Get a stripped-down copy of this page.
For more details on these issues, please see our resource, Trusting the New Testament.
It's a most basic set of questions to ask: Who wrote the Gospels? When were they written? And generally, is there any reason to suspect that they are full of fabrications?
The usual Skeptical/critical view asserts in answer:
- The Gospels are anonymous documents; we cannot know who wrote then.
- The Gospels are all late documents, written between 70-100 AD, or some say even in the 2nd century AD.
- The Gospels are the product, in various places, of their authors' imaginations.
We shall find in our investigation to follow that these assertions are unwarranted, and are counter to the evidence available. We assert in turn that:
- There are excellent reasons for maintaining the traditional ascriptions of Gospel authorship, when standard tests for such determinations are applied;
- There is no reason to date ANY of the Gospels later than 70 AD, although such dating may be permissible in the case of John;
- There is no reason to suppose that the Gospel authors took creative liberties with the events they recorded, to the point of fabrication.
We will examine and dispose of the common arguments for dating the Gospels late, and for rejecting their traditional authorship. With this, I will also offer two caveats:
- Authorship and date are important; but equally important, if not more so, is whether
what is in the Gospels is true.
Regardless of who wrote the Gospels and when, if they reflect
reality correctly, then it points to their being written by eyewitnesses, or having eyewitnesses as their source. Thus, even if the traditional authorship and earliest dates are disproved - and it is my contention that the arguments against them are inadequate - it matters very little, we may surmise, who wrote them and when. (Hengel [Heng.4G, 6] notes that we have only one biography of Muhammed, written 212 years after his death, which used a source from about 100 years after his death, and yet "the historical scepticism of critical European scholarship is substantially less" where Muhammed is concerned.)
- Critical arguments about authorship and date of the Gospels revolve around the
same data, and have revolved around it, for a long time.
With very, VERY few
exceptions, critics and Skeptics have used the same arguments against the traditional data over
and over and over. In my survey of the literature, I have found that the standard critical
arguments have been overused by Skeptics and sufficiently answered by traditionalists; yet the
critics have not deigned to answer the counter-arguments, except rarely and then only with bald
Also of relevance, Glenn Miller has contributed two excellent responses to James Still here and here.
Gospel Authors: General Considerations
The "anonymity" of the Gospels authors is something that many Skeptics claim. Yet I have noted that in making this argument, critics never explain to us how their arguments would work if applied equally to secular ancient documents whose authenticity and authorship is never (or is no longer) questioned, but are every bit as "anonymous" in the same sense that the Gospels are.
If it is objected that the Gospel authors nowhere name themselves in their texts -- and this is a very common point to be made, even among traditionalists -- then this applies equally to numerous other ancient documents, such as Tacitus' Annals. Authorial attributions are found not in the text proper, but in titles, just like the Gospels.
Critics may claim that these were added later to the Gospels, but they need to provide textual evidence of this (i.e., an obvious copy of Matthew with no title attribution to Matthew, and dated earlier or early enough to suggest that it was not simply a late, accidental ommission), and at any rate, why is it not supposed that the titles were added later to the secular works as well?
In order for readers to appreciate the magnitude of this situation, I would like to present here a listing of external evidences for the authorship of the works of Tacitus. I wish to thank Roger Pearse for helpfully sending me copies of relevant pages from the works of the Tacitean scholar Mendell, from Tacitus: The Man and His Work. Mendell surveys evidence for knowledge of Tacitus throughout history; we will only look at evidence up to the sixth century (for reasons noted in Mendell below).
In doing this we would challenge potential respondents to compare this record to that of the Gospels. We will present Mendell's comments and intersperse our own.
THE Annals were probably "published" in 116, the last of the works of Tacitus to appear. Only Pliny of Tacitus' contemporaries mentions him, and his writings and the evidence of subsequent use up to the time of Boccaccio is slight. It is not true, however, that Tacitus and his writings were practically unknown. They were neglected----possibly, in part at least, because of his strong republican bias on the one hand and because, on the other, the church fathers felt him to be unfair to Christianity. Vopiscus in his life of the emperor Tacitus (chapter 10) indicates the state of affairs in the third century: "Cornelium Tacitum, scriptorem historiae Augustae, quod parentem suum eundem diceret, in omnibus bibliothecis conlocari iussit neve lectorum incuria deperiret, librum per an-nos singulos decies scribi publicitus evicos archiis iussit et in bibliothecis poni" (the text is obviously corrupt in the reading evicos archiis).
Nevertheless, Tacitus is mentioned or quoted in each century down to and including the sixth. In fact, the seventh and eighth are the only centuries that have as yet furnished no evidence of knowing him. The following are the known references to Tacitus or use of Tacitean material after the day of Tacitus and Pliny until the time of Boccaccio. The material was well collected in 1888 and published at Wetzler by Emmerich Cornelius, but a considerable amount of new material has turned up from time to time since.
