Welcome back! We are in the midst of a five part blog post series answering the main question “Are the gospels reliable?” After a brief intro where we laid out the issues in play, we jumped into the first question of the feasibility of reliable written manuscripts in a predominantly oral culture.
In this post, we will be looking at our second question – were the accounts of Jesus we see now in the gospels changed in the time between when they occurred and when they were written down?
Thanks for reading along. I hope you found this helpful.
OK, but seriously. They were not changed in between the time they happened and the time that they were written down. Let’s get some common assumptions on the table here. We have already admitted that the first century Greco-Roman culture was predominantly an oral culture – but that didn’t mean they could not produce reliable written historical accounts.
We have also admitted that there was a gap of time between when the events occurred and when they were written down – but that didn’t mean that events could not be recorded accurately when they were written down, due to our old friend informal controlled tradition of oral storytelling.
But there is an insinuation lying under the surface here. The insinuation is that the text was intentionally changed. Changed to create the Jesus that the church wanted/needed to create to control power, politics, whatever.
I will provide two points of evidence as to why the gospel accounts were not changed in the interim period. First, the eyewitnesses themselves controlled the stories and second, the early church fathers were unanimously clear on the authors and content of the gospels.
First things first. The gospel accounts were not just random accounts of someone’s version of the historical accounts of Jesus. They were either written by first hand eyewitnesses themselves, or written by those in direct association with those eyewitnesses.
To be specific – Matthew and John were direct eyewitnesses to Jesus and they wrote their gospel accounts from a first-hand experiential perspective. They were directly called by Jesus to be his disciples, part of his inner circle of close trusted friends. They walked all over Galilee with him, ate with him, witnessed his miracles, and most importantly, heard with their own ears his teaching and his claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God.
The gospels of Mark and Luke were written from the testimonies of the men who had been with Jesus. Mark is widely recognized as the scribe for the Apostle Peter, by all accounts one of Jesus’ closest disciples. Luke was noted in the Bible as a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. Although Paul was not one of the twelve, the book of Acts [also written by Luke] tells us that he had a first hand eyewitness account with the risen Jesus and this is where he received the historical events of Jesus and his ministry.
So what does this mean? It means that the men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the four gospels used first hand eyewitness testimony, not hearsay from decades of casual oral storytelling.
NT scholar Richard Bauckham writes “If the period between the “historical” Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths, then the usual ways of thinking about oral tradition are not appropriate at all…” [Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 134.]
The eyewitness were the gatekeepers who ensured that the events of the gospel were not changed, and they were the ones who eventually wrote or provided the accounts to the writers.
The second point of evidence to support the claim that the gospels were not changed, was their anonymous acceptance and use by the early church fathers.
The early church fathers were a group of men in the second century who were overseers of the early Christian church. Part of the role of an overseer was to “keep a close eye on themselves and the teaching.” [1 Timothy 4:16]. They did this by the many documents they wrote themselves, in support of sound teaching. Their sources? The New Testament, including primarily the four gospel accounts.
Very early on, the church recognized what was part of the authoritative “canon” of what was accepted Scripture and what was not. What was not was rejected, what was recognized as Scripture was protected and used to feed the early church with sound teaching.
We have solid historical evidence from the second century that the united consensus of the early church fathers was that the gospels were written from eyewitness testimony.
Brant Pitre, another New Testament scholar writes “the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament are completely unambiguous and totally unanimous about who wrote the four gospels. Even more, some of these writings come from authors who either knew the apostles themselves, or who were only one generation away from the apostles.” [Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus, 69.]
If we connect this with the informal controlled tradition of oral eyewitness accounts now transferred to written accounts – it becomes highly unlikely that there could be any significant material changes made to the gospels, without the eyewitnesses intervening and correcting anything false.
Sure, there were “other gospel accounts” other than the eyewitness, but they were also immediately, and consistently identified as inauthentic in the early church. Why? BC they didn’t match the real eyewitness accounts that had been well understood by then.
Furthermore, we now have thousands of copies of the NT manuscripts that all maintain a consistent testimony of who Jesus was, what he did, and why it mattered. Were there any differences between these thousands of copies? Yes, and we will direct our attention to that truth and its implications in our next post.