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Historical reliability of the 4 gospel

Question:  I am currently writing a letter to my sister who has fallen away from the Catholic Church. She doesn't believe in the historical reliability of the 4 gospels. Therefore she does not believe that Jesus came and died for our sins. Her arguement is that they were written so many years after Jesus died that they can not be entirely reliable. How can I explain to her that the 4 gospels are indeed the word of God and are reliable? Thanks for any help. I'm struggling to write this letter. //KGM


Combating Biblical Skepticism

Part One

By Frederick W. Marks

The Bible is our lifeblood. Paul calls it "the sword of the spirit" (Eph. 6:17). For evangelists it is indispensable, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites it innumerable times. Its cadences ring out during the consecration then again at Communion. Twice during the Mass we are reminded that what we are hearing is "the word of the Lord."

In the midst of so much outward display, many contemporary Catholic scholars have subjected the Bible to a drumfire of criticism. Contradictions are alleged; errors are charged. No sooner is a reading announced from the pulpit as being "from the Gospel of Matthew" than one is likely to hear that Matthew may not have been the author. At a recent Good Friday service, the homilist speculated that Christ might not have known who he was until after the Resurrection. Imagine this Jesus of ours—who was God from the moment of conception, who spoke as God throughout his public ministry, and who allowed his followers to worship him—not knowing who he was! So pervasive is the current climate of doubt that we are fortunate if we do not hear a priest say that certain scenes in Christ’s life, as recounted by the evangelists, may never have occurred.

In this discussion, I would like to address five questions:

  1. What is the proper response to allegations of contradiction?
  2. Or error?
  3. Are traditional notions of authorship, dating, and order of composition reliable?
  4. Is it likely that the Gospel writers put words in Jesus’ mouth for promotional purposes or to compensate for a loss of memory?
  5. How impressed should we be with what "scholars" have been saying?


Allegations of contradiction have been around for a long time. Tatian, a student of Justin Martyr, penned a defense of biblical inerrancy in A.D. 170. Augustine, over two centuries later, wrote hundreds of pages on the harmony of the Gospels in response to Porphyry.

But even if a charge is new, there is not a single one that cannot be dealt with handily. What we face most often is a situation in which two statements differ but are not mutually exclusive. Some have assumed, for instance, that the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) are the same discourse edited in different ways for different audiences, possibly too that they are edited collections of diverse sayings spanning Jesus’ three-year ministry.

But why resort to speculation when Jesus must have given the same basic speech hundreds of times? Undoubtedly there was a long form and a short form as well as intermediate forms. Surely he suited his words to his audience and the circumstances. How much time did he have? Was it late in the day when he spoke? Was a thunderstorm brewing?

The same may be said of the Lord’s Prayer, of which we have two different versions. Is this really a problem? Jesus must have taught many groups how to pray. Some may have been children, others adults. Whatever the case, is it fair to assume that the "official version" never varied—or even that there was an official version?

It often is assumed that biblical accounts of the length of King Saul’s reign are inconsistent. Luke gives a figure of forty years (cf. Acts 13:21) in comparison with 1 Samuel 13:1, where the figure is two. But could it not be—indeed, is it not likely—that both authors are correct? Saul was not king de jure for more than a very short interval, though he reigned de facto for the duration. From a spiritual point of view, he ceased to be king the moment Samuel announced that his reign was at an end. He had been found wanting because he was a proud man unwilling to follow God’s instructions. He clung to his throne long after Samuel’s anointing of David. But from this point on, he was no more king in God’s eyes than Adonijah was king after Nathan’s anointing of Solomon.

In the rare instance of an alleged contradiction that appears hard to crack, there are affordable, up-to-date encyclopedias of Bible difficulties. Since they are compiled mainly by Protestants, they tend to reflect Protestant theology, but they are exceedingly useful. Book by book, verse by verse, they solve thousands of ostensible problems. One begins by learning why the account of Creation in Genesis 1 is compatible with that found in Genesis 2, and by the end of the volume, one has harmonized divergent accounts of the death of Judas. (See, for example, Gleason Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties [1982]; Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask [1992]).


How do we deal with allegations of error apart from contradiction? Academic texts routinely impugn the integrity of the Bible. A text currently in use at Catholic schools (Discovering God’s Word [1995] by Marilyn Gustin) accuses Matthew of having erred in naming Herod as king of Judea in the year of Jesus’ birth. Herod, we are told, died in 4 B.C. The same book—which, by the way, bears the imprimatur of a Catholic bishop—charges Luke with a similar mistake in naming Quirinius as governor of Syria. It also faults Mark for having described Jesus as traveling north from Galilee in order to go south to Jerusalem.

Such charges are dismissed easily. Jesus was most likely born in 6 B.C., a year that featured the confluence of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—something that occurs only every 800 years. So it was not Matthew who erred but rather a sixth-century scholar who fixed Jesus’ birth approximately six years after the actual event. Although Roman records locate Quirinius’s governorship in later years, Quirinius was a leading general active in the area north of Palestine, and there was a changing of governors in 6 B.C. Quirinius may have served as acting governor between terms, even if only for a few months. As for the possibility of Jesus going north in order to go south, he might have done so in order to transact business, visit friends, or take advantage of special modes of transportation to Jerusalem. Besides, Jewish authorities were plotting to take his life, and direct routes would not have been the safest to take.

The reliability of the Bible has been vindicated again and again by historians and archaeologists. Scholars questioned the probability of a number of strange-sounding patriarchal names in the Old Testament until a Sumerian tablet was found inscribed with the very names in question. In the same way, the Jews were judged wrong for having traced the Nile and Euphrates Rivers to the same source until an Arabian river was discovered with the same name as the one in Egypt.

The sudden annihilation of 185,000 Assyrians as recounted in the Bible was likewise doubted until confirmation surfaced in the works of ancient historians. Archaeologists have confirmed Lot’s testimony on the fertility of the lower Jordan Valley, long questioned, just as they have validated the biblical account of a sudden crumbling of the walls of Jericho. Noah’s flood, once the butt of scholarly ridicule, finds support in the oral and pictorial record of primitive peoples. By the same token, biblical reference to the destruction of Canaanite cities, once suspect in academia, has found acceptance.

There is more. Sodom and Gomorrah were once thought to be legendary cities, but no longer. Even the possibility of fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom is reinforced by modern geological analysis as well as by Greek and Roman writings. Old Testament details relating to the Jewish exile in Egypt have come to be regarded as accurate down to the price of an ordinary slave (twenty shekels). We have confirmation, moreover, of the existence of the Queen of Sheba along with Belshazzar’s Feast and the Pool of Bethesda’s five porticoes, all previously doubted.

Traditional attribution of certain psalms to King David, once rejected by scholars, is back in favor. At the same time, archaeological excavation points to a close association between Hebrews and Moabites as implied by the book of Ruth. Finally, Jesus and his followers invariably accepted Old Testament accounts of miracles at face value. Take, for example, Jesus’ reference to fire and brimstone destroying Sodom "on the day when Lot went out" (Luke 17:29).

Because we do not have entire original manuscript copies of any of the books of Scripture, one may encounter an occasional copyist error (e.g., 22 for 222), not to mention, here and there, a slip in translation. But the vast majority of allegations are utterly groundless, and those that have not been disproven will falter given time. Once in a great while God’s word fails to jibe with secular records. But secular record-keepers have been known to make mistakes. Why should the most thoroughly tested and rigorously authenticated book in the entire ancient world be called into question unless one can prove beyond any reasonable doubt that it is wrong?

Traditional notions of authenticity

Can we rely on traditional notions of Gospel authorship, dating, and order of composition? If one could establish that the Gospels were not written until the second century, as many modern scholars have attempted to do, then it would be easier to question their authorship and, by implication, their reliability. Late dating also lends itself to speculation that Jesus’ stunning prediction regarding the fall of Jerusalem may have been an interpolation that was inserted at a later date for dramatic effect or to blame Jewish leaders for rejecting the Messiah.