About the middle of the second century Ptolemy published his Gewgrafikh& 'Ufh&ghsij. In 2. 11. 12 (ed. C. Muller, Paris, 1883) he lists in succession along the northern shore of Germany the towns of Flhou&m, and Siatouta&nda. The latter name occurs nowhere else and has a dubious sound. The explanation is to be found in Tacitus, Ann. 4. 72, 73: "Rapti qui tributo aderant milites et patibulo adfixi; Olennius infensos fuga prae-venit, receptus castello, cui nomen Flevum; et haud spernenda illic civium sociorumque manus litora Oceani praesidebat." The governor of lower Germany takes prompt action, the account of which winds up: "utrumque exercitum Rheno devectum Frisiis intulit, soluto iam castelli obsidio et ad sua tutanda degressis rebellibus." The source of Ptolemy's mistake is obvious.
Note here that Ptolemy's obvious use of Tacitus is taken as a signal of the Annals existing. This is in stark contrast to how quotes in patristic writers from the Gospels are excused asway as "floating, independent tradition" rather than evidence of the Gospels. Note as well that Ptolemy does not name Tacitus. We still do not have an attribution of authorship to work with some 40-50 years after the writing.
It is hard to believe that Cassius Dio (who published shortly after A.D. 200) did not know at least the Agricola. In 38. 50 and 66. 20 he mentions Gnaeus Julius Agricola as having proved Britain to be an island and in the later instance tells the story of the fugitive Usipi. If we make allowance for the method of Tacitus, which leaves his account far from clear, and for the use of a different language by Dio, there can be little if any doubt that Tacitus is the source for Dio. We know also of no other possible source today. The last part of the section, dealing with Agricola's return and death, confirms the conclusion that Dio drew from Tacitus, and it sounds as though Tacitus had left the impression he desired.
Notice we still do not have an attribution, and we are now 80 and more years past the publication of these works by Tacitus. We are already at or past the number of years Papias was from the Gospels.
In the third century Tertullian cites Tacitus with a hostile tone. He had spoken without respect of the Jews and had implied that the Christians were an undesirable sect of the Jews. It is not a surprise, therefore, to have Tertullian (early third century) refer to him as ille mendaciorum loquacissimus. The Apologist is defending the Christians against the charge that they worshiped an ass. The origin of this scandal he ascribes to Tacitus, Hist. 5. 3, 9. Apologeticus 16...
This is the first direct attribution of something to Tacitus -- apparently over 100 years later. Tertullian also cited Tacitus in two other places.
Lactantius, in the time of Diocletian, is at least once (Div. inst. 1. 18. 8) somewhat reminiscent of Tacitean style but that is as far as it is safe to go in claiming him as a reader of Tacitus, in spite of something of a resemblance between Lactantius 1. 11, 12 and Germ. 40.
At about the same date, Eumenius of Autun, in his Panegyricus ad Constantinum 9, quite clearly has Agric. 12 before him. He follows Tacitus in the error of thinking that the nights are always short, and he assigns as reasons the same that the Roman had...Not only the actual quotation from Tacitus is of interest but the careful substitution of synonyms.
Vopiscus, still in the fourth century, cites Tacitus with Livy, Sallust, and Trogus as the greatest of Roman historians...Ammianus Marcellinus, about 400, published his history, which began where Tacitus left off, indicating a knowledge at least of what Tacitus had written.
At about the same time Sulpicius Severus of Aquitaine wrote his Chronicorum libri and, in 2. 28. 2 and 2. 29. 2, used Tacitus, Ann. 15. 37 and 44 as his source. On the detailed matter of Nero's marriage with Pythagoras and the punishment of the Christians the verbal resemblances make it impossible to think that he was drawing on any other source....Jerome in his commentary on Zacchariah 14. 1, 2 (3, p. 914) cites Tacitus: "Cornelius quoque [i.e. as well as Josephus] Tacitus, qui post Augustum usque ad mortem Domitiani vitas Caesarum triginta voluminibus exaravit." He gives no proof of having read Tacitus----he may not even have seen his works at all----but he did know of a tradition in which the thirty books were numbered consecutively. Claudian cannot be safely claimed as a reader of Tacitus in spite of his suggestive references to Tiberius and Nero. 8, Fourth Consulship of Honorius...Servius, on the other hand, at the end of the fourth century, while his reference is to a lost part of Tacitus, evidently had read the text. Hegesippus made a free Latin version of Josephus' Jewish War with independent additions, many of which seem to come from Tacitus' Histories. An example is 4. 8: "denique neque pisces neque adsuetas aquis et laetas mergendi usu aves." Compare Hist. 5.6: "neque vento impellitur neque pisces aut suetas aquis volucres patitur." There is a certain studied attempt at variation of wording without concealment of the source. Of the fifth-century writers, two, Sidonius Apollinaris and Orosius, have left evidence of considerable familiarity with Tacitus as well as respect for him as a writer. In Ep. 4. 22. 2 Sidonius makes a pun on the name Tacitus. After comparing himself and Leo to Pliny and Tacitus he says that should the latter return to life and see how eloquent Leo was in the field of narrative, he would become wholly Tacitus. The name as he gives it is Gaius Cornelius Tacitus. Again in Ep. 4. 14. 1 he quotes Gaius Tacitus as an ancestor of his friend Polemius. He was, says Sidonius, a consular in the time of the Ulpians: "Sub verbis cuiuspiam Germanici ducis in historia sua rettulit dicens : cum Vespasiano mihi vetus amicitia" etc...The citations in Orosius are naturally quite different from these casual references and general estimates. Orosius is always after material for argument, and it is the content rather than the style that interests him. He refers to Tacitus explicitly and at length. He compares critically the statements of Cornelius Tacitus and Pompeius Trogus and again of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus. The quotations and citations from Tacitus are all in the Adversus paganos and all from the Histories. In 1. 5. 1 Orosius says: "Ante annos urbis conditae MCLX confinem Arabiae regionem quae tune Pentapolis vocabatur arsisse penitus igne caeleste inter alios etiam Cornelius Tacitus refert, qui sic ait: Haud procul inde campi . . . vim frugiferam perdidisse. Et cum hoc loco nihil de incensis propter peccata hominum civitatibus quasi ignarus expresserit, paulo post velut oblitus consilii subicit et dicit: Ego sicut inclitas . . . cor-rumpi reor." The quotation is from Hist. 5.7 and, in spite of some interesting variants, it is reasonably exact. The same is true of his quotation of Hist. 5. 3 in Adv. pag. 1. 10. 1...
