I shall start with the New Testament, since it contains the core tenets and teachings of the Christian faith, said to contain, amongst other things, the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, as I have shown in my previous blog, there is conclusive evidence that shows Jesus of Nazareth was a real man who was crucified by the Romans. Of course, the question we must ask ourselves now is, are the New Testament accounts of Jesus accurate and reliable? Before I begin, I shall tell you know this is NOT about proving that the NT accounts are historically reliable, that is another blog for another time, but rather, this blog is about whether the NT is textually reliable. In other words, is what we have today the original message of the NT as it was 2,000 years ago? As how can be sure if they are historically accurate if they are not textually accurate? Let us continue.
NOTE: Citations encased in  indicates where I have paraphrased or drawn information from a source. If there are no  and the citation is following text in quotation marks, then that indicates a direct quote.
I would also like to thank JP Holding, whose work has influenced me and has served as a template for this blog.
The Oral Tradition
Before the Gospels were written down, they were transmitted orally and it for this reason that critics say we cannot trust what they have to say. Is there any merit to this claim, or is it just baseless accusations? Let us look at the evidence. It may seem inconceivable to people today but the ancients were capable of memorising vast amounts of information orally, unlike today, where people tend to forget the date or which day of the week it is. Of course, most uneducated critics like to claim that ancient oral tradition was like playing Chinese Whispers, or ‘Telephone’, where the original message gets distorted as it passed along from individual to individual. However, this is far from the case.
Critics who claim that the NT was damaged via careless transmission and that words and deeds of Jesus were altered need to show that this is the case, yet this they cannot do, for the simple reason is that there is no good reason to believe the original message was damaged or destroyed beyond recognition. However, we do not need to prove that the message of the NT was passed on perfectly, but that the process of transmission did not drastically alter the NT beyond recognition. Now, as aforementioned, the critics that like to jump on the “Oral Tradition = Chinese Whispers” bandwagon have little to no clue about what ancient methods of oral transmission entailed. The case is that oral transmission was perfectly capable of transmitting vast quantities of information reliably and accurately. Despite the actual reliability of oral transmission methods, some critics also contend that the sheer volume of information would have been too great to have been memorised, a claim that shall be answered later on.
Is Oral Tradition No Different to a Child’s Game of Telephone?
Now, this argument is as follows: -
(I)The Oral Tradition is unreliable.
(II)Longer stories of Jesus’ deeds were therefore lost or distorted.
(III)Shorter tales and parables might capture Jesus’ words and deeds but longer stories and sermons do not.
(IV)Therefore, the New Testament Gospel accounts are unreliable.
As we can see, this argument follows a clear line of logic. However, the conclusion rests entirely on premise one, namely, the oral tradition is unreliable. This premise is drawn from modern society’s reliance and preference of written sources over verbal. Unfortunately for critics, premise one is not an axiom, as in antiquity, the spoken voice was considered more reliable than the written word: -
“Western academic measurements of success by literacy and printed research coloured the expectation of classical scholars as they considered writing in ancient culture. Writing was so important to their world that they assumed it was the key to growth in ancient culture.” – Tony M. Lentz, Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 2.
“So tied are we to the written or printed page that we have lost any awareness of the essential orality of language, let alone of reading. Not only do we want everything of moment ‘in black and white’, but we presume that that is the fundamental medium of language.” - William Graham, Beyond the Written Word (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 9-10.
“Writing was usually seen as supplementary to the oral discourse. Orators should avoid notebooks that were too detailed. One is reminded of Quintilian’s criticism of Laenus’ dependence on such notes and his clear-cut advice: “For my own part, however, I think that we should not write anything which we do not intend to commit to memory” ... Writing was not avoided as such, but functioned mainly as a memorandum of what the person already should remember from oral communication.” - Samuel Byrskog, Story as History (Brill: 2002), 116.
It is thus obvious that comparisons between Oral Tradition and the children’s games of Telephone and Chinese Whispers are unfounded and anachronistic. Of course, some still say that oral tradition left room for doubt. Similarly, others still say that oral tradition was free to be altered by anybody. However, this is not an adequate summation of oral transmission methods either. This argument states that the oral tradition was very fluid in that many changes were made, whereas in reality, ancient methods of oral tradition contained very little fluidity at all. The fact remains that in antiquity, oral transmission was a highly reliable medium and whilst there was a certain level of fluidity when it came to trivial details, the essential core of the message remained unchanged. In other words, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount could never have been extrapolated from cooking instructions and so on.
Oral Traditions from Around the World
Before looking at oral traditions in use in the biblical world, we shall look at oral traditions outside of it to gain a larger perspective on oral tradition as a whole. Now it is prudent to note that these do not count as proofs for either side of the argument, but is useful as we can compare and contrast these traditions to those in use during the time of the NT. For example, cases of variation in one tradition over hundreds of years would not cast doubt on the oral tradition of the NT as the time between the events and the writing of the Gospels was a mere 30-40 years.
Example One: Yugoslavian Bards
The stages of the bard’s training were as follows: -
1) Listening and absorbing
2) Practicing before audiences, until they are competent enough to learn one song all the way through.
3) Becoming an accomplished practitioner, which involves not so much memorisation but knowing the gist of the song well enough to shape their performance using the material they remember.
[Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960), 5, 16-7, 21ff, 25, 36. The Singer Resumes the Tale (Cornell University Press, 1995), 11, 20.]
Regarding poetic material in oral cultures, poetry is memorised if it is to be reproduced exactly. Whilst variations in words or groups of words to complement a new metric form, these are minor and rarely occur so that even after one to two generations beyond the eldest living members of the community, there is little change and there is no doubt as to the actual message and the wording of the tradition. [Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study of the Historical Methodology (Aldine, 1961), 15; 49.]
In other words, even in singing oral traditions where performers sometimes made changes to accommodate new songs structures etc or to suit the mood of the audience, the main core of the song and the ultimate meaning remained untouched even after 2 generations.
Example Two: African Storytellers
The training process for African storytellers: -
1) The apprentice ‘absorbs the skill’ just by listening to more experienced oral performers.
2) The apprentice then goes through more formal training for more specialised performances, such as to accompanying music. One example of training as a diviner includes close memorisation of ritual poems – so difficult that many trainees soon drop out of the program.
[Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature (Indiana University Press, 1992), 21-5.
More specifically, the development of oral traditions in African settings: -
1) Individuals observe and remember what they have seen about an occurrence.
2) Though a better told and more noteworthy experience might survive 2-3 lifetimes, an event would also generate, as soon as the event’s significance was recognised, perhaps immediately, a generally agreed upon explanation that would emphasise a very few, or even only a single aspect of the complex reality.
3) Favourable and opposing parties would circulate their own versions and interpretations, all of which might co-exist for 120-150 years.
4) Historians would work with the reports to get a history satisfactory to all. More skilled storytellers would invent details to add lucidity. The stories would become highly structured within 300 years.
[Joseph C. Miller, The African Past Speaks (Wm Dawson and Sons, 1980), 21-2.]
So even in settings such as these, where storytellers would invent details, core details/aspects would remain and that all the different accounts would run for 120-150 years before eventually merging after 300 years. These oral traditions allowed people to remember astonishing amounts of material, while at the same time ensuring that the material is to some extent always fluid and adaptable. Therefore, whilst there was variability in ordering and choice of components to fit the performance, there was also stability and partial verbatim agreement between performances.
Example Three: Fijian Dance Songs
Fijian dance songs were very carefully memorised and rehearsed and were subject to peer critique and evaluation. The care was essential, not just because of the groups’ need to sing together accurately, but because there was a strong emphasis on spiritual/divine inspiration that was not allowed to be altered by personal interpretation of the poem or song. [Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality (Blackwell: 1988), 95-6, 102]
In this setting, memorisation was vitally important not just for performance purposes, but also for religious reasons. In other words, they were driven to memorise and to preserve because of their belief in spiritual inspiration.
Whilst we will be able to contrast these with the oral traditions in the NT world, and the oral traditions of the NT itself later on, this for now at least serves the purpose of demonstrating the fact that reliable oral tradition is not oxymoronic or special pleading in any way.
Traditions From Around the Greco-Roman World
Let us now look at oral transmission methods closer to what was employed for the NT. For this, we shall be focusing more on educational forms of oral tradition, as Jesus was a teacher (in every sense of the word) to his disciples and followers. Let us take a look at Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman study methods.
Ancient study methods placed high value on preservation of ancient traditions. The aim of the educational process was for the scribe to memorise the cultural tradition and cultivate of his (or sometimes her) ability to perform it. In Mesopotamia, new students learned writing by copying directly from texts written by their teacher whilst more advanced students learned through a process of dictation and recitation. In other words, not only did students have to be able to memorise individual elements of standard works but be able to place the text they had memorised in the correct order. The goal was to write down and recite accurately the lists of standard literary works that were the foundation of scribal education. Musical structure was an aid for learning.
Likewise, in Egypt, education involved copying, memorisation and recitation of core curriculum, with use of song as a memory aid. The goal again being to accurately preserve tradition. In Greece, recitation was also the primary aim. Aristotle composed a book called On Memory that detailed a variety of memorisation techniques, including but not limited to acrostics. Of course, it should be prudent to note that early Greek Christians used the acrostic of the word fish (ichthus) that gave the message Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour. [David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (Oxford University Press, 2005), 8, 9, 27-9, 71-2, 95, 98.]
Let us now look at Roman educational practices during the first century AD. The Romans used a variety of memorisation techniques as to become a successful speaker or teacher, you needed to memorise vast amounts of information. Some orators memorised quotations from classical literature and great speeches, other memorised verbatim and other memorised the core and arrangement of their speech. So whilst texts were often memorised for performances, this did not always mean verbatim memorisation but also memorisation of the structure and overall message. Therefore, texts would at least have to be memorised in outline, if not word for word without reading from scroll or codex. Furthermore, memorisation was also considered necessary for the development of moral character in the Greco-Roman world. [Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel (Trinity Press International Press, 2003), 4-5, 25, 103-8, 151-3. Jocelyn Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind (Routledge, 1997), 82.]
Jewish Oral Traditions
What then, of the Jews? Afterall, Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. Let us now look at Jewish methods of oral tradition. Interestingly enough, Jewish culture in particular was extremely motivated when it came to the preservation of the work of respected teachers. Disciples in early Jewish settings were learners, reciters and memorisers who were the preservers and editors of tradition. Since the earliest disciples were Jewish, it is reasonable to conclude that they would have treated the work of Jesus with just as much respect as Jewish disciples of other Jewish teachers, such as Hillel and Shammai, had for their masters. [Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest (IVP: 1997), 43, 80.]
In fact, Jewish emphasis on oral tradition can be traced as far back as the book of Proverbs. Proverbs, of course, highlights hearing, taking to heart and the use of literary objects to aid in memorisation. This can also be seen in Jesus’ own time, for example, 1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus noted his own excellent memory and understanding and observed that Jews can recite their laws better than their own names. Now whilst this is mostly the expression of ideals rather than literal historical fact, this still shows the high level of priority placed upon memorisation of tradition. Now some critics would charge us of retrojecting post-70 AD Rabbinic techniques upon earlier periods, arguing that the destruction of Jerusalem circa 70 AD changed Judaism to such a degree that we cannot suppose such techniques were in use 40 years earlier. Yet this is not the case. For this objection to be valid, critics would have to show that no effort was made to memorise scripture and the teachings of leading Rabbis prior to 70AD. Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the critic to show how the destruction of Jerusalem changed the oral tradition to the degree that it invalidates our arguments for the reliability of Jewish oral tradition. The fact remains that the Jews had a deeply embedded oral tradition that was equally, if not more, reliable than oral traditions of parallel Greco-Roman cultures.
The Oral Tradition of the New Testament
We will now turn to the oral traditions of the New Testament itself. Does the evidence show that Jesus taught by memorisation and do we find indicators of the practice of memorisation in the text of the New Testament itself? Bearing in mind that memorisation does not equate to complete verbatim memorisation and so lack of verbatim agreement is not a valid argument against the reliability of oral tradition. In the text of the New Testament, we can see that the teachings of Jesus, and the NT as a whole, are filled with structures aimed to guarantee memorisation. The most obvious factor is Jesus’ role as a teacher and, as has been noted, the act of teaching presupposes memorisation by repetition. The overwhelming probability is then, that most of Jesus’ sayings and teachings were not merely said once or twice, but hundreds times with local variations. Thus, the burden of proof is on the critic to show why Jesus would not encourage memorisation.
Let us now turn to the Gospels themselves and take a look at some of the memorisation techniques used. Jesus is clearly identified as a teacher and is shown to follow Old Testament models of discipleship and additionally expected his disciples to imitate and follow him (Matthew 10:38, 11:28-30, 16:24, 20:26-28, 23:11). Specific techniques are as follows: -
Stunning, memorable words and images: Jesus often used hyperbole and overstatement to make his messages more memorable. Tearing out one’s eye to avoid sin (Matthew 5:29-30) and the log in the eye (Matthew 7:3-5) are fine examples of vivid word-pictures guaranteed to make his message more memorable and stand out in the minds of his disciples and listeners.
Wordplay: Now this one is less obvious because in order to see this, you would need to translate the words and teachings of Jesus back into the original language they were spoken in, i.e. Hebrew and/or Aramaic. For instance, Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees where he says they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel is a play on the Aramaic translations of each word, namely galma (gnat) and gamla (camel). In addition, Jesus also used riddles (John 2:19-21), paradoxical images (Mark 12:41-44) and irony.
Proverbs: Large amounts of Jesus’ teachings were encapsulated in short, pithy sayings that would be easily memorable. For example, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:24).
Poetic Forms: Around 80% of Jesus’ teachings used some form of parallelism, this being either synonymously using the same patterns and words or the use of strong contrasts (comparing thesis to anti-thesis was a common Jewish concept that can be found in the Old Testament).
As we can see, the use of memorisation techniques is apparent in the very text of the NT. It is filled with verbal clues that it was composed, transmitted and understood orally and thus, easily memorisable. Since most of the listeners would have been illiterate, the first way they would have encountered the Gospels would have been orally, so it makes sense that Gospel messages were meant to be easily memorable.
The Overall Reliability of the NT Oral Tradition
As we can see, ancient oral tradition was highly reliable by its very definition. It is this obvious that critics using the telephone analogy have not taken the time to study ancient oral traditions and/or severely misunderstand them. Jewish culture in particular had an emphasis on the importance of oral tradition and memorisation an from analysing the text of the New Testament, one can clearly see the use of several memorisation techniques employed that show that the Gospels were taught in such a way as to make them highly memorable. We can thus see why comparing NT oral tradition to the game of telephone is completely unfounded. In the game of telephone, a message is whispered into the ear of another person once and the goal is to see who distorted the message becomes. Whereas, the teachings of Jesus would have been openly and loudly repeated as many times as necessary. Now that the comparison of oral tradition to children’s games of telephone and Chinese whispers etc has ben refuted, it is now time to refute some more obscure objections.
Objection #1: The use of mnemonic devices does not prove that they were for the purpose of memory retention.
Critics may point to the use of mnemonic devices in modern literature, such as newspapers and fantasy writing, however, whilst certain mnemonic devices are used in modern literature, these are devolutions from their original intended purpose and only tend to be one device at work. Notably, the NT uses many devices in combination, the majority of which cannot be found in modern literature today.
Objection #2: The mnemonic devices were inventions of evangelists et al.
This objection is mostly just question begging. Jesus was a teacher and so it strains credulity that he would not have used such devices. Unless, of course, Jesus’ role as a teacher was an invention too, but that kind of objection is just conspiracy-minded nonsense. There is just no reason to assume that Jesus did not use such devices.
Objection #3: Memorisation =/= Remembering
Whilst there are those who would claim that the use of memory-reinforcing patterns did not equate to memorisation, this is a false dichotomy, for there cannot be remembering without memorisation to some degree. Furthermore, rote memory was actually the first step in rabbinic and secular training with training and interpretation coming afterwards. Thus, the two practices were not apart and the latter actually came after the former.
Objection #4: Early Christians who felt they were inspired by the Spirit would not feel the need to use memorisation.
This object is based purely on a misunderstanding of what entails as inspiration. In Greek and Roman culture, performances of fixed texts were often credited to divine inspiration, yet the performers still had performed the task of memorising. Bearing the NT oral tradition in mind specifically, divine inspiration would have been no excuse for the disciples to start slacking. Inspiration referred to the words etc that they themselves produced, so basically their preaching and if they wrote any epistles. Since their preaching was based on the teaching on Jesus, then they would have had to had memorised otherwise there would be nothing for them to work from.
Objection #5: There is still a lot of variation.
Despite the overall consistency of the NT oral tradition, there are still those who complain about whatever level of variation can be found in oral tradition. Of course, when it comes to specific cases, critics are unable to give any reasons to suspect radical inaccuracy anywhere.
One claim is that Jesus would not have expounded his message with rote regularity and pedantic repetitiveness as that would have violated regard for diversity amongst the audience. There are a variety of problems with this one. The bulk of Jesus’ audience were of one group, namely, rural, Galilean peasants with a conservative view towards tradition. Also, the kind of speaker-audience relationship implied is more indicative of formal persuasive speeches as opposed to educational presentations of traditions. Finally, critics would have to explain how any particular saying of Jesus would be altered by these so-called diverse circumstances. Would Jesus have had to radically revamp “blessed are the meek” as He went from Nazareth to Capernaum and Jerusalem? Would Jesus, as the broker between God and man, been free to radically alter His message? No.
Another claim is that in oral tradition, there is no single authoritative source, and so adaptation would have been the rule and so the original message would have been altered beyond recognition. This is once again presupposing modern values onto ancient practices and tradition. Whilst variations where made when it came to minute details and choices of words, the general idea was still being conveyed. Whilst moderns may regard this as a fault, exact wording was rarely crucial in oral societies. What was important was the general idea so whilst there were sometimes subtle variations, these ultimately did not detract anything from the message being conveyed.
The evidence thus indicates that memorisation of Jesus’ words were “cold” (more fixed and not subject to change), and memorisation of Jesus’ deeds were “cool” (fixed with a little more fluidity and change). The didactic background of the social world of the NT, Jesus’ profile as a teacher and the data of the New Testament itself all support this conclusion.
