Is There a Progressive Embellishment Among the Gospels? A Reply to Rabbi Tovia Singer

Rabbi Tovia Singer is an orthodox Jewish rabbi and the founder and director of Outreach Judaism. He is widely known for his counter-missionary polemics and his criticism of the New Testament presentation of Jesus as the Hebrew Messiah (see his two volume set, Let’s Get Biblical: Why doesn’t Judaism accept the Christian Messiah? [1]). In a recent series of videos published on Rabbi Singer’s YouTube channel, he responds to remarks made by Professor R.L. Solberg following their recent debate in Nashville, Tennessee on whether Jesus is the promised Hebrew Messiah. In a previous essay, I reviewed one of those videos in which Rabbi Singer alleges “colossal contradictions” between the gospel accounts. In this second installment, I will critically appraise another video in Singer’s series, titled “Prof. Solberg challenges Rabbi Tovia Singer! Were the Gospels Written Too Late to be True?” In the video, Singer asserts that he is not particularly interested in the dating of the gospels per se, so I shall not dwell on that debate here. Nonetheless, for a good presentation of the arguments for an early dating of the gospels, I would refer interested readers to Jonathan Bernier’s recent book, Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament: The Evidence for Early Composition (Bernier dates Mark to 42-45 C.E., Matthew to 45-59 C.E., Luke to 59 C.E., Acts to 62 C.E., and John to 60-70 C.E.). [2] 

To illustrate the irrelevance of the dates of the New Testament documents, Singer mentions — in an apparent attempt to offer a parallel to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus — a charismatic Indonesian preacher who dropped dead of a heart attack and within days was reported to have been seen by people who had followed him. According to Singer, the name that this preacher went by was “Peter the Great”, though I have not been able to find any information about him online. Of course, it is important when evaluating such cases to be able to determine what the supposed appearances were like — otherwise, it is impossible to evaluate the rationality of his followers’ belief to have encountered him following his death. Is it plausible that these appearances were dreams or hallucinations? Without more information, it is impossible to say. We also cannot rule out the possibility of deliberate deception on the part of the claimants without additional information about the circumstances of the claim. Did the claimants stand to lose anything, or were they undertaking tremendous risks, in making their claim to have encountered the deceased preacher? Does the claim serve to confirm beliefs already established and thus the claim might have been allowed to pass without examination? Again, without more details, it is impossible to say. For a fuller discussion of the criteria for assessing whether a miracle claim warrants investigation, I refer interested readers to John Douglas’ book, The Criterion. [2] Therein, Douglas gives three criteria for evaluating miracle reports. If a purported miracle fails one or more of these criteria, that does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, but it does mean that it can reasonably be doubted. If a claimed miracle does pass those criteria, then it does not necessarily entail that the miracle can be reasonably believed, but it does mean that the claim warrants further investigation. These criteria are as follows [3]:

First, we suspect miracles to be false when the accounts of them are not published to the world till long after the time when they are said to have been performed. Secondly, we suspect them to be false when the accounts are not published in the place where it is pretended they were performed but are propagated only at a great distance from the supposed scene of action. Thirdly, supposing the accounts to have the two foregoing qualifications, we still may suspect them to be false, if in the time when, and at the place where they took their rise, the circumstances were such that they might be suffered to pass without examination.

Instead of focusing on the time between the putative events and the writing of the gospels, Rabbi Singer wants to draw our attention to the order in which the gospels were written, taking the consensus scholarly view (to which I also subscribe) that Mark was composed first, followed by Matthew and Luke, and finally John. Singer claims that there is a progressive embellishment from Mark through to John, both in relation to Christology as well specific details included or omitted in the accounts — including the virgin birth (not found in the earliest gospel, Mark) and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (of which none are reported by Mark). According to Singer, Mark is an adoptionist book and it contains no virgin birth or childhood narratives. We are introduced to Jesus as an adult. This, however, is an incredibly weak point, not least because John, the latest gospel to be composed, also contains no mention of the virgin birth — a detail highly relevant to Singer’s argument but one he curiously omits to mention. Furthermore, Mark was no adoptionist. Given the wealth of sources, contemporary to Mark, that affirm the pre-existence of Christ, any positive argument for an adoptionist Christology in Mark will have to overcome an initial strong presumption against. The evidence adduced from Mark is, however, extremely weak and there is considerable evidence in Mark against this notion. The most promising text that lends itself to an argument for adoptionism is the baptism narrative in Mark 1:9-11, wherein God declares from heaven, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” One problem with interpreting this text as implying that Christ is adopted as God’s beloved son at his baptism is that this language is also employed two other times in Mark’s gospel, once at the transfiguration and once at the crucifixion scene.