Cassiodorus is a sixth-century writer who seems to have used Tacitus as source material. He does not, however, seem to know much about his source, for he speaks of "a certain Cornelius"; but he draws on Germania 45...Perhaps a hundred years or less after Cassiodorus, Jordanes wrote his De origine actibusque getarum which he took largely from Cassiodorus' history of the Goths. That one or the other of these two must have known Agric. 10 is shown by the following passage in Jordanes (2. 12, 13): "Mari tardo circumfluam quod nec remis facile impellentibus cedat, nec ventorum flatibus intumescat, credo quia remotae longius terrae causas motibus negant. Quippe illic latius quam usquam aequor extenditur . . . Noctem quoque clariorem in extrema eius parte menima quam Cornelius etiam annalium scriptor enarrat. . . Labi vero per earn multa quam maxima relabique flumina gemmas margaritasque volventia." The textual confusion memma quam is usually taken to come from minimamque but we should expect brevemque. The very last item is probably from Mela. The Scholiast to Juvenal 2. 99 and 14. 102 refers to the Histories, ascribing them in the one case to Cornelius, in the other to Cornelius Tacitus. The first note is as follows: "Hunc incomparabilis vitae bello civili Vitellius vicit apud Bebriacum campum. Horum bellum scripsit Cornelius, scripsit et Pompeius Planta, qui sit Bebriacum vicum a Cremona vicesimo lapide." The second is a twofold description of Moses: (a) "sacerdos vel rex eius gentis"; (b) "aut ipsius quidem religionis inventor, cuius Cornelius etiam Tacitus meminit" (cf. Hist. 5. 3).
Comparably speaking, this evidence is vanishingly small compared to the incredible number of attestations and attributions by patristic writers, some few earlier than (but many as late as) those listed for Tacitus above. How can someone dealing with the evidence fairly claim to be sure of Tacitus' authorship of his various works (where such external evidence is concerned) and dismiss the Gospels, which have far better external evidence?
I have checked a book titled Texts and Tranmission (Clarendon Press, 1993) which records similar data for other ancient works. Throughout the book classic works from around the time of the NT whose authorship and date no one questions (though some have textual issues, just like the NT) are recorded as having the earliest copy between 5th and 9th century, earliest attributions at the same period (for example, Celsus' De medicina is attested no earlier than 990 AD, and then not again until 1300), and having so little textual support that if they were treated as the NT is, all of antiquity would be reduced to a blank walls. If the Gospels are treated consistenly, there will be no question at all about their provenance, but that is clearly the last thing critics want to do.
Not that lack of a name on a text automatically equates with anonymous authorship anyway: In this era prior to publishing, and just prior to the advent of the codex, the equivalent to a spine or dust jacket was a tag on the outside of a scroll identifying the work in question -- since there would be no other concrete way to discern what was inside a scroll and differentiate it from other scrolls (other than external appearance). Whenever and by whomever the Gospels were written, it would not be left "unauthorized" or "unidentified" if for no other reasons than practical ones: It would need a title/descriptor at the very least, especially if it was intended to be read by more than one person or small group of people. Hengel notes [Heng.4G, 48]:
Anonymous works were relatively rare and must have been given a title in libraries. They were often given the name of a pseudepigraphical author....Works without titles easily got double or multiple titles when names were given to them in different libraries.
Since even critics admit that the Gospels were intended for a wide audience (at the very least, a "community" of believers) they must explain why these practical factors would be irrelevant and allow a Gospel to remain "anonymous" and then later not be attributed to multiple authors. Skeptics and critics might have a better case if they could find a copy of Matthew that is instead attributed to, say, Andrew, or to no one at all; or a copy of what is obviously Mark that is attributed to Barnabas. But the titles are unanimous and unequivocal -- there is no variation in them at all, and critics have also not provided any examples of Gospel texts with no title, and (with one exception) cannot: "There is no trace of such anonymity [concerning the Gospels]," and the testimony to their authorship is unanimous across broad geographic and chronological lines [Heng.4G, 54]. It is hard to see why this evidence is not enough for the Gospels when far, far less is accepted for secular works and their attribution.
Notwithstanding such titular subscriptions: How do secular historians determine authorship (and date) of an ancient document? Since we have started with Tacitus' Annals, we'll work with that example where we can.
