The canonical gospels are the four books in the Bible that record the events of Jesus’ life. In this topic I’ll ask whether they were fiction or fact, propaganda or a sincere attempt to record the facts of Jesus’ life.
Before we can trust the gospels as reasonable records of Jesus’ life we need to ask three questions:
- Are our modern day gospels accurate copies of the original gospels?
- Were the authors of the gospels motivated to record events accurately?
- Were the authors of the gospels objective enough and able enough to record events accurately?
Are our modern day gospels accurate copies of the original gospels?
The answer to this is largely undisputed. The original gospels, being written down by a poor marginalised community, were probably written on cheap papyrus paper. Papyri in anything other than the driest of climates are almost guaranteed to perish. It is not surprising, therefore, that we do not have the originals of any of the four gospels. It is fairly typical for the originals of historical manuscripts to be lost; for example, none of the 37 originals of Shakespeare’s plays exist today, even though they were written only four hundred years ago.
Due to early persecution, the Christian community fled from the Land of Israel into other parts of the Roman Empire. It was probably this migration of Christians that initially led to the distribution of numerous copies of the gospels across the Roman Empire. Today, there are hundreds of vellum manuscripts and early papyrus fragments of New Testament texts. In contrast, we only have a single 12th century copy of Tacitus’ history of the early Roman emperors.
The prevalence of the gospel manuscripts helps us determine how similar the oldest surviving manuscripts are to the originals. A copying error or modification in one manuscript would have been preserved in its future copies. However, the errors or modifications would not have migrated across to those manuscripts that already existed. Those manuscripts would themselves be copied and distributed without those errors or modifications. The commonality between the copies that we now have gives us a feeling for how close our best copies are to the original gospels. Overall, there is good reason for us to be confident that the gospels in a modern day Bible are very close to the original gospels. There are indications of minor copying errors and some minor additions in some copies. Some of these additions can be attributed to the inclusion of marginal notes into the main text during the copying process. There seems to be one significant addition, the story of the woman caught in adultery whose imminent execution by stoning was prevented by Jesus’ words, “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” The ending of Mark’s gospel is sometimes considered to be a latter addition because it is omitted in some manuscripts, though some believe that this, because it is at the end, may have been caused by a loss of the outer pages of one manuscript, which was later copied.
Some modern Bibles highlight these differences to their readers. None of these differences give any reason at all to doubt that the gospels in a modern Bible fundamentally agree with the original gospels, in particular, with respect to their record of Jesus’ preaching, miracles, crucifixion and resurrection. In addition, the abundance of copies of the gospels means that we can be sure that a later institution or government has not biased the gospels for their own purposes. Even if they had been able to rewrite one subset of the copies, they would not have been able to destroy or rewrite all the remaining copies across the known world.
Were the authors of the gospels motivated to record events accurately?
If we can understand the motives of the gospel’s authors then we’ll be more able to decide whether we can trust the gospels ourselves. It might seem unreasonable to try and guess their motives nearly 2000 years after their writing, but, I believe, by the process of elimination, we can make a convincing attempt. The following is a list of every possible motive a writer of any narrative of events might have. They might be motivated to write:
- Folklore that has lost touch with the events that inspired it.
- Fiction for the purpose of entertaining its reader.
- Propaganda for the purpose of manipulating a group of people.
- A hoax for the purpose of fooling its readers and entertaining its writer.
- A deliberate deception for the purpose of achieving a financial or social gain.
- A genuine attempt to record events for the purpose of informing other readers or reminding the writer of the events in the future.
I’ll discuss each one of these in turn.
Folklore that has lost touch with the events that inspired it
I use the term ‘folklore’ here to describe stories that have been passed down through the generations and, by virtue of their retelling, have become embellished to such an extent that they no longer represent the real events that gave rise to them. This embellishment can only happen over multiple generations, allowing each generation to forget some details and embellish others. There will clearly be little or no scope for embellishment once the narrative is written down and widely circulated as a literal account
The gospels do not fit this pattern of embellishment. In my topic, The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes, I show how they were probably written early enough to be verified by eye witnesses of Jesus and that their early acceptance into the Christian community suggests that they would have been seen as being sufficiently accurate. In addition, there is reasonable evidence indicating that the Gospel of John was indeed written by one of Jesus’ apostles. Furthermore, the commonality between the copies of the gospels that remain to this day shows that the gospel stories weren’t embellished after they were first written down. We can therefore confidently conclude that the gospels do not contain mere folklore.
Fiction for the purpose of entertaining its reader
The gospels do not exist in isolation. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus quickly inspired the formation of an early Christian community that were prepared to risk isolation, danger and death to follow their religion. The early Christians clearly didn’t behave as if they believed the gospels to be mere entertainment. Copies of letters to churches, some of which are now called epistles and are found in the Bible, clearly echo this. None of these epistles treat the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as fictional. If contemporaries of the gospel writers were convinced that the gospels were not intended to be viewed as fiction then we too can be sure of this as well.
Propaganda for the purpose of manipulating a group of people
I’m using the term ‘propaganda’ to describe a form of fabrication organised by a powerful governing body that has the means to deceive a large number of people. Throughout history many states or institutions have used propaganda to control or influence people. There were only two governing bodies in power in first century Israel: the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious authorities: the Sadducees and Pharisees. Neither the Roman Empire nor the Sadducees and Pharisees would have had any motive to write the gospels as a form of propaganda. The Christian’s refusal to worship the Roman pagan gods and their independence from the Jewish religious authorities threatened the religious status quo of both Rome and the Land of Israel. 300 years after Jesus’ death the Roman Empire Constantine might have had success uniting the Roman Empire with the Christian religion. However, up until this point, almost from Christianity’s start, the Roman Empire actually persecuted Christians and so was certainly not responsible for writing the gospels that would have been a centre of strength for the religion.
