after the 'sort of things' Jesus said and did, the repeating patterns. If the repeating patterns do not 'catch' Jesus - he cannot be caught, he is lost forever. Allison admits to a canonical bias but states it is unavoidable. The Synoptics supply us with the Jesus traditions, if we insist on countering these general impressions left by these early sources in significant ways, then the pictures we draw are  akin to sidewalk chalk drawing: fun to look at but they won't last.

All of these scholars know the issues that Ehrman discusses: forgeries, copies of copies, changes, the passage of time, lost originals, fragments of gospels, etc. However, all still look to the canonical sources as if they are reliable - they have shown themselves to be reliable. 

Thoughts?

 

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My conclusion based on your discussion would be I'd move onto a different text that can be shown to be reasonably reliable. Or better yet go back to the drawing board. 

That way you can show your workings as your position develops and we all can have fun assessing it.

Pointing to some 2000 year old text that we can't be sure Jesus even said gets a bit repetitive after a while.

Edited by romansh

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3 hours ago, romansh said:

My conclusion based on your discussion would be I'd move onto a different text that can be shown to be reasonably reliable. Or better yet go back to the drawing board.

Pointing to some 2000 year old text that we can't be sure Jesus even said gets a bit repetitive after a while.

So, no real comment or thought on the topic of the NT reliability in and of itself?

It could get repetitive for some yet others probably find more and more that is 'new' in that they hadn't realized or considered something before. 

 

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Personally, i really appreciate having the NT text to read and study. Having said that  i feel compelled to agree with Paul that the total  accuracy of the gospels is in fact, not  be there and there is evidence even within the NT itself that the recorded writings as they exist today are found lacking in accuracy without looking outside itself.. Yet as i have said before, there is much recorded in there , whether accurately recorded or not that speak to me and witness to me and my personal experience as true statements. Other books have done likewise. The NT, in my opinion, is a powerful and helpful text but only those portions that can be, and if applied, verified by its application.

I would be interested in your (Thomas) perspective of what you see exactly as the Jesus "gist' .

Joseph

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1 hour ago, JosephM said:

Personally, i really appreciate having the NT text to read and study. Having said that  i feel compelled to agree with Paul that the total  accuracy of the gospels is in fact, not  be there and there is evidence even within the NT itself that the recorded writings as they exist today are found lacking in accuracy without looking outside itself.. Yet as i have said before, there is much recorded in there , whether accurately recorded or not that speak to me and witness to me and my personal experience as true statements. Other books have done likewise. The NT, in my opinion, is a powerful and helpful text but only those portions that can be, and if applied, verified by its application.

Well, Erman's list is above and Allison, also above, adds to it. There is more than Allison categorizes under broad patterns, which I believe goes to the gist and I will try to get a summary. If I remember his emphasis, as would be expected given broad patterns, is not individual miracles supposedly by Jesus but that he was considered a wonder worker in his day. However I have to check if I have that right. 

Also I agree about total accuracy but that is not what is accepted when one is considering the gist of the man Jesus.

I agree about the 'speaking to you' part as that is the overall purpose: to proclaim the good news and then one does or doesn't respond. I also agree about there books. Verified by its application? Meaning that impact one personally?

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2 hours ago, thormas said:

So, no real comment or thought on the topic of the NT reliability in and of itself?

It could get repetitive for some yet others probably find more and more that is 'new' in that they hadn't realized or considered something before. 

 

So here we go again.

My comments and thoughts are as real as yours thormas. 

So how are we going to measure the reliability of the New Testament? Line up the number of Biblical scholars whose opinions line up with yours or Paul's for that matter?

Time to move on thormas nothing to see here.

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1 hour ago, romansh said:

My comments and thoughts are as real as yours thormas. So how are we going to measure the reliability of the New Testament? Line up the number of Biblical scholars whose opinions line up with yours or Paul's for that matter? Time to move on thormas nothing to see here.

No one said otherwise. It was a simple question whether you had a "real (as in actual) comment or thought on the (specific) topic of the NT reliability in and of itself." Just wondering if there was any content you would or could provide other than suggesting another (unnamed) text, starting from scratch or repetitive pointing.

