Can we trust the Gospels?

Why am I an Orthodox Christian? Well there are a great many reasons, and perhaps as I reflect on them in a series of blogs it will help others to realise why it makes sense to be an Orthodox Christian, and why it is an entirely reasonable and rational choice. In this blog I would like to suggest that I am an Orthodox Christian because I believe that the Gospels are reliable eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus Christ. Of course from the very earliest times this was always taken for granted. Not only was it always accepted that the Gospels were written by those Apostolic figures whose names they bear, but it was also always accepted that they recorded, in different personal testimonies, the actual events and experiences that they described.

In recent centuries a critical approach to the Gospels and the Scriptures in general has endeavoured to discover an ‘historical Jesus’ behind the texts. But of course there is no such thing, as if there were an objective account of Christ that could be preferred to the Gospels. Each historian has produced his own ‘historical Jesus’ because it is a matter of fact that any description, any selection of Gospel passages, any rejection of miracles and prophecy, is based on the assumptions which the historian himself brings to the text. Of course this does not mean that the Gospels are to be considered apart from history, but they do not claim to be only history. It is for instance, rather arrogant of the modern historian to insist that because some political event described in the Gospels is not known to him it could not have happened. Even in modern history there is so much which is not known, and which only becomes known through the accidental discovery of some document, that the mere fact that some event in the Gospels is not yet known from some other source cannot mean that it did not or could not have happened as recorded.

How do we need to approach the Gospels? Well it seems to me that while the Gospels are written in history and contain historical information they were not written to be understood as history writing in the modern sense. Now if someone was setting out today to write a history of Winston Churchill then we would expect every detail to be absolutely correct and verifiable. If his birthday was given as the wrong date, if it was not mentioned that he had been an escaped prisoner during the Boer War, or if his political career was not accurately described, then the authority of the volume would be diminished. But this is not the form which the Gospels take, although they also contain historical matters and are set in an historical context. The form that they take is rather that of testimony, and testimony is not to be considered true or false, as modern historical writing might be, but trustworthy or not. A volume about Winston Churchill written by his son would undoubtedly contain a great deal of historical material, but it would also be more likely to take the form of testimony rather than historical record. He might be able to share many true accounts of Winston Churchill that could not be independently verified. But this would not mean that the text should be rejected as lacking authority, rather the accounts would gain their authority from the trustworthiness of the author and his relationship with his subject.

In the case of the Holocaust, for instance, we would not consider it reasonable to discount the testimony of those caught up in the hideous evil of the Final Solution just because in every instance they were unable to provide independently verified detail. If they describe various cruelties and brutality, but cannot provide the names and ranks of all those perpetrating them, or if they cannot provide accurate and chronologically correct information about what happened on which date, this would not normally be allowed to diminish their testimony, because the authority of their account is found in the fact that they were there and experienced these things, and not in the fact that in every detail and instance every recollection can be verified from another source. Testimony as a form allows us to understand that the Gospels are the record of events with a meaning which is found in the response of the author to those events. It is not meant to be bare objective data, such as might be found in the record of temperatures measured over several years. But it is history with a meaning. Therefore when a modern sceptic produces a history of Jesus Christ with a meaning that contradicts the traditional Christian understanding it is not because they have found some bare history that reveals Christ as he really is, but because they have brought their own meaning to the texts. What we must ask ourselves in such a case is who is the more trustworthy as a witness, those who wrote the Gospels and claimed to be eyewitnesses to the events, or those who can only work at third-hand, manipulating a testimony which they have already rejected. This is rather like someone taking the account of Winston Churchill written by his son, describing it as presenting a false Winston Churchill, and then going on to use it nevertheless to construct a completely different description of Winston Churchill.

If it is not acceptable simply to use the Gospels as a source for whatever view of Christ we wish to produce – especially by rejecting large sections as being a priori unlikely to have happened – then we must ask ourselves the question which the texts demand of us. Do we trust the testimony of these authors? If we do not trust them then we have to accept that we know nothing about Jesus Christ at all. But if they can be shown to be trustworthy then the traditional Christian description of the life, death and resurrection of Christ must be dealt with as history, as real events, that have a meaning beyond the facts themselves.

