University of Oxford

How Reliable are the Gospels?

Late-date-for-the-Gospel Theory

Jesus was a historical figure. Modern historians and scholars agree. That tells us something, but not a whole lot. Davy Crockett was a real man too. But books, movies, and television shows turned the real man into a legend. How about the story of Jesus? Did the Gospel writers take the real man, Jesus of Nazareth, and embellish him with such things as a virgin birth, miracles, sinless life, voluntary martyr’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven?

Many will tell you today that is exactly what happened. Doesn’t that appear to be the most reasonable explanation? Those “added features” seem unnatural; they seem out of place. They certainly aren’t the rock-hard reality you and I encounter everyday.

At least on the surface, it sounds like these four writers created a myth, a legend, The other side says, “No.” Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not myths; they are not legends; they are factual accounts of what actually took place. As you can see, the issue here revolves around one very important question, namely: How reliable are the Gospel reports on this historical figure?

For the past three hundred years, the best and brightest scholars have mulled over that very question. As they see it, Jesus is an enigma. On one hand, they admire the depth and sanity of Jesus’ moral teachings. The Jewish carpenter taught moral truths in their simplest and purest form. No one before or since has expressed them so well or with so much authority.

His teachings do not come across as sloppy idealism. Just the opposite. His words have the unmistakable ring of wisdom and shrewdness. Such insights into life and human nature must have come from an exceptionally sound and intelligent mind.

There is wide spread agreement on that score. But then again, what do we do with those grandiose claims of Jesus? He said he is the Son of God! Could a man with a sound mind say that about himself? And we keep running into miracles, including raising the dead; and he himself was reported as resurrected from the grave. And of course there is also the virgin birth. Does not the inclusion of supernatural elements make the entire story questionable?

Those who sought a rational explanation thought over the possibilities and concluded Jesus the Moral teacher was the real thing. His words rang true, so that much of the gospel story they accepted. However, no written account of the life of Jesus existed for a hundred years or so after his death. Word was passed down orally from one generation to the next during those formative years, and exaggerations seeped in.

You know how it is when stories are passed around. A little enhancement here, a little tinkering with the details there, and before long you’ve got a story all out of proportion to that of the original. By the time Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were put on paper, tall tales were well established parts of the story.

Consequently, what we call the New Testament is nothing more than a mixture of truth and error – a bit of first century reality intermingled with generous portions of second or even third century nonsense.

However, we now realize the Late-date-for-the-Gospel theory was flawed from the beginning. The case for it was not based on evidence. It was 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 can muster tends to confirm early dates for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Papias and Irenaeus Discredit Late Gospel Theory

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

As you can see, Papias strongly endorses the book of Mark. The sequence may 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 was a student of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who was burned at the stake in A.D. 156. Polycarp in turn was a disciple of the apostle John.

Irenaeus informs us that, “Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and laying the foundations of the church. After their deaths (Paul somewhere between A.D. 62 and 68 and Peter about A.D. 64), Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed down to us in writing what had 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’ in the Hebrew tongue.” All the early church leaders say the same thing, namely, Matthew was the first written Gospel. When was it written? Irenaeus indicates it was probably produced in the early 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 his own account of what he had seen and heard. 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. By the same token, Luke recorded what he heard directly from Paul.

Irenaeus was only the second generation from the apostle John. In time and in acquaintances, he was very close to the facts. He said the only oral tradition in Mark is what Peter told Mark; the only oral tradition in Luke is what Paul told Luke. In Matthew and John, the oral tradition was not a factor at all.

Oral Tradition

But what about the oral tradition anyway? The first century was an oral society. Yes, they did have writing, but it was primarily a spoken word tradition instead of a paper based society like our own. We do not depend on our memories as much as they did in the first century. We write it down and refer to it later, or we look it up on the computer. It’s easier that way.

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

A Jewish rabbi of the period remarked, “A good disciple is like a well-built cistern: he does not let a drop of water fall from his master’s teachings.” Jesus’ disciples were no doubt equally diligent in preserving the words and deeds of their master — all the more so because they had good reason to believe he was the Messiah, the Holy One from God.

Gospel Authorship and Dating

Gospel of Matthew

The Gospels themselves contain a number of clues giving us a rough idea of when they were written. Matthew is a good example. The early church fathers were unanimous in attributing this work to Matthew, the tax collector who left his job to follow Jesus. His occupation required him to keep records, so it doesn’t surprise us that 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 is a Jewish book written by a Jew for a Jewish audience.

The author starts by tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, the patriarch. Throughout his narrative, Matthew is constantly pointing out how Jesus is fulfilling this or that Messianic prophecy. His goal is to convince Jews, Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God based on documents they consider beyond reproach.

Matthew feels no need to explain Jewish customs, which is reasonable if he is addressing Jewish readers. Also he uses 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 what could be more Jewish than to 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 of 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 to 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 as the Magdalen papyrus, date no later than A.D. 70. As we have already noted, both Irenaeus and Papias claim the original Matthew manuscript was in Hebrew. Obviously, the Hebrew original must have predated this papyrus Greek translation.

Gospel of Luke

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

That book is a companion volume to the book of Acts. The language and structure of the two manuscripts indicate they were written by the same person. And 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 the works of Irenaeus in A.D. 180.

Luke appears to be a well-educated gentile. His writings show he is fluent in Greek. At times his style even approaches that 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 written about Jesus’ life. However, he would like to set the record straight and correct the errors he found in those early reports. To separate fact from fiction, Luke conducts a personal investigation interviewing eyewitnesses and verifying oral accounts with the apostles. In his own words, he investigated everything from the beginning to write an orderly report for Theophilus so that he could be certain of the things he had been taught. (Luke 1:3-4)

Indirect evidence suggests Luke wrote Acts in the early A.D. 60’s. Acts is a history of early Christianity which was centered in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, there is no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction which occurred in 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 between A.D. 62 and 68.

On the other hand, Acts does inform us of the deaths of two less prominent figures: Stephen, the first known martyr, in A.D. 36, and the apostle James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, in A.D. 44. Based on this indirect evidence, there is reason to believe Acts was composed in A.D. 62 or earlier. Acts is an obvious continuation of the Gospel Luke. So if Acts were written by Luke no later than A.D. 62, the Gospel of Luke was most likely recorded before that time, presumably in the late 50’s.

Carsten Thiede speaks of a codex papyrus of Luke’s Gospel located at the Bibliotheque in Paris. After evaluating the original document, the papyrologist decided it was from the first century A.D., only slightly older than the Magdalen Papyrus.

Later Embellishment Theory

Before we leave Luke, there is another item which needs to be mentioned. Skeptics, you will recall, believe that all of those miraculous events were just fictitious inventions tacked on to the original writings hundreds of years 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 known to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did among you through him.” Peter followed that up with: “. . . you, with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead . . . . God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact . . . . God has made this Jesus, whom 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. What’s more, that Man did not stay dead. God brought him back to life. We know that for a fact. We have seen him with our own eyes; heard him with our 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 is, those incredible supernatural events never really happened, we would expect the crowd to say something to the effect: Who are you kidding? That man never performed any miracles! And he’s dead. We saw him die. Forget him, Peter. Go get a life of your own.

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

Something else. Notice that Peter doesn’t shy away from Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, it is the focal point of his speech. Remarkable isn’t it? Three thousand of those listening to Peter’s words accepted the apostle’s eye witnessed account. We read, “Those who accepted (Peter’s) message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)
Peter, John, and Paul all made good use of firsthand evidence in their writings. Peter said: We didn’t make up stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

John reads: We tell you what we have seen and heard so you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3) John is talking about himself when he referred to the witness of Christ’s death: “We know this is true, because it was told by someone who saw it happen. Now you can have faith too.” (John 19:35 CEV)

Also Paul, in speaking to 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 was raised from the dead. Festus immediately questioned Paul’s sanity. But Paul responds: “What I am saying is reasonable and true. The king is familiar with these things and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” (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 has been my experience that dead people tend to stay dead!

That’s exactly what we would expect Agrippa to say, 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 the fulfillment of prophecy. Second, Jesus was resurrected from the grave. And perhaps ever more extraordinary, Paul himself claims to 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 such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28)

Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark was very likely composed in A.D. 50’s or the early 60’s. According to early church tradition, Mark was written 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 a 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 was 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 could easily be 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 fact that Mark’s book is shorter and much of what he said can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Scholars are inclined to say it was 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 assumption is that one copied from the other, but independent origins are a distinct possibility. The question remains, why would an original apostle of Christ need to depend on anyone else to tell him what Jesus said and did?

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

Whichever Gospel was first, 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 in the A.D. 50’s. The significant point here is that the period from Jesus’ death to the first three Gospels is too short for the introduction of myths and legends.

The virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection were all there from the beginning. Those “incredible” supernatural events were an intricate part of the original story.

Many saw and remembered Jesus’ miracles, and over five hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus on one occasion. Early Christianity relied on this common knowledge for recruiting new members. The apostles pointed out that this resurrected miracle worker was both Lord and Christ. As Peter demonstrated at Pentecost, it was a very persuasive argument.

We have taken a brief look at each of the first three Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These books agree in language, much of the material they cover, and in a rough sort of way, the order of what Jesus said and did too. Because of this widespread general agreement, these narratives are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels.

Gospel of John

Someone with a lot more patience than I claims that 91 percent of the Gospel of Mark is found in Matthew, while 53 percent of Mark is seen in Luke. But what of the fourth Gospel – the Gospel According to John? What do we know about it?

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

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 with his finger when they brought him the woman caught in adultery.

C.S. Lewis points out that the significance of this “dust writing” is the fact it has no significance. If it were a tale, it would be the mark of a realistic prose fiction which never actually existed prior to the eighteenth century. To quote Lewis: “Surely, the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened. The author put 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. More recently, some scholars have suggested an earlier date, even down to the 50’s and no later than the 70’s. One bit of internal evidence is John 5:2, where John uses the present tense “is” rather than “was” for a pool near the Sheep Gate. That implies a time before A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed.

In 1935 a small fragment of the Gospel of John was found and dated at A.D. 125. It is called the John Ryland Manuscript. One side quotes John 18:31-33, and the other sides shows verses 37-38. The importance of this find is hard to overstate, because it helps to confirm the traditional date of this Gospel in the first century. Before this discovery, there was a movement among scholars to place the original composition date around A.D. 170.

Textual Criticism

There is an academic discipline called “Textual Criticism.” When the original document is lost, textual critics compare all available copies to try to piece together what the original document probably said. In general the more manuscripts available and the closer they date to the original, the better. The New Testament scores well on both points.

New Testament books provide a wealth of material for the text critic scholars to evaluate: 5,147 ancient manuscripts, over 10,000 translated scripts into Latin Vulgate, and numerous other translations, plus a large assortment of early scripture quotations by the church fathers. Most of the differences in the copies are minor variations such as 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 think Bible translators should consider.

Does that sound like a lot of disagreement? Actually, it represents a very small portion of the New Testament scriptures. But the important point is this: The unanimous opinion among text scholars remains intact; none of the disputed words affect any doctrine of the Christian faith.

Realistically that is the best Christians could hope for. The same textual criticism which analyzes all ancient text confirms the substance of the New Testament text. The ancient text experts tell us the New Testament account we have today is essentially the same message that the authors recorded over nineteen centuries ago.