How Reliable Are the Gospels?


Jesus would be a historical figure. Modern historians and scholars agree. That informs us something, but not a great deal. Did the Gospel writers go ahead and take real man, Jesus of Nazareth, and embellish him with your things like a virgin birth, miracles, sinless life, voluntary martyr’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven?

Many will let you know today that’s precisely what happened. Doesn’t that seem to be the most reasonable explanation? Those “added features” seem unnatural; they appear unnatural. They actually aren’t the rock-hard reality we encounter everyday.

So what do we use those grandiose claims of Jesus? He said he is the Son of God! Could a man with a sound mind say that about himself? So we keep encountering miracles, including raising the dead; and that he himself was reported as resurrected from the grave. And of course addititionally there is the virgin birth. Doesn’t the inclusion of supernatural elements make the entire story questionable?

You are aware how it’s when stories are passed around. A little enhancement here, just a little tinkering with the details there, and in a short time there is a story all out of proportion to that of the original. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were placed on paper, tall tales were well-established areas of the storyline.

However, Broadway currently realize the Late-date-for-the-Gospel theory was flawed right from the start. The situation for this wasn’t based on evidence. It had been mere speculation, speculation to allow sufficient time for the legend surrounding Christ to develop. The facts involved tell us a different story. What evidence we are able to muster tends to confirm early dates for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Papias and Irenaeus Discredit Late Gospel Theory

Inside a.D. 130, Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, quoted The Elder (the apostle John) as stating that Mark accurately recorded Peter’s statements regarding Jesus’ actions and words. Since Mark hadn’t personally witnessed the events, however, they were not designed in chronological order. On the other hand, Mark was scrupulously faithful to Peter’s teachings. Nothing added, nothing omitted.

As you can tell, Papias strongly endorses it of Mark. The sequence might be wrong, but, he assures us, these are the very words of Peter.

Irenaeus was the bishop of Lugdunum (what is now Lyons) in A.D. 177. He would be a student of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who had been burned in the stake in A.D. 156. Polycarp consequently was a disciple from the apostle John.

Irenaeus lets us know that, “Matthew published his Gospel one of the Hebrews in their own individual dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and laying the principles of the church. After their deaths (Paul approximately A.D. 62 and 68 and Peter about A.D. 64), Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, passed down to us in writing what have been preached by Peter. Luke, follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord himself, produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.”

Papias agreed saying, “Matthew recorded the ‘oracles’ within the Hebrew tongue.” All the early church leaders say the same task, namely, Matthew was the first written Gospel. When was it written? Irenaeus indicates it was probably produced in the first A.D. 60s. Mark’s Gospel followed Matthew, Luke wrote third, and John composed his narrative some time later.

Notice the real significance of Irenaeus’ comments. None of the Gospels ever went through a series of oral hand-me-downs. He assures us the apostle Matthew wrote their own account of what he’d been sent. Likewise, the apostle John produced a manuscript of what he himself had witnessed. The apostle Peter preached. Mark wrote down his words, and wrote them down accurately too, according to Papias. At the same time, Luke recorded what he heard from Paul.

Wedding band was just the 2nd generation in the apostle John. Over time as well as in acquaintances, he was not far from the facts. He said the only oral tradition in Mark is exactly what Peter told Mark; the only oral tradition in Luke is exactly what Paul told Luke. In Matthew and John, the oral tradition wasn’t a factor whatsoever.

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Oral Tradition

What about the oral tradition anyway? The first century was a dental society. Yes, they did have writing, but it was primarily a spoken word tradition rather than a paper based society like our very own. We do not rely on our memories around they did within the first century. We write it down and refer to it later, or we look it up on the pc. It’s easier this way.

But before the age of the printing press, books or scrolls were too costly for the average man to own. Whatever one needed or desired to know, he had to carry around in his head. That required a great memory.

Gospel Authorship and Dating

Gospel of Matthew

The Gospels themselves have a number of clues giving us a tough concept of when they were written. Matthew is a great one. The first church fathers were unanimous in attributing the work to Matthew, the tax collector who left his job to follow along with Jesus. His occupation required him to help keep records, therefore it doesn’t surprise us he had the ability to write.

We find his Gospel had a distinctive Jewish style and character. According to both Papias and Irenaeus, the first edition was written in the “Hebrew tongue.” It’s a Jewish book compiled by a Jew for any Jewish audience.

The writer starts by tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, the patriarch. Throughout his narrative, Matthew is continually mentioning how Jesus is fulfilling a Messianic prophecy. His goal would be to convince Jews, Jesus is the Messiah and also the Son of God according to documents they consider beyond reproach.

Matthew feels no need to explain Jewish customs, that is reasonable if he is addressing Jewish readers. Also he makes use of such Jewish euphemisms as “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Father in Heaven.” Jews were reluctant to even mention the name of God. Consequently, these terms were common substitutes in their vocabulary. And just what could be more Jewish rather than speak of Jesus as the “Son of David?”

The exclusive Jewish character of Matthew suggests the book was composed shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, a time when the Christian movement was almost entirely Jewish.

In his 1996 book Eyewitnesses to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin from the Gospels, Carsten Peter Thiede, A German papyrologist, analyzes three small scraps of Matthew chapter 26 from Magdalen College at Oxford University.

He found several ancient documents which were comparable in both style and technique: the Qumran leather scroll of Leviticus, dated towards the middle of the first century; an Aristophanes papyrus copy of Equites (The Knights), dated late first century B.C. to early first century A.D.; and incredibly enough, an Egyptian document actually signed and dated by three civil servants July 24, 66.

Based on these close comparisons, Thiede concludes that the three tiny fragments of Matthew chapter 26, known collectively because the Magdalen papyrus, date no after A.D. 70. Once we have already noted, both Irenaeus and Papias claim the initial Matthew manuscript was at Hebrew. Obviously, the Hebrew original should have predated this papyrus Greek translation.

Gospel of Luke

Probably the least controversial author from the Gospel writers is Luke. Most agree that the physician and often traveling companion of Paul, wrote the Gospel that bears his name, that is, the Gospel of Luke.

That book is really a companion volume towards the book of Acts. The language and structure of these two manuscripts indicate they were compiled by the same person. Plus they were addressed to the same individual — Theophilus. Luke’s authorship is supported by early Christian writings such as the Muratorian Canon A.D 170 and also the works of Irenaeus in A.D. 180.

Luke seems to be a well-educated gentile. His writings show he is fluent in Greek. At times his style even approaches those of classic Greek. Both of his books are rich in historical and geographical detail. As others have observed, this physician writes like an historian.

Luke tells us that a number of people had already discussed Jesus’ life. However, he’d prefer to set the record straight and proper the errors he found in those early reports. To split up fiction from fact, Luke conducts an individual investigation interviewing eyewitnesses and verifying oral accounts using the apostles. In his own words, he investigated everything from the start to create an orderly report for Theophilus to ensure that he could be certain of the things he had learned. (Luke 1:3-4)

Indirect evidence suggests Luke wrote Acts in the early A.D. 60’s. Acts is a history of early Christianity that was centered in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, there isn’t any mention of Jerusalem’s destruction which took place A.D. 70.

Likewise, nothing is mentioned of Nero’s persecution of Christians in A.D. 64, nor does it tell of the martyrdom of the three major characters in the book: James, brother of Jesus, A.D. 62; Peter A.D. 64; and Paul some time from a.D. 62 and 68.

On the other hand, Acts does inform us of the deaths of two less prominent figures: Stephen, the very first known martyr, inside a.D. 36, and also the apostle James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, inside a.D. 44. According to this indirect evidence, there is reason to believe Acts was composed inside a.D. 62 or earlier. Acts is definitely an obvious continuation of the Gospel Luke. Therefore if Acts were written by Luke no after A.D. 62, the Gospel of Luke was most likely recorded before that point, presumably within the late 50’s.

Carsten Thiede talks about a codex papyrus of Luke’s Gospel found at the Bibliotheque in Paris. After evaluating the initial document, the papyrologist decided it had been in the first century A.D., only slightly older than the Magdalen Papyrus.

Later Embellishment Theory

Before we leave Luke, there’s another item which needs to be mentioned. Skeptics, you will recall, believe that all of those miraculous events were just fictitious inventions tacked to the original writings centuries later. Luke discredits their “later embellishment” theory.

In Acts 2:22, he quotes Peter’s sermon to the Jews at Pentecost: “Men of Israel, hear me. Jesus of Nazareth was singled out by God and made recognized to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did among you through him.” Peter followed that up with: “. . . you, with the aid of wicked men put him to death by nailing him towards the cross. But God raised him in the dead . . . . God has raised this Jesus alive, and we’re all witnesses from the fact . . . . God has made this Jesus, that you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:23-24, 32, and 36)

Peter said in effect: You yourselves saw Jesus perform miracles. That wasn’t just a man you crucified. That was your Lord and Christ. In addition, that Man didn’t stay dead. God brought him back again. We all know that for a fact. We view him with this own eyes; heard him with this own ears; why, we even ran our fingers over his crucifixion wounds. He’s alive. And he’s back!

The interesting point here is how the crowd reacts. If modern skeptics were right, that’s, those incredible supernatural events never really happened, we would expect everyone else to say something towards the effect: Who are you kidding? That man never performed any miracles! And he’s dead. We had him die. Forget him, Peter. Go get a life of your personal.

But they didn’t say that. Instead: “They were cut towards the heart and said: ‘Brothers, what don’t let do?'” (Acts 2:37) They’d seen Jesus’ “miracles, wonders, and signs” and Peter used that knowledge to convert those Jews to Christianity.

Something else. Observe that Peter doesn’t be put off by Jesus’ resurrection. Actually, it is the focal point of his speech. Remarkable isn’t it? 3,000 of these listening to Peter’s words accepted the apostle’s eye witnessed account. We read, “Those who accepted (Peter’s) message were baptized and about 3,000 were put into their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)

Peter, John, and Paul all made use of firsthand evidence in their writings. Peter said: We didn’t make up stories when we told you concerning the power and introduction of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

John reads: We let you know what we have experienced and heard so you may have fellowship around. And our fellowship is with the Father and the Son, Jesus. (1 John 1:3) John is talking about himself when he known the witness of Christ’s death: “We know this is true, since it was relayed through somebody that saw it happen. Now you can have faith too.” (John 19:35 CEV)

Also Paul, in talking with Festus and King Agrippa, tells them that Christ did exactly what Moses and the prophets said he would do, that is, he suffered, died, and it was raised in the dead. Festus immediately questioned Paul’s sanity. But Paul responds: “What I’m saying is reasonable and true. The king knows this stuff and I can speak freely to him. I’m convinced none of the has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a large part.” (Acts 26:25-26)

Again, notice the reaction. The interesting thing here is what King Agrippa did not say. He didn’t say: That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of Paul. It’s been my experience that dead people have a tendency to stay dead!

That is what we should would expect Agrippa to state, unless, unless he knew something out of the ordinary had taken place. Paul made three startling claims here: First, Jesus was the long awaited Messiah and also the fulfillment of prophecy. Second, Jesus was resurrected from the grave. And maybe more and more extraordinary, Paul himself states have seen and heard the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Amazingly enough, King Agrippa doesn’t laugh at, ridicule, or get angry at Paul’s “outrageous” claims. Apparently, Agrippa didn’t find the remarks outrageous. He merely replies, “Do you think that in this short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28)

Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark was most likely composed inside a.D. 50’s or the early 60’s. Based on early church tradition, Mark was designed in Rome where Peter spent the last days of his life. Romans crucified Peter upside down in A.D. 64.

Mark seems to have been written for any gentile audience, possibly a Roman audience. Unlike Matthew, he explains Jewish customs and translates Aramaic words for his readers. Also Mark shows a special interest in persecution and martyrdom – subjects of crucial importance to Roman believers of his day.

Mark’s work was readily accepted, and it spread rapidly throughout Christianity. Some believe the reason it had been distributed so quickly is because it originated in Rome.

A papyrus scroll fragment of Mark 6:52-53 called 7Q5 was excavated from Qumran Cave 7. “It must be dated before A.D. 68 and may be easily as early as A.D. 50,” claims Carsten Thiede.

Although the early church said Matthew was the first Gospel, many today think Mark wrote his account first. They base their judgment on the proven fact that Mark’s book is shorter and much of what he said are available in the Gospel of Matthew.