Now the modern critics of the Gospels have wanted to insist that before the Gospels were written there were anonymous collections of sayings about Jesus and purporting to be by Jesus which circulated among the early Christian communities. These anonymous collections were imagined to have been current for a great period of time before they were finally written down in various forms and using the names of the Gospel authors we know today. Some scholars have noted that there can be a conservatism in oral transmission of history, but all of these modern critics would wish to completely separate the original eye-witness testimony from the forms in which it came to be written down. The impression that these critics wish to present is that over a long period of time little stories and sayings were passed around, modified, added to, all entirely separately from the witnesses themselves, who fade into insignificance, and only after this extensive process were the Gospels written, as texts which had no direct connection with the events and teachings themselves.

But in fact it makes no sense that the Gospels should have been constructed in such a way. In the first place it would require that all of the eye-witnesses would have to have disappeared and had no influence at all on the early Christian community. Indeed one scholar who did accept the critical methods introduced in the 20th century nevertheless rejected the idea that the original eye-witnesses had no part to play in the preservation of a coherent description of Christ. He says,

..the many eyewitnesses…did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information.

Now we do have some evidence, independent of the New Testament itself, that this was so. Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, not far from Laodicea and Colossae, produced a collection of writings about Christ which is now lost. But excerpts were reproduced as quotations in later writers, including Eusebius the well known Church historian. Some of the most important excerpts contain information which Papias had about the origins of the Gospels. Now Papias was writing towards the end of his life in about 110 AD, but he describes a time earlier in his life when he was collecting the various materials which made up his lost work. At that time, which would have been between 80 and 90 AD, he says..

I shall not hesitate also to put into properly ordered form for you everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders, and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch… And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I enquired about the words of the elders – that is, what according to the elders, Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and also whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice.

This important passage shows us that in the period before the end of the first century, Papias has been in touch with various travellers who had come through his city of Hierapolis from all directions, since it was on a cross-roads, and had been careful to ask them for information. What were the sources of this information, and what was this information? In the first place Papias asked what the elders were saying that Andrew and Peter and the other disciples HAD SAID. In the period between 80 and 90 AD of which Papias is speaking, all of these disciples of the Lord had passed away. And so he asks for testimony from the elders who had known these disciples and had heard their testimony at first hand. He does not record that he asked what the Elders taught or thought, but what they themselves had heard from the disciples who were eyewitnesses of the things of which they spoke.

More than this, he also records that he asked visitors what Aristion and John the Elder were still saying, because they were still alive, and as disciples of the Lord they were first hand witnesseses themselves. They were ‘living and surviving voices’ as Papias described them. There is no sense at all that Papias was accessing an anonymous collection of stories and sayings about Jesus. On the contrary he was only interested in first hand testimony as reported to him directly, or reported through the mediation of those who had been disciples of the disciples.

It is considered reasonable according to Wikipedia, which seems to me to be more likely to take a liberal view, that the Gospel of St Mark was produced in about 70 AD, that of St Matthew between 80 and 90 AD, that of St Luke between 60 and 90 AD, and that of St John between 90 and 100 AD. Now none of these dates necessitate any period of anonymous oral tradition, such as that which communicates fragments of folk history over centuries in Africa. On the contrary, it is entirely reasonable to consider that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were individuals who were engaged in the Christian community and had access, as Papias describes, to first hand testimony from the disciples and others who had known Christ. Even the Gospel of St John, the last to be written, is shown by the evidence of Papias to be reasonably attributed to John, the disciple of the Lord, since he was still alive at the end of the first century.

If we consider the timescales involved. My own grandfather was born in 1900. My father was born in 1937. I never met my grandfather because he died the week I was born, but I know a great deal about him because those who knew him well have described him to me, my own father and my aunt. I do not doubt their testimony because they were his own children and knew him intimately for thirty or more years. If they had written a book about him in the 1990’s there is no reason to consider that it was constructed from an anonymous collection of sayings and stories which were circulating and being rapidly corrupted. On the contrary I could point out the authors to you, and you would agree that their relationship gave their testimony authority.

