ARE THE BIBLICAL SCRIPTURES RELIABLE? PART ONE
Most Christians believe the Biblical Scriptures are inspired by an infallible God and are therefore inerrant in their original autographs. To be infallible means to be incapable of error and to be inerrant means to be without error. Many Christians tend to believe our present canon of Scripture is what has always been and never examine exactly how this particular grouping of writings came to be.
In recent years many books have been written by Christian theologians and church historians who have raised questions as to the reliability of the Biblical Scriptures. The Scriptures have been questioned as to whether they provide us with accurate history and an authentic portrait of Jesus and the early development of the Christian Church.
This questioning of Scriptural reliability largely began with what is generally referred to as the “age of enlightenment” which began during the nineteenth century and led to a protocol for examining the Scriptures called “higher textual criticism.” Higher textual criticism is a process whereby the Scriptures are carefully examined as to their origins and whether such origins are trustworthy. While some Christians question the need for such examination, many Christian historians and theologians welcome such inspection of the Biblical Scriptures and believe it to be a necessary step in establishing their validity and reliability.
A major impetus to examining the New Testament (NT) Scriptures in this manner was a work published in 1934 by German theologian Walter Bauer entitled, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. In this work, Bauer presented research that led to his conclusion that first century Christianity was quite diverse in its doctrinal beliefs and it wasn't until much later that these diverse beliefs were narrowed to a particular set of beliefs that were labeled "orthodox" (right belief) by Church leadership. Bauer contends that "heresy" preceded "orthodoxy." "Heresy" (AKA heterodoxy) basically means "different belief" although some define it as "wrong belief."
Bauer believes the evidence shows that first century Christianity had a significant diversity of beliefs and, therefore, "heresy" (different beliefs) preceded "orthodoxy" (right belief). Bauer believes the NT canon was established after centuries of controversies as to what documents should be accepted as orthodox. Bauer saw the NT canon as being established by the winners of these controversies and, therefore, saw no divine involvement in this process. Bauer's work has had a strong influence on contemporary Christian scholarship.
Discovery of ancient documents:
A second factor that has impacted the way the Bible is looked at are the archaeological finds of the twentieth century. In 1945 over 50 documents were discovered at Nag Hammadi Egypt. These documents revealed a variety of Christian beliefs and practices from the second century onward that in some cases are quite different from beliefs and practices we commonly associate with Christianity today. The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 gave additional insights into the diversity of belief and practice extant in the Judaism of Christ’s day (See my three-part series on the Dead Sea Scrolls entitled, "The Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls."
In recent years many books have been written challenging the traditional way the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood. Some books, such as the Da Vinci Code, are largely fiction and yet have been read by multiple millions of people. Books such as these have had an impact on how some now view Christ and the events associated with Christ in the New Testament (NT). While the Da Vinci Code and books like it have been shown to be lacking in verifiable information, other books, often written by prominent Biblical scholars, have created quite a stir in the Christian community.
In November of 2005, well known New Testament scholar and Church historian Bart Ehrman published a book entitled Misquoting Jesus. This book became a best seller and has been read by millions. Ehrman published a followup to this book in 2009 entitled, Jesus Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About them). In 2014 Ehrman published How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. In this book Ehrman challenges the validity of the resurrection and many other elements of traditional Christian theology.
Ehrman presents a challenge to the common belief that the Biblical Scriptures are inerrant by showing that the copies of the NT Greek texts used to translate the NT into English and other languages are copies of copies of copies. Since we have no original texts of the NT, how can it be said that what we do have is inerrant writing? How can we be sure what the original texts actually said?
Ehrman claims there are a massive number of differences in the wording of the Greek manuscripts, especially among the oldest documents. To Ehrman this means the texts have not been carefully copied. If the texts have not been carefully copied, how can we know what the original texts actually said? He further claims that orthodox scribes over the centuries have altered the text of the NT to reflect the orthodoxy of their day as opposed to remaining true to the meaning contained in the texts they were copying. This, it is believed, makes it even more difficult to ascertain what the original authors of Biblical texts actually wrote. Ehrman articulates this issue in some detail in his 1993 publication, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture.
