The Sermon Experiment
Another nail in the coffin of Jesus?
The four gospels “according to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John” are often portrayed as witness accounts of the life and teachings of a first century Messiah claimant named Yeshua. In 2008, an experiment was conducted to test the degree of reliability of a very small part of these witness accounts.
From March to April 2008, 120 churches and their respective priests and preachers were contacted to partake in the experiment. Out of those 120 churches, 56 were willing to participate. The priests were asked to read the so-called Sermon on the Mount. The sermon, found as a literary whole in chapters 5, 6 and 7 in the gospel “according to Matthew” is one of the most famous passages in the Christian New Testament and is seen as the basis of Christian ethics.
The sermon is composed of approximately 2,400 words with a variation on both sides of up to 2% depending on the bible version. Preliminary test readings of the three chapters, taken in March and April, showed that an out loud reading of the sermon varied between 16 and 25 minutes, with an average of 18 minutes. Services of the participating churches were held in English and the reading of the sermon was subsequently done in English. Variation of the reading time was influenced by the reader’s reading and speaking speed, as well as the version of the bible translation used in the test readings. All the trials conducted by the investigating team led to the average stated above and seemed to approximate the average time spent on a homily or excerpt reading of the gospels during the Sunday services at the churches that were found willing to participate in the experiment.
Over the course of several consecutive Sundays in the months May to August 2008, church attendants were asked to fill out a rudimentary personal detail form before the start of the service they were about to attend. Subject to their agreement, a picture was taken in order to be able to recognize and contact them in the third stage of the experiment. Participants were assured that all the personal details would be destroyed and that the survey would remain completely anonymous. They were not informed about the nature of the experiment in any way, nor its goal. At the conclusion of this stage, 3,000 people were found willing to fill out the form, divided over 56 churches and 12 Sundays.
The churches were revisited four weeks later on Sundays spreading from June 15 to September 28, 2008. Of the 3,000 initial participants, only 2,040 (*) were either attending that following service, or willing to respond to the investigating team member, who asked them two questions:
“Did you attend service at this church 4 weeks ago?”
“What text of the gospel did your priest read during that service four weeks ago?”
Although all 2,040 were clearly present at the preceding service based on the fact that the survey team was able to reengage them, 551 (27 %) of the participants did not immediately respond positively to the first question. When allowed a few seconds to search their memories, another 330 people remembered while 221 admitted that they came to the positive answer by deduction, mostly based on the fact that they were now interviewed by the same survey team member who initially approached them.
On the second question, two participants were able to immediately mention the Sermon on the Mount as the text read by their priest, while 5 others came to the answer after a few guesses. The vast majority (99.66 %) however was unable to give a correct answer, even if allowed some time to think it over and allowed three guesses. Although not part of the core experiment, the seven people who were able to mention the Sermon on the Mount, were asked if they could give some examples of its content. All seven could give some, with one person able to refer to 6 sayings of Jesus. The two people who gave the immediate correct answer to what text was read 4 Sundays earlier, were also the two who mentioned the Lord’s prayer as part of the Sermon (Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…).
By the end of October 2008, the data and results of the experiment were finalized, while all personal details that would allow identification of the participants were destroyed. The leaders of the 56 participating churches were informed about the results. When asked if they would be open to a repetition of the experiment in 2010, none of them were found willing to.
2. Contemporary context
Not even half a per cent of the participants was able to answer the core question of the survey correctly. As poorly as the total pool of church members performed, the result has to be mirrored against the historical, cultural and religious background of the respondents.
The teachings and history of Christianity go back for more than 1,900 years and more than 50 % of the current world population identifies as Christian. Most Christians currently identifying as such were taught the religious ideas expressed by the New Testament for most of their lives. Being such a central part of Christian religion, the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most quoted and referenced passages of the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount and its content are therefore not a novelty to the respondents of the survey. Most of them have been taught or told the story on more than one occasion. All respondents in the experiment were in fact devout Christians, followers of the very religion that attributes such importance to this particular text. The text is not only referenced during the regularly attended Sunday services, but in schools and all forms of modern media, i.e. television, radio and internet. All respondents believe that Jesus is the most important figure in their lives and that his words and teachings are the most remarkable and significant in all history as well as their own personal history, yet they failed to remember “what he said 4 weeks earlier”.
How would this play out if the churchgoers were asked the same question 40 years later instead of 4 weeks? How would the result come out if these people had heard the Sermon on the Mount for the first time in their lives, had never even heard about Jesus before that and were at the same time still trying to survive the immediate aftermath of a devastating war. The average age of the survey participants was 59. How many of the participants would still be alive after 40 years? What are the chances that any of the 7 respondents who even remembered the Sermon would still be alive after 20, 30 or 40 years?
In other words, what are the chances that what “Matthew” wrote in the gospel was the written recording of a remotely accurate “witness account” given to him?
3. Historical context
The geographical location of the Sermon on the Mount is not given. Context of the preceding and following chapters suggests that Jesus gave his sermon in Galilee, close to Capernaum, although this cannot be stated as fact. Who was Jesus preaching to? Matthew 4:25 states: “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.”
Let’s compare this statement to Matthew 8: 1-4. In these verses Jesus heals a leper and instructs the subject of the miracle to keep the miracle a secret. That instruction seems very odd however, as verse 1 just repeated that the large crowds of Matthew 4:25 witnessed Jesus’ miracle. You could therefore question Jesus’ common sense (let alone wisdom), the miracle or the presence of large crowds [it is rather evident that all the gospels in their entirety can be put into question].
