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The Veracity and Harmony of the Four Gospels

The Synoptic and St John's Gospels


The Four EvangelistsThe following essay does not demonstrate that the four Gospels are ‘inspired’ or the ‘Word of God’.  Indeed, it is nonsense to start a faith journey with such an unreasonable assertion of blind faith. The purpose is far more pedestrian, merely to establish that the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, are reliable history.

Early Roman and Pagan Witnesses

Just one example among several: Tacitus, a Roman historian, writing in about 116 AD (the equivalent of a modern historian writing about the First World War) mentions Christians, and explains that the founder of this sect, Christ, had been executed by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius. Clearly for Tacitus, an historian living but a few decades after Christ, Christ was an actual historical person who had founded a religious sect and whose fate was simply an accepted fact of recent history.

A First-Century Jewish Witness

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, published a lengthy history of the Jews in the year 93.  While discussing the period in which Judea was governed by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, Josephus includes the following account: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” (Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63)

Christian Witnesses

St. Justin, writing to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius around 150 AD, after narrating the facts concerning the death of Christ, then suggests to the emperor that he might substantiate these facts for himself by consulting the official archives of the Roman Empire: “…... That all this really happened as I have described it, Your Majesty can read for yourself, in the official annals compiled under Pontius Pilate ...”

The Four Gospel Writers

Interesting and important as the above witness and others may be, the most significant and abundant evidence for the life of Christ in the first century comes from the New Testament writers, especially the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also St Paul and others.

Are the four Gospels actually written by the men to whom they are attributed?

In examining the manuscript rolls of the four Gospels, the names of four authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are found.  Both manuscript and historical evidence justify the conclusion that the authors of the four Gospels are actually the men to whom they are attributed.

Historians are aware of over four thousand manuscripts from the period up to the ninth century. We have Greek, Latin, Coptic and Syriac manuscripts, manuscripts from every corner of the Roman Empire. Among these the Rylands Papyrus, preserved in the Manchester Library, contains some verses of chapter 18 of the Gospel of St. John, dating back to the first half of the second century.  Not one of those manuscripts suggests any author other than the four attributed by antiquity.  Such unanimity is probably unique.  This unanimity is further collaborated by the testimony of the early fathers of the Church, including men intimate with the Apostles. An internal examination of the Gospels also permits no other conclusion.

Are the Gospels as we read them today the same texts that came from the pens of the Evangelists who wrote them?

In the question of integrity, just as in the question of authenticity, the Gospels again enjoy a privileged position.
Modern scholars have undertaken the painstaking work of comparative examinations of the various manuscripts to attempt to reconstruct the original. The objection might be raised that they have discovered an enormous number of variants.  True.  However, none of these variants touches the essential part of the text.  Amiot [L’Evangile, p.450] sums it up thus: “In the totality of manuscripts, citations from the Fathers prior to the fourth century, and ancient versions, there are some 250,000 variants. The greater part of these are insignificant, since they concern only the spelling and order of words. According to Hort, seven-eighths of the text is beyond discussion. The variants that would change the text are only a thousandth part of the text itself; only about fifteen have any real importance; not one of them touches on the substance of any dogma…..”

Where the Apostles writing fact, not fiction?

The truthfulness of the evangelists can hardly be called into question.  It is a fundamental canon of historical criticism that no one lies without a reason, and the evangelists certainly had no reason to lie.

Prior to following Christ, most of the Apostles were what one today might call middle-class.  John and Peter were members of small family fishing businesses, established enough to be able to afford hired-help.  Luke was a physician. Matthew was a wealthy man, employed in the lucrative Roman financial sector.

In preaching Christ they could expect only persecution, poverty, dishonour and death.  They were considered scandalous traitors to their own nation because they preached a Messiah who spelled the end of Israel’s dreams of political restoration. The pagans looked on them as fools (1 Cor. 1:23). A passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians tells of what he had to suffer in preaching the Gospel (2 Cor.11:16.33).

Matthew

Matthew recounts that, before following Christ, he was a publican.  ‘Publican’ in the Gospels signifies an employee of one of the Roman financial companies who ‘franchised’ the tax collecting for the Roman occupiers.  Because of the Jewish hatred of the Roman occupancy, Jews who served their foreign masters were understandably objects of hatred.  Perhaps a better translation today would be ‘quisling’

Matthew recounts his call to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9-13), which took place about five months after Christ began his public ministry.  From then on Matthew remains one of Christ’s closest companions. Most probably Matthew composed his Gospel in Aramaic around the year 50. The original Aramaic text, however, has not survived. It was translated and reworked into Greek between the years 65-70 AD.

Mark

Mark was the cousin of St Barnabas (Col., 4:10) who was a disciple of the original “inner” twelve.  Showing his affectionate regard for a younger man, St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, calls Mark his son (I Peter 5:13).  It was to Mark’s mother’s house that St Peter turned on his escape from prison in 42 AD.

Mark subsequently worked with of St Peter and St. Paul, at Rome. Early writers record that Mark had been the interpreter and scribe of St Peter, and further that he wrote down accurately the teaching of Peter. Mark’s Gospel was probably written in its present form around the year 65, after the martyrdom of St Peter.

Luke

Luke was not a Jew.  His style proves that he was a Greek.  He was a physician by profession.  St. Luke is a painter in words and the most accomplished of all the New Testament writers.  He was the companion and helper of St Paul and remained with St Paul even during his final imprisonment and martyrdom in Rome.

In the prologue to his Gospel, Luke says that he had taken great pains to inform himself of his material, from those who had been ministers of the Gospel from the very beginning.

On account of the breadth of the field covered by his writings, very few writers have ever had their accuracy put to such a severe test as St. Luke.  Sir William Ramsay, a noted scholar of the first-century Near East, writing in the 1930s concluded that Luke was a first-rate historian; and points out that in references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities and nine islands, Luke does not make one single mistake.  Luke’s Gospel was written probably between 60-70 AD.

John

John was the son of Zebedee and Salome. Salome was one of the women who discovered the empty tomb. John’s brother, James, was also an Apostle. The Gospel records that the two brothers were given by Christ the nickname “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Originally they were fishermen and fished with their father in the Lake of Genesareth. They were called by Christ to discipleship (Matt. 4:18-22) about five months after the start of Christ’s public ministry.

John from then on had a prominent position in the Apostolic body. John alone remained near his beloved Master at the foot of the Cross on Calvary with the Mother of Jesus and the pious women. He took the desolate Mother into his care as the last legacy of Christ (John 19:25-27).

According to tradition, apart from Judas who took his own life, John was the only Apostle who wasn’t martyred.  He died at an advanced age in what is now Turkey, his Gospel being the last to be written. At the end of his Gospel he states explicitly that he has written what he has actually seen and that his testimony is true (John 21:24).

The apostle John narrated events of which he had clearly been an eye-witness: “When they came to Jesus, they found he was already dead, and so instead of breaking his legs one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water. This is the evidence of one who saw it - trustworthy evidence, and he knows that he speaks the truth …..” (John 19:33-35)

Conclusion

Of the four gospel writers, two were Apostles who were with Christ almost daily for the best part of three years, one was the constant companion and scribe of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and one was a gifted historian who spent his adult life in the company of the Apostles.  There can be few events in history that can call four more reliable witnesses to the stand.

The Gospels are historical books, the most historical books of antiquity, and their truthfulness was sealed with the blood of their authors.


This essay is based on, THE GOSPELS - Historical and True, a work of Domenico Grasso SJ, Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Gregorian University, Rome.  Available from Faith – Keyway Publications.

 

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