Archive for the ‘Accuracy of the Gospels’ Tag

Rock Solid Gospel   3 comments

I’m going to start where I told my arrogant and much loved challenger to start.

John 1. Let’s start by establishing that the Gospel according to John was written by the John who was Jesus’s best friend, who took care of Mary after Jesus’ death and who taught in Ephesus for many years before he was exiled by the Romans to a desolate island.

None of the Gospels authors are identified in the text of the Gospel, but we know certain things from history and from the clues within the manuscript. Historically, letters were written on scrolls that were wrapped in a covering and the author signed their name on that covering. There was generally no confusion within the early churches as to who wrote the gospels. Christians appear to have started immediately to call them the Gospel of John, Luke, etc. In other words, they had seen the covering, which was not preserved because it wasn’t needed. The gospels themselves were then copied for wider distribution as John’s Gospel or Luke’s Gospel.

Skeptics often criticize the Gospels as being legendary in nature rather than historical. They point to alleged contradictions between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They also maintain the Gospels were written centuries after the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses and then claim the late date of the writings allowed legends and exaggerations to proliferate.

The first challenge to account for the differences among the four Gospels. Each gospel is different in nature, content, and the facts they include or exclude. This is because each author wrote to a different audience and from his own unique perspective. Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience to prove to them that Jesus is indeed their Messiah. That’s why Matthew includes many of the teachings of Christ and makes numerous references to Old Testament prophecies. Mark wrote to a Greek or Gentile audience to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. He makes his case by focusing on the events of Christ’s life and his gospel moves very quickly from one event to another, demonstrating Christ’s lordship over all creation. Scholars believe that he may have gotten his source material from Peter, with whom he traveled. Luke wrote to give an accurate historical account of Jesus’ life and there is textual evidence that he interviewed many of the people he highlighted in the text. John wrote after reflecting on his encounter with Christ for many years. With that insight, near the end of his life John sat down and wrote the most theological of all the Gospels.

We should expect some differences between four independent accounts. If they were identical, we should suspect collaboration among the writers. Because of their differences, the four Gospels actually give us a fuller and richer picture of Jesus.

Differences do not necessarily mean errors. Skeptics have made allegations of errors for centuries, yet the vast majority of charges have been answered. New Testament scholar, Dr. Craig Blomberg, writes, “Despite two centuries of skeptical onslaught, it is fair to say that all the alleged inconsistencies among the Gospels have received at least plausible resolutions.” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1987), page 10.)

You have to start with a presupposition of error to look at the textual evidence and find error.

Critics claim that the Gospels were written centuries after the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. It is true that would allow for myths about Jesus’ life to proliferate. The historical facts make a strong case that they were written in the 1st century, by two eye witnesses and two journalists who knew eye witnesses.

Jesus’ ministry was from A.D. 27-30. Noted New Testament scholar, F.F. Bruce, gives strong evidence that the New Testament was completed by A.D. 100 ( F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983). Most writings of the New Testament works were completed twenty to forty years before this. Most of the letters predated the Gospels. Mark is believed to be the first gospel written around A.D. 60. Matthew and Luke followed between A.D. 60-70; John was written no later than AD 90 because scraps of a copy of the manuscript carbon date from AD 100.

The internal evidence supports these early dates. The first three Gospels prophesied the fall of the Jerusalem Temple which occurred in A.D. 70. However, the fulfillment is not mentioned. Why would Gospels that predict this major event not also record it happening. Why would Acts not record it? The most plausible explanation is that the fall of the Temple had not occurred by the time the New Testament writers were done writing.

In the book of Acts, the Temple plays a central role in the nation of Israel. Luke writes as if the Temple is an important part of Jewish life. He also ends Acts on a strange note: Paul living under house arrest. It is strange that Luke does not record the death of his two chief characters, Peter and Paul. The most plausible reason for this is that Luke finished writing Acts before Peter and Paul’s martyrdom in A.D. 64. A significant point to highlight is that the Gospel of Luke precedes Acts, further supporting the traditional dating of A.D. 60. Most scholars agree Mark precedes Luke, making Mark’s Gospel even earlier.