Interior corroborative evidence. If a work of Tacitus tells us that Nero opened a refrigerator, took out a burrito, and stuck it in the microwave oven, we have some cause to doubt a second-century author like Tacitus was responsible for that material. On the other hand, one would also expect that Tacitus would write his works like a government official of Rome would write; he would have a high level of education, decent grammar, and a sophisticated tone suitable to the Roman upper-crust. He would not have a work full of spelling errors and country-bumpkin mistakes; he would get governmental terms right (but maybe not, say, farming terms); he would exhibit a certain attitude common to a member of high-class Roman society.
We will see that some of the individual objections to the Gospels center upon supposed words and/or concepts that are supposed not have existed when the authors wrote their work. We will also see that some objections argue that a certain individual would not write a certain way.
Of course, if there are no word- or concept-anachronisms, and if the work shows signs of having been written in a style that the named author would write, then this is positive evidence for that person's authorship. A number of NT commentators (even in the traditionalist camp) tend to treat such evidence as less than definitive; I would ask, if it is good enough for secular scholars to use as confirmation, why not here also?
External corroborative evidence. If Tacitus is referred to by other people, or if he is found in other records, and if others attribute a work to him, then this is clear testimony that he wrote the document in question (see above). On the other hand, if some writer at some point (the closer to the time of Tacitus, the "better") either denies that Tacitus wrote a given work attributed to him, or else attributes (without reference to Tacitus) the work to another, we may have reason to suspect Tacitus' authorship.
At the same time, if the works of Tacitus are found referred to in other documents, this may be taken as evidence for the date of Tacitus' works, in accordance with the dates of the works quoted, again as noted above. Absence of such quotes would not necessarily prove a later date, but it would add suspicions if other reasons to be suspicious were present.
In light of these considerations -- which offer nothing radical or new -- we may now ask these general questions:
- If the Gospels are anonymous, why is there no other surviving tradition of another author for the Gospels?
Second-century testimony is unanimous in attributing the four Gospels to the persons that now carry their name. This suggests that they received their titles early; for if they had not, there would have been a great deal of speculation as to who had written them - "a variation of titles would have inevitably risen," as had happened with the apocryphal gospels. [Thie.EvJ, 15]; see also [Heng.Mark, 82] It is rather harder to believe that the Gospels circulated anonymously for 60 or more years and then someone finally thought to put authors on them -- and managed to get the whole church across the Roman Empire to agree.
- Why then were such unlikely characters chosen as authors?
Luke is mentioned a few times by name in the NT, a very obscure personage. Mark was a rotten kid; he abandoned Paul (Acts 15). Matthew was an apostle, but he was also a tax collector - would you pick the IRS man,
and an obscure apostle, to author your Gospel? [Wilk.JUF, 28] Only John is a logical choice for
a pseudonymous author.
The strength of this point is demonstrated in that some will use the rationale that obscure persons were deliberately chosen as authors in order to fool us into thinking that this would mean they were authentic.
- How could the early Christian community honor the Gospels as authoritative unless
they knew who had written them?
Even granting such a late date as some critics surmise, it is doubtful that the Gospels could have gotten anywhere unless they were certainly attributable to someone who was recognized as knowing what they were writing about. On the other hand, I
must say that some critics assume a high degree of gullibility in the first-century church.
this end, Hengel [CarMoo.Int, 66] has argued that the Gospels must have received their titles
immediately - not in the second century. For an anonymous author to have penned a Gospel, and have it accepted as from the hand of one of the Quartet or any authoritative person, would have required them to first produce the Gospel, then present it as the work of another; they would have to concoct some story as to how it came peculiarly to be in their possession; get around the problem of why a work by such a person disappeared or was previously unknown; then get the church at large, first in his area and then throughout the Roman Empire (and would not the claimed discovery of such a document cause a sensation, and controversy?), to accept this work as genuine.
Can any critic explain how these logistic difficulties were overcome? I have noted that they do well in offering generalities, but never get down to the specifics of how Joe Gentile could have managed to pull off such a hoax on the church as a whole. Is there any parallel to this in secular history, where an enormous group at large was bamboozled by (and continued to be bamboozled by) not just one forgery, but four, attributed in a couple of cases to members of an inner circle, in widely separated places and times?
I'll add that under the "Q/Marcan priority" hypothesis, how is it they suppose that "Matthew" and "Luke" would choose to use an anonymous document as a source? Mark could not be recognized as authoritative until it was known what source it came from; yet if the critics are right, "Mark" was considered authoritative enough to use not by just one, but by two others working independently of one another. (One way around this scenario is to hypothesize Christian "prophets" through whom these works might have been received and recognized; for a response to this, see below.)
- At the beginning of the second century, there would have been first-generation
Christians alive who recalled the apostles and their teaching, and many more
second-generation Christians who would have had information passed directly to them.
We have early witnesses to the authorship of some of the Gospels. Papias wrote around 110-130, and he surely did not design the authorship of Matthew and Mark on the spur of the moment. That being so, how could anyone have dared to attribute the Gospels to anyone other than the genuine authors with these first- and second-generation witnesses still alive? Believers in the 70s-90s, when critics suppose that the Gospels were authored anonymously, would have known of no works of Matthew and the others; believers after the 90s who descended from this generation and lived into the lifetime of Papias would have had no tradition of such documents.
With these general considerations, we now offer these mini-essays:
- Matthew -- this is the version from our resource Trusting the New Testament, featured above.
