Day: September 29, 2021

How Reliable Are the Gospels?

 

Jesus would be a historical figure. Modern historians and students agree. That tells us something, although not a great deal. Did the Gospel writers go ahead and take 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 seem to be the most reasonable explanation? Those “added features” seem unnatural; they appear unnatural. Jazz certainly aren’t the rock-hard reality you and I encounter everyday.

What exactly do we do with those grandiose claims of Jesus? He explained he’s the Son of God! Could a guy having a sound mind say that about himself? And we keep running into miracles, including raising the dead; and that he himself was reported as resurrected from the grave. Not to mention there is also the virgin birth. Does not the inclusion of supernatural elements result in the entire story questionable?

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

However, we currently realize the Late-date-for-the-Gospel theory was flawed from the beginning. The situation for this wasn’t based on evidence. It had been mere speculation, speculation to allow the required time for that legend surrounding Christ to build up. The reality involved inform us another story. What evidence we can muster has a tendency 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 saying that Mark accurately recorded Peter’s statements regarding Jesus’ actions and words. Since Mark had not personally witnessed the events, however, they weren’t designed in chronological order. However, Mark was scrupulously faithful to Peter’s teachings. Nothing added, nothing omitted.

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

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Irenaeus was the bishop of Lugdunum (what’s now Lyons) in A.D. 177. He was a student of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who had been burned at 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 dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and laying the principles from the church. After their deaths (Paul approximately A.D. 62 and 68 and Peter in regards to 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 from the Lord himself, produced his Gospel as they 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 manufactured in the early A.D. 60s. Mark’s Gospel followed Matthew, Luke wrote third, and John composed his narrative a while later.

Spot the real value of Irenaeus’ comments. None of the Gospels ever experienced a number of oral hand-me-downs. He assures us the apostle Matthew wrote his own account of the items he’d seen and heard. Likewise, the apostle John produced a manuscript of the items he himself had witnessed. The apostle Peter preached. Mark wrote down his words, and wrote them down accurately too, based on Papias. By the same token, Luke recorded what he heard from Paul.

Irenaeus was only the second generation from the apostle John. Over time and in acquaintances, he was not far from the reality. He explained the only real 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

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 very own. We do not rely on our memories around they did within the first century. We jot it down and refer to it later, or we look it to the computer. It’s easier this way.

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

Gospel Authorship and Dating

Gospel of Matthew

The Gospels themselves contain a number of clues giving us a tough concept of when they were written. Matthew is a good example. 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 were built with a distinctive Jewish style and character. According to both Papias and Irenaeus, the very first edition was designed in the “Hebrew tongue.” It is a Jewish book compiled by a Jew for any Jewish audience.

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

Matthew feels you don’t need to explain Jewish customs, that is reasonable if he is addressing Jewish readers. Also he uses such Jewish euphemisms as “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Father in Heaven.” Jews were unwilling to even mention the God. Consequently, these terms were common substitutes in their vocabulary. And what may well be more Jewish than to talk about Jesus as the “Son of David?”

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

In the 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 that have been 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 extremely 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 previously noted, both Irenaeus and Papias claim the initial Matthew manuscript was at Hebrew. Obviously, the Hebrew original must have predated this papyrus Greek translation.

Gospel of Luke

Probably the least controversial author from the Gospel writers is Luke. Most agree 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 towards the book of Acts. The language and structure of these two manuscripts indicate these were compiled by exactly the same person. Plus they were addressed towards the same individual — Theophilus. Luke’s authorship is based on early Christian writings such as the Muratorian Canon A.D 170 and the works of Irenaeus inside a.D. 180.

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

Luke informs us that a number of people had already written about Jesus’ life. However, he would prefer to set the record straight and correct the errors he found in those early reports. To separate fact from fiction, Luke conducts an individual investigation interviewing eyewitnesses and verifying oral accounts using the apostles. In the own words, he investigated everything from the start to create an orderly report for Theophilus so that he or she is clear on the items he’d been taught. (Luke 1:3-4)

Indirect evidence suggests Luke wrote Acts in early A.D. 60’s. Acts is a good reputation for early Christianity that 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 from 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.