Like Walter Bauer, Ehrman believes there was great diversity of Christian belief in the first century Church and "orthodox" belief wasn't established until well into the fourth century. As is true with Bauer, Ehrman believes the NT canon was established by the winners of the controversies over what documents belong in the canon and there was no divine involvement with this process,
It is believed that if God was involved in development of the canon, He would not have allowed centuries to go by during which time Christians used an assortment of documents in determining their belief system. It is believed God would have wanted His Church to have a recognized group of authoritative documents from early on in the development of the Church so that there could be unity of doctrinal understanding. It is felt God would have seen to it that orthodoxy was established quickly so that the Church would have a solid doctrinal foundation from its beginning and going forward. It is further believed that if God was involved in the production of documents that would govern the Church, such documents would not be subject to multiple interpretations but would be written in a manner that would be very straightforward and easily understood, not only by the writers of such documents but all those who would read such documents down through the centuries. You would not have Paul writing things hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16) if God was truly orchestrating the development of documents for His Church.
Ehrman is a very credible scholar as opposed to someone like Dan Brown who wrote the Da Vinci Code. Ehrman is considered one of the top textual critics in the field of Biblical studies. So we can’t just brush him off as some oddball writing a bunch of nonsense. More importantly, what Ehrman writes is what is commonly being discussed and taught in many theological seminaries where Biblical study is approached under what is called the "Historical-Critical Method." This method teaches that the Scriptural canon is not the result of divine orchestration but is strictly a human invention based on fortuitous dynamics that have occurred over time.
So what are we to make of Ehrman's claims? Are his claims legitimate? Should we be concerned with what he says about the documents that make up what we call the Bible? Many have come to question the veracity of the Scriptures after reading his materials and the works of others like him. Many modern day scholars distinguish between what they see as the historical Jesus versus the Jesus of faith. The implication is that the historical Jesus is identified on the basis of critical historical investigation while the Jesus of faith is a manufactured Jesus, a Jesus the Church invented as the years went by.
Is there a difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith? Many scholars seem to think so. Scholars who take a historical approach to the study of Christianity examine the claims of Scripture in terms of their probability. For example, the Scriptures claim Jesus was born of a virgin. Since virgin births are virtually non existent, it is believed the probability of Jesus being born of a virgin is highly unlikely. The same is true for resurrections. Of the multiple billions of people who have died, how many independently verified resurrections have there been? Virtually none. Therefore, the purported resurrection of Jesus is considered highly improbable.
For the scholar who takes a historical approach to an examination of the Biblical Scriptures, there must be reasonable probability that the events recorded in scripture occurred. If such probability isn't apparent, it is concluded that to believe in such events is a matter of faith and not of evidence. This is why there is a distinction made between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. From a probability standpoint, events such as a virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water, etc. are considered highly improbable as such events don't normally happen. Therefore, it is concluded that such events cannot be substantiated and to believe them to be true is to exercise blind faith.
Is belief in the virgin birth, resurrection and other supernatural events recorded in Scripture a blind faith? Is there reasonable evidence that these events actually occurred? Since the claims of church historians such as Bart Ehrman are having an increasing impact on the Christian community, it is important and necessary we examine their claims.
So let’s use Ehrman’s claims as a springboard for an examination of the reliability of the Biblical Scriptures. Let us treat Bart Ehrman’s claims as a challenge to faith in the reliability of the Biblical Scriptures because that is exactly what his claims are doing. They are creating a challenge to the traditional way in which the Scriptures are viewed within the Christian community.
Ehrman, as is true of some other theologians who have produced material critical of the NT documents, has a rather interesting background. He converted to fundamentalist Christianity as a teenager. He attended the very conservative Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and after graduation from that Institute he attended Wheaton College and Wheaton College Graduate School where he earned degrees in NT. He later completed his Master’s of Divinity and PhD degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied under the late Bruce Metzger, a well respected NT textual critic and Christian apologist.