  • Mark 9:7 (at the transfiguration): And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
  • Mark 15:39 (upon Jesus’ death): And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” 

Of these, the declaration at the transfiguration (Mark 9:7) is the closest parallel to Mark 1:11, since in both scenes a voice is heard from heaven declaring “This is my beloved son.” Therefore, if Mark 1:11 is to be taken to imply an adoptionist Christology, then one ought to conclude that Jesus was adopted as the divine Son on at least two separate occasions — once at his baptism (1:11) and once at the transfiguration (9:7). But this is absurd.

Furthermore, while Mark 1:11, it may be argued, is ambiguous regarding Christ’s pre-existence, other texts in Mark are much less so — and we must interpret ambiguous texts in light of clear and unequivocal texts, not the other way round. For example, the reactions of the demons to Jesus give us at least a prima facie case for affirming the pre-existence of Christ:

  • Mark 1:24: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.”
  • Mark 3:11: And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 
  • Mark 5:7: And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”

Michael Bird rightly notes, “This knowledge of Jesus held by the demons was not apprehended by witnessing Jesus’s baptism nor ascertained from the demonic rumor mill; rather, the demons know Jesus because they know his origins, his identity, his power, and his purpose, and it literally scares them off the human bones they inhabit.” [4]

There are also positive statements throughout the gospel of Mark of Jesus’ deity, which implies his pre-existence. For example, in the prologue of Mark in the first three verses, we read, 

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

While the phrase “the Son of God” (1:1) is omitted in some manuscripts, this is immaterial to the argument I am asserting here. In this text, Mark conflates Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1 (and possibly, as some have argued, Exodus 23:20). In Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, the way is prepared by a forerunner for the coming of the Lord God Himself. Who is this forerunner according to Mark? Verse 4 tells us: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That John is the one who is preparing the way (in fulfilment of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1) is especially evident from verse 6: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” This parallels 2 Kings 1:8 which describes the clothing of Elijah the Tishbite: “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” This is important, because Malachi 4:5 indicates the forerunner that will be sent to prepare the way ahead of the Lord as Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” That John the Baptist was not literally Elijah is not important in the same way that it is unimportant that Jesus was not literally David or the nation of Israel, despite being given both of those names in Messianic prophecy (c.f. Ezekiel 34:23-24, 37:24-25; Jeremiah 30:9; Isaiah 49:3). The relevant point of comparison between Elijah and John the Baptist is that Elijah preceded the coming of, and prepared the way for, Elisha. According to Mark, whose way was John the Baptist preparing? Verses 7-9 make it clear: 

7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. [What follows is the baptism scene where God declares Jesus to be his beloved Son.]

Having established Christ to be the subject of Mark 1:3 — that is, the one fulfilling Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 — we can say with confidence that Mark intends his readers to understand that Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Therefore, the declaration at Jesus’ baptism can only be identifying Jesus as the divine Son, not elevating him to that status.

Another text in Mark that affirms Christ’s deity is Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:28 that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Though one might interpret this as saying merely that mankind has authority over the Sabbath since “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27), this interpretation is less preferable for a number of reasons. For one thing, it would be quite peculiar for Jesus to be saying that humans in general have authority to determine for themselves whether they will override God’s Sabbath command. Indeed, the God of Israel refers to this sacred day on multiple occasions as “my Sabbath” (Exodus 31:13; Leviticus 19:3, 30; Ezekiel 20:12-13). Furthermore, comparing this section (i.e. Mark 2:23-28) to Mark 2:1-10, we observe a pattern of Jesus justifying his controversial behavior by making an emphatic statement concerning his own particular authority (c.f. 2:10 and 2:28). The parallel in Matthew 12:6-8 is even more explicit: 

