Did Eyewitnesses Write the Gospels?

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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Matthew [c. 45-50 C.E.], Mark [c. 60–65 C.E.], and John [c. 98 C.E.] were eyewitnesses. Luke [c. 56–58 C.E.] made a scholarly study of documents as well as firsthand testimony of eyewitnesses. Moreover, the Gospel authors were inspired by God and moved along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21) In addition, the Gospels exhibit the signs of being honest, accurate, and trustworthy historical records.

Throughout the first 17 centuries of Christianity, the reliability of the Gospels was never really questioned in any serious way. However, especially from the 19th century forward, a number of scholars have viewed the Gospels, not as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, but as being invented by men. Also, they have rejected that the Gospel writers had firsthand knowledge about Jesus Christ. Therefore, they have maintained that such men were incapable of recording a reliable history. Furthermore, they have concluded that the similarities in the structure and the content in the first three Gospels sometimes called synoptic (like view), suggest that Matthew, Mark, and Luke had copied extensively from one another. Critics have also denied Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection as they are reported in the Gospels. Some have likewise insisted that Jesus was not a historical person!

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In their selective skepticism, hyper speculations, and unfounded hypotheses, critical scholars have prevented many receptive ones from examining the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, which are, in fact, very reliable, accurate historical accounts. These Gospels unquestionably confirm that early Christians did not see the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension as mere myths. There were literally hundreds of eyewitnesses who could verify the truthfulness of these historical facts. These early Christians were willing to face severe persecution and even the possibility of death to be a follower of Jesus, completely understood that being a Christian would be pointless even foolish if Jesus’ ministry and resurrection were mere fantasy.​ – 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 17, 19; 2 Timothy 2:2.

The Four Gospels Authors Were Qualified

All of the four Gospel authors had unique qualifications in their effort to inform us in writing about the life and Jesus’ ministry, which they accurately and correctly recorded.

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Matthew the Tax Collector

Levi (Adherence; Joined) also known as Matthew, probably a shortened form of Heb. Mattithiah, which means “Gift of Jehovah” was the first to author a Gospel [c. 45-50 A.D.]. He was the son of a certain Alphaeus.

And after these things, he went out and saw a tax collector named[a] Levi sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me!” (Luke 5:27).

“This may have been not a tax office per se, but a toll booth, where customs would be collected on goods in transit. As a tax collector (telōnēs), Levi is probably an agent of a “chief tax collector” (architelōnēs), such as Zacchaeus (19:2).”[1] Matthew’s job as a tax collector would have made him an excellent choice for writing the Gospel of Matthew:

As a Jewish tax collector, he would have known both Hebrew and Greek. Full Literacy: Matthew would have been a highly skilled expert, who can understand spoken words, an advanced level grasp of written words. He has the professional ability to prepare long texts for daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills at the advanced level. He is a fully literate writer who is professionally trained in writing and can take on jobs, such as a copyist or scribe, a tax collector, teacher, lawyer, or a clerk to high-ranking positions like Senators.

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Mark the Travelling Companion

Mark traveled with the apostle Paul extensively. John Mark also connected with Peter in Babylon. Mark early on caused some difficulty but eventually gained the approval and trust of leading servants of God and experienced the yet greater opportunity of being inspired to write an account of Jesus’ life and ministry.

It was the apostle Peter who provided the essential information for the Gospel of Mark. This is in harmony with the fact that Mark was connected with Peter in Babylon. (1 Peter 5:13) According to Origen, Mark wrote his Gospel “in accordance with Peter’s instructions.” (The Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, VI, XXV, 3-7) In his work, “Against Marcion” (IV, V), Tertullian says that the Gospel of Mark “may be affirmed to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 350) Eusebius gives us the statement of “John the presbyter” as it was quoted by Papias (c. 140 C.E.): “And the Presbyter used to say this, ‘Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. . . . Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.’”—The Ecclesiastical History, III, XXXIX, 12-16.

John Mark obviously also had access to other sources of information. The early disciples of Jesus met in the home of Mark’s mother. Acts 12:12 tells us “the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.” Mark surely must have been familiarized with persons other than the apostle Peter, who had personally known Jesus Christ very well. These ones would have seen Jesus caring out his work as he preached and taught. He was likely the young man mentioned at Mark 14:51-52, “And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” Mark himself clearly had personal contact with Jesus. – Mark 14:51-52.

