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Historiography 2: Enemy Attestation, Aramaic Substrata, and Independent Sources - Episode 4

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Last time, we looked at early reports, embarrassment, and coherence, where these three methods help us add some reliability to different aspects of the Gospel accounts. This time, we’re going to be looking at the methods of enemy attestation, Aramaic substrata, and independent sources.


00:50 Enemy Attestation explained

2:05 Jesus’ miracles and His enemies

3:25 Jesus’ resurrection and His enemies

5:05 Aramaic Substrata explained

6:40 Direct quotes in Aramaic

8:40 Multiple Attestation explained

11:20 Independent sources in the gospels

15:00 The Q source

16:50 Ex – “The Son of Man”

18:10 Ex – miracles

18:30 Next episode


Hello, I’m Jon Topping and you’re listening to the Ultimate Questions podcast. Last time, we began looking at the different methods of historiography we can apply to the New Testament, which means, the different tools we can use to test the reliability of the content found in the New Testament. Last time, we looked at early reports, embarrassment, and coherence, where these three methods help us add some reliability to different aspects of the Gospel accounts. This time, we’re going to be looking at the methods of enemy attestation, Aramaic substrata, and independent sources.

Enemy Attestation The next method of evaluating the truth of historical texts is an interesting one. It’s called “enemy attestation”. As strange as it sounds, when we find the enemies of a cause agreeing with certain parts of the account, that gives us added reason to think that aspect is reliable. For example, suppose you’re reading up on Julius Caesar, trying to get a feel for his life. So far, you’ve just read a bunch of people that like Caesar, so they all sing his praises about how awesome he was. As a historian, you recognize bias is going to enter into the story. Then, you pick up an historical account from someone who hated Caesar. Any time he mentions Caesar, it’s done with disgust, telling how awful he was. However, this antagonistic writer is willing to admit that Caesar was quite good at commanding his armies. Considering an enemy of Caesar was willing to admit something positive about him, we can have added reason to think that this part of his account is reliable, after all, why would an enemy of Caesar makeup some positive aspect of him. If anything, he would want to make up bad aspects, not good aspects. So, when an enemy admits something, we have more reason to consider that detail reliable. In terms of the story of Jesus, we find a few cases where this method helps us add some credibility to the claims in the accounts. We do see some groups that were considered enemies of Jesus, mainly, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. When we see stories including quotes from these groups, it’s important to take special notice, because at times they admit more to us than they would probably like. For example, in Matthew 12 we find a famous story where Jesus is performing miracles. When the Pharisees who were present saw this, they hated it, because they were enemies of Jesus. So, as a way of trying to argue against Jesus’ authority, to try and sway the crowds in their favor, they said that He was doing miracles by the power of Satan. Now normally, we would look at this story and consider it to be a counter argument against Jesus, however, you’ll notice that the enemies of Jesus are admitting an aspect of the story, mainly, that He was actually doing miracles! Why would the enemies feel the need to say that Jesus was filled with the power of Satan to do miracles, unless it seemed obvious that He actually was doing miracles! In other words, the testimony of the Pharisees, because they hated Jesus, actually works in favor of providing reliability to the fact that Jesus was a miracle worker. Another example of this in the New Testament deals with the resurrection of Jesus. On Easter, when the disciples were claiming that He had risen from the dead, obviously the enemies of Jesus needed to say something. The Pharisees hated Jesus and His followers, and they were the ones that had worked to have Him killed. So, when the disciples start claiming Jesus has come back from the dead, the Pharisees want to squash these rumors as well. They actually met together, and decided among themselves what story they would spread to try and defeat the idea that Jesus had actually risen. They end up telling everyone that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, and hidden it away. The text even says that this story circulated quite widely, and that this was still what some people believed about the resurrection. Now, again, normally we would look at this and consider it a counter argument against the resurrection of Jesus, but again, we find that the enemies of Jesus are admitting more than they would like to. Because the Pharisees were telling people the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, that admits a very important detail, mainly, that the body of Jesus was missing, which means the tomb of Jesus really was empty. In other words, the Pharisees admitted the empty tomb! If the tomb weren’t empty, they wouldn’t have relied on spreading the story of the disciples stealing the body, so, we have a really strong case to believe that the empty tomb is a reliable detail of the accounts of Jesus’ life. That may seem like a small admission, but as we’ll see, as we pile up all the data that we have good reason to think is reliable, we start developing a pretty strong case for the Gospel message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, that will also have to wait until a future podcast, because we can only do so much in each episode.