Scholars are inclined to express it was much more likely that Matthew would expand on Mark’s text rather that Mark would condense and leave out parts of what Matthew wrote. Besides, all of what Mark wrote supposably came directly from Peter.

The idea is the fact that one copied from the other, but independent origins are a distinct possibility. The question remains, why would an authentic apostle of Christ have to rely on anyone else to inform him what Jesus said and did?

Both writers probably used the same oral tradition for memorized accounts of Christ’s sayings and actions. That is certainly within the realm of possibility these bits and pieces of knowledge had already found their distance to writing before Matthew and Mark composed their Gospels. The Gospel writers arranged and shaped those commonly known stories and sayings of Jesus in to the more comprehensive narratives which bear their names.

Whichever Gospel was initially, there is general consensus that both Matthew and Mark appeared before Luke unveiled his Gospel. That puts the probable dates of both early compositions somewhere within the A.D. 50’s. The functional point here is that the period from Jesus’ death towards the first three Gospels is too short for that introduction of myths and legends.

The virgin birth, miracles, and also the resurrection were all there right from the start. Those “incredible” supernatural events were a complicated part of the original story.

Many saw and remembered Jesus’ miracles, and also over five hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus on one occasion. Early Christianity trusted this well known for recruiting sign ups. The apostles noticed that this resurrected miracle worker was both Lord and Christ. As Peter demonstrated at Pentecost, it was a very persuasive argument.

Gospel of John

The apostle John “the disciple whom Jesus loved” may be the author. He refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” six times without naming the name. He was prominent in early church, but his name is never mentioned within this Gospel. That’s one of the little oddities of his book. “The disciple whom Jesus loved” will be a “natural” if somewhat coy way of talking about himself if John were the author. Otherwise, it is impossible to describe.

The Gospel of John has a number of personal eyewitness touches such as recalling the fragrance of Mary’s pure nard perfume which she poured on Jesus’ feet in the house at Bethany. And then there is the episode of Jesus writing in the dust together with his finger once they brought him the lady caught in adultery.

C.S. Lewis points out the value of this “dust writing” is it’s no significance. If it were an account, it would be the mark of the realistic prose fiction which never actually existed prior to the 18th century. To quote Lewis: “Surely, the only real explanation of this passage would be that the thing really happened. The writer place it in simply because he had seen it.”

Two early Christian writers, Irenaeus and Tertullian, both claim that John the apostle composed this Gospel and the internal evidence concurs. Traditionally, it has been dated around A.D. 85. Recently, some scholars have suggested an early on date, even right down to the 50’s and no after the 70’s. One bit of internal evidence is John 5:2, where John uses the present tense “is” instead of “was” for a pool close to the Sheep Gate. That implies a period before A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed.

In 1935 a small fragment of the Gospel of John was discovered and dated in a.D. 125. Method . the John Ryland Manuscript. One side quotes John 18:31-33, and the other sides shows verses 37-38. The significance of this find is hard to overstate, since it helps you to read the traditional date of this Gospel within the first century. Before this discovery, there was a movement among scholars to place the initial composition date around A.D. 170.

Textual Criticism

It comes with an academic discipline called “Textual Criticism.” Once the original document is lost, textual critics compare all available copies to try and patch together what the original document probably said. Generally the more manuscripts available and also the closer they date towards the original, the greater. The brand new Testament scores well on points.

New Testament books give a insightful material for the text critic scholars to judge: 5,147 ancient manuscripts, over 10,000 translated scripts into Latin Vulgate, and numerous other translations, along with a large assortment of early scripture quotations through the church fathers. The majority of the variations in the copies are minor variations for example word order, spelling, grammar, or stylistic details. However, some variations make a difference. The United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament lists 2,040 sets of word variations they believe Bible translators should consider.

Does that appear to be a lot of disagreement? Actually, it represents a very small area of the New Testament scriptures. But the important point is that this: The unanimous opinion among text scholars remains intact; no disputed words affect any doctrine of the Christian faith.

Realistically that is the best Christians could hope for. Exactly the same textual criticism which analyzes all ancient text confirms the substance from the New Testament text. The traditional text experts tell us the brand new Testament account we’ve today is basically the same message the authors recorded over nineteen centuries ago.


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