Ehrman began as a conservative Evangelical Christian but, after years of study and research, has become an agnostic. It should be pointed out, however, that his agnosticism has not altogether resulted from his findings relative to Biblical errancy. His becoming an agnostic has come about largely as a result of his inability to reconcile the suffering seen in the world with a loving God. His discussion of this issue can be seen in his book entitled, "God's Problem, How the Bible Fails to Answer Our most Important Question - Why We Suffer."
The focus of this series:
In this series of essays, we will examine the evidence for the reliability of the Biblical Scriptures. We will study the issue of when these Scriptures were written. We will discuss the canonization process to show how the Bible, as we know it, came to be. We will look at what are called extra-canonical documents and determine whether they have valid things to tell us about the Christ event that are not found in the canonical Scriptures. We will explore the methodologies used by the authors of Scripture. We will look at the concepts of Biblical inerrancy and address the issue of Divine inspiration.
Fundamentalist Christians will sometimes say that if you can show me one mistake in the Bible I will throw the Bible in the waste basket because it can’t be the word of God. It is this very approach to the Scriptures that has destroyed people’s faith because when they do discover inconsistencies or outright contradictions in Scripture, they conclude the Scriptures as a whole can’t be trusted. This is a most unfortunate approach to a study of the Biblical Scriptures or any other documents for that matter. This is not the approach we should take to determining the viability of the Christian message.
The truth of the Christian message is not dependent on whether or not the Bible is inerrant or on whether or not we can harmonize the four Gospels or on whether or not the accounts of events recorded in Scripture are all internally consistent. The truth of the Christian message is not dependent on proof that no mistake can be found in Scriptures. The truth of the Christian message rests on determining whether there is evidence beyond reasonable doubt that the Christ event happened as described in the Scriptures and that the Bible as a whole is generally reliable as to what it reports. So let’s begin our journey.
What is the Bible?
What is the Bible? The word Bible simply means books. The Bible is a collection of documents consisting of histories, poetry, prophetic and wisdom literature, letters, gospels and other forms of communication. A wide variety of authors and writing styles are represented in the Bible. As Ehrman says, no original manuscripts exist. What we have are copies of copies that have come down to us through the centuries.
The Bible is different from other literature in that many believe it to be the actual word of God. Even though the documents represented in the Bible were written by human authors, it is largely believed that these authors were in some way led by God to write what they wrote. It is therefore believed that God is the real author of Biblical Scripture and its human authors were simply scribes responding to the leading of God’s Spirit. It is because of this belief that many view the Scriptures as inerrant documents written by infallible authors who made no mistakes because God was behind every stroke of their pen.
It is interesting to note that no Biblical author claims infallibility or that what they wrote is inerrant. You will not find such claims anywhere in Scripture. What you will find, is some authors of Biblical documents claiming to directly quote God in their writings and if such quotes are truly the voice of God and were written down accurately, we would have inerrant statements since God is infallible. Most Biblical Scriptures do not contain direct quotes from God. Therefore, the question that must be asked and answered is simply this: When writers of Biblical Scripture wrote what they wrote, and they were not directly quoting God, was what they wrote still in some manner directed by God to the point that it is inerrant writing?
Most modern day Christian scholars believe the Biblical writings simply reflect the author’s personal response to oral and written information and personally experienced events? It is believed their writings reflect their personal perspectives and were conditioned by their personal, cultural, social, political, and religious beliefs? In fact even where Scriptural authors purport to directly quote God, it is believed such authors are filtering what they claim God to have said through their own personal, cultural, political and religious perceptions.
