Reliability of the Gospels

Reliability of Four Gospels

(against the (childish) allegation that they are the product of unreliable transmission according to the analogy with party game of telephone wherein a participant whispers a simple story to her neighbor, who whispers it to his, etc., and the story is hopelessly garbled and confused as it is told to the original partygoer.)

An alleged important reason to distrust the Gospels as containing reliable eyewitness testimony is that we cannot be sure who wrote them since they were originally anonymous.

  • There is no evidence the four Gospels were originally anonymous, and later assigned names of famous Apostles.
    • Mark and Luke are not named as Apostles, so this lends credence to their having been written by men with these names (who are identified as companions of Peter and Paul, respectively, in the letters of St. Paul). That is, if the Gospels were forgeries, they would have had celebrity names attached to them (Peter, Andrew, Thomas, Judas, Jesus) as later, gnostic gospel forgeries from the 2nd to 5th centuries are all attributed to ‘famous’ disciples. But all the manuscripts we have ascribe the same names to the corresponding Gospels as is universally accepted.
  • The Gospels were written early in the life of Christian community.
    • The commonly accepted date of AD 70 for the composition of Mark’s Gospel is still within 40 years of death of Jesus, where many eyewitnesses could easily still have been alive, and disputed or corrected any errors.
    • The 70 AD date is assigned since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed that year by Romans. Jesus’ “prophecies” of its destruction are assumed to have been included as later interpolations, after the fact.
      – But this assumes they could not have been true predictions of the future (even if not supernatural, but only an expectation about the brutality of Roman rule).
      – The predictions contain details that would not make sense if they were inserted after the fact. E.g., “Pray that this does not happen in winter.” (Mark 13:18)
      – If the prediction was inserted, we would expect to find some kind of confirmatory commentary, such as, “And this happened just as Jesus predicted,” or “This prophecy was thus fulfilled by the Roman general, Titus.”
    • Luke uses Mark, among others, as a source (Luke 1:1-4), but Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles after his Gospel (Acts 1:1) and his Gospel ends abruptly with Paul going to Rome (Acts 28:16-31)(where he would eventually die around 64 AD). So, Acts was probably written before Paul’s death (or it would have been included), which would place the writing of the Gospel of Luke around 50-55, and Mark, being earlier, around 50 AD (or less). That makes it less than 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • The Gospels include many details about persons and family relationships which could easily be disputed by eyewitnesses, and only make sense if the audience is comprised of people mentioned or people who knew the people mentioned.
  • The Gospels include many episodes and events that are not flattering to disciples and apostles. This is not what one would expect if they are forgeries or propaganda to bolster the power and authority of the Church Jesus founded.
  • The Gospels include the testimony of women, who, according to the standards of the time, were not reliable witnesses. No forgery that was expected to be taken seriously would include such unreliable testimony unless they really did at least claim to witness what the Gospels say they witnessed.
  • Jesus employed the method of a rabbi or spiritual master, in spending three years training disciples, which was (and is) used to inculcate an accurate learning and retention of the teaching and actions of the master. Socially or psychologically, it does not permit the disciples to make alterations or mistakes in the retelling of the oral tradition of the gospel This is especially true when the retelling was done in assemblies of disciples who could and would correct any deviation in the message.
  • There exists many early manuscripts of the Gospels (copied and translated in different parts of Empire allows them to be checked against each other). If there were varying traditions that were competing with each other until the ‘official’ story is codified and canonized (in the 4th century), there would be varying manuscript traditions, which there are not.
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