The early Christian gospels ultimately derive from the memories of the survivors of the crucifixion. What gets passed down orally, eventually to the writers of the gospels, originates with the survivors and their competing memories. Everything depends on what they heard, saw, understood, and accurately reported. Raising the question: how reliable and consistent were their memories? There is no way we can verify the accuracy of their memories, but we know from our own experiences how contradictory and flawed memory can be. We have all experienced both short-term and particularly long-term memory failure, or have simply misremembered and misunderstood events, conversations, and statements. The results for us can sometimes be embarrassing, inconvenient, or disastrous. In the case of the survivors of the crucifixion their faulty or religiously shaped memories would have resulted in transmitting a pious misrepresentation of their own experiences.
Even at the written stage of the gospels there are several indications that multiple generations of the oral Jesus tradition were less than perfect, and at times the actual circumstances of the past were piously misrepresented. In John 21:20-23 at least two generational levels of the tradition are portrayed. The earliest level (the situation of the disciples immediately following the crucifixion) is represented in John 21:20-22. Jesus had just given Peter some kind of authoritative role in subsequent events (John 21:15-19: feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep). Peter looks over at the beloved disciple and inquires: what about this man? (21:20-21). Jesus replies, "If it is my will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? Follow me."
The later level (the situation of the Johannine narrator, writing around the end of the first century) is represented in 21:23. The early saying of Jesus, urging Peter to follow him and ignore the situation of the beloved disciple, later was interpreted and repeated among the "brethren" (between the events following the crucifixion and the later situation of the Johannine narrator) as a saying about the immortality of the beloved disciple. In John 21:23 the narrator of the later Gospel of John "corrects" what he regards as the misrepresentation of the earlier tradition, but without explaining the original saying.
There are several other passages in John suggesting that the memories of the early followers of Jesus were compromised by having allowed their beliefs about Jesus and their use of the Hebrew Bible to shape how they remembered events. Two of these passages occur in the Judean Temple incident (John 2:13-22). Jesus says, "take these things away" [i.e., the pigeons]; "you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade" (2:16). The Johannine narrator explains that sometime after the resurrection the disciples "remembered" the incident and at that later time associated it with Psalm 69:9 as a scriptural prediction of what brought about the death of Jesus (2:17). In other words the survivors of the crucifixion are portrayed as allowing their memories of events in the career of Jesus to be shaped by reading "Scripture."
In this same passage there occurs another shaping of the remembered tradition by the later faith of the church. To the Judeans who asked him for a sign to confirm his authority for doing what he did in the Temple (2:18), Jesus replies: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). The Judeans, quite understandably, take it as a reference to the destruction of the Judean Temple, since that was the issue at hand (2:20). But the later Johannine narrator overrides the earlier report and explains that Jesus "spoke of the temple of his body" rather than the Judean Temple (2:21). The narrator further explains that after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples recalled the event and the saying; and "believing the Scripture" they came to believe that the saying was actually a prophecy of the resurrection (2:22). No particular Scripture is quoted, but the statement likely refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, a custom of the later apostolic church (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Another instance of the shaping of early Christian memory by the use of Scripture occurs on the occasion of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (John 12:12-19). Jesus mounted a young ass to enter Jerusalem (12:14). The later Johannine narrator then quotes an abridged version of Zechariah 9:9 (12:15), and explains that the disciples at the time of the incident did not understand why Jesus is riding on an ass's colt (12:16). But sometime later after the crucifixion ("when Jesus was glorified"),"they then remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him" (12:16). This passage is another indication that the memory of that incident was shaped by their reading Scripture.
The Johannine narrator's portrayals of the reshaping of the memories of the earliest survivors of the crucifixion further calls into question the reliability of the gospels as historical narratives.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University