For example, when Paul wrote his letters to the Christians at Corinth, he was often writing them about issues pertinent to them at the time and offering various solutions to what he perceived as problems that needed to be addressed. Was God managing Paul’s thoughts to insure that what he wrote the Corinthians was inerrant/infallible truth? Or was Paul simply expressing his own understanding of God’s will but not necessarily expressing a thought for thought reflection of Gods mind and therefore not necessarily making inerrant or infallible statements.
When Apostle John wrote what appears to be a personal letter to his friend Gaius (3 John), are we to believe God was funneling into John's head what to write and, therefore, what John wrote in a personal letter to a friend was "divinely inspired"? Or, is it more reasonable to believe John was simply expressing his own thoughts in writing this letter no different than you or I would be doing when writing to a friend? When Paul writes to Timothy and says: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments" (2 Timothy 4:13), was God supernaturally directing Paul to make this request?
Since not one of the four Gospels internally identify their authors, some scholars believe the Gospels in our present canon of Scripture were written not by the authors of record but were written pseudonymously, meaning they were written by authors who appropriated the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to give what was written creditability. It is believed this resulted in the development of a certain amount of legend about Jesus, including what some consider the myth of His virgin birth and His resurrection from the dead. There has been a lot of print about this in recent years.
Is there reason to believe the stated authors of the Gospels were the actual authors and not just names used by later writers to make the information appear creditable? If it can be shown that the Gospels and letters that comprise the NT narrative were indeed written by the designated authors, is there reason to believe what they wrote is truthful? Is there reliable information outside the Biblical record that can substantiate the Christ event?
Dating the New Testament documents:
Most Scriptural historians and theologians believe the four Gospels were written somewhere between 70 and 100 A.D. It is believed Matthew was written between 80 and 100 A.D., Luke between 70 and 90 A.D., John between 90 and 100 and Mark around 70 A.D. Therefore, Mark is considered to be the first Gospel written and it is believed Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark and from sources called Q, M and L. The source designated as Q is believed to have been used by Mark in writing His Gospel. Sources called M and L are believed to be documents used by Matthew and Luke for information not derived from Mark and Q. It should be noted that such documents have never been found and are only theoretical. The letters of Paul are believed to have been written in the 50’s A.D. and therefore are the earliest written documents in the NT cannon of Scripture.
The word canon, as it relates to the Biblical Scriptures, simply means a group of writings determined by some individual or group of individuals to be authentic, definitive and authoritative. Some see canon as a measuring rod of standards used to determine what is accepted and excluded from the body of documents we call the Bible. Some view Biblical canonical documents to be synonymous with authoritative documents. To say a document is canonical is to say it is authoritative and to say it's authoritative is to say it's canonical. In the case of the Old Testament (OT), the canonical process was not completely accomplished until early in the second century BC. In the case of the NT, the canon, as we see it today, wasn’t formally established until the fourth century A.D. However, there is good reason to believe the 27 documents that make up the NT were recognized as authoritative as early as the first century. More on this later.
In addition to the documents presently included in our NT canon, Church history reveals there were a number of so-called apocryphal or extra-canonical documents written in the latter part of the first century and well into the second and third centuries. Apocrypha is an “umbrella” term used to describe a multitude of non-canonical writings that purport to provide information pertaining to the Christ event. Non-canonical or extra-canonical writings are writings that did not become part of the set of documents that were ultimately determined to be worthy of inclusion in the NT canon.
These extra-canonical writings were given names of well-known, exemplary persons who had been in close association with Christ. The names of Peter, Thomas, James, Phillip and Mary are among the pseudo names used to give authority to the apocryphal writings. A pseudo name is a name given to a document which is different than the actual name of the person who wrote the document. You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas. This is considered by most scholars as an apocryphal gospel although some scholars believe it is from the middle of the first century and was actually written by Apostle Thomas and does not bear a pseudo name. We will take a look at the Gospel of Thomas later in this series. There recently was much to do about a document called the gospel of Judas.
Some pseudo names are simply substitute names assigned to a document be the person who actually wrote the document. Sometimes authors of books don’t want to reveal who they are so they will use a pseudo name. For example, the English novelist Mary Ann Evans use the pseudo name George Elliot. Mark Twain, who wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was really Samuel Clemens. Mark Twain was his pen name.