What does ‘large crowds’ mean? To give you some context: at its height in the first century AD, the town of Capernaum numbered around 1,500 people. The capital of Galilee during this time, Sepphoris, numbered between two to three thousand people. We can dismiss the idea that large crowds from Judea and Jerusalem would even have been present. It takes up to 16 hours to walk from Judea to Capernaum. That fact alone would exclude a lot of Judeans to have been present at the described events [admittedly this does not exclude the possibility of some Judeans attending]. When we read large crowds we certainly shouldn’t be thinking of thousands of people. Even the statistical pool of 2,040 people of the experiment surpasses a realistic “crowd”: it means that the entire population of Capernaum would have left the town and not a single soul would have remained to attend their daily duties or livelihoods.
Next is the economic and societal context to take into consideration. At the time of Jesus’ alleged ministry, the realm of Herod Antipas was void of major revolts as far as the historical record can tell us. Based on the documented revolts we do know of however (there might have been many minor ones that didn’t deserve the attention of the contemporary historians and officials), the poverty of 90 % of the Galilean population undoubtedly led to continuous banditry and small scale resistance of disenfranchised groups of zealots, sicarii and the like. It is very doubtful that the ruling classes would have allowed for any mass gathering without interference; if such gatherings were in fact even possible for most of the people we are talking about: small scale farmers, fishermen, low income day laborers and underfed beggars and landless wanderers.
This is a very brief sketch of the world Jesus was living in. Now imagine that you are one of those poor Galilean farmers and along comes yet another wandering preacher. As you happen not to be busy weaving a basket or ploughing your small field, you join the few dozen people following this unknown character around and listen for a while what he has to say. At that point you are either so impressed that you instantly follow this preacher, leave your small farm and sole source of sustenance behind along with your wife and children; or you think a few moments about what this emaciated guru said and return to your daily chores.
If you’d fall in the second category, there is absolutely no reason to give this guy a second thought. If you would be the kind of irresponsible and impulsive person of the first order however, you would then have become completely dependent on this group for your survival, living off of hand outs or what you can steal from what little your fellow Galileans and Judeans are still able to produce. At the same time, you are at continuous risk of being arrested for illegal gatherings and sedition. At some point however, this man you have been following is arrested and whatever small following he still had at that point is dispersed. Most of them return to their hometowns. A few keep wandering about and try to survive as long as possible, avoiding the urban centers and towns altogether for fear of being recognized by the Roman and Judean authorities. If not because of old age, most of the latter would already be dead by the time the First Jewish War broke out.
In the years between Jesus’ alleged death and the writing of the gospel according to Matthew, a lot more happened and an entire generation had died. On top of that, the First Jewish War wreaked havoc on the society of first century Judaea and Galilee. A lot of people lost their lives and prime targets of Roman reprisals would be exactly the kind of zealots that professed a Jewish king expelling the Romans from Palestine. We could dive into the political history of Judaea, Samaria and Galilee a lot more to paint the picture. We could attempt to calculate the probabilities and odds of all the events having to coincide to even have witnesses to Jesus’ ministry alive in 75 AD; but the picture is quite clear.
None of the historical events making up the societal background of the gospel authorship exclude the possibility of a few witnesses to Jesus’ ministry (or their children) to tell “Matthew” about what they saw or heard. But to say that the Sermon on the Mount is a verbatim recording of the alleged 20 or 30 minute monologue that the alleged Jesus gave is a bit of a stretch.
The Sermon Experiment is but one illustration of the improbability of the gospels being accurate witness accounts. We can all come up with examples of people who cannot even remember what they themselves said a year or two earlier, or even authors who cannot remember what they wrote in their own books. We have not even discussed other factors that decrease the probability of biblical accuracy to a virtual zero. A clear example of the impossibility of certain passages being witnessed at all is given in our post “The Witness is Excused” (https://www.isalahat.com/post/the-witness-is-excused).
The “gospels are witness accounts” is a very common assertion. If you’d like to combine common sense with your own personal experience and test this, then all you have to do is stage a Telephone Game to see how that assertion holds up. It clearly doesn’t.
Richard Dalet PHD, June 03, 2021
Notes, sources, references:
Sermon on the Mount, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sermon_on_the_Mount
“Capernaum – History of Capernaum”, Tourist Israel – the Guide, https://www.touristisrael.com/capernaum/7636/ “In Biblical times Capernaum was one of the main trading villages in the Gennesaret area. It was a vibrant and prosperous part of Palestine, home to about 1,500 people many of whom were fishermen.”
Nathan Schumer, “The Population of Sepphoris, Rethinking Urbanization in Early and Middle Roman Galilee”, abstract / excerpt, Journal of Ancient Judaism Volume 8 Issue 1, online publication date 19 May 2019, Brill, https://brill.com/view/journals/jaj/8/1/article-p90_6.xml
C. C. McCown, “The density of population in ancient Palestine”, Pacific School of Religion, book preview, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Dec., 1947), pp. 425-436 (12 pages), published By: The Society of Biblical Literature, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3262683?seq=1
Sakari Häkkinen, “Poverty in the first-century Galilee”, Department of New Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa, Herv. teol. stud. vol.72 n.4 Pretoria 2016, Pg.1, Abstract “According to estimations 9 out of 10 persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it. There was no middle class. The state did not show much concern for the poor. Inequality and disability to improve one's social status were based on honour and shame, culture and religion.”, HTS Theological Studies, On-line version ISSN 2072-8050, Print version ISSN 0259-9422, Scielo South Africa, http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000400046
Telephone Game image taken from: wikiHow Staff, “How to play the Telephone Game”, Last updated September 6, 2020, wikiHow to do anything, https://www.wikihow.com/Play-the-Telephone-Game
The statistical data as retained by the survey team from Church of Isa Lahat: