Should We Trust the Gospels? (And Other Semi-Heretical Questions)

by Joe Fontenot in Apologetics

In my last article I looked at the reliability of the resurrection from a purely historical point of view. Instead of saying: it must be true because God said it (which, by the way, I believe), we looked at what history reports.

But that leads to this natural follow-up question: how do we know the four Gospels that we currently have give an accurate picture of Jesus? Have they been corrupted over the years (as many claim)? Or was there a conspiracy to hide the true versions, leaving our four Gospels as the “official” (but false) version?

This is the topic of Mark Roberts’ book, Can We Trust the Gospels?

At the core of this issue is the question: Why did the early church come to accept these four Gospels as, well, gospel? I’ll answer that below. But before I do, there are a few other questions we have to look at. You can think of them in two groupings: external (e.g. has the record been preserved?) and internal (e.g. are there contradictions among the Gospels?).

While these two issues (what I’m calling external and internal) were not a problem for the early Church, they are often the topic of the media today. So to get to the early Church, we first have to go through this tunnel.

EXTERNAL

Getting to the source

Do we still have the original Gospels?

Before we can analyze our data, we have to know that it hasn’t been corrupted. In other words, even if the original Gospels were God-inspired, how do we know the Gospels we read today are those?

The Telephone Game

It is often argued that the Gospels were passed down much like the telephone game–a bunch of kids line up and whisper a message in each other’s ear, passing it on down the line, until the last kid shouts out the message (which is always some bizarre version of the original). And so the argument goes, the Gospels have been corrupted in a similar way.

But there are a couple problems with this analogy.

First, the telephone game doesn’t make sense if the original statement is shouted out for all to hear. It has to be whispered for the corruption to happen. Much of the original church was still an oral culture. Reading (and certainly writing) was rare. So the picture of these documents being passed around in secret is just not accurate.

As Roberts notes, “they were teaching about Jesus in the public square and in the church. Their stories about Jesus and their accounts of His saying were part of the public record.”

But that’s not the only problem with the telephone game analogy. For the parts that were written down, they weren’t linear. It was not a single document passed around that was reproduced when it got old. There were thousands of copies passed around simultaneously.

When, for instance, Paul sent 2 Corinthians to the Church “in Corinth, and to believers all over Achaia province,” they undoubtedly made copies (if they had the means), and then the original and its messengers moved on to the next Church group. We know this because of the thousands of manuscript copies we still have.

“The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence,” says Roberts, “is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.”

But, interestingly, it’s because we have so many copies still in existence that we know about the discrepancies.

Discrepancies?

Right. Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar (and skeptic) has famously stated that there are more errors (called “variants”) in the New Testament than there are words. There are about 140,000 words in the Greek New Testament, and there are between 200-400,000 variants.

How does this happen?

Well, think about it like this. This article is about 2400 words. If I made 5700 copies (which is how many manuscript copies of the Gospels we’ve found), and if each copy of my article had just one unique typo, that’s 5700 variants–or over twice as many errors as words.

You see, what sounds like a bad thing (more errors than words) is actually a blessing, because with that many copies, textual critics (scholars who compare ancient documents to determine the original wording) are able to work back to the original.

“Text critic Daniel Wallace concludes that ‘only about 1% of the textual variants’ make any substantive difference. And few, if any, of these have any bearing on theologically important matters,” says Roberts.

And here’s the key: “If you actually took out of the Gospels every word that was text-critically uncertain, the impact on your understanding of Jesus would be negligible.”

In other words, what scholars (Christians and non-Christian alike) have found is that we have an excellent record of what the original four Gospels said.

So, do we have the original Gospels? No and yes. No, we don’t have the original documents themselves. But yes, we know what they said.

INTERNAL

Among the Gospels themselves

What about contradictions between the Gospels?

It is common at Easter and Christmas to see media specials hinting at or outright discussing the apparent contradictions among the Gospels.

On such example is Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. Following the inauguration of His ministry–His baptism by John the baptist–He immediately spends 40 days in the wilderness. At the conclusion, the Devil finds Him and offered three temptations: turn stones into bread, throw Himself off the temple, and then worship him.

Or was it to turn stones to bread, worship the Devil, and then throw Himself from the temple?

The chronology is mixed up when we compare Matthew (the first case) with Luke (the second).

This might seem trivial, but, as the old saying goes, if we cannot trust the little details, how can we trust the big one? The question is: which is the accurate record? Either his second temptation was to worship the Devil or to throw Himself from the temple, but not both.

This answer, as it turns out, comes down to what kind of literature the Gospels are. Once upon a time we used to think they were historically unique. No other literature was like them. But what we’ve found is that they are actually a form of what’s called a Hellenistic biography.

One facet of Hellenistic biographies is the emphasis on theme. As the Gospel of John concludes: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

The Gospels each have a theme they are presenting. “If Matthew and Luke were seeking to present what really happened but in more of a thematic way rather than in chronological order, then it would be unfair to say they contradict each other.” It’s a matter of considering the source.

When direct quotes aren’t direct

If you were to share this article with a friend and put in quotes something I said, only, when you quoted me, you changed the wording, we’d all agree that was false. Quotes mean: these are the exact words Joe said.

But in the Gospels we see a different picture. For instance, when Matthew (13:22) quotes Jesus as saying:

“the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word,”

But then Mark (4:19) quotes Him as saying:

 “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word.”