As already indicated, another way pseudo names are used is when an author uses the name of a famous person in place of their own name in an effort to give credibility to what they wrote. The document is then passed off as being actually written by the well known person when in actuality such person had nothing to do with the document. This way of using a pseudo name is called pseudepigrapha, a term used to ascribe authorship of a document to a well known person as though that person actually wrote the document.
It appears that most, if not all, extra-canonical documents such as the gospel of Peter, the gospel of Mary, and other such documents, where written in this manner. These documents are all purported to have been written by individuals associated with Christ and yet they are documents that have been shown to have been written many years after the death of these associates of Christ. Because pseudepigrapha writings were produced many years after the Christ event by writers willing to use names of prominent people in an attempt to give creditability to what they wrote, the integrity of what they wrote is suspect.
On the other hand, it is argued that Mark, who was a disciple of Peter, and Luke, who was a disciple of Paul, are the actual authors of the Gospels named after them. This conclusion is based on the fact these men were not apostles or close associates of Jesus. Therefore, their names would not have had the level of authority or creditability requisite for being used as pseudo names applied to later documents. Therefore, it can be reasonably argued these men are the actual authors of the narratives that bear their names and their authorship can be traced to the first century as they were known to be associates of Peter and Paul.
If indeed Mark and Luke are the authors of the documents ascribed to them, their material would have been written close to the events associated with Christ. Therefore, their narrative could be considered a reflection of eyewitness accounts of the Christ events as gathered from oral sources or other written material. If indeed their material was written at an early first century date, it is felt that there would not have been enough time for legend to develop regarding Jesus and therefore what they wrote about Jesus is reliable information.
It is more difficult, however, to apply this same methodology to Matthew and John who where close associates of Christ. Some feel that because Matthew was a tax collector, and therefore held in low esteem, his name would not be used as pseudepigrapha even though he was a disciple of Jesus. Therefore, it is believed he is the actual author of the Gospel of Matthew and not that Matthew was written much later by someone else who used the name Matthew to give creditability to this document. There is, however, an apocryphal writing from the forth century called The Gospel of the Birth of Mary, which is purported to have been written by Matthew. Here somebody wrote a document several hundred years after the Christ event and used Matthew’s name as a pseudo name. So the idea that Matthew’s name would not be used as pseudepigrapha because he was a tax collector is somewhat problematical.
The Gospel of John is named after someone who was probably the closest disciple of Jesus. Some scholars believe this Gospel was written after John died and his name was attached to the document to give it credibility. This matter is especially important in view of the fact that John includes a lot more material about Jesus being the Son of God than the other Gospels. It is this very kind of material that some scholars feel is part of the mytholization of Jesus which took place years into the development of Christian practice. It should be noted that some scholars believe the Gospel of John was not written by Apostle John or anyone else named John, but by Lazarus. See my discussion of this issue in the essay entitled "Did John Write the Fourth Gospel?".
Some scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, believe the Gospels could not have been written by the named authors since they are thought to have been illiterate. Ehrman, in his book, "How Jesus Became God," writes that the followers of Jesus were "uneducated lower class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine." Ehrman alludes to Acts 4:13 where the writer says Peter and John were perceived to be unschooled. Ehrman claims that only 10% of the population during the time of Christ could read or write. However, in a footnote to Acts 4:13, the NET Bible says this:
Uneducated does not mean “illiterate,” that is, unable to read or write. Among Jews in NT times there was almost universal literacy, especially as the result of widespread synagogue schools. The term refers to the fact that Peter and John had no formal rabbinic training and thus, in the view of their accusers, were not qualified to expound the law or teach publicly.