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Luke the Physician

The Gospel of Luke was written by a man, who was a physician, who had a sharp mind and who was also guided by the Holy Spirit, which produced an account that is both accurate and full of emotion and feeling. Luke like Matthew would have been fully literate and would have been a highly skilled expert, who can understand spoken words, an advanced level grasp of written words. He would have had the professional ability to prepare long texts and reading skills at the advanced level. The vocabulary in the Gospel of Luke is more extensive than that of the other three Gospels joined together. Luke was a fully literate writer who was professionally trained in writing.

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things accurately from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know fully the certainty of the things that you have been taught orally. – Luke 1:1-4

What do we learn from Luke 1:1-4:

Luke had traveled with Paul to Jerusalem at the end of the apostle’s third missionary journey. (Ac 21:15-17) This would have put him in a great situation to “followed all things accurately from the beginning, to write an orderly account” concerning Jesus Christ in the very land where he had carried out his preaching and teaching activity. After Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem, as well as during Paul’s later imprisonment in Caesarea, Luke would have seized on many occasions to question eyewitnesses and to look through any written records. (Acts 21:30-33; 23:26-35; 24:27) Luke got his information from the eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Luke followed all things accurately from the beginning. Luke wrote an orderly account.

John, the Apostle

The apostle John was one of the twelve and moreover he was one of the three most intimate and close apostles in Jesus’ inner circle of trust (John, Peter, James). John was one of the few eyewitnesses to most of the events in Jesus’ life. John closes out his Gospel with these words.

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. – John 21:24.

(1) The writer of the book was obviously a Jew, as is shown by his knowledge with Jewish opinions. (John 1:21; 6:14; 7:40; 12:34) (2) He was a local resident in the land of Palestine, which is shown by his accurate, meticulous familiarity with the country. The details discussed concerning places named evidence that he had personal knowledge of them. (3) The writer’s own statement and accurate, genuine evidence show that he was an eyewitness. John names people who said or did certain things (John 1:40; 6:5, 7; 12:21; 14:5, 8, 22; 18:10); he is specific about the exact time when events took place (4:6, 52; 6:16; 13:30; 18:28; 19:14; 20:1; 21:4); he with regard to what is actually the case; in relation to facts designates numbers in his descriptions, doing so in a manner that is not trying to impress people. (1:35; 2:6; 4:18; 5:5; 6:9, 19; 19:23; 21:8, 11) (4) The author of the Gospel was an apostle. This fits the details because no one but an apostle could have been an intimate eyewitness to so many situations connected with Jesus’ ministry; also his private knowledge of Jesus’ thinking, attitude, sentiments, beliefs, feelings, and reasons for specific actions shows that he was one of the twelve apostles who accompanied Jesus throughout his 3.5-year ministry. (5) Additionally, the author is spoken of as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” (John 21:20, 24) He was obviously one of the three most trusted, close, esteemed apostles that Jesus had in his inner circle on several occasions, such as the transfiguration (Mark 9:2) and the time when he began to be sorrowful and troubled in the garden of Gethsemane. (Matt. 26:36-37) When we consider these three apostles, we have to remove James as the potential author as he was put to death by about 44 C.E. by Herod Agrippa I. The Gospel was written about 98 C.E. Peter is also out of contention because of having his name mentioned alongside John, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them.” – John 21:20-21.

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The Apostles Wrote the Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts

The skeptics and Bible critics abound who argue tirelessly that the Gospels were not written as eyewitness accounts. The Gospels are historical narratives but the authors never write them as first-person narratives. Moreover, unlike Paul’s letters, where he begins with, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus,” or Peter, who writes, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” there are no such direct statement in the Gospels. When Luke is writing the book of Acts, he actually will shift into a first-person narrative for certain portions, so why doesn’t Matthew and John do the same? It is quite common in ancient literature to be slow in revealing themselves, being humble in their approach to identifying themselves within their own narrative.