- Mark -- older web version
- Luke -- please see Trusting the New Testament -- older web version
[Eyewitnesses and a Feedback Loop]
[Burton Mack's Idea of Speech Production and Fabrication]
[Material Irrelevance/Oral Tradition and Selection]
[Allegation of "Prophets" Creating Words of Jesus]
Did the church create "gospel fictions"? Are parts or the whole of the NT products of
the Church's faith rather than recorded historical events?
This is an issue that we touch upon in several places, but generally speaking, we may ask in reply:
- Why would the church have created such a difficult faith to follow?
Certainly they could
have made things much easier on themselves by, for example, permitting sacrifices to the
Emperor of Rome as the Jews did - or perhaps making the difficult passages easier to understand.
- Why are there no passages relevant to later church issues like circumcision? We will
discuss this in more detail shortly.
- Some of the material critics understand as late, simply is not.
A favorite cite of critics, for example, is
from Matthew 16:18 and 18:17, where the word "church" is used. [Perr.NTI, 175] This is meant to show that this selection from Matthew is post-Jesus.
word used here is ekklesia, and it was used to refer to "official meetings of the people of Israel"
[Kiste.GCS, 83] - in other words, any worship assembly, including the synagogue. Furthermore, a late date is also only assumed upon the circular assumption that Jesus wasn't trying to found a new movement -- something that is assumed rather than proved. Thus, these
verses cannot be used as evidence of lateness or cited as ad hoc creations.
- Material in the Gospels does not reflect the creativity of a "community." Davies
[Davi.INP, 115] expresses it well:
The New Testament witnesses to virile, expanding Christian communities, it is
true, but also to confused and immature ones. It is more likely that the thrust,
the creativity, the originality which lies behind the Gospel tradition of the
works and words of Jesus should be credited to him rather than to the body of
Christians. The kind of penetrating insight preserved in the Gospels points
not to communities - mired and often muddled in their thinking - but to a
supreme source in a single person, Jesus...
- Most importantly, eyewitnesses would not permit such creation. This point is made by
several authors. We begin with John P. Meier:
One would think get the impression (from such theories) that throughout the
first Christian generation there were no eyewitnesses to act as a check on
fertile imaginations, no original-disciples-now-become-leaders who might
exercise some control over the developing tradition, and no striking deeds
and sayings of Jesus that stuck willy-nilly in people's memories. [Meie.MarJ,
And Thomas and Gundry add [Thom.HG, 282-3]:
Form critics call into question the integrity of the disciples. The disciples had
seen and heard Jesus. They had even been a part of his ministry. Yet, if the
form critics are correct, they did not control the accuracy of the tradition...Is
it conceivable that in its own discussions and disputes the early church would
not have examined doubtful statements concerning Jesus' ministry? If the
church, in fact, did not scrutinize such statements, why is there such close
agreement as to the nature and details of that minsitry? A community that
was purely imaginative and lacking in discrimination would have found it
impossible to form a consistent tradition.
F. C. Grant said of the New Testament [Gran.GOG, 1-2]:
...its basic trustworthiness is beyond doubt; for it rests, not upon one man's
recollections - say Peter's - or those of two or three persons, but upon the
whole group of earliest disciples whose numbers are reflected in the hundreds
referred to by Paul and the thousands described in Acts. The early church did
not grow up in isolation, in some corner, but in the full glare of publicity in
the great cities of the Roman Empire.
And finally, Glenn Miller notes:
It should also be pointed out that even the earliest church had 'controls' in
place, that would naturally 'keep the tradition in line'. There are several
indications that the early church had a surprising amount of information
exchange and 'feedback loops'. Consider:
1.The early church had a center (Jerusalem) and leaders (apostles)
2.When the church expanded into Samaria, there was interaction with the leaders of
the founding church (Acts 8.14): "When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that
Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them". [By all
accounts, Peter and John would have been closest to ANY information about Jesus'
3.When the church expanded into Antioch, we see the same pattern occur (Act 11:22):
"News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas
4.When the issue of circumcision came up, the church in Antioch appointed Paul and
Barnabas "to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question"
5.The first church council was held at Jerusalem (Act 15:23-29)
6.Paul accepted the importance of the Jerusalem center (Gal 2.1-2): "Fourteen years
later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.
I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach
among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for
fear that I was running or had run my race in vain."
7.At Jrs. Paul was welcomed and sent to the Gentiles (Gal 2.9f): "James, Peter and
John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of
fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should
go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue
to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."
8.Paul (a native of Tarsus!) returned to Jerusalem after EACH missionary journey.
9.The leading apostles and evangelists had traveling ministries, bringing them into
contact with churches and believers everywhere.
10.The early churches did NOT live in a vacuum. They corresponded with each other
(cf. I Clement, a letter from Rome to Corinth, a.d. 95, see ATNT:48-49) and
exchanged NT documents (cf. Col. 4.16).
The point should be clear--the early church had a significant amount of
information exchange, among the leadership, and therefore had major
'feedback controls' which would have corrected significant aberrations early.