What is the evidence for literacy in first century Israel? While formal literacy statistics do not exist, there are some indicators. The Dead Sea Scrolls which date to the first century reveal a high level of literacy within the Qumran community. Many inscriptions on tombstones have been found dating to to the first century. These inscriptions appear to be the work of commoners. Potsherds (pieces of broken pottery) were used by commoners to write messages on. Many potsherds, with writing in both Hebrew and Greek were discovered at Masada and found to be associated with the Jews who had fled there during the war with Rome (A.D.67-A.D.73). We know from Luke 4:17 that Jesus was able to read as He is seen reading from an Isaiah scroll.
Ehrman's assessment that the literacy rate among first century Jews was very low appears suspect. It should be noted that Matthew, being a tax collector, may well have needed to be literate to do his job. Luke is seen as being a physician (Colossians 4:14). If this is the same Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts, as a physician, it is very likely he was literate. We don't know much about Mark. We know John was a fisherman and apparently was in the fishing business with his brother James. What level of literacy may have been required to run a fishing business is unknown.
Since Ehrman believes the designated authors of the Gospels were illiterate Aramaic speaking peasants, he believes they would not have known the Greek language much less write with it. Since the Gospels were written in Greek, Ehrman believes it to be highly improbable that the authors of record are the actual authors of these documents. However, Greek was commonly spoken in first century Palestine as it was throughout the Roman Empire. Therefore, it is presumptuous to conclude that the designated authors of the Gospels could not speak or write Greek. Furthermore, there is good evidence that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek.
The oldest testimony to the authorship of the Gospels comes from a man named Papies who wrote around 125A.D. Papies recorded that Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations. Papies also records that Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well. The testimony of Papies gives reasonable credence to a first century authorship.
The church historian Irenaeus, who wrote about 180 A.D., makes this statement: “Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself, handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His breast, himself, produced his Gospel while he was living in Ephesus in Asia.”
As a side note, it is interesting that Irenaeus believed Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew. The writings of Papies also reflect this belief. Origen (A.D 185-254) also believed Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. The Catholic theologian Jerome, writing in the early fourth century stated that Matthew's Gospel was initially written in Hebrew, a copy of which was in the library at Caesarea. Jerome indicates he translated the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew into Greek and Latin. Athanasius (A.D 293-272) also writes of Matthew originally being written in Hebrew.
Papies wrote less than a hundred years after the death of Christ and only about thirty years after the death of John if John died sometime in the 90's A.D. as most Biblical scholars believe. Irenaeus wrote about a hundred years after the death of John. Both Papies and Irenaeus give witness to the Gospels being written by the named authors and being written at an early date as Mark is seen as an associate of Peter and Luke is seen as an associate of Paul. The fact that Irenaeus could write in 180 A.D. that Mark, Matthew and John were the authors of their respective Gospels is a reasonable indicator of these men being the actual authors and therefore their work being accomplished in the first century before their deaths.
I earlier mentioned a document called Q. Biblical scholars are in general agreement that Mark was the first one to write his Gospel and that because of similarities of language and content, Matthew and Luke drew upon Marks narrative. Mark is believed to have used a document called Q for the German word Quelle which means source. Q is believed to be a list of sayings of Christ that appear to be similar in Mark, Matthew and Luke and therefore are thought to originate from a singular source. Since no such document as Q has ever been found, Q remains strictly a hypothesis.
The existence or non-existence of Q, as well as the M and L documents mentioned above, do not affect the relative dating of the Gospels unless it could be demonstrated that the language and style of writing that hypothetically relates to Q, M and L is from a much later time than the middle of the first century. Since no Q, M or L documents have every been found, this is a mute point.
So what can we conclude to this point? Most scholars believe that the letters of Paul where some of the earliest Christian documents written and that they preceded the writing of the Gospels. We have the testimony of Papies and Irenaeus, which would indicate an early authorship of the Gospels. An early authorship would place the Gospel accounts in good position as being free of fabrication, legend and falsification. How early might the Gospels have been written?