It's not as simple as a measurement of my guys against yours (would be much easier). Actually it seems that Paul and I both value similar scholars, such as Bart Ehrman. 

Are you saying there is nothing to see in your response? 

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As I mentioned to Paul, I am not a person of the Book but I read biblical scholars. The discussion with Paul has motivated me to do a bit more research and I share it for any who might have any degree of interest. 

Bart Ehrman speaks highly of Larry Hurtado who also has a blog and has written extensively on NT matters.

Following is a reference to that blog and an article on NT originals.

https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/originals-for-nt-gospels/

To make life easier, I include some relevant points from the article:

In reading for review the recent (mammoth) multi-author volume, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research:  Essays on the Status Quaestionis, Second Edition, eds. B. D. Ehrman & M. W. Holmes (Leiden:  Brill, 2013), one of the things that caught my attention was in Michael Holmes’ contribution, “From ‘Original Text’ to ‘Initial Text'” (pp. 637-88). 

Holmes’s response ...........the NT Gospels seem to have a greater measure of textual fixity.

To be sure, as Holmes freely notes, there are many textual variants evidenced in the early manuscripts of the NT Gospels, many indeed.  But these, he points out rightly, are typically variations in such things as word-order (e.g., in phrases), tenses of verbs, individual words, etc.......... with the Gospels we appear to have lots of small variations, but not much in the way of the larger types of variation reflected in some other writings.

This leads him to propose that the Gospels seem to display “what one may term microlevel fluidity and macrolevel stability” (p. 674).  I find this handy terminology and a helpful distinction very much worth testing and using in considering the textual transmission of early Christian writings.

 

 

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Comments from two more Larry Hurtado articles: https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/reviewcritique-of-ehrman-bauckham-and-bird-on-memory-and-jesus/

"(Alan) Kirk’s critique of Ehrman (Jesus Before the Gospels:  How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, HarperOne, 2016) is that his representation of the transmission of Jesus tradition by analogy to the familiar “telephone game” is seriously misjudged.  Kirk observes effectively that the process that Ehrman describes, one person passing a narrative to another who in turn passes it on in a continuing chain of transmission, is quite different from the historical process in which significant collective memories are shaped and transmitted in groups whose members are intentionally connected................Kirk’s allegations seem well supported,  the effect being to question cogently the bases for Ehrman’s argument."

https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/communal-reading-in-early-christianity/

"Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus:  A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices........This book is an important contribution to our understanding of how texts were handled in early Christian circles and in their larger Roman-era cultural environment. 

The rich body of evidence surveyed ..............he documents amply the frequent, perhaps even characteristic, manner in which texts were used, one person reading from a manuscript while others listened.  .............he shows further that this was the common practice among earliest Christian circles as well, and from the first century onward.  

Wright also notes rightly that the communal reading of texts functioned as one factor affecting the transmission of texts, particularly those that were read repeatedly.  For as these texts were read they became, so to speak, the textual property of the circle(s) of those who heard them read.  Wright shows that people were often concerned to have a reliable version of the wording of texts, and could object when any significant alteration was attempted to texts that they knew well.  In making this point, Wright underscores a factor that is relevant for our estimates of how writings that came to be treated as scriptures, such as those that form our New Testament, were transmitted textually.[2] 

(Referring back to the  the previous post, Hurtado writes) Michael Holmes noted how some early Christian texts suffered what he called “macro-level” alterations, such as the Gospel of Thomas, whereas other texts, particularly those that early on acquired a scriptural status and usage, exhibit “micro-level” variants (i.e., smaller variation in such things as verb tense, presence/absence of the definite article, word-order of small phrases, etc.).[3]  Wright’s emphasis on the role of the repeated communal reading of texts helps us to account for this.  Those texts that were read out communally more frequently acquired a comparatively greater textual stability."

 

 

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One more and then I rest .......

So, from, Hurtado: https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/textual-stability-and-nt-studies/

"..........no one should deny textual variation, right from the start of the textual transmission of the Gospels (and all other ancient texts).  But it’s an exaggeration to characterize the earliest transmission of these writings as “wild” and chaotic, or to suggest that we can’t know what the authors actually wrote.  We can continue to practice NT studies with the confidence that our modern critical editions give us substantially what the Gospels authors (and other NT authors) wrote.  No need for all my NT colleagues to close up shop (although I could wish that more of them were a bit more familiar with textual criticism)!