Vincent Taylor notes in the same light [Tayl.FGT, 41], in terms that apply as much to the Jesus
Seminar today as they did to Bultmann in his time:
If the Form Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to
heaven immediately after the Resurrection. As Bultmann sees it, the primitive
community existed in vacuo, cut off from its founders by the walls of an
inexplicable ignorance...Unable to turn to anyone for information, it must
invent situations for the words of Jesus, and, put onto his lips sayings which
personal memory cannot check. All this is absurd; but there is a reason for
this unwillingness to take into account the existence of leaders and
By the very nature of his studies the Form Critic is not predisposed in favor of
eyewitnesses; he deals with oral forms shaped by nameless individuals, and
the recognition of persons who could enrich the tradition by their actual
recollections comes as a disturbing element to the smooth working of the
theory. He is faced by an unknown quantity just where he has to operate with
precise 'laws of the tradition.'
And Boyd adds:
One especially wonders how the surviving eyewitnesses to Jesus who were
undoubtedly still around, eyewitnesses who must have exercised some
influence within these communities, responded to Mark's supposed rewriting
of history. One must ask how Mark could have thought that he could get his
piece of historical fiction past these eyewitnesses. And, finally, how could this
fabrication not only be accepted, but serve to motivate the followers of Jesus
to the point where they quickly took this "new" Gospel and risked their lives
evangelizing the entire Mediterranean world?[Boyd.CSSG, 216]
Such a presupposition, as we have said before and elsewhere, requires a "high threshold of
gullibility" in the early Christian circles.
Indeed, upon what basis is it said that the church simply created things for Jesus to say? Mack [Mack.Q, 193-200], for one, appeals to the Hellenistic practice of attributing
"speech-in-character" to people who did not necessarily say the things attributed to them, but
"would have" in the opinion of the attributers, because such things were within the quoted
person's character to say.
We may answer briefly by noting:
- Mack (along with the Jesus Seminar) greatly overemphasizes the influence of
Hellenism on Jesus and the Gospels.
Mack, who sees Jesus in the mode of a Greek cynic
sage, must hypotheize that Matthew and the other Gospel writers "actually buried Q in the
fiction of Jesus as a Jewish sage." [ibid, 183] The mistake here is ignoring the essential
Jewishness of Jesus, His mission, and His teachings. Much of critical NT scholarship is now
returning to this point of view. (For a brief, but thorough, refutation of the idea of Jesus as a
Cynic sage, see [Boyd.CSSG, 153-62].)
- Mack's theory is implicated by his constant appeals to the
community imagination, and that of the early church.
Mack's book is full of phrases such as
"one needs to imagine...one can easily imagine..." ([Mack.Q, 201-2], and elsewhere), "a lengthy
period of creative, intellectual labor," "explosion of intellectual energy," "an astonishing
interpretation of the Christ myth for Macedonians to have managed by the year 50 CE,"
"astounding imagination," "an early achievement in Christian mythmaking," "Matthew's gospel
appeared in the late 80s and comes as a complete surprise," etc., etc.
[Mack.WhoNT, 80, 90, 109, 111, 154, 161] Everywhere in Mack's book, we are
surprised, shocked, confused, or bewildered by the development of
Mack's theory requires so much imagination because, quite frankly, it has so
little proof behind it. Mack's and similar theories require, as Blomberg puts it:
...the assumption that someone, about a generation removed from the events
in question, radically transformed the authentic information about Jesus that
was circulating at that time, superimposed a body of material four times as
large, fabricated almost entirely out of whole cloth, while the church suffered
sufficient collective amnesia to accept the transformation as legitimate.
Blomberg further notes that there is no parallel in the history of religion to such a radical
transformation of a famous teacher or leader in such a short time, "and no identifiable stimulus
among the followers of Jesus sufficient to create such a change." [Wilk.JUF, 22] Indeed, though
he wrote many years before Mack, Kistemaker rightly describes Mack's methods: "In terms of
the form-critical approach, the formation of the individual Gospel units must be understood as a
telescoped project with accelerated course of action." [Kiste.GCS, 48]
And just as properly,
Wright [Wrig.PG, 106] describes the methods of Mack and other critics of his persuasion:
A good deal of New Testament scholarship, in fact, and within that a good
deal of study of Jesus, has proceeded on the assumption that the gospels
cannot possibly make sense as they stand, so that some alternative hypothesis
must be proposed to take the place of the view of Jesus they seem to offer. It
has been assumed that we know, more or less, what Jesus' life, ministry and
self-understanding were like, and that they are unlike the picture we find in
the gospels. But hypotheses of this sort are always short on simplicity, since
they demand an explanation not only of what happened in the ministry of
Jesus, but also of why the early church said something different, and actually
wrote up stories as founding 'myths' which bore little relation to the historical
And thus it is that we have Mack's fictional "Q community" to explain everything; thus it is that
the matter of eyewitness testimony (friendly and hostile) is ignored; thus is it assumed that there
were no restraints to this creativity in the early church.
We are obliged to ask: Was it just
luck that no texts, no histories, and no evidence from these other communties of Mack's
You can believe that if you want - and if you have the requisite faith.
Even beyond Mack's specific "speech in character" theory, however, there are many critics who
presume that the church created sayings of Jesus to fit certain occassions. Most appeal to the
idea that there were Christian "prophets" who spoke the word of the Lord, and that these words
were taken to be the words of the living Jesus.
In general, we may reply that:
- Much of what is in the Gospels is not relevant to the early church.