Luke wrote the book of Acts. The book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. We are not told what happens to Paul. Paul appears to have still been alive when Luke finished Acts. This would indicate Acts was written before Paul died which is thought to have occurred in the early sixties A.D. Since the first chapter of Acts indicates Acts is a follow-up book to the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of Luke would have been written even earlier. If, as believed, Luke borrowed from Mark, this would place Mark earlier yet. We are therefore looking at the Gospels as having been written as early as the fifties A.D. which would be only 20 to 30 years removed from the Christ event.
There are letters written by late first and early second century church leaders which give additional attestation to an early writing of the NT documents. In an epistle written around A.D.95 by a church leader in Rome named Clement, he makes reference to the writings of Apostle Paul. This epistle, known as 1 Clement, states that "the Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the Apostles from the Christ." Clement also quotes from the Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.
Around A.D.110, Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter to the Ephesian Church in which he praised Apostle Paul and referenced Paul's letters. He wrote,"Paul, who was sanctified, who gained a good report, who was right blessed, in whose footsteps I may be found when I attain to God, who in every epistle makes mention of you in Christ Jesus." In his letter to the Ephesians he also appears to reference the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.
Polycarp, an early second century bishop of Smyrna (AD.110), wrote a letter to the church at Philippi in which he references a number Paul's letters. There is extant a document written in the mid second century by Christian apologist Justin Martyr who writes as follows.
On the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permit; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Justin Martyr writes that at their Sunday gatherings, the memoirs of the Apostles are read. This indicates there were writings extant at that time that were written by the Apostles or associates of the Apostles which were in circulation in the church. Justin Martyr refers to Mark's Gospel as Peter's memoirs showing he understood Mark to be an associate of Peter. Justin also quotes a saying of Jesus as recorded in the fourth Gospel.
Also writing in the mid second century was a philosopher/theologian named Marcion who, while later declared a heretic, is credited with producing the first canon of the NT Scripture. This canon was small and only included portions of the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. Marcion apparently saw the Gospel of Luke as Paul’s Gospel as it was written by Paul’s companion Luke. This gives further attestation to an early writing of NT documents as such documents as used by Marcion to form his canon would have had to been around for a while to have gained the acceptance necessary for inclusion in a canon.
The Roman/Jewish war:
One first century event very few scholars consider when trying to date the NT documents is the Roman war against the Jews. The temple, along with the city of Jerusalem and much of the land of Israel, was destroyed by the Romans between 66 and 73 A.D. In reading the works of the Jewish historian Josephus (37A.D. to 100> A.D.), this was a most traumatic time for the nation of Israel with over one million being killed and 100,000 Jews taken into captivity. Yet this disaster is not mentioned in the Gospels, the book of Acts or anywhere else in the New Testament. What you instead see is a great deal of reference by NT writers to the anticipated occurrence of this event. The eschatological teachings of Christ in the Olivet Discourse, as recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 clearly predict the destruction of the temple and the fleeing of Christians. Many statements found in the Gospels and the other NT documents point to an anticipated time of great tribulation for first century Israel. The recorded history of the Roman/Jewish war appears to be the fulfillment of this anticipated time of tribulation.
Throughout the NT narrative, we see the temple and Jewish worship system in existence. This was all destroyed with the Roman invasion. So what does this tell us as to when the NT documents were written? We could conclude that the NT was written many years after the war when the focus no longer would be on the war and the disruption it caused. There are non-canonical writings from the second and third centuries that don’t mention the war. However, if you are going to conclude the NT documents were written decades after the war, then they weren’t written by the designated authors of these documents as they would all be dead by that time.
All evidence, however, points to these documents being written within the first century by the authors of record and the lack of any mention of the war points to a pre-war authorship for the entire NT. The war led to a massive disruption of Jewish culture and society and would have had great impact on the developing church, especially the Jerusalem church. One would think that if the NT documents were written even within 20 to 30 years after the war, you would see reference to that event and its affect on the church. The total silence in the NT relative to the Roman invasion is evidence for the NT narratives having been written a number of years before the destruction of Jerusalem. It should also be noted that if you disallow the claims of the scholarly community about a post war authorship for the Gospels, it is instructive that there are virtually no Christian documents extant for the approximate period of A.D. 70 to the first part of the second century. Such silence would indicate a significant disruption in the Christian community as a result of the war.