Regarding order of composition, it should be noted that Matthew is our only source for some of Jesus’ most important sayings and actions, including his presentation of the "keys" to Peter (signifying Petrine leadership). If one could establish that Mark preceded Matthew, as many have tried to do, Matthew would be more vulnerable to the charge that his Gospel is not original but is merely an embroidered version of Mark and hence less useful as a buttress for Catholic teaching.

Experts in manuscript dating (papyrology), using state-of-the-art, high-power microscopes, have estimated that fragments of Matthew currently at Oxford University were in circulation before A.D. 70 and most likely before 60. (Especially good on this point is Carsten Thiele and Matthew D’Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence about the Origin of the Gospel [1996]). In addition, we have the findings of language specialists. Just as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady could place strangers within a few blocks of their birthplace in London by the idioms in their accents, so too can philologists pinpoint the date of an ancient manuscript to within a decade or two of its composition on the basis of which expressions were popular with a given generation. Some of the latest philological research on the Gospels places all four somewhere between 40 and 50. (Here I would refer readers to Jean Carmignac’s pioneer volume The Birth of the Synoptics [1987]. Carmignac, a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is one of the foremost French biblical scholars of the twentieth century.)

As important as science is the historical foundation undergirding Sacred Tradition. Among those who confirm authorship, early dating, and order of composition during early Christian times are heretics, Jewish writers, and pagan commentators, not to mention Orthodox writers living near the Holy Land—hardly a friendly constituency.

Bearing in mind that, until around 155 to 160, there were still some alive who had studied under one of the twelve apostles, the list is impressive. Polycarp (c. 69–155) studied under John, and Irenaeus (c. 125–203)—who was Polycarp’s student as well as the author of several scholarly volumes—vouches for Tradition on authorship, dating, and order of composition. Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, the first prominent post-apostolic Church historian, writing around A.D. 140, affirms that the first Gospel was by Matthew, just as he speaks of another Gospel by Mark. Papias is quoted by Eusebius. Almost thirty years before Papias, Hermas, in his work Shepherd, identified Luke and John as the authors of the third and fourth Gospels.

Tertullian, writing from Africa about A.D. 160, makes a telling distinction between Matthew and John, whom he calls "apostles," as compared with Mark and Luke, whom he describes as "apostolic men." The Anti-Marcion Prologues to the Gospels (c. 150–200) gives the order of composition as Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are additional sources for one or more of the above points, including Clement of Rome (first century); Ignatius of Antioch (early second century); the Didache (90–100); the fragment of Muratori (second century); Clement of Alexandria (140–215); Theophilus, bishop of Antioch (c. 150); Justin (c. 160); and Origen (185–253).

In manuscripts of a still earlier date, such as a letter of Polycarp and the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch (martyred about 107), we find quotations from and allusions to the Gospels. The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 120) quotes from Matthew. Even the first heretics—Cerinthus (first century), Valentinus (d. 160), Marcion (c. 110–165), Basilides (early second century), and Tatian (late second century)—all agree that the first three Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke at approximately the dates agreed on by orthodox Christian authors.

Internal evidence of authorship may be adduced as well. John is reputed to have been from a priestly family, and the author of the fourth Gospel displays knowledge of Jerusalem, along with its Temple and liturgy, that is unmistakably clerical. John claims to have been an eyewitness, and this too is confirmed by displays of firsthand knowledge. For example, he tells us that at Cana the water jars were filled "to the brim" (John 2:7) and that when Lazarus’ sister Mary used a perfumed balm to anoint Jesus’ feet, the whole room was suffused with the sweetness of its scent (12:3). Finally, John’s insistence on being a witness to the Crucifixion is borne out by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who identify one and only one apostle, John, as having stood at the foot of the cross.

