Ian Boyne | Are the Gospels reliable?
It's that time of the year when the big American media focus on Christianity, alleged contradictions in the Gospels, and the controversy surrounding whether the Bible is really true. Often, the discussion is unbalanced, sensational, and less than fully informed.
There are certain regularly regurgitated views that have not, by any means, been proven beyond reasonable doubt, yet they are taken as dogma in liberal biblical scholarship. Take the view, heard frequently expounded by Mutabaruka on The Cutting Edge, that the Gospels were originally anonymous. You will hear Muta asserting with absolute dogmatism many nights: "Dem seh Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John wrote the Gospels, and Christians in Jamaica don't even know seh that when dem book dey did write, no name never deh pon dem."
Well, that same view is written in perfect English and intoned with impeccable diction every day in scholarly circles. But is it beyond reasonable doubt? And how would one prove that the Gospels originally had no authors' names on them? Well, manuscript evidence would help. If we found manuscripts dated early that were anonymous, that would constitute proof. Yet do you know, despite the fact that Muta's view is, indeed, held by many scholars, that there is absolutely no manuscript evidence that the Gospels were originally anonymous? The earliest Gospel manuscripts discovered had the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
To assert that they were added later without supplying proof is intellectually irresponsible. Often, it is a theory that determines a particular viewpoint, not empirical evidence. If the dominant view is that the Gospels are folklore rather than biographical literature, one simply infers that the Gospels were likely anonymous in line with that genre of literature. So in that case, it is the theory that determines the view, not the facts determining the theory.
All the extant copies of the New Testament Gospels date from the second century. The earliest (Papyrus 4) has the title, 'The Gospel According to Matthew'. The oldest Greek copy of the Gospel of Mark, Codex Siniaticus, begins with the title 'The Gospel cording to Mark'. It is felt by liberal scholars that the reason why the anonymous Gospels were later changed to ones with names we know today is because of the need to establish authenticity.
You see, when early Christians began to face competition with different views of Jesus being circulated in the other Gospels about him (Marcionite, Ebionite, and Gnostic), it was necessary to attach the names of apostles or their disciples/companions to our four Gospels to establish their superiority. Remember, liberal scholars see the Bible as theological and political documents, not historical accounts. Their concern is not so much historical accuracy, but faith.
So in the face of the Gospels that eventually lost out, early Christians attached apostolic names to the Gospels. Well, let's test that theory for plausibility. First, why wouldn't the earliest Christians have thought of that from the beginning? Why didn't they attach the names originally to gain authenticity? Were they so dumb that they never thought impostors could arise later to claim authenticity for their rival Gospels? Why circulate anonymously for a hundred years?
But there's more. If the early Christians wanted to attach the names of disciples of Jesus just to confer legitimacy and trump others, why only attach two names - Matthew and John? For, remember, Mark was really written by John Mark, who was an associate of Peter's, and Luke was written by an associate of Paul's. Why wouldn't the early Christians, if they were forgers, as the well-known liberal atheistic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman charges, not attribute all four Gospels to disciples? Why not then have a Gospel according to Andrew or Phillip or Thomas, the Doubting One? (The later forgers did, in fact, name their Gospels after disciples.)
If the earliest Christian communities were into deception, why have companions of Peter and Paul (the latter who was not even one of the Twelve) write the earliest histories of Christianity? The anonymous Gospels thesis is implausible. Plus, if the four Gospels were anonymous and later attributed to authors, why is there no evidence of any early controversy or debate over this? There are books in the Bible over which there has been considerable debate about authorship. A number of books attributed to Paul are hotly contested even today.
And there is one book that even conservative scholars admit we don't know who wrote it - the Book of Hebrews. Many thought it was written by Paul, but others have said that it was written by his companion, Timothy, and still others by Barnabas. Church Father Origen in the Second Century famously said, "Only God knows" who wrote Hebrews. There was no such controversy over the authorship of the four Gospels among church fathers.
The Gospels were well attested by all of them. People like Papias (AD 130), who was a disciple of John; Justin Martyr (AD 140-165); Irenaeus (around AD 180); and Clement (around AD 200) all testified to the authenticity of the four Gospels. What about the Da Vinci Code theory that it was pure politics that determined the Christian canon? In other words, that what we have with the Gospels are simply those books that won out in the political struggle?
Why do we have the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and not The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Peter, which were another four Gospels in circulation? There is one historical fact that must be noted: These Gospels that did not make it into the Christian canon were later than the four that did. You would sometimes get the impression in the discussion that they were written around the time of the Bible's Four and just didn't make the cut because of politics and expediency. No.
None of them was written in the first century, and the scholarly consensus is that our biblical four were. They were written well within the lifetime of Jesus, the Apostles, and those who followed them. The Gospels were written between, AD 60s and AD 90s, according to most scholars.
University of Notre Dame Professor Brant Pitre, in his brilliantly argued book, The Case for Jesus: Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (2016) says:
"The destruction of the Temple is never mentioned as a past event in any of the Gospels. If the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, then why don't the writers emphasise that Jesus's prophecy had been fulfilled? That would be a natural thing to do."
That is exactly what Luke did, as recorded in Acts 11: 27-28 when he wrote that the prophet Agabus foretold the worldwide famine " ... and this took place in the days of Claudius".
So Pitre asks a logical question: "Isn't it strange that Luke would go out of his way to emphasise that the prophecy of a little-known Christian prophet named Agabus had been fulfilled in the days of the emperor Claudius (the 40s AD) but fail to mention that Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of the temple had been fulfilled in AD 70?"
The indications are that Mark and Matthew were written before AD 70 and the recorded prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem was given as a warning for Christians to flee (See Matthew 24:15, 20).