6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Much more could be said in support of a high Markan Christology. But the foregoing will suffice for our present purposes. While it is certainly true that there are more numerous — and sometimes more explicit — statements of Jesus’ deity in the gospel of John, it is incorrect to say that the synoptic gospels do not assert the deity of Christ. As for Jesus’ explicit statements concerning his divine status in John — particularly the seven “I AM” discourses, not found in the synoptic gospels — this can in part be explained by the different setting of John, since the majority of Jesus’ teaching in John takes place in Jerusalem, where the learned classes would congregate, and in a synagogue in Galilee. This is precisely where Jesus’ audience, being steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, would be more likely to understand Jesus’ allusions to the Hebrew Bible (essential for understanding the significance of these statements). Furthermore, the “I AM” predicates do sometimes have parallels in the synoptic gospels. For example, in Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus declares that his disciples are “the light of the world.” It is hardly surprising then that Jesus would have called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5). Jesus’ statement, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14) also has parallels in the synoptic gospels. For example, in Matthew 25:32-33, Jesus states, “Before him [the son of man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” Given that Jesus’ claim in John 10 to be “the good shepherd” is likely intended to echo Ezekiel 34, which contrasts the corrupt shepherds with the good shepherd (that is, God himself), this text in Matthew is of particular significance — observe the parallel with Ezekiel 34:17,20: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats… Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” These statements in John, therefore, are not entirely out of step with Jesus’ self-claims in the synoptic gospels.

Singer also argues that there are no resurrection appearances in Mark’s gospel. However, resurrection appearances are certainly anticipated in Mark 16:7 in the instruction of the angel: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Though verse 8 states that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” this most likely simply means that they said nothing to anyone on their way to the disciples. In other words, they did not run screaming into Jerusalem and tell all to the first male that they met; rather, they ran straight to the disciples without telling anyone else. This is a plausible interpretation given Mark’s use of this sort of construction elsewhere in his gospel. Compare with the following texts:

  • Mark 1:44: See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest…
  • Mark 5:37: And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John…
  • Mark 9:8: And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
  • Mark 10:18: And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Given the context whereby the women had been commissioned by the angel to report to the disciples what they had seen, this is a plausible and charitable reading of their actions in verse 8. 

As for the increasing details pertaining to the resurrection accounts in the earlier to later gospels, this argument, while seemingly persuasive on first blush, is much less impressive upon close inspection. For one thing, we have no idea how elaborate Mark’s resurrection account would be. He alludes to the resurrection and shows his awareness of it, but deliberately chooses not to narrate it (assuming of course he does in fact stop at verse 8 and that there was no original longer ending of Mark that has been lost — a position I take to be the most likely, though not one shared by all scholars). Thus, we are already down to three accounts, and it is not particularly improbable at all for three accounts to be randomly ordered in the right way. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke were probably composed around the same time, and the majority of scholars are persuaded that one did not use the other as a source for his own gospel (though both were dependent on Mark). This does not provide much by way of fodder for an argument for legendary development. The only interesting data point, then, is that John, which contains the more elaborate account, is later than Matthew and Luke. But that does not provide much by way of evidential value, since there is a 50/50 toss-up of it happening that way by coincidence. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 — which most scholars take to be the earliest text of all concerning Jesus’ resurrection — does have appearances to Peter, the twelve, all the apostles, James, Paul, and some five hundred other people.

Singer also contends that there is a progression in anti-Jewish sentiment between the gospels, with John’s gospel being the most anti-Semitic. This, however, is pure fantasy. For example, Mark, like all of the other Gospels, describes the plot of the Jewish leaders and chief priests to put Jesus to death. He also, like all of the Synoptics, records the plot of the chief priests and the bribe given to Judas to betray Jesus. He also, like the other Gospels, tells us that those who arrested Jesus in Gethsemane were sent from the chief priests; that Jesus was tried by night before the high priest; and that the Jewish leaders delivered him to Pilate. In Mark 15:9 and 14, Pilate attempts to get the Jewish crowd to allow him to release Jesus. Furthermore, though Matthew contains the statement of the Jews, “His blood be on us and our children,” (Matthew 27:25) this is found in neither Luke nor John — which are supposed to come later. As for the gospel of Luke, there is no mention of the dramatic hand-washing scene found in Matthew 27:24. Luke 23:27 has a great crowd of Jewish people weeping and mourning as Jesus is led out to be crucified. One wonders how this could possibly be more anti-Jewish than Matthew’s account. Finally, when it comes to the gospel of John — which Singer claims to be the most anti-Jewish gospel, besides also lacking the hand-washing scene recorded by Matthew, John also fails to mention the awed Roman centurion, found in all three of the synoptic gospels. This doesn’t comport well with the idea of John’s gospel being the most pro-Roman and anti-Jewish. Moreover, in Mark, the Jewish leaders mock Jesus on the cross. But this mockery is not recorded in John. Again, Singer’s development argument breaks down upon closer inspection.