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Clear and Convincing

The authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John frequently tell us that they are themselves, eyewitnesses. John closes his Gospel with, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:24) Then, when we look at 1 John and 2 Peter, we get more details. The apostle John declares, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” (1 John 1:1) “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3) Peter states, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16) Again, Luke tells us, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things accurately from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you …” (Luke 1:1-4) These collective remarks are compatible with the idea the authors of the Gospels viewed themselves as eyewitnesses who were giving future generations a historical narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles named themselves as eyewitnesses, made known the truth as eyewitnesses, and so, they wrote their Gospels as eyewitnesses.

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The Gospel Record—History or Mythology?

The reliability of the New Testament depends on the answer to two questions: Have the documents been copied accurately? Were the words and events recorded accurately?

As we shall see, the answer to the first question is that we have more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more accurately copied manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other book from the ancient world. And the answer to the second is that we have more books written by more authors who were closer to the events and whose record has been confirmed in more ways than for any other book from the ancient world.

The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts

As figure 2.1 on page 18 illustrates, the manuscripts of the New Testament are earlier, more abundant, and more accurately copied than any book from antiquity.

More New Testament Manuscripts

There are over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Most other books from the ancient world survive based on about 10 to 20 manuscripts. The most manuscripts for any book besides the Bible are for Homer’s Iliad with 643. Thus the New Testament has an overwhelming advantage in the number of manuscripts to support the integrity of the text it is transmitting.

Figure 2.1

Reliability of the New Testament Documents

Figure 2.1 The Gospels

Earlier New Testament Manuscripts

The New Testament manuscripts are much earlier than those for other books from antiquity. Most other books survive on the basis of manuscripts created one thousand years after the time the book was composed, there being no known original manuscripts. The New Testament, by contrast, has manuscripts that date from within about twenty-five years from the time the book was written!

John Ryland fragment—ca. AD 115ff.

—five verses from John 18:31–33; 37–38

Bodmer Papyri—AD 200

—most of John, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude

Chester Beaty Papyri—AD 250

—nearly all the New Testament books

Vaticanus Manuscript—AD 325–350

—most of Old Testament and New Testament

Noted manuscript expert Sir Frederic Kenyon wrote:

The interval 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 substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.

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Better Copied Manuscripts

The New Testament manuscripts are copied with greater accuracy than other books from the ancient world. Dr. Bruce Metzger of Princeton University and A. T. Robertson compared the accuracy of three great books from antiquity and found the following:

The Marabharata

 

90 percent accuracy

 

Iliad of Homer

 

95 percent accuracy

 

The New Testament

 

99.9 percent accuracy

 

Sir Frederic Kenyon’s testimony is to the point:

The number of mss. of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or the other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book in the world.

The Testimony of the Fathers

In addition to all of this, if all Greek and ancient translations of the Bible were destroyed, almost the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from the quotations of the Church Fathers from the first few centuries! They cited the New Testament more than thirty-six thousand times! In fact they provide every verse of the New Testament except for eleven verses. This too can be said of no other book from the ancient world. (See figure 2.2 below.)

Figure 2.2

Early Citations of the New Testament

Writer

 

Gospels

 

Acts

 

Pauline Epistles

 

General Epistles

 

Revelation

 

Totals

 

Justin Martyr

 

268

 

10

 

43

 

6

 

3*

 

330

 

Irenaeus

 

1,038

 

194

 

499

 

23

 

65

 

1,819

 

Clement of Alexandria

 

1,017

 

44

 

1,127

 

207

 

11

 

2,406

 

Origen

 

9,231

 

349

 

7,778

 

399

 

165

 

17,922

 

Tertullian

 

3,822

 

502

 

2,609

 

120

 

205

 

7,258

 

Hippolytus

 

734

 

42

 

387

 

27

 

188

 

1,378

 

Eusebius

 

3,258

 

211

 

1,592

 

88

 

27

 

5,176

 

Grand Totals

 

19,368

 

1,352

 

14,035

 

870

 

664

 

36,289

 

The New Testament has more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more accurately copied manuscripts than any other book from the ancient world. In other words, if we cannot trust the transmission of its text, then we cannot trust any other book that has come to us from antiquity.

The Epistle to the Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews

The Reliability of the New Testament Writers

There are two links in the chain of New Testament reliability. First, have the documents been copied accurately? Second, were the words and events recorded accurately? Now that we have seen that there is very strong evidence for an affirmative answer to the first question, let’s turn our attention to the second. The answer to this question depends on several factors: the number of the writings, the date of the writings, and the accuracy of the writings. In brief, we can say that the New Testament has more writers, earlier writers, and more accurate writers than any other book from the ancient world!