Oral Tradition vs. Textual Tradition
Now there are those who try to poke holes at the transition between oral and textual traditions, claiming that textual tradition damaged the oral tradition or allowed the invention of history wholesale. These objections rely solely on overstatement as well as unproven a priori assumptions. Perhaps the most bizarre objection is that certain sayings and/or stories of Jesus in the Gospels were invented by the Church to address “new sociological situations” that needed an authoritative pronouncement from Jesus. The problem, of course, being that there is no evidence, historical, textual, or otherwise, that indicates this. The fact that these stories were selected from a roster of authentic events is rejected out of hand completely. Even more bizarrely, there are those who would suppose that these sayings were invented by members of the church in “prophetic ecstasy” who then retrojected these sayings to Jesus whilst he was earth. Of course, there is absolutely zero evidence of such prophetic activity in the church. In the few examples of prophecy (i.e. the Book of Revelation), sayings were attributed to the ascended Jesus. These kinds of objections stem from what is known as “Form Criticism” or “Higher Criticism”. Let us proceed.
Objection #1: Writing destroyed the oral tradition and allowed for the alteration of Christian belief.
This is another bizarre claim that postulates that the writing down of the gospels “killed” the oral tradition and that so whatever errors crept in, or if anybody inserted claims, they would be unable to be corrected. As mentioned, this assumes the unproven. Namely, that the oral and textual traditions varied greatly, that various factors resulted in the changing of history into something else and that the early church was gullible and apathetic. Proponents of this claim fail to take into account that heretical Gospels/accounts were unanimously rejected by the early church. Quite simply, this is a false dichotomy.
Furthermore, there are two principal factors that really render this claim buried. The first being that oral tradition continued even after textual tradition was introduced. In fact, even after the advent of text, oral tradition would have been the predominant tradition considering that literacy rates were no higher than 10% in Israel and closer to 5% in the Greco-Roman world as a whole. This also guarantees that no spurious details were added as no writing occurred that was not vocalised. In other words, any written document was first dictated and writing itself was designed to be vocalised. This is a point that is summarily dismissed by critics, who are either unaware of these facts or try and do away with them with more unproven and baseless assertions. The second factor is that the textual and oral traditions interacted with another and actually strengthened one another. Whilst critics try to claim the oral and textual traditions opposed one another, this is false. The fact remains that, whilst oral tradition was preferred, writing was considered a supplement.
“[NT authors] viewed literature as a practical means of communicating with others when they were absent but saw it as inferior to the spoken word. They expected their compositions to be read aloud to a gathered community, who would, in turn, use that material to establish a dialogue between themselves and, especially in the case of a letter, with the reader, who was often the writer’s official representative.” – Casey Wayne Davis, Oral Biblical Criticism: The Influence of Orality on the Literary Structure of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 61-2.
Objection #2: Writing was intended to replace the oral tradition.
If the preceding claim was not odd enough, there are those who claim that the act of committing tradition to writing was an act of hostility to those who preserved the oral tradition and that they were opposed. For example, one critic claims that oral tradition was personal and friendly and that textual tradition was cold and impersonal. The problem being that there is no evidence for any of these claims and are just critics creating social history ex nihilo.
There is no evidence that the textual tradition damaged the oral tradition, or that were opposed whatsoever. The dichotomy of literary and oral traditions is simply the result of critics imposing modern sensibilities on ancient texts.
How Could Anyone Remember That Much Material?
Now that the more obscure objections are out of the way, it is time to move onto objections that are more common. The first of these being that ancient persons could not have remembered so much material. Not surprisingly, the modern person finds it puzzling that the entirety of the Jesus tradition could be retained in memory. This is not as unrealistic as it first sounds due to a number of advantages the ancients held, that are theoretically still available to be used today.
Advantage #1: Lesser Burden
In antiquity, ancient people spent most of their time occupied with daily survival, which was not a very large burden on memory. As opposed to today where we are constantly being barraged with tons of extraneous data via the media and internet etcetera. Having a mind free of useless information is critical in enhancing your memory of important things. In addition, ancient people’s vocabularies were significantly less than in modern times. The English language has approximately 1.5 million words as opposed to the few thousand words in ancient languages. Let us now look at examples of ancient and modern peoples memorising a lot of information.
• Plato said that the Sophist Hippias of Elis was able to repeat fifty names after hearing them once.
• Pliny the Elder reported that Cyrus was able to name every man in his army, that Lucius Scipio remembered the names of every person in the Roman Empire, that a person named Charmadas could recite any book in the libraries and that he and his wife regularly read his works and committed them to memory.
• Seneca boasted that he was able to repeat 2,000 names read to him and recite in reverse order over two hundred verses his student recited to him.
• Cicero recorded that another writer that memorised as many Greek and Latin pieces as possible.
[Byrskog, Story as History, 162-3; Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel (Trinity Press International, 2003), 106-7
Whilst there are those who would dismiss these as fantasy, let us know look at some modern examples.
• In China, one man memorised 15,000 phone numbers.
• Another man was able to memorise 16,000 pages of Buddhist texts.
Small, Wax Tablets, 127.
• A man named Michael Barone memorised congressional district boundaries, precise population figures of major cities in different years as well as winners and losers in Presidential and vice-presidential races.
[Elizabeth Loftus, Memory (Addison-Wesley, 1980), 2-6.
• I myself memorised the lyrics for every Guns N’ Roses song when I was 14 and, more recently, I memorised the lyrics to the song Rational Gaze by Meshuggah in a matter of minutes.
Whilst these may be dismissed as uncommon cases, we are not suggesting that the disciples memorised tens of thousands of pages but the equivalent of 30-40. The person doing the memorisation only needs motivation and technique, both of which the disciples and early Christians had.
Advantage #2: Technique
As aforementioned, there were a number of techniques used by Ancient people geared towards enhancing memorisation, some of these techniques being still in use today.
• Use of associations. Things like rhymes, novelty, or stunning visual images (as Jesus used in His teachings).
• Paying very close attention (as a teacher like Jesus would have insisted on).
• Use of repetition (as a teacher like Jesus would have done).
Whilst there are those who would point to cases of people remembering misinformation, these cases have only occurred with people witnessing a one-time event, typically under stressful situations, who are expected to recall it all off-hand later, NOT long time memory achieved through deliberate memorisation and contemplation. What we have in the NT is not casual recall across several decades or something heard of once but thought little of but a deliberate attempt to firmly implant matters of importance in the minds of motivated individuals intending to listen, absorb and live accordingly.