While the NT is silent about the actual Roman invasion and subsequent destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, the Scriptures are not silent regarding the anticipation of this event. I have already referenced the Olivet prophecy given by Christ. The prophecy given to John as recorded in the Revelation provides a great deal of symbolism relative to a coming catastrophic event. While many Christians see the Revelation as predictive of events future to us, a growing number of theologians have come to see the Revelation as predictive of the Roman/Jewish war of 66 to 73 A.D. If the Revelation is dealing with the Roman/Jewish war, this would provide additional evidence for a pre 66 A.D. writing of the entire NT narrative.
The overall evidence would indicate a pre- 66 A.D. dating of the NT narrative with the Gospels and Acts written within 30 to 40 years after the Christ event and the letters of Paul written even earlier. Such early dating of the NT documents provides us with assurances that the time between the events and the reporting of events was very short. Therefore, the reporting of the events recorded in these documents would appear to be reasonably reliable. Such early dating also gives us reason to believe the designated authors of these documents are the actual authors and not pseudepigrapha.
Having said this, it still must be kept in mind that the four Gospels do not internally identify who wrote them. The names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been assigned to these Gospels because of references to their authorship found in the writings of early Church leaders such as Papies, Irenaeus and others. It is instructive that the titles to these Gospels are written as "Gospel according to" followed by the authors name. These titles are seen in the oldest extant manuscripts (MS) of the NT with the exception of the MS Vaticanus and Sinaitius which title these Gospels as "According to" followed by the authors name. No other titles associated with the four Gospels have every been identified.
Because the Gospels are titled as "According to," some scholars believe they were written by authors who took previously written material or orally received information from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and incorporated such material into their own writings. Scholars who practice what is called "form criticism" contend that the information about Jesus contained in the Gospels results from the collection of oral traditions about Jesus that were collected and eventually written down some 40 to 70 years later. It is believed these oral traditions have no identified sources and are unreliable since oral traditions can become corrupted as the years go by. Therefore, it is concluded that much of what is written in the Gospels is problematical.
I contend that it is not the content of the Gospels that is problematic but the conclusions of form critics that is problematical. The evidence, as discussed above, is reasonably strong for the stated authors of the Gospels being the actual authors of these documents. Even if it could be shown that the Gospels were written between 70 and 100 AD, there is every reason to believe the writers, whoever they may have been, were reflecting testimony of eyewitnesses and/or associates of eyewitnesses that had been carefully handed down. This was not anonymous testimony as form critics contend. There were names behind this testimony and such testimony could be examined and compared with other testimony for accuracy. This is exactly what Luke appears to have done as discussed later on in this series. Historians routinely depend on the recorded testimony of eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses to the events they are writing about. That is how history is written. While this certainly allows for error to occur, in most cases the main story line is the truth.
Because these Gospels along with other documents, such as the letters from Paul, were seen as being extant in the Christian community from early on, these documents became accepted as authoritative Scripture along with the already established Old Testament canon. The evidence for a pre-AD 70 dating of the gospels is extremely strong compared to the very weak and speculative reasons given by scholars for a post-AD 70 composition of these Gospels. The fact of the matter is that scholars have no evidence for a post-AD 70 authorship of the Gospels. There belief that these Gospels were written post-AD 70 simply appears to be based on their belief that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem and, therefore, such predictions must have been inserted after the fact to make Jesus appear as a prophet.
However, some documents presently found in out NT canon where not accepted as canonical for many years. Other documents that appeared in older canons of Scripture and were considered authoritative were later excluded from the canon. Why were documents once considered canonical later seen as non-canonical? We will begin to discuss these issues in part two of this series.