A hoax for the purpose of fooling its readers and entertaining its writer
I’m using the term ‘hoax’ here to describe a fabrication that is organised by people with limited means for no purpose other than to fool its readers. Powerful governing bodies are not motived to utilise their resources to create hoaxes because hoaxes offer little gain to the hoaxers other than mere entertainment. Although a small group of people would have had the means to fabricate the gospel stories, mere entertainment would be insufficient motivation for the life’s work and full time dedication required to fool a community into believing and following this hoax. The Christian community grew too quickly and too soon to be substantiated by nothing more than fictitious characters and events. In reality, the rapid growth that early Christianity enjoyed could only have happened if Jesus and his actions were already publicly known, which they would not have been if they were the result of a fabrication.
In addition, I feel it would be unlikely that a hoax could become so firmly established that it would even be recorded as fact by the well educated Roman-Jewish historian Josephus a few decades after Jesus’ death.
A deliberate deception for the purpose of achieving a financial or social gain
If the entertainment of a hoax would have provided insufficient reward for founding a religion based on fabricated truths then maybe financial gains would have. It is true to say that religious teachers earned livings from their teachings in first century Israel. A sceptic could suggest that the apostles fabricated or embellished the gospel stories in order to earn a living from the subsequent religious following. However, the Christian community underwent severe persecution within a few years of the start of the religion. Firstly, they were persecuted by the Jewish religious authorities and then a few years later in the reign of the Roman Emperor, Nero, many of the Christians were tortured and killed. It is believed that some of the founder members, the apostles, were martyred in this latter persecution. Whatever motivation they would have gained from the livelihood offered by the new religion would have been utterly inadequate to sustain them through such terrifying persecution. The fact that Christianity instead prospered with the founding apostles holding fast to their convictions even to the point of death shows that they were convinced that their religion was based on substance not fabrication.
A genuine attempt to record events
This is the only motive for the writing of the four gospels remaining from our original list. All the others have crumbled under even very basic scrutiny. There is, however, no reason that I’m aware of for rejecting this one remaining motive. To assume this to be true would not even be a misplaced modern day notion; two of the gospels themselves, Luke and John, state that they are an attempt to record events:
“Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV)”
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (NIV)”
I feel that there is no other reasonable explanation as to why the gospels were written. There is, however, one other question that needs answering before we can trust the gospels ourselves …
Were the authors of the gospels objective enough and able enough to record events accurately?
For the writers to be able to write a reasonably accurate record of events when motivated to do so three factors need to be in place: they need the time and skill to write, a source of reliable information and a moderately objective view point with which to interpret events. We know that the writers had the time and skill to write because the gospels exist, so I’ll focus my attention on the two remaining points instead. In my topic, The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes, I describe what we know of the gospel’s authors. I believe there is adequate room for both the believer to trust and the cynic to distrust the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although, the traditionally held view is that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew there is little surviving evidence to support this. The Gospel of Luke states that it is the result of careful investigation. Although there is some evidence to suggest that Luke was a colleague of the apostle Paul, there is no record of his sources. (Paul himself was not a witness of Jesus, although he was a close colleague of the apostles who were.) In summary, there is no reason to doubt these two gospels, but, likewise, there is no reason for the cynic to believe them either.
However, there is some surviving evidence stating that the Gospel of Mark was written by a translator of the apostle Peter who transcribed the gospel from Peter’s sermons. If this is true then we know that he would have had an excellent source for his information. The Gospel of Mark does contain some reporting errors with regard to the geography of the Land of Israel and the interpretation of Jewish divorce law, but these are in keeping with the author being a non-Jew and are insufficient, in my view, to cast doubt on the basic account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
The Gospel of John is the most interesting. It states that it was written by one of Jesus’ apostles, which, if true would mean that it would have been written by a very close eye witness of Jesus. In my topic, The gospels were written within eye witnesses’ lifetimes, I briefly describe how some early church writings state that John was the last of the apostles to write a gospel and that he lived to a great age, even into the reign of Trajan in the second century (AD 98-117). There is an inference that he wrote his gospel in his latter years. John is traditionally believed to have settled in the Hellenistic city of Ephesus in Asia Minor and the gospel was written with a style that reflects this. Some scholars have believed that the Hellenistic style dates the gospel to even later than the beginning of the second century, which, if true, would discredit its claim to being written by an apostle. However, more recently, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid 20th century has shown that a Hellenistic style of writing was in existence in the middle of the first century before AD 70. In addition, the Gospel of John includes many accounts taken from the view point of a close eye witness and it includes detailed and accurate references to geographical features of Jerusalem that would have been difficult to achieve by a writer who was not familiar with the city prior to its destruction in AD 70. It seems that there is enough evidence to challenge even the deepest of cynics that the Gospel of John was written from an excellent first hand account.
So, there is evidence to suggest that the gospels of Mark and John, at least, were supplied by eye witness accounts. Of course, any form of writing is affected in some way by the bias of its author. We need to finally ask if it is possible that the events of the gospel have been unwittingly embellished through the author’s own religious fervour or through a trick of their memory. To answer this question we need to carefully distinguish between the events that could be subjectively recorded and those that cannot. In my topic, There is no natural explanation for Jesus’ miracles, I sift through those events in the Gospel of John that are subjectively recorded and those that are based on third party evidence to see if there are enough of the remaining events, those that are objectively recorded and based on a first hand account, to justify Christianity’s claims regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.