Advantage #3: The Emphasis
In antiquity, there was a tremendous amount of emphasis on memory. In the Greco-Roman world in general, and the Jewish world in particular, memory was a vital component in day-to-day life. All critics can do is claim that the singular case of Jesus and His disciples was somehow an exception to this rule, which is just an unacceptable objection.
Oral Tradition vs. History
Some critics argue that oral tradition was geared to preservation of fantasy rather than history, claiming that early Christians cared so little about History in their preachings that they freely made things up or failed to preserve it accurately. After answering these objections, we shall look at the historical value of oral tradition to see if the NT meets the necessary criterion.
Objection #1: Pre-literate people were not as sophisticated as literate people.
It is often claimed that predominately illiterate people who relied on oral tradition were thus simple, ignorant and gullible. Of course, this is imposing modern values onto ancient peoples and just modern western elitist bigotry that is rejected by serious scholars. The irony being, the argument that illiterate people were ignorant is itself an argument from ignorance.
“In general, there is much evidence to support our widespread association of writing with civilisation, although this should not be used to support either the once fashionable assumption that preliterates are “simpler” or have lesser intellectual capacities than literates, or the argument that literacy automatically conveys new intellectual capacities.” – William Graham, Beyond the Written Word (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 12.
“...orality does not preclude complex intellectual activity. Not only did philosophers discuss extremely difficult problems without using writing to help, but dense and complex literature was heard rather than read by its public.” – Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 4.
“The older ideas about ‘primitive mentality’ are now rejected by modern scholars and to continuously laboriously repudiate out of date notions should be superfluous. But the fact is that this kind of crude image of non-literate people is still surprisingly prevalent.” – Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality (Basil Blackwell, 1988), 55.
Objection #2: Oral tradition compromises history by using memorable forms.
Whilst this argument accepts the use of memory retention techniques in the NT oral tradition, there those who would argue that this somehow compromises the overall historicity of the Gospels. Of course, whilst there are some examples where structuring of stories has led to some dehistoricisation, the question is whether or not this is the rule or the exception. Presenting the case that offering truth and offering it in a memorable form are mutually exclusive is, yet again, another false dichotomy. A very skilled orator could readily do both, so it is up to the critic to show why and how, in any given case, shaping speech would have altered historical accuracy. One critic offered the example of Jesus’ healing stories as following a “predictable pattern”.
1 – Exposition of Healing
A – Arrival of Healer and Sick Person
B – Staging of Public Forum
C – Explication of Sickness
D – Request for Help
E – Public Scorn/Contempt
2 – Performance of Healing
A – Utterance of Formula
B – Healing Gestures
C – Statement of Cure
3 – Confirmation
A – Admiration/Confirmation Formula
B – Dismissal
C – Injunction of Secrecy
D – Propagation of Healer’s Fame
The problem being, not one story follows this predictable pattern. The highest number of points followed is the story of Jesus healing a deaf mute, with a grand total of 9 points followed. Another follows 8, 2 more follow 7 with the remainder following 6, 5, 4, 3 and some even as low as 2 points. Another problem is that some of these points are not only likely to happen in a healing scenario, but it is impossible that at least one does not occur in any genuine healing scenario. If that were not enough, but even if every story followed this predictable pattern, it would not prove ahistoricity.
Another critic, who argues for the total ahistoricity of the NT oral tradition, argues that the trial of Jesus in before the Jewish High Priest and the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate are remarkably similar and thus argues that the Jewish trial was a total invention to vilify the Jews. In other words, because they follow a set pattern, it means they were “created”. There are many problems with this. The principal fault is that this is forced pattern searching as well as an attempt to forcefully place a shift in responsibilities (the responsibility of Jesus’ death). The most plausible explanation is that both stories were condensed to formulaic patterns. The problem for critics is that reduction to formulas does not indicate ahistoricity in any way. No individual elements within the stories are historically improbable, as they reflect normal procedure for a trial. In short, adherence to a narrative form does not automatically render a story suspect as history.
Objection #3: Oral tradition only preserves that which interests the community and so loses or forgets anything else.
Here critics argue that the oral tradition was altered to serve the community, but negated historical worth. However, the critic must be able to give a specific example of where the record was changed and why said change is not historically accurate. One example would be in Luke 5:19 where Luke uses the word tiling to describe the roofing, which the crippled man was lowered through. Critics would say that Luke is in error as Palestinian homes did not have roofing made of tiles; Greek and Roman homes did. However, this is Luke catering to the needs of his audience, making the story easier to understand to non-Jews. There were no footnotes in ancient times and so Luke had no room to make mention of “oh and by the way, Palestinian roofs aren’t made of tiling” as this would have been extraneous bells and whistles that would have distracted the audience. This is no way makes the account ahistorical and furthermore, changes like these were in all likelihood not because of oral tradition. Simply claiming vaguely that “distortion happened” is not enough.
The Criteria for Establishing History by Word of Mouth
Let us now look at criteria for determining whether oral history can be accepted as relating actual history and then how this relates to the Gospels. One criterion is whether or not an account runs against bias. For example, if an official dynastic account mentions a defeat at the hands of an enemy, then we can accept this as most likely genuine as no state would willingly want to invent accounts of their own defeat. However, this is not an adequate criterion for establishing history, although can be useful for establishing what is likely to not have been invented. Another criterion would be testimony not intended to be recorded as history, such as the moral teachings of Jesus, as the informant has no reason for falsification. One set of criteria for establishing history is as follows:
1) Identify folklore themes that have been added.
3) Multiple Traditions.
4) Corroboration from print records.
5) Corroboration from geographical landmarks.
6) Archaeological/material corroboration.
7) Character of the informant.
Critics have, of course, attacked the NT in terms of 1 and 2. 3 depends on whether you count the Gospels individually or as drawing from one another. 4 is sparse, yet what we would expect. The NT is highly reliable when it comes to 5 and 6 and 7 depends on the defence of traditional authorship.
A more thorough list of criterion for establishing oral tradition as historical is as follows:
1) The tradition must be supported by an unbroken series of witnesses, reaching from immediate and first reporter of the fact to the living mediate witness from whom we take it up, or to the one who was the first to commit it to writing.
2) There should be several parallel and independent series of witnesses testifying to the fact in question.