Both are quotes, but either Matthew leaves out something Jesus said, or Mark adds it. The answer, though, comes not in looking at how we do things today, but how they did things then.

“In the ancient world, before there were transcripts, take recordings, and podcasts, biographers and historians exercised greater freedom in paraphrasing or slightly altering spoken words for stylist reasons. A good historian,” Roberts continues, “if he knew that a character had made a speech at a certain time, would get available information about that speech and then write the speech with his own words as if these words had been utter by the character.”

Does this “re-writing” change the validity of the record?

Not at all. Today, as I mentioned, our standard is to reproduce direct quotes identical to the original. If I wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln, for instance, I would have to preserve his words exactly.

But I wouldn’t for a moment consider what kind of book cover he would prefer. That’s a matter of style (and attracting readers).

Hellenistic biographers (and the Gospel writers) were essentially doing the same thing. They were not changing the message of the person they were quoting (in this case, Jesus), but they were putting it in the style that was consistent with the account they were writing. In short, it is a style over content issue.

How many women at the tomb?

A final (and important) example is how John and Matthew report the women who first discovered the empty tomb. John (20:1-2) only reports that Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb, but then Matthew says that it was Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” (28:1).

So, do we have a discrepancy?

If we read a little further in John’s account, we see an emotional exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. While Matthew’s account references the conversation with Jesus, it doesn’t go into detail. And his emphasis is on getting the message to the disciples, not the personal exchange.

This is, to some degree, hypothesis. Are these the exact (and only reasons) John and Matthew included and excluded what they did? Probably not. But the point is that theme is what is driving the editing of the events. Each Gospel writer was writing for a slightly different purpose (hence, why God inspired four Gospels and not one).

When we peal back the cover just a little we see what is so often touted as “contradiction” is nothing of the sort. Taking the time to ask Why? is often the best path to better understanding what really Is.

Leaving in the tension

“It is also worth noting,” writes Roberts, “that the second-century Christians didn’t ‘clean-up’ the four Gospels.”

This kind of thing is important when we consider that our documents are original and not contrived.

THE CANON

What is and isn’t Scripture

Why Did the original Church trust these 4 Gospels?

Now we have seen that the Gospel records we have are accurate, and that the internal problems some point to are often more an issue of us not understanding past customs and practices than negligence on the part of the Gospel writers.

So here we get to the core of the article. Why did the early church accept these four Gospels as inspired Scripture? There are three main tests for this:

1. They were universally used
2. They were theologically consistent with the Old Testament
3. They were written by people who knew Jesus (or they based their facts on people who knew Jesus)

1. UNIVERSALLY USED

In order for a New Testament work to be considered inspired by God, it needed to be universally used. That doesn’t mean every single person like it (otherwise we wouldn’t have heretics), but it does mean, in general, all the regions did.

This is a kind of group recognition, spreading across culture and states.

James Surowiecki exposed the phenomena of how this works this in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. “When our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often excellent.”

We see this same kind of wide distribution in the early Church, as well.

2. THEOLOGICALLY CONSISTENT

The New Testament documents were not created in a void. While the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus for many reasons (like pride, greed, and power), they didn’t do it because His teachings were inconsistent with the Old Testament.

To this point, Roberts notes, “the authorized Gospels, unlike the heretical ones, all affirmed the same basic truth.” When we look at the New Testament, we see a logical and consistent extension from the Old Testament.

3. CLOSE WITNESSES

All of the New Testament authors either knew Jesus personally or based their work on someone who did know him. Matthew, John, and Peter were disciples. Paul met him on the road to Damascus. And Jude and James were other sons of Mary.

The only two who didn’t know Jesus personally were Mark and Luke. Mark it is widely understood was the same Mark who traveled with Peter (Acts 12 and possibly 2 Tim 4:11). As such, his Gospel record is built around Peter’s firsthand account. And Luke, as both his Gospel and Acts introductions state, was an investigator who pieced together the account by interviewing primary sources. Mark and Luke likely didn’t know Jesus personally but talked to those who did.

Other Issues

This is a scratch on the surface. I hope it’s helped point you in the right direction. A good starting point is Roberts’ book, Can We Trust the Gospels? I highly recommend it. F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? and Dan Wallace’s Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament are also top-shelf works (though Wallace’s gets a bit deep into the technical).

What I didn’t cover here were all the competing gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter. If you read them it becomes pretty apparent that they are on a different level from the four Gospels in the Bible. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (different from the regular Gospel of Thomas), for instance, talks about Jesus killing other children when He became annoyed with them. And it talks about Him showing up His teacher out of ego. These are other reasons to reject them (one of which being their dating–they come a bit after the original four).

Bart Ehrman has compiled them all in a single helpful volume called Lost Scriptures. And Darrell Bock (The Missing Gospels) and Philip Jenkins (Hidden Gospels) have done a great job at fleshing out why these are not contenders for the true story of Jesus.

Other issues often brought up are whether Emperor Constantine had a role in determining which books were “authorized,” or whether third and fourth century counsels (like Nicaea) are who determined which books made and which didn’t. But, again, these are often sensationalized accounts of what actually happened. Constantine did have a role, albeit a small one. He was the first Roman emperor who supported Christianity. And, as far as determining the canon, counsels didn’t do this. They merely stated for the record what the church had already, organically decided.

Comments?

There’s a lot of thorniness here. If there’s something here you’d like to hear more about, or a point I didn’t make clear, let me know in the comments below.


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