Luke is said to have been a doctor, and his Gospel contains a variety of specialized medical terms that clearly identify the author as a physician. Noted Bible translator William Barclay sees medical expertise in the way Luke describes the cure of a withered hand and also in his use of a verb that suggests clinical observation and a noun that implies symptoms of insanity (cf. The Gospel of Luke [1975] 52, 72, 86, 219, 294). When Luke refers to a needle, he alone uses a term signifying a surgical needle as opposed to the kind used for sewing. And Luke alone includes Jesus’ words "Physician, heal yourself" (Luke 4:23).

For his part, Matthew is reputed to have been a tax collector (Levi), and his Gospel is uniquely concerned with matters of coinage and money. He alone refers to the precious gifts of the Magi; he alone relates the parable of the talents (as opposed to Luke’s "gold pieces") and writes of the paying of the Temple tax with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish (cf. Matt. 17:27). Typically, instead of relating that Judas received "money" for betraying Jesus (as do Mark and Luke), Matthew specifies kind and amount: "thirty pieces of silver."

Early dating for all four Gospels is indicated in the first instance by their lack of reference to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Matthew especially stands out in this respect because of his emphasis on the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Secondly, Luke speaks in his Acts of the Apostles (c. 63) of having written an earlier treatise (cf. Acts 1:1). Thirdly, all four Gospels contain hundreds of details relating to people, places, and events not likely to have been familiar to authors of a later period.

In part two of this article we will consider whether the evangelists put words in Jesus’ mouth and how impressed we should be with what biblical "scholars" have been saying.

Combating Biblical Skepticism

Part 2

By Frederick W. Marks

In the last issue, we dealt with three interrelated questions concerning Scripture: (1) What is the proper response to allegations of contradiction? (2) How does one deal with charges of error (apart from contradiction)? (3) Can one rely on traditional notions of authorship, dating, and order of composition? In this article we will address two more questions of importance: (4) Did the Gospel writers put words in Jesus’ mouth? (5) How impressed should one be with the findings of scholars?

Words in Jesus’ mouth?

Is it likely that the Gospel writers put things in Jesus’ mouth for promotional purposes or to compensate for faulty recollection? Certainly not. Apart from the retentiveness of students’ memories in those days (phenomenal by our standards); apart from the fact that Matthew and John studied for several years—spring, summer, fall, and winter—at the feet of the greatest teacher the world has ever known; apart from the fact that Jesus must have used numerous techniques to stamp his teaching indelibly upon impressionable minds, there was the working of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord promised his apostles that "The Holy Spirit . . . will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you" (John 14:26, emphasis added). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we may take such words at face value because "the Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, ‘whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught’" (CCC 126, emphasis added). It is worth noting that Jesus wanted his words reported with precision. "My words will never pass away," he prophesied, adding that "every word that comes forth from the mouth of God" is spiritually nourishing.

As for charges that the sacred writers invented sayings or entire discourses for the sake of evangelization, no student with any respect for his mentor would ever have dreamed of doing such a thing, let alone individuals who took their cue from the God-Man. In an age when one rarely took notes owing to the scarcity of paper, the rabbis used to say that a good pupil was like a cistern that never leaked. Faking a mentor’s teachings would have reflected as much on the mentor as it did on the student. It would also have been exceedingly risky, for such fraud would almost surely have come to light in an age of eyewitnesses. No one during early apostolic times ever questioned the veracity of the Gospel records of Jesus’ teachings. Later on, Christian apologists from Justin Martyr to Augustine challenged Jewish leaders to deny the reliability of the Gospels, and the answer was silence (Hilarin Felder, Christ and the Critics, vol. 2, 294–295).

Could there have been substantial tampering with the original copies? Again, highly unlikely. A skewed manuscript would have stood out in comparison with manuscripts located elsewhere, and, once detected, it could have been corrected by members of a faith community that imposed severe penalties for falsification. John, in his Book of Revelation, warns against the slightest addition or subtraction from his words (22:18–19). Tampering is doubly ruled out by virtue of the uniformity that characterizes extant copies.

