In this post, we will test the Gospels. We will ask questions like, “Is there good evidence that the Gospels were written by their presumed authors? Can we trust their content? What can we know about their supposed date of composition?”
To determine the reliability of our texts’ presumed authorship, date, and content, we will employ a two-fold analysis. We will examine both the internal evidence (evidence found within the text) as well as the external evidence (evidence based on the testimony of others).
At the outset, it’s worth noting that for our particular questions, external evidence outweighs the internal.
Taking authorship as an example, if you were to write a message on a napkin, who would you expect to guess its author correctly, the people around you who saw you write it, or the later textual critic who has only the napkin? Would we not give precedence to the witnesses?
Here is Pope Leo XIII on the matter:
It is clear, on the other hand, that in historical questions, such as the origin and the handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, and that historical investigation should be made with the utmost care; and that in this matter internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation (Providentissimus Deus, Dz. #1946).
So, beginning with the question of authorship, what external evidence do we have that the Gospels were, in fact, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Well, we have the unanimous testimony of the early Christians.
In the first century, Papias wrote that Mark composed the Gospel of Mark from Peter’s preaching (Eusebius, Church History, Bk. III., Ch. XXXIX).
Then, in the second century, we have Justin Martyr, who calls the gospels “the memoirs of the apostles,” and Irenaeus, who matches the four gospels with the men whose names they bear (Cf. Apologia I, Ch. LXVII)(Cf. Adversus Haeresus, Bk. III., Ch. I). Tertullian also does the same (Cf. Adversus Marcionem, Ch. II).
In the third century, there is Clement of Alexandria and Origen, who match the Gospels with their presumed authors (Eusebius, Church History Bk. III, Ch. XXIV; Bk. VI, Ch. XIV).
In the fourth century, Jerome, Augustine, Eusebius, and Chrysostom all do the same (Cf. Lives of Illustrious Men, Ch. IX)(Cf. On the Harmony of the Gospels, Bk. I, Ch. II)(Cf. Church History Bk. III, Ch. XXIV)(Cf. Homilies on St. Matthew, I).
Looking at the internal evidence, Eusebius tells us that the clue is to be found in the apostles’ humility.
For example, only in Matthew’s Gospel is Matthew explicitly named a tax collector, and placed lower in the list of apostles, following Thomas. Then, in respect to the Gospel of John, Eusebius writes:
And you would find John like Matthew. For in his epistles he never mentions his own name, he calls himself the Elder, or Apostle, or Evangelist; and in the Gospel, though he declares himself as the one whom Jesus loved, he does not reveal himself by name (Proof of the Gospels, Ch. V).
Papias will also explicitly take “the disciple whom Jesus loved” to be John the Gospel writer.
Then, when we turn our attention to Mark and Luke, although there are various discussions among biblical scholars concerning vocabulary and perspective, as well as a literary device called “inclusio,” at the end of the day, the external evidence for these works, as we noted, is sufficient to attest to their presumed authors.
Moving along, what can we say about when the Gospels were written?
According to the text, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all relate Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which according to Josephus (an eyewitness to the event) occurred in 70 A.D. From this, we can assume that these three Gospels were composed before that time. For, if they hadn’t been, then the writers would not have bothered to mention Christ’s prediction, since the events would have already occurred by then.
Looking at the external evidence, we have, again, the writings of the early Christians—Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine—who all testify that John was written last, and not much later than the destruction of the temple (Cf. Adversus Haeresus, Bk. III., Ch. I)(Cf. Eusebius, Church History Bk. V, Ch. XIV; Bk. V, Ch. XXV)(Cf. Lives of Illustrious Men, Ch. IX)(Cf. On the Harmony of the Gospels, Bk. I, Ch. II).
It’s worth noting, that given the dating, these works would have been composed within what’s called “living memory.” This means that they were written while many other eyewitnesses to their events were still alive, who could serve as a living accountability to the content of the text.
Consequently, if the Gospels did contain something amiss, we would expect to find other witnesses writing against them, which we do not see.
Speaking of content, what evidence do we have that the Jesus they describe even historically existed?
First, we have Tacitus, a Roman historian, who testifies to Jesus Christ, writing:
Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate (Annals, Bk. XV).
Next, we have Josephus (a Jewish historian) who also bears witness to Jesus, writing:
At this time Jesus appeared – a wise man, at least if he can be so described. He was someone who performed wondrous deeds, a teacher of people who were eager for the truth. He brought many Jews together as well as many Greek people; he was Christ. Based on reports from some of our prominent members (the Jews), Pilate sentenced him to the cross, but those who had grown to love him did not cease in their affections, because he appeared alive before them on the third day (the divine prophets had mentioned this and many thousands of other wondrous things about him). The tribe of Christians who are named after him still exists (Antiquities, Bk. 18. Ch. 3, P. 3).
Thirdly, we have a letter currently held in the British Museum, from approximately 70 A.D., written by a non-Christian, which states:
What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished…But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the stature of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given (Mara Bar-Serapion’s Letter).
Okay, so this is all substantial evidence that the Gospels were written by their supposed authors, in the time in which they lived, and concern someone who truly walked upon the Earth.
But, how do we know that what we have today are the same Gospels that were first penned over a thousand years ago?
For a copy to be proclaimed faithful to its original requires, generally, two things: many copies and such that are close in date to their original.
The more copies, the more likely, by comparing and contrasting them, we can reliably piece together their original. The older the copies, the less likely the copies are to have strayed from their original over time.
In short, the more copies of a manuscript we currently have and the closer in date they are to their original, the more confident we can be that they are historically reliable.
To give us a basis for comparison, here are the dates and copies of some ancient secular works, which scholars take to be historically reliable:
Livy’s, Roman History: Written ⁓50 B.C., our oldest copy is from ⁓400 years later and we have ⁓20 good copies.
Julius Caesar’s, Gallic Wars: Written ⁓50 B.C., our oldest copy is from ⁓900 years later and we have ⁓10 good copies.
Thucydides, The History of Thucydides: Written ⁓400 B.C., our oldest copy is from ⁓1,300 years later and we have ⁓8 good copies.
It’s worth noting that based on the above stats, no modern historian would even listen to an argument against the historical reliability of one of these works.
The New Testament
Now, compare those works to the Gospels:
The Gospels were written ⁓33-100 A.D., our oldest manuscript from just ⁓100 years later and we have over ⁓5,000 ancient greek copies!
One of our oldest manuscripts (containing fourteen chapters of the Gospel of John) was penned just 100 years after St. John’s Gospel was written. It’s called the Papyrus Bodmer II in the Bodmer Library of Geneva.
After that, we have two complete New Testaments penned in 350 A.D. (just a couple hundred years after Christ) one called the Codex Vaticanus in Rome and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum.
These documents were written so close in time to their originals, that the renowned biblical historian, Frederick Kenyon, wrote:
The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed (The Bible and Archaeology, pg. 288).
Or, as the biblical scholar, Craig Blomberg writes:
In short, if the New Testament books do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct with a high degree of accuracy their original contents, then let us not pretend to know anything about what any ancient work originally contained (The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Ch. 13).
In effect, if someone says that the historical evidence of the Gospels is not sufficient to prove that Jesus Christ existed then neither did Julius Caesar exist; and if the historical evidence for the gospels is not sufficient to attest to the reliability of its content, then let us forget much of what we take for granted about the ancient world.
The post is, in part, indebted to Bloomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New Testament.