Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Band of Brothers: Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts

Richard Winters
I have lately been reading (or listening to) two books that, like chocolate and strawberries, while very different, go well together. 

The first is Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest, by Stephen Ambrose.  This well-told and moving story centers on several members of a company that paratrooped into Normandy and took out German guns firing on Utah Beach, fought brutal warfare in the frozen trenches of Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge, and waltzed into Hitler's mountain redoubt, sipping on Himler's massive stash of alcohol, and driving Hitler's staff cars, through Bavaria, sometimes perhaps a bit drunkenly, after peace broke out. 
Ambrose is a wonderful historian, and the book is lively, humane, and full of surprises.  The main hero of the book is Richard Winter, ultimately Major Winter, a brilliant battlefield officer, a teatotaller who lets his men drink within reason, a gentle warrior who kills maybe twenty Germans in battle with the weapons in his own hands, but ensured that those who surrendered lived, and refused to shoot an injured Canadian goose. 

The second book is Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  Bauckham is professor emeritus at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a fellow of the British Academy.  He's not as colorful a writer as  Ambrose, or even N.T. Wright, but in a slow and steady way, with some repetition, makes a strong, informed case that the four stories of Jesus' "band of brothers" that we call the gospels, are based on eyewitness accounts. 

What struck me is that the sort of thing Bauckham is describing, Ambrose is actually doing.  Ambrose is, in fact, writing something very like a "Gospel," in much the way Bauckham thinks the actual gospels were written. 

The parallels are remarkably close:

* In both cases, the chief characters are a group of young men.  (Scholars often forget that the apostles would have almost all been very young, as is always the case with such wandering bands.)

* Both groups travel across the countryside and have adventures.  Traveling, they would naturally remember new places well -- that is my experience, anyway. 

* This itineration lasts about three years for both the Jews and the Americans.

* While many of the men in both bands enjoy successful careers later on, this period of travel under a single, respected leader is the most intense period of their lives for many, perhaps most, and close bonds with fellows, despite occasional brawling, are forged. 

* The strength of friendship and experience also mean they remember those periods of their lives intensely. 

* An element of danger also casts an unforgetable aura on the "ministry" of those years.

* Neither group is on a picnic: they have higher ideals and strategic goals for which they are striving.  They see themselves as part of larger movements. 

* Both are indoctrinated in those ideals, putting "training" into practical action along the way.   

* Both Mark and Luke, on the one hand, and Dr. Ambrose, on the other, rely on a combination of documents and oral testimony to write their "gospels." 

* Ambrose apparently conducted interviews with surviving soldiers in the early 1990s.  This would correspond to about 80-82 AD, about when Luke and Matthew wrote their Gospels, and 10-20 years after the Gospel of Mark was probably written. 

* Both groups of men were young during the period recounted.  The number of total disciples of Jesus was probably similar to the number of members of E Company who fought and were not immediately killed. 

* Both sets of disciples were scattered after these few brief years of "ministry."  Christians spread to small communities around the Mediterranean world.  Ex-GIs from Winter's band scattered across the United States, building dams in the North Cascades, selling farm products in New Jersey, doing business in Connecticut, running a prison camp in Germany, fishing for sharks in California. 

It seems to me that the parallels show how credible the traditional understanding of the gospels remains.  In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I describe 50 characteristics of the gospels, most of which underline and support the historicity of the gospels.  The "Band of Brothers" analogy helps show how it came to be that such strong accounts of Jesus' ministry came to be written.

Of course, no analogy is perfect.  I can think of at least three differences between these two stories, that critics might point to as undermining the analogy. 

Possible Objections

* "Dr. Ambrose was a better historian than St. Mark."  No doubt he was.  He certainly had more polish and literary flare.  He probably didn't spend as much time with his primary sources, though.  All in all, the two men seem to be doing similar things, and the end result in both cases is a realistic mix of action, dialogue, and scene, which gives every sign of deriving from events that actually happened to real people. 

