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Yeshua in Context » Disciples & Named Characters, Eyewitnesses, Formation of the Gospels, Gospels as History, Podcasts » Podcast Transcript: Peter’s Footprints

Podcast Transcript: Peter’s Footprints

This is the transcript for today’s podcast. You can find the Yeshua in Context podcast at the iTunes store or at DerekLeman.com.

Recently an archaeology blogger, for whom I have nothing but respect although he is a skeptic when it comes to matters of faith, made a comment on his blog about the gospels being unreliable. He said that we find a pattern in human discourse about major events. Years after the event, people make up apocryphal stories. They often put the stories in the mouth of authority figures to give them more credibility and the stories pass down as if they really happened and were witnessed by important people.

This, he said, is what the gospels represent. Maybe there are some genuine stories in there, but most are apocryphal and put into the mouths of earlier authority figures. The blogger recommended that people read the book by Bart Ehrman called Forged for more details. Ehrman says that many biblical writings were forgeries perpetrated in the name of others to establish credibility for their religious structure.

I thought about these statements and compared them with the research I have been doing for several years now and found a complete disconnect. While my views on the Bible have changed and while I do see that some things are not as simple as I once thought them to be, I’m not finding the gospels to be documents capable of forged stories and invented tales. On the contrary, I’m seeing more clearly a deliberate pattern of eyewitness testimony and oral history as a source.

Oral history, by the way, is very different from oral tradition. Oral history is direct, related by eyewitnesses. Oral history is Simon of Cyrene speaking in the early congregations, telling his story. Oral history is Peter, teaching gathered groups and relating his direct experience of Yeshua. Oral tradition is when stories are passed from teller to teller. Variations get introduced. Words get attributed to people who may not have been the actual origin.

The gospels were written down at the time the eyewitnesses were dying out. It seems the stories were written when the time for direct oral history was disappearing.

I also think about the importance of this topic for another reason. I care very much about people knowing the stories of Yeshua and joining the community of his followers. I represent this story to many Jewish and intermarried families. I care how Jewish people in particular see the life and identity of Yeshua. I also encounter many non-Jewish thinkers in my writing and correspondence. I read many points of view. It is important to me to advocate the Jesus-is-the-Messiah-of-Israel-and-the-Nations point of view.

I’m not a disinterested scholar. No scholars are actually disinterested anyway. I’m a Messianic Jewish rabbi and I think Yeshua’s story is the crux of meaning for the world.

I see faith eroding all over the place. People have new access to a broader spectrum of ideas. Critical scholarship is widely accessible. This should be a good thing. Yet, it has mostly been harmful for one very simple reason.

That reason is this: the people who represent faith tend not to read critical scholarship and the people who represent critical scholarship generally do not advocate faith. There is a lack of communication between the two.

It is my desire, then, to study the gospels and the life of Yeshua in order to communicate with people who may or may not read critical scholarship. I’ve given reading and study enough time to feel confident that critical study and faith in Yeshua are perfectly compatible.

One step in putting away false doubts about the reliability of the gospels is to address some of the evidence that they represent early written forms with sources in oral history. To say that another way: the gospels are the written record combining literary freedom with the oral reports of people who were there. There is no need to deny either the literary freedom the writers exercised or the oral history on which they largely based their accounts.

And in this podcast, I simply want to address the idea that Peter’s oral testimony stands largely behind the earliest gospel, Mark. But before I do, I am not saying that there are no exceptions to the oral history principle. The most famous example of something in the gospels that is not likely to be from oral history are the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. Neither am I saying that the evangelists were mere recorders or claiming that all parts of their writing are equally close to the oral histories behind them.

But if I can convince someone that the essential basis of the gospels is direct testimony by people who were there, it would go a long way toward putting to rest all this doubt about the life and identity of Jesus, of Yeshua.

Amid the numerous books about the historical Jesus and the gospels, one that has become a particular focus for me is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. On June 5, here in Atlanta, I am leading a seminar called “Eyewitnesses in the Gospels.” It is a seminar I’d like to give more than once and bring to other places as well.

In the seminar, we’ll examine topics including: the statements of Papias about the sources of the gospels, trends in named and unnamed characters in the gospels, the footprints of Peter in Mark, the footprints of the Beloved Disciple in John, and the meaning of the Yeshua who is revealed by testimony. The overall point is simple: the accounts in the gospels in many cases reflect early stories told by people who were there. They represent stories told in a community containing number of eyewitnesses. The possibility of fabricated stories about Yeshua is far less than many theories of gospel origins admit.