If there are
passages that were created and put on Jesus' lips, and were therefore products of the early
church, why are they absent teachings of Jesus on subjects critical to the early church? For
example, Jesus says not a word on circumcision, nor on speaking in tongues, church policy,
Jewish/Gentile unity, divorce of non-Christian spouses, and women in the ministry. If the church
felt free to invent Jesus' sayings, why not some sayings on these issues? Even Mark (7:19) had to add his own interpretive comment; he did not put his words in Jesus' mouth.
- Strong oral tradition guards against such fabrication.
If the oral tradition in the church
was solid as indicated above (and this is even stronger if Jesus' sayings were also written
somewhere), how did anyone get away with creating new sayings of Jesus? Anything not in accord
with what Jesus said on earth would have been rejected. (See here for an introduction.)
- Such sayings should be seen as recollection and selection, not creation. Much of what
critics assign to the post-Easter church is just as easily interpreted as arising from Jesus Himself -
making the material a recollection for the occassion, rather than a creation. As Patzia expresses
it: "The sayings that were retained and transmitted were those that met the missionary,
preaching, apologetic and pastoral needs of the early church." [Patz.MNT, 44]
And Nickle, while allowing for creation by the church, also writes that [Nick.SGI, 15]:
The interpretive purposes for which the early church used stories about Jesus
affected the selective process. Those stories which spoke most directly to
questions that were being asked, those narratives which seemed to call forth
the clearest understanding, were the stories used most frequently.
Stories less relevant, Nickle asserts, were retold less, and were thus forgotten. Price [Pric.INP, 171-2]) adds:
It is much more probable that the interests of the early Christians led them to
select, interpret, and apply stories of Jesus, than that the same interests led
them to create stories...if a large part of that (Gospel) tradition was created
by communities lacking historical perspective and only giving expression to
their own interests, how does one account for the presence in the Gospels of
stories derogatory to revered leaders of the early church? Or what of sayings
in the same Gospels which seemingly compromise the conceptions of Christ's
person which prevailed when the Gospels were written?
While we may suppose that the sayings of Jesus were applied in settings that were
different from the original - as would happen anyway, since no two situations are exactly alike! -
we may NOT presume that sayings were created out of the whole cloth - especially because:
- The idea of "prophets" in the church has no historical evidence.
This idea was proposed by Bultmann, who said that the church drew "no disctinction" between utterances by Christian prophets (supposedly from the ascended Christ) and the earthly Jesus. Bultmann took recognizance of statements that were indeed attributed to the Risen Jesus (1 Thess. 4:15, Rev, 2-3) and made much of it, though in neither case is a saying attributed to Jesus when he was on earth. The Montanists in the 2nd century especially were noted from producing sayinsg from Jesus in a prophectic ecstasy [Dunn.CS2, 145].
There can be no question that the church assumed itself capable of authoritative prophetic utterances. But did that authority extend to assuming the ability to put words in Jesus' mouth while on earth? Our answers [see also Dunn.CS2, 148ff]:
- Most of the candidates for such utterances merely assume what they must prove: That the earthly Jesus was not a divine character or was not aware of his divinity or mission (Matt 11:28-30; Luke 11:49-51 -- here I disagree with Dunn, who does suppose that such words were transferred over to Jesus on earth, albeit rarely).
- There is no parallel for attributing the words of a prophet to divinity: No OT books names Yahweh as its author; in Judaism prophetic literature was passed down under the name of the prophet.
The evidence is that the church continued this paradigm. Luke always names prophets who receive utterances (Acts 11:27, 13:1-2, 21:9-14); Revelation is said to be from Christ, but to John (1:1). This implies that the churches "were as suspicious of anonymous prophetic oracles as their Jewish forebears..."
- There were "hostile" witnesses who could recognize sayings that didn't square with what Jesus would say or ever said: If the church broke with Judaism on this point, it is difficult to believe that this would not have been a point of contention that would have echoed down the halls of accusation.
Celsus' Jew accuses the Christians of altering the Gospels to harmonize them, but does not say that they invented words for Jesus based on prophetic oracles, and Diaspora Jews who travelled to Palestine regularly for feasts and would have heard, or heard about, Jesus' teachings were everywhere to give reports or to make accusations.
Moreover, even within the church itself prophetic utterances were tested as they were in Judaism, for truth and accuracy, and false prophecies were warned against (1 Thess. 5:19-22, 2 Thess. 2:2). Prophets were tested in a variety of ways -- by their behavior (with the Didache offering several "tests" and guidelines for conduct, such as living off the community for more than three days), and by their adherence to orthodoxy (see esp. 1 John 4:1-3).
This is specially relevant as popular Jewish opinion held that the prophetic spirit had ceased with Malachi. If there was a claim that the spirit of prophecy was now doing business again, it would have to pass some serious tests to survive in Palestine and among the Diaspora.
- The testimony of Paul (1 Cor. 7:10, 12) indicates that a difference was recognized between the words of Jesus and his own: if Paul could just drop into a creative ecstasy, why would he not "dive in" and bring out a word from the risen Jesus? [Boyd.CSSG, 122-4] He regards his opinion as inspired, to be sure, but does not put it in the mouth of Jesus on earth. (The idea that 1 Cor. 7:10 refers to a "spiritual revelation" received directly by Paul has nothing to commend it and merely begs the question against the natural form of the verbiage.)