More Writers

Most events from the ancient world are known on the basis of one or two writers from the time period or some time after it. By contrast the New Testament has nine writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews). For the life, works, and words of Christ alone, there were four writers, and as the ancient principle states, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established,”5 nine witnesses is certainly sufficient. In addition, as will be shown below, all the essential elements of Jesus’s life and teaching are preserved in the almost universally accepted Epistles of the apostle Paul.

Earlier Writers

The New Testament writers were closer to the events than most other writers from the ancient world were to the events about which they wrote. Indeed, many of the New Testament writers were eyewitnesses or contemporaries of the eyewitnesses, and some of them wrote within twenty to twenty-five years of the events of which they spoke. Jesus died by AD 33, and both Paul and Luke wrote books by about AD 55 to 60.

Of the nine New Testament writers:

1. Matthew was an apostle and eyewitness of Christ (Matt. 10:3).

2. Mark was an associate of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:13).

3. Luke was an associate of the apostle Paul (2 Tim. 4:11).

4. John was an apostle and eyewitness (John 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).

5. Paul was an apostle and contemporary of Jesus (Acts 9; 1 Cor. 15:8).

6. James was the “brother” of Jesus and an eyewitness (1 Cor. 15:7).

7. Peter was an apostle and eyewitness (Matt. 10:2; 2 Peter 1:16–17).

8. Jude was the brother of James (Jude 1).

9. The writer of Hebrews was a contemporary of the twelve apostles (2:3; 13:23).

John, an Eyewitness

John writes the following: “And he who has seen has testified [to the crucifixion], and his testimony is true” (John 19:35). “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).

Eyewitnesses in Acts

In Acts we read the testimony of eyewitnesses: “This Jesus God has raised up [to life], of which we are all witnesses” (2:32). “But Peter and John answered … ‘For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’ ” (4:19–20). “And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up [from the dead] on the third day, and showed Him openly” (10:39–40).

Five Hundred Eyewitnesses of the Resurrection

The following was written in AD 55 to 56, when most of the eyewitnesses of the resurrection were still alive:

He [Jesus] was buried, and … He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and … He was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also.

1 Corinthians 15:4–8

Luke Based on Eyewitness Accounts

Luke states at the beginning of his Gospel that what he wrote is based on eyewitness accounts:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1–4 NASB

Hebrews Confirmed by Apostles

The truth of the gospel is confirmed to the writer of Hebrews by the apostles: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Heb. 2:3–4).

Peter an Eyewitness

Peter affirms that he was an eyewitness to Jesus’s life and death. “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables [myths] when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1).

Early Dates for New Testament Books

Not only were the Gospels written by eyewitnesses and contemporaries, but they were written early. Noted Roman historian Colin Hemer has offered numerous lines of evidence that the book of Acts was written by AD 62. Only five of them are sufficient to make the point. Acts must have been written before the following dates, since these are very important events that no Christian historian writing about the period would have failed to mention if they had already occurred:

• There is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem—AD 70.

•  There is no reference to the Jewish War—AD 66.

• There is no hint of Nero’s persecutions—ca. AD 65.

• There is no mention of the death of the apostle Paul—ca. AD 65. Indeed, he is still alive in the last chapter of the book of Acts (chap. 28).

• Finally, the apostle James is still alive—ca. AD 62. But the first-century Jewish historian Josephus recorded James’s death at AD 62.

Not mentioning these events in a history of these times would be like writing the life of President Kennedy without mentioning his assassination (in 1963). The reader would know that the book was written before 1963.

The person who wrote Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke. Both books are addressed to the same person, Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). The later book mentions the “former account” (Acts 1:1). Acts was written by an accurate historian by AD 62 and has been confirmed in nearly a hundred details, which could be known only by someone familiar with the facts. Further, Luke (1:1) refers to “many” (Gk. “two or more”) narratives on the life of Jesus before him (possibly Matthew and Mark) and claims (as well as proves) to be an accurate account of the matter based on “eyewitness” testimony (v. 2). This means we have a good historical account from within twenty-seven to thirty years of the time of the events.

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Evidence from the Early Fathers

Overlapping with the time of the apostles and shortly thereafter, there were a number of books that cite the New Testament, thus proving it was in existence at that time. These include The Epistle of Barnabas (70–90), The Epistles of Clement (94–95), The Epistles of Polycarp (ca. 90–155), the Didache (ca. 80–120?), The Shepherd of Hermas (90–100), The Epistles of Ignatius (by 117), An Ancient Homily [?] (120–40), and Fragments of Papias (130–40).

Early Dates for Other New Testament Books

Even critical scholars agree that 1 Corinthians was written by ca. AD 55 to 56, and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians were written shortly thereafter. Yet these books provide the same basic information about the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ found in the Gospels (see below).

Historical Crosshairs

One of the strongest signs of authenticity and reliability found in Luke is the provision of historical crosshairs for the events he records. Not only does he point to the very year Jesus began his ministry (AD 29), but he provides eight persons known to history to have existed at the same time whose lives intersected with Jesus’s life. Luke wrote:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

Luke 3:1–2

We should note the following:

1. An exact date is given (“the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius” [i.e., AD 29]).

2. All eight people are known from history.

3. All were known to live at this exact time.

4. This is not a “once upon a time” story (myth).

Are the New Testament Books Myths?

The time between the events of Jesus’s life (by AD 33) and the earliest records (AD 55 to 60) is way too short for any significant myths to develop. Indeed, any dates in the first century are too early to allow mythological development, and even radical New Testament critics, like many in the Jesus Seminar, accept that most New Testament books, if not all, were written between AD 70 and 100. As one scholar pointed out: “The writings of the Greek historian Herodotus enable us to test the rate at which a legend accumulates; the tests show that even the span of two generations is too short to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical fact.”

It should be noted that there are mythological accounts of Jesus, and they appeared at the very time myths should appear—more than two generations after the events. The Gospel of Thomas (mid-second century) and the other apocryphal gospels of the second and third centuries following are cases in point. A comparison of the New Testament Gospels and these apocryphal books nearly a hundred years later reveals the authentic nature of the former and the embellished, apocryphal nature of the latter. The words of the early Christian expert Edwin Yamauchi serve to summarize the contrast:

The apocryphal [pseudopigraphal] gospels, even the earliest and soberest among them, can hardly be compared with the canonical gospels. The former are all patently secondary and legendary or obviously slanted. Commenting on the infancy gospels, Morton Enslin concludes: “Their total effect is to send us back to the canonical gospels with fresh approval of their chaste restraint in failing to fill in the intriguing hidden years.”

The former atheist and famous myth writer of the Narnia series concluded that the New Testament was not myth. C. S. Lewis declared:

All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.

A helpful comparison is that of the records of Christ’s life with those of Alexander the Great. In Alexander’s case we have no contemporary eyewitness documents—none. Even one hundred years later there are only fragments. It is not until three to five hundred years after Alexander’s time that we have several biographies of this great military leader. By contrast the essential elements of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ were written by contemporaries of Jesus and eyewitnesses to the events of his life and were begun as early as about twenty years after his ministry.

Dean of Biblical Archaeology Speaks Out

William F. Albright began his scholarly career with serious doubts about the authenticity of much of the Bible. After a generation of studying the archaeological evidence, he declared: “In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century AD (very probably sometime between about 50 and AD 75).” AD 50 is only seventeen years after Jesus died!

The Confessions of a Liberal Critic

One of the men credited with the beginning of the “Death of God” movement several decades ago, liberal theologian Bishop John Robinson, later took a serious second look at the dates for the New Testament in his book Redating the New Testament. His conclusion was nearly as radical in a conservative direction as his theology had been in a liberal direction. He concluded that the dates for the Gospels should be as follows:

Matthew—AD 40–60+

Mark—AD 45–60+

Luke—AD 57–60+

John—AD 40–65+

The date AD 40 would be only seven years after Jesus died! This is indeed a radical redating of the New Testament. Even considering Robinson’s later figures of AD 60, if the Gospels were written less than thirty years after Jesus’s death, this is much too early for them not to be accurate.