Or, to say it another way, the gospels are more reliable and more firmly grounded in the experiences related directly by people who had those experiences than many modern day authorities acknowledge. The stories about Yeshua are far more worth listening to than many people have been led to believe.

Consider for example the case that Richard Bauckham makes for the old theory, well-known to many readers of Mark, that Peter is largely the voice behind the stories in Mark. I will give a very short and in many ways inadequate summary of that case here. In the seminar, we’ll spend an hour on this issue and in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses you can read the thoroughly developed case.

Where did people first get the idea that Mark’s gospel is, in some way, shape, or form, relating stories originally sourced in Peter? They get that idea from a statement made by Papias, probably around the year 110 C.E., based on what Papias claims to have heard from the disciples of John the Elder, probably in 70’s or early 80’s of the first century. The statement of Papias is recorded in the writing of Eusebius in the fourth century and there are some problems with the statement.

The reason many people reject Papias’ statement outright is that Mark is clearly a literary gospel. Mark is clearly not simply the written account of oral teaching. There is too much literary artistry to take Mark as some sort of transcript.

But that is not what Papias said exactly in the first place and the idea of a literary gospel sourced in Peter’s oral teaching is worth investigating. Is there any evidence internal to Mark to back it up?

I’ll simply give three examples of that sort of internal evidence. These examples have behind them precedents in ancient biographies and are not simply literary theories based on thin air. Mark has done some things in his gospel comparable to what other biographers have done and fitting with theories of how history should be written as well. Skipping over all that complexity, here are three examples.

First, Mark goes out of his way to mention Peter by name first and last in his gospel. The two basic reasons that could explain this are either that Peter was so important in the early movement, he deserved special attention or it could be an indication by Mark that Peter is his main source. Many people have simply assumed that the importance of Peter in Mark is simply about Peter’s position in the early community. But Bauckham shows that the literary device which is now referred to as inclusio was used by ancient biographers in some cases to indicate their direct source.

Thus, we read in Mark 1:16, “And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen.” Note that Simon, who is Peter, is mentioned by name first and that his name is oddly repeated when Andrew is named. Much more can be said about the oddity of naming Simon Peter first in light of John’s account in which Andrew knew Yeshua before Peter.

And we read in Mark 16:7, “ But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” Note the odd naming of Peter even though telling the disciples would already include him. Mark has gone out of his way, in the next to last verse of the gospel, to name Peter.

Peter is named first and last among the disciples and major players in the gospels.

Now, let’s look at a second example and a different category of evidence. There is a curious feature that happens twenty-one times in Mark. It is a feature noted by many commentaries. Bauckham calls it the plural-to-singular literary device. Let me explain it by one example and suggest its possible origin.

In Mark 5:1-2, we read: “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.” Note that they came across the sea and yet that the action resume with just he getting out of the boat. Who is the “they” and who is the “he”? The answer, obviously, is the group of disciples and Yeshua.

Why does Mark write the scenes this way? A theory worth considering is that Mark knew the stories as told by Peter who would describe them in a similar manner. Let me restate Mark 5:1-2 changing the they to a we to illustrate what I mean: “We came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.”

It makes sense that a person who was part of a group might relate a story in this way. And the plural-to-singular narrative pattern in Mark looks like a residual feature of stories originally told by one who was in the “we” of the story. In terms used in the study of narrative, this is a device for internal focalization, which I will explain more in depth at the seminar. It basically means a literary device that allows the reader to view the story from the viewpoint of a character or group of characters. The reader becomes part of Mark’s literary “they.”

Finally, and as our last specific example of literary footprints of Peter in Mark’s gospel, consider the stories in which Peter stands out as the main character. Again, this could be simply due to his importance in the later community. But it could also be because Mark and others knew the stories primarily from Peter’s point of view.

So, in Mark 9:5 we read one of many examples of Peter as the main actor among the disciples, “And Peter said to Yeshua, ‘Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’” The compound result of these stories is that the reader thinks Peter is almost the only disciple who speaks. This fits well with the idea that the source of the stories is Peter.

In conclusion, there is internal evidence that Papias’ statement is basically true. Mark’s gospel does show signs of being heavily based on Peter’s telling.

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Filed under: Disciples & Named Characters, Eyewitnesses, Formation of the Gospels, Gospels as History, Podcasts

One Response to "Podcast Transcript: Peter’s Footprints"

  1. Yony Torres says:

    Fascinating!

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