3) The tradition must report a public event of importance, such as would be necessarily known to a great number of persons.
4) The tradition must have been generally believed, at least for a definite period of time.
5) During that definite period it must have gone without protest, even from persons interested in denying it.
6) The tradition must one of relatively limited duration.
7) The critical spirit must have been sufficiently developed while the tradition lasted, and the necessary means of critical investigation must have been at hand.
8) Critical-minded persons who would have surely have challenged the tradition, had they considered it false, must have made no challenge.
1) Traditional authorship would be an aid here as we would then know who the immediate witnesses were (apart from Luke).
2) It depends on whether the Gospels can be considered independent.
3) A significant portion of the Gospels succeed on this count.
4) The Gospels pass with flying colours.
5) We have no such records for the Gospels although little survived from the first century.
6) Some suggest between 150 and 200 years as the maximum amount time that can pass before details become lost. The Gospels fall well within this range at a mere 30-40 years.
7) This means of investigation was open to anybody who could have contradicted the Gospel tradition.
8) The same as for 7.
History by word of mouth then, can be reliable. Critics would have to give a case with specific passages. Simply dismissing them as ahistorical because of their oral transmission is not a valid argument.
Why Didn’t Jesus Have the Gospels Written Down Straight Away?
Whilst not so much an argument against actual reliability, this argument argues that, if Jesus had known what He was doing, He should have written down everything Himself and not left it to others, or have had it written down straight away. Of course, if Jesus had actually done so, it is doubtful that critics would accept them as genuine anyway. However, the main fault of this argument is that it presumes a teacher would write everything down themselves. In the NT world, a teacher would hire a scribe, much like the role between Jesus and Matthew or Jeremiah and Baruch. This argument is also, once again, imposing modern sensibilities onto the ancient world. It is once again imposing the importance of writing onto a culture where oral tradition was more prevalent and it also assumes that the process of writing was as easy then as it is now. In the NT world, teachers etc would often be too busy to write and so would get scribes to write everything down. Afterall, Socrates never wrote a thing in his life and his teachings exist only in the writings of his students. Let us look at a variety of factors that made the committing of something to writing difficult in the ancient world.
There Were No Office Supply Depots in Ancient Palestine
How difficult would it be to create a document the size of the Gospel of Mark in ancient times? Critics again would most likely try to impose modern restrictions and erroneously believe that it was easy to acquire paper and a writing implement. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The first and foremost problem: Jesus’ ministry lasted around 2 years, approximately 4,000-5,000 hours (minus eating, sleeping and travelling) to draw information and details from. The big question being, if you had to write a biography of Jesus, what would you write about, bearing in mind that you would be limited to roughly 20 or so sheets of paper, and not sheets, but a scroll of papyrus that would be between 10 and 11 meters? In other words, you had a limited amount of material in which to record the events and you had to select the most important events from those and write them down. Of course, this is if you can even afford the necessary materials. A book half the size of Mark’s Gospel would have been 1.5-2.5 denarii for a cheap edition; 5 denarii for a high quality version. Since the average wage was 1 denarius a day, it would have taken 4 days to save up the money to buy a copy of one of Paul’s letters. Would you be willing or even able to purchase the entire New Testament if that were the case? The shorter your work, the cheaper it was to pass around. You would also need accessories, and even then, you would still not be ready. You would need to plan and structure your work. You would have to decide what the most important things to include would be, so obviously His crucifixion and resurrection would be top of the list. Planning is crucial as if you made mistakes you would have to get another scroll, so you would need to make notes, utilising whatever materials would be at hand such as palm leaves, papyrus scraps, wax tablets, linen sheets or even tree bark. The structure would be important, as you would need to structure your work so it was memorable. Matthew divided his work into five sections that represented the five books of the Pentateuch, and began with a genealogy and ended with an edict like the book of 2 Chronicles. Mark used a technique where he sandwiched small stories in between parts of another story. Luke worked around the theme of travelling to Jerusalem and John built his around important “signs” Jesus performed. This is why it took time for the Gospel accounts to be committed to writing. The reliability of the oral tradition would ensure that no major detail would be lost. This is also serves as an answer to an objection regarding the textual tradition, why there are differences in structure etc in the Gospels, although this shall be answered in full later on. This leads to the inevitable, why would Jesus trust His disciples? Why wouldn’t He? He taught them and knew them personally. Who better to write your biographies than four of your closest friends?
Was Jesus Illiterate?
Whilst this is again not an argument against the oral tradition itself, nonetheless there those who argue that dependence on the oral tradition meant that Jesus was illiterate and so not divine.
Objection #1: 95% of the people in Jesus’ time could not read or write, so the odds are that He could not either.
Whilst these figures are accurate, although for Israel it was closer to 90%, this by no means proves that Jesus was illiterate specifically. The odds were that Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could not read or write, yet there were fully literate and well-educated men. Jesus certainly had the means and motive to become literate. Nazareth had a local synagogue and Jesus was from a pious family and was seriously devoted to scripture.
Objection #2: Jesus did not write anything Himself, so He must have been illiterate.
This is not a valid objection as literate people in the NT world often got scribes to write for them.
Objection #3: The NT itself shows that Jesus was illiterate.
This is the only argument that deals with primary data. The following verse is used to claim Jesus’ illiteracy.
John 7:15 “15 The people were amazed and said, "This man has never studied in school. How did he learn so much?"
Of course, what critics do not realise is that this passage actually shows that he was literate in that his opponents are granting that He is literate, but are asking how. Critics also seem to be oblivious to places in the NT that show Jesus to be literate beyond a shadow of a doubt.
John 8:8 “8 Then Jesus bent over again and wrote on the ground.”
Luke 4:17-20 “17 The book of Isaiah the prophet was given to him. He opened the book and found the place where this is written:
18 "The Lord has put his Spirit in me,
because he appointed me to tell the Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to tell the captives they are free
and to tell the blind that they can see again. — Isaiah 61:1
God sent me to free those who have been treated unfairly — Isaiah 58:6
19 and to announce the time when the Lord will show his kindness." — Isaiah 61:2
20 Jesus closed the book, gave it back to the assistant, and sat down. Everyone in the synagogue was watching Jesus closely.”