However, Acts does inform us of the deaths of two less prominent figures: Stephen, the very first known martyr, in A.D. 36, and the apostle James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, inside a.D. 44. Based on this indirect evidence, there’s reason to believe Acts was composed inside a.D. 62 or earlier. Acts is definitely an obvious continuation from the Gospel Luke. Therefore if Acts were compiled 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 located at the Bibliotheque in Paris. After evaluating the original 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 is another item which must be mentioned. Skeptics, you’ll recall, think that all of those miraculous events were just fictitious inventions tacked on to the original writings centuries later. Luke discredits their “later embellishment” theory.

In Acts 2:22, he quotes Peter’s sermon towards the Jews at Pentecost: “Men of Israel, hear me. Jesus of Nazareth was designated by God making recognized to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did among you thru him.” Peter followed that up with: “. . . you, with the help 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 are all witnesses from the fact . . . . God makes 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 all know that for certain. 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 is, those incredible supernatural events never really happened, we would expect everyone else to state something to 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 lifetime of your own.

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 transform those Jews to Christianity.

Something else. Observe that Peter doesn’t be put off by Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, it is the focus of his speech. Remarkable is it not? 3,000 of those listening to Peter’s words accepted the apostle’s eye witnessed account. We read, “Those who accepted (Peter’s) message were baptized contributing to three thousand were put into their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)

Peter, John, and Paul all made good use of firsthand evidence within their writings. Peter said: We didn’t make up stories whenever we said about 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 should have experienced and heard to have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is by using the Father and his Son, Jesus. (1 John 1:3) John is referring to himself as he referred to the witness of Christ’s death: “We know this is correct, since it was told by someone who first viewed it happen. You can now have faith too.” (John 19:35 CEV)

Also Paul, in speaking to Festus and King Agrippa, tells them that Christ did precisely what Moses and the prophets said he would do, that’s, he suffered, died, and was raised from 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 am convinced none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” (Acts 26:25-26)

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

That’s exactly what we would expect Agrippa to state, unless, unless he knew something unusual had place. Paul made three startling claims here: First, Jesus was the long awaited Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy. Second, Jesus was resurrected in the grave. And maybe more and more extraordinary, Paul himself states have seen and heard the resurrected Jesus on the path 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 believe in this short time you are able to 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 even the early 60’s. Based on early church tradition, Mark was written in Rome where Peter spent the final days of his life. Romans crucified Peter inverted inside 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 curiosity about 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 should be dated before A.D. 68 and could easily be as soon as A.D. 50,” claims Carsten Thiede.

Even though the early church said Matthew was the first Gospel, many today think Mark wrote his account first. They base their judgment around the proven fact that Mark’s book is shorter and far of what he said can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Scholars are more likely 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 from Peter.

The assumption is the fact that one copied from the other, but independent origins really are a distinct possibility. The question remains, why would an authentic apostle of Christ need to depend 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. It is certainly within the realm of possibility these odds and ends of knowledge 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 functional point here’s 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 the resurrection counseled me there from the beginning. Those “incredible” supernatural events were a complicated area 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 relied on this well known for recruiting new members. The apostles noticed that this resurrected miracle worker was both Lord and Christ. As Peter demonstrated at Pentecost, it had been a very persuasive argument.

Gospel of John

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 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 method 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 home at Bethany. And then there may be the episode of Jesus writing within the dust together with his finger when they brought him the woman caught in adultery.

C.S. Lewis highlights the value of this “dust writing” is it has no significance. If it were an account, it would be the mark of a realistic prose fiction which never actually existed prior to the 18th century. To quote Lewis: “Surely, the only explanation of this passage would be that the thing really happened. The author put it in simply because he’d 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 little bit of internal evidence is John 5:2, where John uses the current tense “is” rather than “was” for a pool close to the Sheep Gate. That suggests a time before A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed.

In 1935 a little fragment of the Gospel of John was discovered and dated at A.D. 125. It is called the John Ryland Manuscript. One side quotes John 18:31-33, and yet another sides shows verses 37-38. The significance of this find is hard to overstate, because it helps to read 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

It comes with an academic discipline called “Textual Criticism.” When the original document sheds, 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 towards the original, the greater. The brand new Testament scores well on both points.

New Testament books provide a insightful material for that text critic scholars to judge: 5,147 ancient manuscripts, over 10,000 translated scripts into Latin Vulgate, and numerous other translations, plus a large range of early scripture quotations by the church fathers. Most of the differences 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 think about.

Does that sound like a large amount of disagreement? Actually, it represents a really small portion 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 from 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 New Testament account we have today is essentially the same message the authors recorded over nineteen centuries ago.

 

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