In conclusion, contrary to Rabbi Singer’s assertions, Mark does not affirm an adoptionist Christology (and in fact affirms Christ’s deity). Though there are undoubtedly more statements of Jesus’ deity in John, it is simply untrue that these claims are absent from the synoptic gospels. Singer’s development arguments regarding the resurrection and anti-Semitism also collapse upon further inspection.


[1] Tovia Singer, Let’s Get Biblical! Why Doesn’t Judaism Accept the Christian Messiah? Volume 1 (RMBN Publishers, 2014)

[2] John Douglas, The Criterion: Or, Miracles Examined, With a View to Expose the Pretensions of Pagans and Papists (Gale ECCO, Print Editions, 2018).

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Michael F. Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 79.

2 thoughts on “Is There a Progressive Embellishment Among the Gospels? A Reply to Rabbi Tovia Singer”

  1. A Careful Reader

    I’ve compared the synoptics and John in regards to number/description of extraordinary events and how the story evolves over time. Matthew and Luke copied Mark but they clearly embellish Mark’s story and/or alter it.

    1. Mark 1: 21-27 drives out impure spirit.
    2. Mark 1: 28 – news spread over whole region of Galilee
    3. Mark 1: 29-34 Jesus heals many
    4. Mark 1: 40-42 Jesus heals man with leprosy
    5. Mark 2: 1-12 Heals paralyzed man
    6. Mark 3 Heals shriveled hand
    7. Mark 4: 35-41 Jesus stills the storm
    8. Mark 5 heals a demon possessed man
    9/10. Mark 5: 21 raises dead girl and heals sick woman
    11. Mark 6: 30 feeds five thousand
    12. Mark 6: 45 walks on water
    13. Mark 7: 31 heals deaf and mute man
    14. Mark 8 Jesus feeds four thousand
    15. Mark 8: 22 heals blind man
    16. Mark 9 Transfiguration
    17. Mark 9: 14 heals demon possessed boy
    18. Mark 10: 52 heals blind man Bartimaeus
    19. Mark 16 Resurrection, no appearance narrative.

    1. Matthew 1 virgin birth
    2. Matthew 4: 23-25 heals the sick, news spread all over Syria, not just Galilee as Mark says. 
    3. Matthew 5 sermon on the mount
    4. Matthew 8 heals a man with leprosy
    5. Matthew 8: 13 heals centurion’s servant
    6. Matthew 8: 14-16 heals many
    7. Mt. 8: 23-27 calms the storm
    8. Mt. 8: 28 restores TWO demon possessed men, not one as in Mark.
    9. Mt. 9 heals paralyzed man
    10/11. Mt. 9: 18-26 heals sick woman and raised dead girl
    12. Mt. 9: 27-34 heals the blind and the mute
    13. Mt. 12: 22 heals blind and mute man
    14. Mt. 14: 14 healed sick
    15. Mt. 14: 17-21 feeds five thousand
    16. Mt. 14: 22-29 Both Jesus AND Peter walk on water
    17. Mt. 15: 29-38 feeds four thousand
    18. Mt. 17 Transfiguration
    19. Mt. 17: 14-20 heals demon possessed boy
    20. Mt. 20: 20-21 it’s the mother of Zebedee’s sons instead of the sons who ask as in Mark 10: 35-37
    21. Mt. 20: 29-34 heals TWO blind men instead of just one (Bartimaeus) from Mark 10: 46-52. 
    22. Mt. 27: 51 earthquake 
    23. Mt. 27: 52-53 raising of holy people
    24. Mt. 28: 2 violent earthquake 
    25. Mt. 28: 2 descending angel
    26. Mt. 28: 8-10 Risen Jesus appears to the women
    27. Mt. 28: 16-20 appearance to the disciples and commission. Some “doubt” v. 17.