This is the same situation which is described by Papias. The witnesses were still alive and communicating their testimony to those whom Papias calls the elders. More than that, two of the important eyewitnesses were still alive to be questioned in person. Indeed we know from Eusebius that Papias also knew personally two of the daughters of St Philip the Evangelist because they lived in Hierapolis.

This same reliance on eye-witnesses can be found in the prologue to the Gospel of St Luke, where the author says..

Since many people have attempted to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were passed down to us by those who had been eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning…

There is a clear sense that the authority of the Gospel will be found in the fact that it is eye-witness testimony. But Papias, and of course St Luke, were not the only hearers of such testimony. Writing in the second century St Ireneaus speaks of his mentor and spiritual father, St Polycarp, who was bishop of Smyrna. He says..

I distinctly recall the events of that time better than those of recent that I can tell the very place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit as he discoursed, his goings out and comings in, the character of his life, his bodily appearance, the discourses he would address to the multitude, how he would tell of his conversations with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he would relate their words from memory; and what the things were which he had heard from them concerning the Lord, his mighty works and his teaching, Polycarp, having received them from the eye-witnesses of the life of the Word, would declare in accordance with the Scriptures.

Now St Polycarp was a contemporary of Papias, and resident in the same province. It is clear from the writings of St Irenaeus that St Polycarp had not only conversed with the same St John who was alive during part of Papias’ life, but that he had also spoken with others who had known the Lord themselves. Indeed St Irenaeus is careful to insist that St Polycarp only spoke of those things he had himself heard from eye-witnesses. There is, once again, no sense that there is an anonymous and corrupted collection of texts about Jesus circulating which each retelling makes even less reliable. On the contrary, the testimony of the eye-witnesses is being reported at first hand, either from their own mouths, as living voices, or from the mouths of those who heard this first hand testimony.

Papias also reports that St Mark was a disciple of St Peter, and wrote down those things he heard St Peter teaching about the Lord. He says..

The Elder used to say: Mark in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter write down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory – though not in an ordered form – of the things either said or done by the Lord.

This Elder must surely be St John, but if it is not, then it must be one of that class of Christian leaders who Papias describes as having known the disciples personally. He is presented as someone who knows what he is talking about. In fact recent scholarly studies on St Mark do suggest that there is a focus placed on the role of St Peter. St Justin Martyr, writing early in the second century, also seems to be a witness to an independent knowledge that St Peter was behind the Gospel of St Mark. He speaks of the memoirs of Peter, as one instance of the memoirs of the Apostles, and this must surely refer to the Gospel of St Mark since there is no other Orthodox Gospel recording St Peter’s recollections.

Papias also refers to the origins of the Gospel of St Matthew and says..

Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.

There is a question here about how the canonical Gospel of St Matthew came to us in Greek, as opposed to some of the other efforts which Papias notes. But the important information here is that Papias, with access to eye-witnesses, and those who had heard the testimony of eye-witnesses, has learned that the Gospel of St Matthew was produced in Hebrew or Aramaic by one who was an eye-witness himself of he life of Christ.

The New Testament also provides us with evidence that such eye-witnesses were available to those who lived during the second half of the first century. In Acts 15 it is recorded that St Paul went up to Jerusalem and held a meeting with the Apostles and Elders. It is thought that this meeting took place in about 50 AD, and the Apostles and Elders were therefore still a source of eye-witness testimony about Jesus Christ at the mid-point of the first century. St Peter is careful to describe himself in his second epistle as being an eye-witness to majesty of the Lord, and this epistle is usually dated to his period in Rome at the end of his life before 67 AD. There is also a reference in 1 Corinthians 15 to the more than 500 brethren who saw the Lord after his resurrection, of whom most are still alive, and therefore able to offer first hand testimony, at the time in which St Paul writes. This letter is dated to between 53 and 57 AD. Finally we read in Galatians 1 that three years after his call to the Apostleship, St Paul went up to Jerusalem and spent two weeks with St Peter. This would have provided an obvious opportunity for the transmission of a first hand testimony from one who had been intimately involved in the ministry of the Lord.