Luke and John, who go out of their way to claim accuracy, are also remarkably fastidious. Scholars have studied Luke’s books and concluded that he is right even in minor historical details. Why, moreover, would unscrupulous "spin" artists have included so many homely details? Why would they have recorded Jesus’ claims to be God, along with his insistence on the Real Presence in the Eucharist (John 6)? Such teachings served merely to make Christianity a hard sell. Why would John, who stressed Jesus’ divinity, have included so much material damaging to his case? John’s Gospel has been called "the gospel of truth" because of its singular emphasis on integrity. Its author might likewise be called the "apostle of truth" since his letters highlight the same theme. One finds no less than four such references in one paragraph, six more in a brief chapter (1 John 1:5–10; 1 John 2).

Christianity in general represents a greatly stepped-up insistence on truth telling. Not that the Old Testament was lax in this regard. On the contrary, Proverbs and Deuteronomy warn against altering the inspired text, and lying is condemned by Leviticus (cf. 19:11) and Proverbs (cf. 6:17). Sirach describes lying as worse than stealing (cf. 20:24)—an interesting inversion of the Commandments—while, according to the book of Wisdom, falsehood destroys the soul (cf. 1:11). But Jesus went further, telling his followers that the truth would set them free and that he was himself "the Truth" in comparison with the devil, whom he dubbed "the father of lies." Before his passion and death, he clashed with Pilate on the issue of absolutes and, following the Resurrection, he rebuked Peter for lying to inquirers in the courtyard of the high priest despite extenuating circumstances.

Not long after Pentecost, two of Christ’s disciples felt the fire of this insistence on truth when Peter took them to task for deception, and both were struck dead. Paul exhorted his fellow Christians to feed on "the unleavened bread of sincerity" (1 Cor. 5:8). Some he chastised for duplicity, others he warned lest, like Ananias and Sapphira, they incur the wrath of the Almighty. This is why it makes little sense to compare liberties such as Plato may have taken in his literary portrait of Socrates with the writings of Christian evangelists. Unlike them, Plato did not come from a rabbinical background; he did not worship his subject or regard him as God; he was not working under any special power of the Holy Spirit; nor did he give his life for what he had written, as did many of the early Christians. Socrates, moreover, unlike Jesus, could not make a divinely backed claim that his words would "never pass away."

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas was adamant about the need for absolute integrity of discourse (Summa Theologica, 2:2:109), and the tradition continues. The Catechism condemns mere adulation (in the sense of hollow flattery) as sinful, even if the goal is only to avoid evil (cf. CCC 2480).

Why, in the final analysis, would the first generation of Christians have given their lives for a lie? According to Tacitus, dean of Roman historians and no friend to Christians, an "enormous multitude" of Christ’s disciples were martyred under Nero (cf. Annals 15:44). Their deaths occurred at a time when many eyewitnesses were living who would have known if any of the standard accounts had been false.

What about the findings of scholars?

How impressed should one be with the findings of scholars? We have traversed some of this ground already. But there is more to be said. A good portion of conventional wisdom is based on the irrational assumption that miracles either do not or cannot happen. Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), professor of biblical studies at the University of Marburg, Germany, and the father of modern "demythologization," said it was "impossible to use electric light . . . and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles" (William Most, Catholic Apologetics Today, 7). Bultmann came to the United States in 1958 and delivered an influential series of lectures entitled, "Jesus Christ and Mythology." From then on, it has been open season on the Bible for many Catholic intellectuals, who appear only too willing, in many cases, to second Bultmann’s preposterous claim that we can know practically nothing about Jesus’ life and personality.

Academia is full of individuals who suffer from mysterophobia. They would not believe in a miracle even if 75,000 people, including agnostics and atheists, witnessed it and even if it was reported in the newspapers—such as happened at Fatima in 1917. If one were to levitate twenty feet off the ground in broad daylight before their very eyes, they would not believe. Yet these are the folks who would dictate what we are to think about the Bible.

Modern scholarship piles assumption on top of assumption and treats speculation as fact. At once unscholarly and unhistorical, it is not even scientific. As Karl Keating has pointed out, the "Q" source theory that many rely upon to justify the idea that Mark preceded Matthew is overwhelmed by countervailing data, but "Q" marches merrily on.

The phrase "most scholars" should leave us cold, for scholars in overwhelming numbers have been wrong. In the fourth century, most of the Church’s intelligentsia questioned the divinity of Christ. Centuries later, a preponderance of "brains" held that a Church council could override the pope. Both of these theories, Arianism and Conciliarism, were badges of academic respectability at one time, and both are heresies. Neither is the prestige of individuals any guarantee of orthodoxy. Tertullian (c. 150–230), the author of thirty-three books, was second to none during his lifetime as a Christian scholar-theologian. Yet he wound up apostatizing because he could not abide Catholic absolution of persons guilty of grave sexual sin.

Scholars are also notorious for their mutability. Until recently, many Bible exegetes placed the writing of the Gospels after the year 100, thereby excluding the possibility of direct eyewitness testimony. Now, based on advanced archeological science, most experts put the date before 90, most of them before 70. Once upon a time, Homer, King Arthur, and the city of Troy were viewed as figments of the literary imagination. No longer.

We tend, as a breed, to place too much credence in what "scholars" have to say and not enough in what Holy Mother Church has been saying for two thousand years and continues to say. Many of today’s theologians have set themselves at odds not only with Sacred Tradition, the Bible, and common sense, but also with the Catechism, the Doctors of the Church, a long line of pontiffs, and the infallible pronouncements of Church councils.

Vatican II’s teaching on Scripture, as set forth in Dei Verbum, is worth noting for the number of times certain phrases occur. For example: Scripture as "truth" (seven times), as "the Word of God" (nine times), as written "under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit" (seven times). We are assured that the evangelists "consigned to writing what he [God] wanted and no more"; that they did it "truthfully and without error"; that after the Ascension, they "handed on to their hearers what he had said and done" (italics added); that they then handed on in writing "the same message they had preached." Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are named as authors of Gospels that "have told us the honest truth about Jesus." Finally, the Bible is described as an "unalterable" book which "stands forever." It is hard to imagine a sixteen-page document going any further by way of reassurance.

In 1995, twenty-four years after Pope Paul VI reorganized the Pontifical Biblical Commission, placing it under the aegis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, John Paul had stern words for its members: "Your ecclesiastical task," he told them, "should be to treat the Sacred Writings inspired by God with the utmost veneration and to distinguish accurately the text of Sacred Scripture from learned conjectures, both yours and others’ . . . A certain confusion can be noted inasmuch as there are some who have more faith in views which are conjecture than in words which are divine" (George Weigel, Witness to Hope, 919).

Veneration of the type recommended by John Paul II is perhaps best exemplified by Augustine, who handed down a famous rule of interpretation: namely, "not to depart from the literal and obvious sense except . . . where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires" (De Gen ad litt. lib. 8 cap. 7, 13, quoted in Leo XIII’s Encyclical Letter on The Study of Holy Scripture). A spirit of veneration requires, in addition, that one accept biblical teaching on faith and morals as universal and timeless unless the magisterium of the Church indicates otherwise. Cultural change is no reason, in and of itself, to discount Sacred Scripture. Jesus himself said, "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35), "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31), and "not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:18). Paul added, in similar vein, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8) and "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). We also have Psalm 119:151–52: "But thou art near, O Lord, and all thy commandments are true. Long have I known from thy testimonies that thou hast founded them for ever."

If we continue to regard Scripture as unreliable and teach others to do the same, our prospect for converting non-Christians will approach the zero mark. We will also lose more of our brethren to evangelical Protestant groups, whose respect for the Bible is a given. It is time for Catholic homilists and apologists who have allowed themselves to be infected by the virus of biblical skepticism to turn over a new leaf and to cry out for all to hear that the emperor has no clothes. He is naked, and the game is up.

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