Aramaic Substrata The next historical method has a very strange name; it’s called “Aramaic Substrata”. What this means, is that even though the Gospels were written in Greek, at times, we find quotes from Jesus in Aramaic. Now without going into too much detail, Jesus likely spoke Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. During the first century for the Jewish people in Israel, Aramaic was the day-to-day sort of language, and Hebrew was the liturgical language, meaning, they would use Hebrew for things like religious services. However, everything was a part of the Roman Empire, which was Greek speaking, so Greek was incredibly common as well. While Jesus did likely speak Aramaic during His regular life, it also seems as though He spoke Greek to the audiences that He gave His sermons to. An interesting example of this is found in Matthew 5, where Jesus gives His famous “Sermon on the Mount”. In this sermon, there’s quite a lot of alliteration happening in the Greek. If Jesus gave the sermon in Aramaic, the alliteration wouldn’t be present. The fact that the Greek version has a poetic device that only works in Greek would seem to imply the sermon was given in Greek. If you want more information on this, I recommend looking at my colleague Wes Huff’s blog titled, “Did Jesus speak Greek?” The overall point here being that Jesus likely spoke Aramaic in His everyday affairs, but would also speak Greek, and when the New Testament writers quote Jesus, or tell about a sermon of His, the fact that it’s in Greek is probably quite appropriate. However, as I said, at times we find quotes from Jesus in Aramaic. It’s actually strange to read these passages, because as we read our English translations, all of a sudden there’s another language thrown in, with words we don’t know. For example, in Mark 5:41, Jesus says “talitha cum”, which means, “little girl, get up!” Or another case in Mark 7:34, where Jesus says “ephphatha”, which means, “be opened”. In the first case, Jesus is telling a dead girl to rise, and as the story goes, He brought her back from the dead. In the second case, Jesus is healing a deaf man of his deafness. Because the author, in these cases, Mark, gives us the Aramaic words, it seems as though he’s actually giving a direct quote, giving the exact words of Jesus, because it’s written in the original language that Jesus would have used in that moment, which was Aramaic. When we find cases like this where it seems quite likely we’re getting a direct quote of the exact wording used by Jesus, that gives us extra reason to find this story to be reliable. What’s interesting in these two examples, is that in these stories it shows Jesus as doing incredibly miraculous things. Therefore, the added reliability in these stories actually gives us extra justification to think Jesus really was a miracle worker. Another example of Aramaic Substrata is when Jesus is on the cross. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus yelled out, “ee-loy ee-loy lama sabach-thah-nee”, which is translated from the Aramaic as meaning, “my God my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here, we have a direct quotation from Jesus, rather than a translation of what He said, using the exact words He would have used, in His own everyday language He spoke. This means that we have added reliability to think this story is giving an accurate depiction for these details. This is helpful, because, first of all, it shows that Jesus really was crucified, and secondly, it allows us to see what He was experiencing on the cross, which is valuable for Christianity theologically. So in this sense, the rare cases where we find Aramaic Substrata give us extra reason to find these passages of Scripture reliable, because we’re getting a direct quote, word for word.

Independent sources The next historical method we’ll look at is how many independent sources a claim has, which is also at times called “multiple attestation”. Now I realize that this next point is quite difficult, and the first time hearing it, it can be a little confusing. Don’t worry, a lot of our future points won’t be this difficult, so if you find this a bit too hard, don’t let it discourage you. So again, this method looks at independent sources. For something to be an “independent” source, is a text that relates a story or piece of information by their own account, and not someone else’s account. Now that’s confusing, so I’ll give an example we can probably all relate to. Today, when something newsworthy happens, all the media outlets jump on it to report it. What you’ll find is that many of the news outlets copy information from other news sources. Then you get people writing blogs on the topic, using these news stories that are copies from other news stories. Then you get people arguing about it on Facebook. Your Facebook friend is clearly not an independent source of information, because they got their information from someone else. Some random blogger is almost certainly not an independent source. Even the news stories themselves are often not independent, because they’re just copying their information from some other primary source.

I remember a time I was trying to discover as much information as I could about something that happened in the news, and I read about a dozen different articles. The event was a little obscure, so it was hard to find “independent sources”. Each article that I read looked extremely similar, listing off the exact same details, sometimes even using the exact same wording! After I read the first article, it became quite difficult to find any new information. It really looked like all of these news outlets were just copying information from someone else. So someone had been on the scene, and reported the details that they observed, and then everyone else copied them. All of these sources would be considered only one INDEPENDENT source, because everyone else was using that original witness for their data, and just copying the information from that news story. However, after reading about a dozen articles, I finally came across an article that gave some new information. This article was obviously not copying from the other articles, and appeared to be giving information from a new independent source. Even if this new author was copying someone else, it was still obvious that I had found two independent sources of information, because they were giving different details, and different wordings.

In terms of the Bible, critics might look and say, hey, you’ve only got one book here, so it’s just one independent source, which makes the Bible look less reliable. However, the Bible isn’t just “one book”; as many of us know, it’s a collection of books. The New Testament itself has 27 books in it. While there’s debate about authorship in circles that are critical against the New Testament, there’s at least around eight authors of these 27 books. Now that said, that doesn’t mean there are necessarily eight independent sources, because at times it seems clear that one writer is using the other as a source. However, that doesn’t mean you write-off a whole writer, or even a whole book, as not being an independent source. The problem here, as it gets more complicated, is that each individual claim needs to be evaluated, rather than just each author, or each book. So as an example, it seems fairly obvious that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source. These three Gospels are even called the “synoptic” Gospels, because of how similar they are (with the Gospel of John being the exception, because it’s quite different, it would then be considered an independent source most of the time). However, to merely say that Matthew Mark and Luke only count as one independent source is a bit too simplistic.

A good example of this is found in the story of John the Baptist Matthew writes, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” Almost the exact same wording as found in the Gospel Mark. So this part of the story would be considered to have only one independent source, because it’s clear that Matthew was using Mark. In that same story, we find that Matthew has a part where John the Baptist sees the Pharisees and Sadducees, gets angry, and calls them all a “brood of vipers”, and basically tells them off. The Gospel of Luke contains this part of the story as well, and quotes John the Baptist, even using the same words. However, this part of the story isn’t mentioned at all in Mark. Since Mark was definitely written before Matthew and Luke, then Matthew and Luke can’t possibly be using Mark as a source for that piece of the story. So, in some places, Matthew, or Luke, or both, are considered independent sources. In this way, it’s just too simplistic to toss them out, because Matthew and Luke copied Mark in some places. As we can see here, as with many other stories and details, Matthew and Luke bring new information to the discussion. IN GENERAL = The story of John the Baptist found in the four Gospels has aspects of independent sources found in each telling of the story, meaning, it looks like each of the Gospels are bringing new information to the table, so they can each be considered an independent source in some way. In other words, we have four independent accounts for the general story, so it seems quite reliable to say that Jesus was in fact baptized by John the Baptist. Even if some aspects might have been copied, we would still consider this to be independent, when referring to the story as a whole, which adds credibility to the idea that this historical event really occurred.

Another quick example is the birth narrative of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke have this part of Jesus’ life recorded, but Mark does not, meaning, Matthew and Luke are independent sources for this aspect of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, both Matthew and Luke bring unique pieces to this story, meaning, even if one used the other as a source for some details, they’re still both independent sources for the story in general, because they’re bringing their own details to the story.

Basically, the process of independent sources in the New Testament is broken down this way. Scholars see five independent sources of the details in the Gospels, even though there are only four Gospels, because they see another possible source, called the Q source, which many scholars think is a source that Matthew and Luke copied from. So, in terms of independent sources we find in the Gospels, here’s what we find. If some detail is found in John, it’s considered to have John as an independent source, because it really doesn’t look like John copied anyone. This is because John is so clearly different, that it seems quite obvious that he wasn’t copying from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. In this way, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are considered the synoptic Gospels, and John isn’t included, because it’s so different. If something is found in Mark, and is also found in Matthew or Luke, then Mark is considered the independent source of that detail, because Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, because Mark came earlier. If a detail is found ONLY found in Matthew, then Matthew is considered the source of that detail. Same thing for Luke, if it’s only found in Luke, then it’s clear Luke is the source. The last kind of source is the Q source, which is a bit strange. If something is found in Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark, then it’s considered to be from the Q source, which is another Gospel that some scholars think existed, but that was lost to time. Basically, the thought is that Mark wrote all on his own and is the earliest Gospel, and then Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q, copying from them, so technically we would have a fifth independent source at times, if it seems that Matthew and Luke were copying from some source other than Mark. There is debate about whether the Q source even exists, but in the scholarship, that’s how it’s discussed.

Now this idea of independent source material becomes important, because we see some very important details in the stories that have multiple independent sources, all giving us the same piece of information. A great example of something like this is how Jesus referred to Himself as “the Son of Man”. This is incredibly important, because the term “Son of Man” is not just a messianic claim, but actually ends up being a possible claim to divinity, as odd as that sounds. We’ll be going into that concept in a future podcast, when we evaluate the claims that Jesus made about Himself, and who Jesus really was. The term “Son of Man” is a title Jesus gave Himself, and we actually find it in all five of the different independent Gospel sources we have! We find it in John in some places, we find it in some stories that only Matthew contains, and other stories that only Luke contains. It’s also found in Mark, and, interestingly, we also find it in stories that are contained in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, so it fits the Q source. So we find this title that Jesus gave Himself, in stories from five different independent accounts. As this method of historiography works, we can see that we have excellent historical evidence to show that Jesus referred to Himself as the “Son of Man”. This aspect of the life of Jesus is quite reliable, because of the data showing that we have five independent sources for that piece of information. Additionally, we have stories of Jesus doing miracles that match all five types of independent Gospel sources as well. So in terms of studying history, using the tool of evaluating independent sources, we have five independent sources telling us that Jesus was a miracle worker, which is quite a find.

Now I understand that this issue of independent sources is a difficult point when you start wrestling with it. But if you’ve stuck with me thus far, I think you’ve probably got a good grasp of the different ways that historical scholars can evaluate the claims made in the New Testament, and that a lot of these methods actually show the New Testament is quite reliable. Next, time, we’re going to be looking at some points that will likely be easier than this last one. We’ll be diving into the motivations of authors, whether the account helps explain something difficult, and then lastly, the issue of what’s called “double dissimilarity”. I hope you’ll tune in next time to go through these topics with me, on the Ultimate Questions podcast, from Power to Change – Students.


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