So are the gospels made up nonsense from people who should know better or is it like Chinese whispers where the facts get distorted and exaggerated along the way? How do we know we have the true stories of Jesus and what he actually said and did?
When were the gospels written?
The gospels are dated within living memory of Jesus. Most scholars (Christian or otherwise) agree it was probably: Mark 65-70AD, then Matthew and Luke 80-85AD and finally John 90-100AD. Remember Jesus died aged around 33 in something like 30-33AD so this means the first gospel account was written within 32-40 years after his death and the last gospel was done 57-70 years after.
So not long for myth or legend to creep in. It would be like someone writing a book now about John Lennon saying he walked on water, healed the sick and rose from the dead. John Lennon’s family would sue the author and the book would be widely discredited and quickly forgotten.
How were they written?
Luke is a great one for taking a careful approach to writing his version down. At the outset, he says:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)Remember Luke was writing something like 47-55 years after Jesus died and he would have been able to interview eyewitnesses to get his facts straight. He was clearly concerned that things could be exaggerated or made up completely, so he was out to write an accurate account that would stand up to scrutiny from Jesus’ family, friends and other witnesses who would have been still around at the time he was writing.
How do we know what we’ve got now is what they wrote in the first place?
We don't have the original copies of the gospels. They're long lost. What we do have is copies of copies of copies… you get the idea! This is how people used to preserve important documents. So how can we know that what we have is anything like the original stuff Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote 2000 years ago? Chinese whispers, right?
Actually it’s the same kind of problem we have with lots of other historical writings like all the stuff we have about Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Aristotle, Plato, Pliny the Younger and people like that. It’s copies of copies of copies. It’s a bit like a family tree. There’s Luke’s original (which we don’t have) and then there’s tons of copies (most of which we don’t have either) but we do have a certain number of copies to look at. It’s like a family tree of copies...
Historians can look at all sorts of things to test how reliable the copies we have actually are. How early is the earliest copy? How many copies do we have? Who copied them? How diligent were they? Are there other early documents that contain big sections of the text?
The earlier a copy is, the better and the more copies we have to compare, the better too. Using the diagram above, if we have the circled documents, L5 would be the earliest one and we’d also compare it with L10, L13, L17 and L18. If they’re all the same, then we know they’re all pretty close to the original document.
So how early are the gospel copies we have? Well, they're pretty early. The earliest complete copies we have (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) come from the 3rd-4th Centuries, so not long after the originals were written when compared to other ancient writings. For the works of Caesar, Plato and Aristotle, the time lapse between the originals and the earliest copy we have today is over 1000 in each case. And we have fragments of the gospels that date much earlier than this. And when it comes to numbers of copies, we have plenty to look at too. Including fragments, the figure is more than 40,000, so there is an overwhelming amount of data to analyse to establish what is reliable copy and what is not.
So, the evidence shows us that...
- The gospels were written with the clear intention of providing accurate and trustworthy accounts about Jesus so people could believe in him (Luke 1:1-4, John 20:31-31).
- The original gospels were all written well within living memory of Jesus and this adds to their credibility.
- We can be confident that the gospel accounts we have in our Bibles today are actually what was originally written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
What else do we know about the gospels?