The Accuracy of New Testament Writers

Not only were there more numerous and earlier writers of the New Testament than other books from its time, but they are known to be more accurate for many reasons.

The Early Date of the Writings

As has been shown, the basic New Testament documents on Christ’s life were possibly written as early as AD 40 to 60. They were probably penned by AD 55 to 60, and they were most certainly recorded during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. Even these later dates are too early for mythological development, much earlier than for other ancient books (like those on Alexander the Great), and certainly early enough to be considered reliable witnesses to the events.

Confirmation by Other Early Writings

Not only were the Gospels early enough to be reliable, but the basic information in them is confirmed by the early writings of Paul that are generally accepted, even by most critics, to be written between AD 50 and 61. In these books Paul confirmed at least thirty-one facts recorded in the Gospels:

            1. the Jewish ancestry of Jesus (Gal. 3:16)

            2. his Davidic descent (Rom. 1:3)

            3. his virgin birth (Gal. 4:4)

            4. his life under Jewish law (Gal. 4:4)

            5. he had brothers (1 Cor. 9:5)

            6. he had twelve disciples (1 Cor. 15:7)

            7. one disciple was named James (1 Cor. 15:7)

            8. some disciples had wives (1 Cor. 9:5)

            9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal. 1:18–2:16)

            10. Jesus’s poverty (2 Cor. 8:9)

            11. his humility (Phil. 2:5–7)

            12. his meekness and gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1)

            13. his abuse by others (Rom. 15:3)

            14. his teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10–11)

            15. his view on paying wages to ministers (1 Cor. 9:14)

            16. his view on paying taxes (Rom. 13:6–7)

            17. his command to love one’s neighbors (Rom. 13:9)

            18. Jewish ceremonial uncleanness (Rom. 14:14)

            19. Jesus’s titles of deity (Rom. 1:3–4; 10:9)

            20. the need for vigilance in view of Jesus’s second coming (1 Thess. 4:15)

            21. his second coming like a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2–11)

            22. his institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–25)

            23. his sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21)

            24. his death on the cross (Gal. 3:13; see Rom. 4:25; 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3)

            25. his death by crucifixion (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20)

            26. his death by Jewish instigation (1 Thess. 2:14–15)

            27. his burial (1 Cor. 15:4)

            28. his resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor. 15:4)

            29. his post-resurrection appearance to the apostles (1 Cor. 15:5–8)

            30. his post-resurrection appearances to others (1 Cor. 15:6)

            31. his present position at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:34)

PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

The Authentic Nature of the Writings

The Gospels show every sign of authenticity. They are vivid, fresh, unembellished, detailed, self-incriminating, diverse, but mutually confirming (that is, historical and not mythological). The following points make all of this clear.

•  The writers made no attempt to harmonize their accounts, even though they are harmonizable.

•  They included material that put Jesus in a bad light.

•  They left many difficult passages in their text.

•  They retained many self-incriminating details.

•   They included many demanding sayings of Jesus.

•   They distinguished their words from Jesus’s words.

•  They did not deny their testimony under threat of death.

•  They claimed their record was based on eyewitnesses.

•   They had women witnessing the resurrection before men.

•   They challenged readers to check out the facts.

•   They discarded long-held Jewish beliefs overnight.

•   They included more than thirty historical people.

Thirty-One Historical Persons in the New Testament

Another sign of the historical reliability of the New Testament is its accurate presentation of some thirty-one historical persons. These include:

            1. Herod Agrippa I—Acts 12

            2. Agrippa II—Acts 25

            3. Ananias—Acts 23–24

            4. Annas—Luke 3; John 18; Acts 4

            5.  Aretas—2 Corinthians 11

            6. Augustus—Luke 2

            7.  Bernice—Acts 25

            8.  Caiaphas—Matthew 26; Luke 3; John 11, 18; Acts 4

            9.  Claudius—Acts 11, 18

            10. Drusilla—Acts 24

            11. Egyptian—Acts 21 (a false prophet who started a revolt)

            12. Erastus—Acts 19

            13. Felix—Acts 23

            14. Gallio—Acts 18

            15. Gamaliel—Acts 5

            16. Herod Antipas—Matthew 14; Mark 6; Luke 3, 23

            17. Herod Archelaus—Matthew 2

            18. Herod the Great—Matthew 2; Luke 1

            19. Herod Philip I—Matthew 14; Mark 6

            20. Herod Philip II—Luke 3

            21. Herodias—Matthew 14; Mark 6

            22. James—Acts 15; Galatians 1

            23. John the Baptist—Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3; John 1

            24. Judas of Galilee—Acts 5

            25. Lysanias—Luke 3

            26. Pilate—Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18

            27. Porcius Festus—Acts 24–26

            28. Quirinius—Luke 2

            29. Salome—Matthew 14; Mark 6

            30. Sergius Paulus—Acts 13

            31. Tiberius Caesar—Luke 3

Confirmation by Noted Roman Historians

A. N. Sherwin-White, noted authority on Roman society and law, wrote:

So it is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, have taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism … that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.

He calls the mythological view “unbelievable.”

Another noted expert on the period confirmed nearly a hundred details in Acts from Roman sources. This evidence shows that the author of the third Gospel was a first-rate historian because of his knowledge of:

• minute geographical details known to the readers

•  specialized details known only to special groups

•  specifics of routes, places, and officials that were not widely known

•  correlation of dates in Acts with general history

•  details appropriate to that period but not others

•  events that reflect a sense of “immediacy”

• idioms and culture that bespeak a firsthand awareness

• verification of numerous details of times, people, and events of that period best known by contemporaries

Harvard Legal Expert Confirms Gospels

Simon Greenleaf (1783–1853), professor of law at Harvard University, was one of the greatest legal minds in American history. He wrote A Treatise on the Law of Evidences (1853), the standard book on legal evidence that was used to train lawyers in how to test evidence and witnesses. When challenged to apply the legal standards to the New Testament, he wrote The Testimony of the Evangelists (1846 ed.) in which he concluded that were the New Testament documents and witnesses so tested in a court of law they would prove to be reliable. He wrote:

The narratives of the evangelists are now submitted to the reader’s perusal and examination, upon the principles and by the rules already stated.… If they had thus testified on oath, in a court of justice, they would be entitled to credit; and whether their narratives, as we now have them, would be received as ancient documents, coming from the proper custody. If so, then it is believed that every honest and impartial man will act consistently with that result, by receiving their testimony in all the extent of its import.

Greenleaf added:

All that Christianity asks of men on this subject is that they would be consistent with themselves; that they would treat its evidences as they treat the evidence of other things; and that they would try and judge its actors and witnesses, as they deal with their fellow men, when testifying to human affairs and actions, in human tribunals. Let the witnesses be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances; and let their testimony be sifted, as if it were given in a court of justice, on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subjected to rigorous cross-examination. The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth.

Non-Christian Sources for the New Testament

Another line of supporting evidence for the historical accuracy of the New Testament is found in non-Christian sources outside the New Testament. The two best sources for this information are F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament and Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus. Summarizing the non-Christian writers of the times, such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, the Jewish Talmud, and others, we get the following confirmation of the basic historicity of the New Testament:

•  Jesus was from Nazareth.

•  He lived a virtuous life.

•  He performed unusual feats.

•  He introduced new teaching contrary to Judaism.

•  He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

•  His disciples believed he rose from the dead.

• His disciples denied polytheism.

• His disciples worshiped him.

•  His teachings spread rapidly, and the number of his disciples quickly grew.

• His followers believed they were immortal.

• His followers had contempt for death.

• His followers renounced material goods.

Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament

The archaeological evidence for the New Testament’s general historicity can be summarized in two points: (1) No archaeological evidence has ever refuted the Bible. (2) Abundant archaeological evidence supports the historical reliability of the New Testament. As to the first point, noted biblical scholar Nelson Glueck wrote: “As a matter of fact, however, it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”

On the second point, Donald J. Wiseman wrote: “The geography of Bible lands and visible remains of antiquity were gradually recorded until today more than 25,000 sites within this region and dating to Old Testament times, in their broadest sense, have been located.…”

Summarizing the evidence for US News and World Report, Jeffery Sheler wrote: “In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments—corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel’s patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus.”