Then there are the examples of Jesus offering the riposte “Have you not read...?” (Mark 2:25, 12:10, etc.) as a retort to the Pharisees. Had Jesus been illiterate then he would be open to the counter-riposte that he was illiterate, which would have shamed Him. In an honour-based setting like the NT world, it was unthinkable for Jesus to use such challenges unless He could read Himself.
Isn’t the New Testament Just Hearsay?
One frequent attack on the New Testament are that it claims are hearsay and therefore unreliable. However, this argument rest on faulty premises, namely:
(I)Hearsay is second-hand information
(II)Hearsay is excluded from legal evidence because it is unreliable
(III)Therefore, the statements in the Bible are hearsay and cannot be used to establish the truth of the biblical narrative.
What is the Definition of Hearsay?
Most people seem to think that hearsay refers to second-hand information, or more precisely, unverified, unofficial information gained or acquired from another and not part of one’s direct knowledge, however, the legal definition of hearsay in the Federal Rules of Evidence is considerably different:
“’Hearsay’ is a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” – Fed. R.Ev. 801(c)
In other words, an out-of-court statement offered as evidence, is hearsay. This distinction is important because if we accepted the colloquial, i.e. wrong, definition of hearsay and applied the legal consequence to that instead, then this would produce absurd results. Police would have no grounds for investigating crimes, even with eyewitness testimony. This argument is therefore completely ridiculous as the second-hand nature of evidence does not determine its credibility.
Why is Hearsay Excluded?
The principal drive behind labelling the Bible as hearsay is because hearsay is unreliable. However, as noted, the definition of hearsay used by critics is incorrect and actually absurd. If the lay definition was accepted then your parents account of your birthplace, other people’s answer to the question “how are you?”, secretaries reporting missed calls to their bosses and so on would be considered hearsay and thus unreliable. The reason the legal definition of hearsay is excluded is because in-court statements have safeguards that out-of-court statements do not. These safeguards being, cross-examination, the oath and the opportunity to observe the declarant’s demeanour. Hearsay is not excluded because it is supposedly unreliable but because the Constitution only allows for one method of determining reliability, and that is cross-examination. However, there are sometimes exception to the exclusory rule and sometimes hearsay is admitted as certain circumstances confer an air of reliability even in the absence of cross-examination.
[Glen Weissenberger, Federal Rules of Evidence (Anderson Publishing: 1999), Cincinnati 400-401. 541 U.S. 36 (2004)]
Are Statements in the New Testament Hearsay?
This is course the principal question that needs to be answered to determine the validity of this argument. Would the Rules of Evidence excluded statements within the Bible as hearsay? The answer, quite obviously, is no. One class of statements exempt from hearsay are statements contained in an ancient document. Fed.R.Ev. 803(16): “the following are not excluded by the hearsay rule... Statements in a document in existence twenty years or more the authenticity of which is established”. Rule 901(8): “Evidence that a document or data compilation, in any form (A) is in such condition as to create no suspicion concerning its authenticity, (B) was in a place where it, if authentic, would, likely be, and (C) has been in existence twenty years or more at the time it is offered”. There is a wealth of historical evidence that demonstrates quite clearly that the New Testament fulfils these criteria. There is then the case of hearsay within hearsay. Given that ancient documents are admissible, what about the statement they make?
Jesus’ Genealogies. Matthew 1 and Luke 3.
Rule 803(13) “The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule... Statements of fact concerning personal or family history contained in family Bibles, genealogies, charts... or the like”.
Statement of the Blind Man in Mark 8:24: “24 The man looked up and said, "Yes, I see people, but they look like trees walking around."
Rule 803(3) “The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule... Statement of the declarant’s then existing... physical condition...”
Statement of the disciples after Jesus calms the storm in Matthew 8:26-27: “26 Jesus answered, "Why are you afraid? You don't have enough faith." Then Jesus got up and gave a command to the wind and the waves, and it became completely calm.
27 The men were amazed and said, "What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"
Rule 803(2) "The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule... A statement relating to a startling event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition.”
Statement Identifying Jesus after a Resurrection Appearance: John 21:5-7
“5 Then he said to them, "Friends, did you catch any fish?"
They answered, "No."
6 He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they did, and they caught so many fish they could not pull the net back into the boat.
7 The follower whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Peter heard him say this, he wrapped his coat around himself. (Peter had taken his clothes off.) Then he jumped into the water.”
Rule 803(1) “The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule... A statement describing or explaining an event or condition while the declarant was perceiving the event or condition, or immediately thereafter."
So to say that the New Testament must be rejected because it is, “hearsay” is ludicrous rubbish. Of course, because something is admissible as evidence does not necessarily mean it should be believed even if the evidence supports it, so why critics feel the need to claim the NT is inadmissible as court evidence is quite puzzling.
The Reliability of the Textual Tradition
Let us now look at the textual tradition of the New Testament. A number of critics, spearheaded by the likes of Bart Ehrman, argue that the text was tampered with, amongst other things. Is the textual tradition reliable? Let us look at the evidence. The fact remains that we now possess over 25,000 copies or fragment of the New Testament in various languages, with over 5,700 of those in Greek and over one million quotations in Christian literature that could actually be used to reconstruct the entire New Testament if we were to lose those manuscripts. Of course, critics would not be critics if they did not at least try to poke holes in these impressive numbers.
• The vast majority of those manuscripts are from much later periods. Very few come from times as close as 200-300 years after the writing of the original; only 6% come from before the ninth century.
• There is still a significant gap – in some cases, 200-300 years – between the earliest copy of certain Biblical books and the time they were written. This leaves plenty of time of corruption that we cannot be certain did not happen.
Of course, these are not grounded in evidence but are merely paranoid claims of uncertainty. It should seem apparent that these types of claims are made in desperate attempts to get around the aforementioned impressive numbers to try and put a dent in the textual reliability of the New Testament. Well, let us compare the NT to other ancient documents, because the NT is significantly better off in terms of numbers of manuscripts and what century they were from. Of course, textual critics do not act or write as if reaching the original text of these documents is hard or even daunting, so let us take a look.
Celsus, de Medicina: (authored 1st century AD) – Has over twenty 15th century manuscripts which owe their existence to a lost manuscript first known of in 1426. There are two 9th century manuscripts and one 10th century manuscript.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (authored early first century AD) – There are no extant, complete manuscripts before the 11th century, and only small fragments remain from the early Carolingian period. The oldest witnesses are three fragments from the 9th century and twenty-five more are listed up through the 13th century.