* "Life expectancy was so much shorter in the ancient world, than in modern America!  American GIs enjoyed good health and plenty of food, and naturally lived longer to tell their stories."   
This surely makes some difference.  Epidemic diseases like small pox often ravaged ancient cities, and some of Jesus' followers could be expected to succumb to them.  Christians were also often persecuted, and sometimes martyred. From ages 20 to 60, probably half or more of adults would succomb to some disease or other misfortune, in the ancient world. 

But short life expectancy in the ancient world was inflated by an extremely high infant mortality rate.  A large percentage of those who survived the diseases of childhood, could be expected to live reasonably long lives.  If they didn't, people wouldn't have survived long enough to reproduce -- yet there was natural increase in the population, which is why Romans were able to engage in so many wars.  In fact, many famous ancient scientists lived past 70, even into their 80s.  So there is nothing at all improbable in the claim that the likes of John Mark found many witnesses still alive, probably still just in their 60s, perhaps even 50s in some cases, when he wrote. 

In fact, some men of E Company got together as late as 2009.  That would correspond to almost 100 AD, later even than when the Gospel of John was probably composed.  As recently as last Sunday, I had a chat with a pastor who had been in Patton's army, who told me a story about guarding Hungarian prisoners who had worked in America before the war.  He seems in fairly good health, and to remember events from the war well.  That puts all the talk about "generations" and "traditions" for gospels that were written about 70 or 80 AD, in a different light! 

* "They didn't have 737s in St. Mark's day.  The early Christians were too scattered, for the authors of the gospels to interview them!" 

People in the Roman world often traveled quite a bit.  Paul's travels are well-known.  What is clear from all accounts of early Christianity, is that the Church in particular cities was not isolated, but in frequent contact with its fellow churches.  Much of the population of Palestine was scattered in 70 AD, after all.  As Stark shows, a network of Jews was spread throughout most of the Roman Empire, and the Church seemed to follow that network. 

Furthermore, the early church was a tight-knit sub-community.  Distusted by Jewish leaders, misunderstood by Greeks, and persecuted by Romans, Christians were forced to band together, which they were eager to do, anyway.   

It should have been easy, therefore, for someone like Mark to make contacts with surviving eyewitnesses, who would have been well-known. and no doubt eager to reminiscence.  Because testimony was so highly valued in the early church, everyone would have known whom to ask, for details -- as Bauckham argues, Mark did know, and did ask.

Read Band of Brothers, and the gospels.  With all their cultural, linguistic and technological differences, see if you don't recognize the similarities.


L.M. Muffett said...

"Faith: No one word personifies the absolute worst and most wicked policies of religion better than that. Faith is mind-rot -- it's a poison that destroys critical thinking, undermines evidence, and leads people into lives dedicated to absurdity. It's a parasite that's regarded as a virtue. I speak as a representative of the scientific faction of atheism here -- it's one thing we simply cannot compromise on. Faith is wrong, and at the same time faith is a central tenet of just about every religion on the planet. We can't ignore that -- that's the thing we are interested in fighting."--P.Z. Myers

David B Marshall said...

What PZ Myers is fighting is his own timidity and ignorance -- but not very hard. Quoting him as an expert witness on religion, or reality generally, is like quoting Porky Pig on eloquence, or Mr. Magoo on beauty.

Nor does this comment have anything to do with the blog. Do try to say something sensible, if you comment again.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Mr./Ms. Muffett but I do know he/she lives by faith--every time one sits on a chair, trusting it won't collapse, drives a car, trusting it won't explode, makes plans for tomorrow, trusting one will still be alive, etc., etc. Faith is no problem inherently, what is a problem is unfounded faith. David gives reasons for why Christian faith is well founded faith.

David B Marshall said...

So Little Miss (LM) Muffett, sat on her tuffet -- by faith?

I love it when fairytales come true. :- )

Gary said...

Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?