 

 

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Just discovered another blog, this one by Daniel B. Wallace (another one who knows and debates Ehrman and they disagree) who is the Executive Director of CSNTM, The Center for the Study of NT Manuscripts.

I've just begun to peruse his site and I provide it for interested readers:

https://danielbwallace.com/

Edited by thormas

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To balance the scales and be fair to my man Ehrman - here are his blog comments about a debate he had with Wallace:

"As you might expect, I argue that even though we have thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament,  we do not have many *early* ones — and hardly any *really* early ones.  That is why we can not (always? ever?) know with absolute certainty what the authors of the New Testament originally said.   .......... Dan, also as expected, argued that we have such extensive evidence for the New Testament — more than for any other book from the ancient world — we can trust that we have what the authors originally wrote.

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Posted (edited)

Paul,

 Of course there are contradictions in the gospels but there is a difference between the individual gospel narrative and the gist presented within and across those narratives, i.e. Jesus was an Apocalyptic Prophet, used parables, etc.

What I'm trying to explore more is how 'reliable' the transmission (copying) of the gospels was: some disagree with Ehrman and I have a tendency to write off those who identify as Evangelicals (seemingly not all are) but before I do that I want to see if they are considered 'critical scholars.' Not always easy so I'm looking at who recommends their works.

Critical scholars, Ehrman included, agree about the content of the gist. 

Edited by thormas

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On 9/29/2019 at 3:16 PM, thormas said:

Ehrman continues:

"If these gist memories are accurate (so he acknowledges there is always some questions even as he lists what scholars accept), we have a fair outline

One point Ehrman usually brings up is that genuine eyewitness accounts always vary, and that perfect replication is evidence of fakery.
 

He even starts his initial NT101 lecture by walking in wearing costume and does some pantomime.   He then has his students write what they saw and demonstrates the variance in  honest eyewitness reports.

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, Burl said:

One point Ehrman usually brings up is that genuine eyewitness accounts always vary, and that perfect replication is evidence of fakery.
He even starts his initial NT101 lecture by walking in wearing costume and does some pantomime.   He then has his students write what they saw and demonstrates the variance in  honest eyewitness reports.

I didn't know that about his class.

What is a intriguing is the (possible) 'fixity' of the narratives or their transmission on the macro-level.

Edited by thormas

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4 hours ago, thormas said:

I didn't know that about his class.

What is a intriguing is the (possible) 'fixity' of the narratives or their transmission on the macro-level.

Check out Ehrman’s Great Courses lectures.

An exegesis of the text is hard enough without worrying about postmodern concerns.  

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1 hour ago, Burl said:

An exegesis of the text is hard enough without worrying about postmodern concerns.  

I do get your point but, even acknowledging this, the postmodern concerns are also of interest to me (within reason) - although they actually have nothing to do with one's 'salvation,' atonement or deification.

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9 minutes ago, thormas said:

I do get your point but, even acknowledging this, the postmodern concerns are also of interest to me (within reason) - although they actually have nothing to do with one's 'salvation,' atonement or deification.

Post if you find something.  A postmodern viewpoint can be an interesting heuristic but too many career challenged academics use it as a hermeneutic.  That is an error.

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9 hours ago, Burl said:

Post if you find something.  A postmodern viewpoint can be an interesting heuristic but too many career challenged academics use it as a hermeneutic.  That is an error.

Yet some of those scholars are truly interested and believe that a 'correct'or a better interpretation can aid others in their understanding and appreciation of the scriptures.

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6 hours ago, thormas said:

Yet some of those scholars are truly interested and believe that a 'correct'or a better interpretation can aid others in their understanding and appreciation of the scriptures.

Certainly it can.  New and better interpretations are often inspired but they need a proper exegesis and comparison with historical thinking.

I have had lots of new biblical inspirations, but my exegetical matrix has over a hundred viewpoints and comparisons to consider.  Then I find out one of the Apostolic Fathers wrote the same thing a little differently two centuries ago 😕.