On the other hand, Revelation is directly attributed to the exalted Christ. If this was approved by the early church, why the need to switch it all over to the earthly Jesus? Even the Gnostics preferred a "heavenly" attribution to an earthly one.
As Dunn asks, "whence came the sort of (unconscious) pressue which Bultmann must presuppose to incorporate prophetic sayings into the Jesus-tradition?" And note that none of these sayings from Revelation appear as attributed to the earthly Jesus in the Gospels.
The traditional view of the Gospels in terms of their authorship,
date, and historicity, is supported by the weight of the evidence, and rejected only by those
whose own theological agenda forbids them from accepting it.
Sources for Gospels Series
- Alb.Mt Albright, W. F. and C. S. Mann. Matthew. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
- Ander.GM Anderson, Hugh. The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
- Beck.TGJ Beck, Dwight M. Through the Gospels to Jesus. New York: Harper
- Blom.Mt Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. Nashville: Broadman, 1992.
- Blom.Jn Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel. IVP, 2001.
- Bock.L Bock, Darrell. Luke. Downers Grove: IVP, 1994.
- Boyd.CSSG Boyd, Gregory A. Cynic Sage or Son of God? Chicago: Bridgepoint, 1995.
- CarMoo.Int Carson, D.A., Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New
Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
- Chars.JDSS Charlesworth, James H. John and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York:
- Davi.INP Davies, W. D. Invitation to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday,
- Dunn.CS2 Dunn, William D. G. Christ and the Spirit Vol. 2. Eerdmans, 1998.
- Ell.Lk Ellis, E. Earle. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966.
- Evan.Lk Evans, Craig A. Luke. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson,, 1990.
- Fitz.Lk Fitzmeyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke. New York: Doubleday,
- Fran.EvJ France, R. T. The Evidence for Jesus. Downers Grove: IVP, 1986.
- Fran.MET France, R. T. Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
- Full.CNT Fuller, Reginald H. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament. London:
Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1966.
- Gran.GOG Grant, F. C. The Gospels: Their Origin and Their Growth. London: Faber
and Faber, 1957.
- Gran.HNT Grant, Robert M. A Historical Introduction to the New Testament. New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.
- Gund.Mk Gundry, Robert H. Mark. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.
- Gund.Mt Gundry, Robert H. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
- Hag.Mt Hagner, Donald. Matthew 1-13. Dallas: Word, 1993.
- Heib.Int Heibert, D. Edmond. An Introduction to the New Testament. Chicago:
Moody Press, 1975.
- Heng.Mark Hengel, Martin. Studies in the Gospel of Mark. London: SCM, 1985.
- Heng.4G Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Trinity Press International, 2000.
- Keen.Mt Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
- Kelb.OWG Kelber, Werner. The Oral and the Written Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress,
- Kiste.GCS Kistemaker, Simon. The Gospels in Current Study. Grand Rapids: Baker,
- Kumm.Int Kümmel , Wener G. Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville:
- Mack.Q Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q. San Francisco: Harper ,
- Mack.WhoNT Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament? San Francisco: Harper,
- Mart.NTF Martin, Ralph P. New Testament Foundations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
- Meie.MarJ Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York:
- Mine.MTG Minear, Paul S. Matthew: The Teacher's Gospel. New York: Pilgrim Press,
- More.ScCy Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.
- Moul.BNT Moule, C.F.D. The Birth of the New Testament. Cambridge: Harper and
- Moun.Mt Mounce, Robert H. Matthew. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.
- Nick.SGI Nickle, Keith F. The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction. Atlanta: John Knox,
- Patz.MNT Patzia, Arthur G. The Making of the New Testament. Downers Gove: IVP,
- Perr.NTI Perrin, Norman. The New Testament: An Introduction. New York: HBJ,
- Pric.INP Price, James L. Interpreting the New Testament. New York: Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, 1971.
- Pritch.Lit Pritchard, John Paul. A Literary approach to the New Testament. Norman:
U. of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
- Reic.Root Reicke, Bo. The Roots of the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
- Ridd.Mt - Ridderbos, H. N. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
- Robin.PJ Robinson, J. A. T. The Priority of John. London: Meyer and Stone, 1985.
- Robin.RNT Robinson, J. A. T. Redating the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster.
- Sen.GM Senior, Donald. The Gospel of Matthew. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.
- Spiv.ANT Spivey, Robert A. and D. Moody Smith. Anatomy of the New Testament.
New York: Macmillan, 1989.
- Stone.OSG Stonehouse, Ned B. Origins of the Synoptic Gospels. London: Tyndale,
- Stree.4G Streeter, B. H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. London: Macmillan,
1951. (published 1924)
- Tayl.FGT Taylor, Vincent. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: Macmillan,
- Thie.EvJ Thiede, Carsten Peter. Eyewitness to Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
- Thom.HG Thomas, Robert L. and Stanley Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels.
Chicago: Moody Press, 1978.
- Walk.RAG Walker, William O. The Relationshps Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1978.
- Wenh.RMML Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke. Downers Grove: IVP,
- Wilk.JUF Wilkins, Michael J. and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern
Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
- With.AA - Witherington, Ben. The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Paternoster, 1998.
- Wrig.PG Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: