I find the special material [material unique to Matthew; not found in any other gospel] that Matthew has grouped around the birth and the death of Jesus a consistency that suggests a source, but one of another nature than Mark and Q—a source that reflects popular dramatization through storytelling, much like expanded birth and passion narration ever since.
With regard to the common Synoptic passion narrative I argued that OT allusions or citations did not create the basic passion narrative sequence but helped to fill in the established, skeletal preaching outline. In the instance of the Matthean special material, however, the OT background may have actually generated the stories, eg., of the manner of Judas’ death.
Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, pp. 60-61
Raymond Brown (deceased) was not a liberal New Testament scholar. Raymond Brown was a devout Roman Catholic who very much believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His scholarship was acceptable Catholic teaching during the papacy of the conservative pope, John Paul II. He very much believed in the reality of the supernatural. He believed that the first gospel, Mark, was most likely written in the late 60’s, prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Therefore, conservative Christians cannot accuse Raymond Brown of a bias against the traditional teachings of Christianity or a bias against the reality of miracles and other supernatural phenomena.
So, with that background, the above statement by highly respected New Testament scholar Raymond Brown is devastating to the conservative Christian claim that we can trust the historical reliability of the Gospels due to the “fact” that first century Jews lived in an “oral” culture which strictly maintained the accuracy and consistency of their traditions and oral stories.
Raymond Brown states that the author of Matthew (whom he does not believe was an eyewitness) had three sources for his gospel: the Gospel of Mark, “Q”, and fictional folklore. That’s right, fictional folklore! Brown suspects that when early Christians retold the bare bones story of Jesus prior to the stories being written down, they added fictional details to the story, borrowing from themes in the Old Testament. Brown does not believe that this was due to sloppiness or an attempt on the part of the storytellers to deceive their listeners. He believes they did this purposefully to make for better story telling, similar to what Christians do today when they participate in a Nativity Christmas play or a Passion play. Everyone in attendance at a modern church Christmas play knows that the extra dialogue is fictional. This fictional material does not make the entire story fictional; it simply makes for better storytelling; it makes for a better Christmas or Passion play!
This is what Brown suspects was happening among early Christians as they told and retold the Jesus Story. Matthew added some of these (fictional) stories into his gospel, not to deceive anyone, but to make for a better story! After all, Matthew was writing a Greco-Roman biography; a document of religious evangelization. He was not writing a modern history textbook. Adding embellished details was perfectly acceptable in this genre of literature as long as the core story remained intact.
But here is my question: What exactly was the original, core, Jesus Story?
Did the core Jesus Story include Jesus’ anguished prayer to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane as described in Mark or the serene, calm Jesus as described in Luke? But wait. Maybe the original story didn’t include any details about Jesus’ actions in the Garden including his arrest; the core story was simply that he was arrested during the Passover celebration in Jerusalem.
Did the core Jesus story include the detailed scene with Pilate at Jesus’ trial? Was there really a crowing rooster? Did Pilate really wring his hands in fear of the Jews? Was Pilate really so indecisive and weak? Are all these details historical facts or simply literary embellishments, derived from popular (fictional) folklore? Did the Jews really call out for the blood of Jesus to be on their heads and on the heads of their children…or was this just later anti-Jewish Christian folklore?
What exactly did Jesus say on the cross? The Gospels can’t seem to agree. Maybe the original core Jesus Story had no details about his crucifixion (since none of the disciples were probably there) and that is why each gospel has Jesus saying something different. These sayings of Jesus on the cross may have been folklore. The authors of the Gospels simply selected one of these circulating folklore accounts to include in each of their gospels.
And what about Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb? Was this part of the core Jesus Story or was it an embellished detail to the bare-bones original story that Jesus was arrested during Passover celebrations, tried, crucified, and then buried with other criminals executed that week in a common, unmarked grave? And what about the three very different, detailed appearance stories in Matthew, Luke, and John? Are these factual historical accounts or were they fictional embellishments to the core Jesus story?
You see, dear Readers, if “Matthew” added fictional folklore to his gospel as Brown suspects, then how do we know that “Mark”, “Q”, “Luke”, and “John” didn’t also use fictional folklore when writing their gospels??? Maybe the core Jesus story is what we find in the Early Creed, as quoted by Paul in First Corinthians 15: a bare-bones account with zero details about a rich man’s empty rock tomb or post-death appearances involving a visible, touchable, speaking body! Maybe the original group appearance claims were based on similar phenomena used to describe Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road: a bright light…and nothing more! A group of disciples saw a bright light and thought it was Jesus! The Gospel authors included embellished folklore to make these appearances more interesting (and maybe more believable for evangelization purposes!).
And why didn’t first century Christians call out and complain about these fictional embellishments to the Jesus Story? Answer: Because everyone at the time knew it was just part of good story telling! It was not only acceptable…it was expected.
“So what if one New Testament scholar believes that there is fictional folklore in the Gospels!” many conservative Christian apologists will howl. “That proves nothing. It is only one man’s opinion.”
Well, it’s not just one scholar, dear conservative Christians. It is every scholar who is not an evangelical or very conservative Protestant (i.e., LCMS). Even respected New Testament Christian scholar NT Wright, who like Brown, believes in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, has also said that literary invention (fiction) probably exists in the New Testament. In his masterwork, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright suggests that Jesus’ prophesies regarding his own resurrection may be fictional inventions of the authors. Wright also states that the author of the Book of Acts was probably using literary invention in his (three different) descriptions of the events of Jesus appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road. Wright also suggests that some of the details in the Beheading of John the Baptist Story may be fictional.
In addition, Raymond Brown (along with the majority of NT scholars) do not believe that eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. NT Wright is a little more cautious on this issue, but is on record saying the following: “I don’t know who wrote the Gospels, nor does anyone else!”
And now we find out that even respected, moderate scholars such as Raymond Brown and NT Wright believe that there are fictional embellishments in the Gospels!
My, my, my.
The evidence for a never heard of before or since miracle—a first century resurrection of a three day brain-dead corpse—gets weaker and weaker the more scholarship one reads!