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1 hour ago, Burl said:

I have had lots of new biblical inspirations, but my exegetical matrix has over a hundred viewpoints and comparisons to consider.  Then I find out one of the Apostolic Fathers wrote the same thing a little differently two centuries ago 😕.

Those Apostolic Fathers are always causing trouble - must have been fun in their day (or not).

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For those who have an interest, this might be interesting (underlining is mine).

The latest from Bart Ehrman on his blog (definitely worth a read - I'll give a few highlights): https://ehrmanblog.org/misconstruing-my-words-can-we-know-what-the-authors-of-the-new-testament-originally-said/

 

"We have far more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other book from antiquity..........The bad news is that these manuscripts all have differences in them.  

..........the vast majority of these differences are completely insignificant and immaterial, picayune variations.........  It doesn’t affect the meaning in the least.

So let me say it clearly:  it is NOT my opinion that: “We have no idea what the authors of the New Testament original wrote.”

My view is that we do have good ideas about what they wroteMost of the time.  But not all of the time...........other differences, though, the minority, that do indeed affect the meaning of the text.  And some of *those* we can’t agree on.  And some of them matter.   

So, short story.  We have lots of manuscripts of the NT.  These have an incredible number of differences among them.  Most of the differences don’t matter at all.  Others matter a little or even a lot.   Most of the time scholars agree on what the originals said.  But not all of the time.  Those are facts.

Beyond the facts, my view, which I will go to the mat for, is that we can never “know” what the authors wrote, if by that we mean “know with absolute certainty” (the fact that scholars agree on the original text does not mean it *is* the original text!)   For most of us that doesn’t matter much.   For those with a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible, it does.

At the same time, another view I’m willing to stake a position on, as a workingassumption I think it only makes sense to suppose we have a “good idea” about what the authors wrote.  That’s a working assumption because it really does work. "

 

 

 

 

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On 9/29/2019 at 7:40 PM, JosephM said:

I would be interested in your (Thomas) perspective of what you see exactly as the Jesus "gist' .

So, in addition to Ehrman's list (above) of the gist of Jesus, I also mentioned that Dale Allison is concerned with broad patterns rather than definitive assertions that this or that saying or this or that story (including miracle stories) actually were said by Jesus or actually happened as recorded. 

To that end, Allison's broad patterns (the gist or adding to the gist of Jesus?) follow:

  • "Jesus was an exorcist who interpreted his ministry in terms of the downfall of Satan;
  • he thought highly of the Baptist;
  • he spoke repeatedly of God as Father;
  • he composed parables;
  • he came into conflict with religious authorities; and,
  • he saw himself as having a starring role in the eschatological drama that was unfolding"  

This material, for those who might be interested is found in his book (mentioned above) and on this site: https://www.thecontemplativelife.org/blog/historical-jesus-dale-allison-jesus-apocalyptic-prophet  I have put it in a list format to match the above and Ehrman's list. Allison continues his general patterns:

  • "Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression; 
  • he envisaged the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God;
  • he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand.
  • Jesus probably believed himself to be not just an eschatological prophet but the personal locus of the end-time scenario, the central figure of the last judgment"

Regarding miracles, Allison lists the many miracles from the gospels and, again goes to general patterns, concluding (again the source is his book, 'The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus'):  

  • "Jesus was reputed to be and thought himself to be a successful exorcist, healer and wonder-worker
  • some who knew him believed that they had witnessed truly extraordinary event"

 There is an interesting section from Allison on miracles which is worth a quick read - if interested.

 

Allison's POV is nicely summed up:

"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this (NT gospel) material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly. Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory. To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions. They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done."

 

This process and its conclusions from Allison, in combination with Ehrman's gist, and the last post (directly above) from Ehrman's blog  "it only makes sense to suppose we have a “good idea” about what the authors wrote" seemingly lends itself to a considerably higher degree of 'reliability' on the gospels than some have previously allowed.  

It seems there is the 'historical gist' that can be had from the gospels and also general patterns or impressions (there is a certain degree of overlap). There is the audio of an Allison lecture at Duke on his book at the very end of the blog posted at the beginning of this post.

So, in answer to Joseph's question this is my take on the gist (gist including- or combined with - general pattern): it is all borrowed from the experts as such expertise is not mine.

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