Now perhaps it could be said that although it is possible that eye-witnesses wrote down the things they saw and heard, in fact the Gospels were all constructed separately from the Apostolic community and maintain only a very loose connection with anything they may have taught. This would of course require the rejection of the external and internal evidence that the Gospels are the work of eye-witnesses. But in fact the substance of the Gospel texts themselves validates their origin in a Palestinian context. One method which modern scholars have used, is to compare the incidence of names in the Gospels with those from other Palestinian sources. When this is done it shows that in fact the names follow the same patterns of use to a remarkable extent. Richard Bauckham provides all these calculations in his excellent book – Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. And he says..

The names of Palestinian Jews in the Gospels and Acts coincide very closely with the names of the general population of Jewish Palestine in this period, but not to the names of the Jews in the Diaspora. In this light it becomes very unlikely that the names in the Gospels are late accretions to the traditions. Outside Palestine the appropriate names simply could not have been chosen.

We can imagine how hard it would be for us to create a number of texts set in France, and try to choose names which matched the frequency of those actually used in France. We would have a bit of a guess, Pierre perhaps, Jean maybe, but we would not be able to construct an entire narrative that properly used French names in accordance with actual popularity and frequency. This suggests strongly that not only were the Gospels written in Palestine, but that they represent the real names of the real people who are presented in the narrative.

Scholars have also looked carefully at the different names that are used in the Gospels to refer to the Apostles. Sometimes it has seemed that each Gospel refers to a different group of people, but studies have shown that the use of names, patronymics, nicknames, place of origin, occupation and even names in two languages, were all carefully utilised to identify these Twelve men most carefully. If the Gospels were simply a constructed myth then why would anyone choose so many possibilities for confusion? Why have several Simons for instance? The fact is, as modern scholars have now determined, that the Twelve form the core of the Gospel accounts, together with Christ, and their exact identification was always important to each Gospel writer. If the Gospels were simply later constructs with no connection to the eye-witnesses then twelve completely different names would have been chosen to identify the Twelve.

It has also been noted in recent studies that many of the little incidents in the Gospels make sense as being repeated and passed on by those who were involved in them. There are many incidents where those who appear are left unnamed. But there are others where the key figure has a name, and often will have some Church tradition associated with them, that in later life they were known members of the Christian community. These named characters makes sense if they are understood to also be eye-witnesses who continue to pass on their recollections to the growing Church. It is not unreasonable to imagine that Zacchaeus would not be silent about his encounter with Christ, but that both before and after the resurrection he would have been glad to make it known. It is not reasonable to imagine that all those who met with Christ were simply silent, or that all died very shortly after the events. Indeed as St Paul has intimated, in the period between 53 and 57 AD there were still hundreds alive who had seen Christ and were eye-witnesses.

What of the Gospel of St John, of which we have been rather silent so far. It is noteworthy that there are many references in this Gospel to the first  person plural. The Gospel often speaks of ‘we’, and therefore has the appearance of being a first hand testimony. It was part of the early tradition of the province of Asia that John, who lived and died in Ephesus, was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. St Irenaeus, who had been a disciple of St Polycarp who knew St John, says..

Then John, the disciple of the Lord, the one who leaned back on the Lord’s breast, himself published a Gospel while he resided in Ephesus.

Nor is this the only reference in St Irenaeus’ writings to St John as the author of the Gospel. He also recounts a story he heard from St Polycarp about how St John had attended the public baths and seeing the heretic Cerinthus there he fled the building in case it should collapse. There is no reason to doubt that St Irenaeus heard such a saying from St Polycarp, and if such a saying was trustworthy, then the other traditions which he received as from the mouth of St John the eye-witness are surely also trustworthy. Indeed if the Gospel of St John was written in about 95 AD then there could be little scope for an attribution to someone who did not write it while the author was still alive and known, nor for it to be an anonymous collection which was attributed to St John since it would be already in circulation as an anonymous text. There is in act, no reason to dispute the fact that the attribution of the Gospel to St John, who was still alive in 95 AD, was based on his authorship of the Gospel in his old age, indeed at just the point when it would be becoming most necessary as a means of preserving his first hand testimony.