    1. Luke 1 totally different virgin birth story from Matthew’s.
    2. Luke 4: 31-37 drives out impure spirit
    3. Lk. 4: 38-44 heals many
    4. Lk. 5: 12-15 heals man with leprosy
    5. Lk. 5: 17-26 heals paralyzed man
    6. Lk. 7: 1-10 heals centurion’s servant
    7. Lk. 7: 11-17 raises widow’s son
    8. Lk. 8: 22-25 calms the storm
    9. Lk. 8: 26-39 heals demon possessed man
    10/11. Lk. 8: 40-56 raises dead girl, heals sick woman
    12. Lk. 9: 10-17 feeds five thousand
    13. Lk. 9: 28-36 Transfiguration
    14. Lk. 9: 37-43 heals demon possessed boy
    15. Lk. 10: 1-12 Jesus sends out the 72 (or seventy as in the NRSV) which is not mentioned in Mark or Matthew.
    16. Lk. 11: 14-28 casts out demon, heals mute man
    17. Lk. 13: 10-17 heals crippled woman
    18. Lk. 17: 11-19 heals 10 men with leprosy
    19. Lk. 18: 35-43 heals blind beggar
    20. Lk. 24: 4 two angels instead of one as in Mark and Matthew.
    21. Lk. 24: 5-8 Luke alters what the angels say and remove the reference to a future appearance in Galilee – Mk. 16:6-7, Mt. 28: 5-7.
    22. Lk. 24: 12 Peter runs to check tomb. Missing from Mark and Matthew.
    23. Lk. 24: 13-30 appearances on the road to Emmaus
    24. Lk. 24: 31 sudden disappearance
    25. Lk. 24: 36 sudden appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark predicts and Matthew depicts.
    26. Lk. 24: 39 Jesus invites the disciples to inspect his “flesh and bone” body to confirm he’s “not a spirit.”
    27. Lk. 24: 40-43 Jesus eats fish so there is no doubt as in Matthew 28: 17.
    28. Lk. 24: 50-53 – Ascension
    29. Acts 1 appearances for forty whole days!

    Luke also contains the most parables (24), eighteen of which are unique to his Gospel.

    While John may not have narrated the most extraordinary events, one can still make the case the gospel is still the most “developed” overall. There are so many amazing stories unique to his gospel which are not found in the synoptics. For instance, the water to wine miracle, the raising of Lazarus, the high Christological statements and unique teaching about the Holy Spirit, Jesus teleporting through locked doors, the Doubting Thomas story, and the miraculous catch of 153 fish. So all that PLUS the two passages below is enough to show that John, being the last written, is still consistent with being the most developed overall.

    These two verses from John support the development theory:

    John 20:30
    “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.”

    John 21:25
    “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

    So in summary, if you were to plot this data of “amount of amazing claims” against the chronological order of the compositions – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John then there is an obviously strong positive correlation that points in the direction of progressive development.

  2. A Careful Reader

    In your article you state:

    “Having established Christ to be the subject of Mark 1:3 — that is, the one fulfilling Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 — we can say with confidence that Mark intends his readers to understand that Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.”

    Mark 1:2-3 actually changes “prepare the way before me” when God is speaking in the first person in Mal. 3:1 to “prepare the way before you”. So Jesus cannot be God there otherwise God (Jesus) would be talking to himself. Example:

    “I (God/Jesus) will send my messenger ahead of you (God/Jesus), who will prepare your (God/Jesus) way”

    If Mark thinks Jesus is God then the beginning of his gospel makes no sense. Rather, Jesus is God’s anointed “kurios” as made clear in the next verse.

    “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
    ‘Prepare the way for the Lord (kurios),
    make straight paths for him.’

    The Greek of Isa. 40:3 uses both κυρίου and θεοῦ for God. Mark has simply interpreted the κυρίου as referring to Jesus and *omits* the word θεοῦ (God) when he could have kept it if he wanted to actually say Jesus was God. He makes the same distinction in Mk. 12:35-37.

    As for why Jesus is called “Lord” there, see Mk. 12:35-37 which quotes Psalm 110. The word “Lord” therefore can be used to refer to human subjects and doesn’t necessarily refer to Yahweh. Moreover, Mk. 10:18 refutes the idea that Mark thought Jesus was God.

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