Finally, the majority of New Testament scholars believe that Paul’s epistles are written from A.D. 48-60. Paul’s outline of the life of Jesus matches that of the Gospels. 1 Corinthians is one of the least disputed books regarding its dating and Pauline authorship. In chapter 15, Paul summarizes the gospel and reinforces the premise that this is the same gospel preached by the apostles. Paul quotes from Luke’s Gospel in 1 Timothy 5:18, showing us that Luke’s Gospel was already completed in Paul’s lifetime. This would move up the time of the completion of Luke’s Gospel and make Mark and Matthew even earlier.

The internal evidence presents a strong case for the early dating of the Gospels, but external evidence also exists to support a 1st century date.

Contrary to popular misconception, New Testament scholars posses an enormous amount of ancient manuscript evidence. The documentary evidence for the New Testament far surpasses any other work of its time. There are over 5000 manuscripts, and many carbon date to within a few years of their authors’ lives.

  • Chester Beatty Papyri. It contains most of the N.T. writings, and is dated around A.D. 250.
  • The Bodmer Papyri contains most of John, and dates to A.D. 200.
  • Rylands Papyri that was found in Egypt that contains a fragment of John, and dates to A.D. 130. From this fragment we can conclude that John was completed well before A.D. 130 because, not only did the gospel have to be written, it had to be hand copied and make its way down from Greece to Egypt. Since the vast majority of scholars agree that John is the last gospel written, we can affirm its first century date along with the other three with greater assurance.

A final piece of evidence comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 7. Jose Callahan discovered a fragment of the Gospel of Mark and dated it to have been written in A.D. 50. He also discovered fragments of Acts and other epistles and dated them to have been written slightly after A.D. 50. (Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), page 530).

The writings of the church fathers, who lived in the 2nd century, also gives us a line of evidence.

  • Clement of Rome sent a letter to the Corinthian church in A.D. 95. in which he quoted from the Gospels and other portions of the New Testament.
  • Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter before his martyrdom in Rome in A.D. 115, quoting all the Gospels and some of the New Testamentletters.
  • Polycarp wrote to the Philippians in A.D. 120 and quoted from the Gospels and New Testament letters.
  • Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) quotes John 3.

Clearly church fathers of the early 2nd century were familiar with the apostles’ writings and quoted them as inspired Scripture.

Early dating is important for two reasons. The closer a historical record is to the date of the event, the more likely the record is accurate. Early dating allows for eyewitnesses to still be alive when the Gospels were circulating to attest to their accuracy. The apostles often appeal to the witness of the hostile crowd, pointing to their knowledge of the facts (Acts 2:22, 26:26). They were asking for accountability, as if positive that the time was too short for legends to develop. Historians agree it takes about two generations, or eighty years, for legendary accounts to establish themselves.

From the evidence, we can conclude the Gospels were indeed written by the authors they are attributed to.

Despite this early dating, there is a time gap of several years between the ascension of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. There is a period during which the gospel accounts were committed to memory by the disciples and transmitted orally. The question we must answer is, Was the oral tradition memorized and passed on accurately? Skeptics assert that memory and oral tradition cannot accurately preserve accounts from person to person for many years.

In oral cultures where memory has been trained for generations, oral memory can accurately preserve and pass on large amounts of information. I know a Mennonite who can quote the entire book of Isaiah and another who can do the same with Jeremiah. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 reveals to us how important oral instruction and memory of divine teaching was stressed in Jewish culture. It is a well-known fact that the rabbis had the Old Testament and much of the oral law committed to memory. The Jews placed a high value on memorizing whatever writing reflected inspired Scripture and the wisdom of God. A friend who is a professor of Greek had the Gospels memorized in their entirety. In a culture where oral memorization was practiced, memorization skills were far advanced compared to ours today.