What can we say then about the Gospels? In the first place it cannot be said that they are the result of several generations of the transmission of anonymous anecdotes that grew more and more fantastic in the telling. There is just not enough time for that to be a reasonable conclusion. If the Gospel of St Mark was written in 60 AD then there were a great many eye-witnesses still alive and available to the Christian community. Even at the time of the writing of St Luke in perhaps 70 to 80 AD there were still those who had known the eye-witnesses personally, and still some of the eye-witnesses themselves, and especially St John and other disciples. Even at the end of the first century there were many who had spoken with and known the disciples and other eye-witnesses. Indeed the evidence from Papias and St Polycarp shows that such eye-witness testimony was always and everywhere chosen in preference to anonymous material.

More than that, a close study of the texts of the Gospels , which is not possible here, shows that a Palestinian origin in the first century is the most appropriate conclusion to draw from the close coincidence between the frequency of Jewish names in the Gospels and Acts and in the wider corpus of texts known from this time and location. The texts also seem to reveal a focus on the Twelve in various ways which also points to them being the eyewitness sources of the material. The Gospel of St John is especially explicit in this identification. It is just not reasonable to imagine that the John who was renowned in the province of Asia as being an eye-witness and disciple of the Lord, and the recent author of a Gospel should have actually not been an eye-witness and not been the author of the Gospel.

And of course the external evidence of Papias, which is so very early, points to the reasonable conclusion that the Gospels were written by the eye-witnesses of the Lord, and provided first hand testimony of his sayings and actions. If Papias was wrong, and there is no reason at all to imagine that he was a liar since there were others writing at the same time who could expose him as such, then not only would the daughters of St Philip have to have deceived him, but all those who had passed on to him the teaching they had heard from the disciples who were now departed, and all those who were passing on the living words of Aristion and St John. On the contrary, there are no variant traditions which assign the Gospels of St Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to other authors. Everything fits together reasonably.

And the very fact that there are four canonical Gospels whose contents are significantly consistent does point to the Apostolic and eye-witness origins of the documents. If they had simply been collections of anonymous sayings, against which all the evidence seems to point, then there would be many more Gospels, all competing for authority, and the attribution to the disciples would not be consistent. But in fact there are only four canonical Gospels, and there have only ever been these canonical Gospels, and the attribution has always been the same as the witness of writers such as Papias and Irenaeus shows. More than that, the differences in the Gospels are entirely appropriate to eye-witness accounts which have the authority and trustworthiness of first hand testimony. It was not possible to absolutely harmonise the Gospels because this was what St Luke had actually written, and this was what St Mark had actually written as he heard it from St Peter. Such variety is to be expected in first hand testimony. But the fact that the Gospels are also so similar is also a reasonable sign that it is based on eye-witness accounts. If the Gospels were simply anonymous collections there there would be no reason why miracles could not be added to miracles, and sayings added to sayings, with each collection seeking to outdo the others. But if the eye-witnesses were still present in the Christian community, as it is reasonable and even necessary to conclude, then these eye-witnesses, and especially the disciples, were always the guardians and preservers of the testimony. If an anecdote was remembered wrong then it would always be corrected by the fact that those who had been eyewitnesses were still living voices. If someone started to say that Lazarus has been five days in the tomb then there would always be the witness of those who had heard the disciples, and still heard them in Jerusalem, to counter the misinformation. Therefore the diversity and the consistency of the Gospels both speak to an eye-witness origin, and an eye-witness maintenance of the tradition while it was being transmitted.

It is unreasonable to doubt that the Gospels are eye-witness testimony. It is unreasonable to doubt that the Gospels are reliable witnesses to what the disciples saw. Of course it may be questioned that what they all saw was understood correctly. It could be said that they were all victims of a group delusion – although it will be seen in another blog that this is not reasonable either. But it cannot be reasonably disputed that the Gospels were written by those who were eye-witnesses to the events which are recorded, and reliably and consistently represent their experience as they understood it.

This is one reason why I am an Orthodox Christian. The reliable and first hand testimony of the Gospels convinces me

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