Some archaeological evidence relating directly to Jesus includes the excavation of his hometown of Nazareth; Pilate’s name inscribed in stone; an inscription of Caiaphas the high priest who tried Jesus; the discovery of Yohanan—a crucifixion victim from ca. AD 70 (found in 1968)—which verifies the method of crucifixion; and the Nazareth Decree of Emperor Claudius (AD 41–54), which forbade removal of bodies from graves under pain of death—this seems to hint at the story that circulated in the wake of Jesus’s resurrection (Matt. 28:11–15).

Of course there are numerous other finds in and around Jerusalem that intersect with Jesus’s life, including Bethlehem, Bethany, Jericho, the Sea of Galilee, and a multitude of geographical and topological details in the Gospels. On top of this there is all the evidence, detailed above, for Luke’s historicity through the many persons known to history whom he included in his book and whose lives intersected with that of Jesus.

A Summary of the Evidence

The evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament is overwhelming. It can be summarized as follows:

•  There are nine different authors.

•  There are twenty-seven different books.

• They are based on eyewitness testimony.

• Early, accepted Pauline letters confirm them.

• There was not enough time for myths to develop.

•  The nature of the records is authentic.

•  Non-Christian sources support them.

• Noted Roman historians have confirmed them.

• Noted legal experts have vouched for them.

•  Many archaeological finds have supported them.

Nothing like this evidence exists for any other book from the ancient world! In short, if a person does not accept the authenticity of the New Testament, then logically he or she must reject the evidence for any other event from the ancient world, since all such events are believed to have happened on much less evidence than that available for the New Testament. Hence, when the Gospels say Jesus said it, then Jesus actually said it. And when they say Jesus did it, then Jesus actually did it.

Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 17–31.

Manuscript Evidence

What do we discover when we look at manuscripts of both secular codices and The Greek New Testament Gospels codices? What we find is that be it secular or Gospels, the author’s names appear at the beginning of the text and at the end of the text. This holds true if a text has more than one work in it.

The Greek New Testament manuscripts during this period conform to this method. In the Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 C.E.), the Codex Vaticanus (300-330 C.E.), two of our earliest and most trusted codices, and the Codex Alexandrinus (400-440 C.E.), the name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are found at the beginning and at the end of their particular gospels precisely as one would expect them to be according to the custom of the time. Moreover, we find exactly the same with two of our earliest Greek New Testament papyri manuscripts, P75 (175-225 C.E.) and P66 (110-150 C.E.).

So, our earliest and most trusted manuscripts of the Gospels have only these names on them. In other words, there is no discrepancy in finding any other names. From the second century, we have manuscripts with names of the evangelists on them, which were copied only decades after the author’s had penned their perspective Gospels. There is no secular writing that is dated even remotely this close to their perspective originals, as the secular sources are centuries removed. So, once again for emphasis, the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts with the Gospel author’s name on it are Luke on P75 (175-225 C.E.) and John on P66 (110-150 C.E.).[2]

Michael Kruger talks about the widespread nature of this evidence, “What we find is incredible uniformity across the board for the titles of these gospels, Matthew’s Gospel is called ‘Matthew’; Mark’s is called ‘Mark’. It is amazingly consistent, something we would not expect if the titles were added later.”[3]

Lastly, there are no manuscripts of the Greek New Testament manuscripts from the early historical period or any historical period that have names on them other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is precisely what should be expected if the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had no dispute about them.

MANUSCRIPT IMAGES

Gospel Names in Sinaiticus – Matthew [c. 330–360 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Sinaiticus – Mark [c. 330 – 360 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Sinaiticus – Luke [c. 330 – 360 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Sinaiticus – John [c. 330 – 360 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Vaticanus – Matthew [c. 300-330 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Vaticanus – Mark [c. 300 – 325 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Vaticanus – Luke and John [c. 300 – 325 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Vaticanus – Luke [c. 300-325 C.E.]
Gospel Names in P66 [c. 150-175]
Gospel Names P75 Luke and John [c. 175-225 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Alexandrinus – Luke [c. 400 440 C.E.]
Gospel Names in Alexandrinus – Mark [c. 400 – 440 C.E.]

[1] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 372.

[2] Metzger, Bruce M., Ehrman, Bart D., The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, NY, 2005, 56, 58

[3] Michael Kruger, “Who Wrote the Gospels?” video, EhrmanProject.com on YouTube, 10/1/2010

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