Rainer Reisner presents six key reasons why oral tradition accurately preserved Jesus’ teachings.  (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, pages 27-28). First, Jesus used the Old Testament prophets’ practice of proclaiming the word of God which demanded accurate preservation of inspired teaching. Second, Jesus’ presentations of Himself as Messiah would reinforce among His followers the need to preserve His words accurately. Third, ninety percent of Jesus’ teachings and sayings use mnemonic methods similar to those used in Hebrew poetry. Fourth, Jesus trained His disciples to teach His lessons even while He was on earth. Fifth, Jewish boys were educated until they were twelve, so the disciples likely knew how to read and write. Finally, just as Jewish and Greek teachers gathered disciples, Jesus gathered and trained His to carry on after His death.

When you study the teachings of Jesus, you realize that His teachings and illustrations are easy to memorize. People throughout the world recognize immediately the story of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Lord’s Prayer.

We also know that the church preserved the teachings of Christ in the form of hymns which were likewise easy to memorize. Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is a good example of this.

We can have confidence then that the oral tradition accurately preserved the teachings and the events of Jesus’ life till they were written down just a few years later.

If you’ve ever spoken to a Mormon or a Muslim, you probably have come to a point in the discussion where it is clear the Bible contradicts their position. Almost always, they will claim, as many skeptics do, that the Bible has not been accurately transmitted and has been corrupted by the church. After all, it was in the hands of the Catholic Church for a long time.

Previously, we showed that the Gospels were written in the first century, within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. These eyewitnesses, both friendly and hostile, scrutinized the accounts for accuracy. There’s strong evidence the original writings were accurate. However, we do not have the original manuscripts. What we have are copies of copies of copies. How do we know the message was tampered with?

The answer is kind of obvious. I am not trying to talk down to anyone who doesn’t get this point right away, but it is pretty obviousl. We have 5000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. When you include the quotes from the church fathers, manuscripts from other early translations like the Latin Vulgate, the Ethiopic text, and others, the total comes out to over 24,000 ancient texts. With so many ancient texts, significant alterations should be easy to spot. However, those who accuse the New Testament of being corrupted have not produced much evidence for their claim. It should be easy to do with so many available manuscripts available, but the large number of manuscripts actually confirm the accurate preservation and transmission of the New Testament writings.

Although we can be confident in an accurate copy, we do have textual discrepancies. There are some passages with variant readings that we are not sure of. However, the differences are minor and do not affect any major theological doctrine. Most have to do with sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar. These in no way affect any major doctrine.

Here is one example. Mark 16:9-20 is debated as to whether it was part of the original writings. Although I personally do not believe this passage was part of the original text, its inclusion does not affect any major teaching of Christianity. It states that Christ was resurrected, appeared to the disciples, and commissioned them to preach the gospel. This is taught elsewhere.

The other discrepancies are similar in nature. Greek scholars agree we have a copy that is 99% accurate to the original. Both the authenticity and general integrity of the books of the New Testament are well established.

The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events of the life of Christ. Early dating shows eyewitnesses were alive when Gospels were circulating and could attest to their accuracy. Apostles often appeal to the witness of the hostile crowd, pointing out their knowledge of the facts as well (Acts 2:22, Acts 26:26). Therefore, if there were any exaggerations or stories being told about Christ that were not true, the eyewitnesses could have easily discredited the apostles’ accounts when they began preaching in Israel in the very cities and during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. The Jews were careful to record accurate historical accounts. Many enemies of the early church were looking for ways to discredit the apostles’ teaching. If what the apostles were saying was not true, the enemies would have cried foul, and the Gospels would not have earned much credibility.

Yes, the skeptics remain unconvinced, but I suspect that if Jesus Himself appeared before them and showed them the nail prints in His hands, they would find a way to remain skeptics.
Some people just don’t want to know the truth because it doesn’t fit their presuppositions.
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