Pliny, Natural History (first century) – There are five early fragments; the best is from the 5th century, from books 11-15. The largest oldest manuscripts date to the ninth century.
Quintillian, Institutio Oratorio (first century) – The earliest manuscripts, two in number, date to the 9th century; there is also one 10th century manuscript.
Tacitus, Annals (early second century) – Books 1-6 survive in one manuscript dated to around 850 AD. Books 11-16 survive at earliest in one manuscript dated to the middle of the 11th century.
As we can see, the NT is in far better shape, yet, strangely enough, textual critics of secular documents do not seem as bothered as critics of Christianity would have us believe. Of course, they do offer comments of despair, but these are specific reasons for individual cases.
For example, H. Rackham, commenting on Pliny’s Natural History, says: “Many of the textual problems are manifestly insoluble.” – H. Rackham, Pliny: Natural History, Vol. 1 (Harvard University Press, 1979), xiii. Only specific problems are insoluble, so critics of Christianity would need to bring specific cases instead of shouting “we can’t know!” and falling backwards over themselves in post-modernist despair. However, even then, there are limitations to how much scepticism is permissible. Even in Shakespeare’s works, which were revised and edited countless times by Shakespeare himself making talks of the “original text” meaningless, there is no variant with Hamlet as a woman. Nevertheless, let us now look at the data of the New Testament.
Critics are quick to point out that there are 400,000 variants amongst the 5,700+ Greek manuscripts, a point popularised by Bart Ehrman amongst others. Of course, what critics either fail to mention, or are simply unaware of, is that 70% of those variants are typos and spelling errors. 20% of those variants are things such as the use of synonyms and transpositions of words that do not alter the meaning of the text. 9% of variants are those that affect the meaning of the text but has evidence indicating that it was not what was originally written. For instance, one variant of 1 Thessalonians 2:9 mentions the “Gospel of God” instead of the “Gospel of Christ”. However, this is one manuscript out of thousands and dated significantly later than others. There is only a mere 1% of variants where there is no solution as to what the original said. However, these variants are not major. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul either describes himself and his friends as ‘gentle’ or ‘little children’. The difference is one letter and the evidence points in neither direction, yet both would fit. In other words, out of the insoluble variants that affect the meaning of the text, none of them are in important matters. Let us now answer more specific objections to the reliability of the textual transmission of the New Testament.
[Daniel Wallace, J. Ed Komoszewski and M. James Sawyer, Reinventing Jesus (Kregel: 2006)]
Objection #1: Early Christians did not regard the NT as Scripture in the first two centuries. Therefore, they were not as conscientious and careful about copying it accurately.
This charge is odd considering that even secular documents were regarded as important to copy accurately, so a text would not need to be identified as Scripture for care to be taken in transmission. [Phillip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts (Broadman and Holman, 2005), 21.]
Objection #2: Christians regarded themselves as “filled with the Spirit” and thus felt free to alter texts under inspiration.
This is another equally odd objection, for it suggests that Christians would go against the authority of the apostles et al., who would have been regarded as “Spirit filled” when they wrote the Gospels and epistles etc and were in direct attendance of Jesus and/or His disciples. In fact, it can be equally argued that being “Spirit filled” would motivate a sense of responsibility to copy the text accurately. This is a vague argument and not valid for arguing against the reliability of textual transmission of the NT.
Objection #3: The odds are still good that some text essential to doctrine was altered and that some unknown variant affects it.
This is again vague and unspecific, however, a few examples have been given, so let us take a look at specific charges.
Several critics claim that the entirety of the doctrine of the Trinity rests in 1 John 5:7. Of course, they must not realise that this verse contributes virtually nothing to it and that the Trinity relies on a number of passages (John 1, Colossians 1:15-18 and Proverbs 8 to name a few).
Similarly, others have argued that the doctrine of inspiration of the New Testament relies solely on 2 Timothy 3:15:-16. Except other scriptures can be used (for example, 1 Peter 1:20, John 14:26, 1 Corinthians 2:6-13).
The evidence quite clearly shows that the New Testament is the most textually reliable set of documents in existence. Between 1 and 0.5% of the entire New Testament of all variants are actually troublesome to resolve but do not affect Christian doctrine or are trivial details that do not matter. Those who appeal to the spectre of possible unknown interpolations and/or changes to the text are no different to wandering vagrants holding “THE END IS NIGH” signs, both have the faith that they will be right one day.
Interpolations in the Text of the NT
If charges of unreliable textual transmission was not enough, some critics claim that parts of the New Testament are interpolations, foreign material inserted into the original text by scribes. Of course, merely claiming interpolations is not enough, examples are needed. Most critics cannot actually give an example and are merely repeating sound bites they gleaned from individuals as equally in the dark as themselves. The important thing to note here is that critics claiming interpolation are running against the majority of scholarship here, and thus, their arguments would need to be better than those of the consensus position and two to three times more numerous.
It is both interesting, and telling, that attempts are made to abrogate the benefit of the doubt and makes paranoid claims of uncritical religious “bias” in every position arguing against their fringe position. The problem of course being, we award the New Testament the benefit of the doubt because that is done with all ancient documents. To claim that it the task of Christians to prove there are not interpolations is special pleading. Claims of bias are hardly new, and tend to be made by anti-religious conspiracy theorists, vis a vis the ‘Jesus Myth Hypothesis’. The problem is that consensus scholarship is not against them due to any “evangelical bias” but because the facts are against them. Let us look at the actual arguments. Many critics often just resort to suggestions of conspiracy. They claim that the text we have today was promoted by the historical winners of the ecclesiastical and theological struggles of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that the Catholic church “standardised the text” and that all the unaltered texts were destroyed by the Church. This is the perhaps one of the stupidest things I have ever heard. There are a number of immediate problems here.
Firstly, the assertion that there must have been interpolations on the Pauline epistles is based on a priori assumptions that the early church had motives to do so. Secondly, the conspiracy theory that the church went around interpolating texts is practically impossible for the simple reason that it did not have the ability reach all over the world and edit/eliminate deviant texts. Thirdly, it flies in the face of the textual data too. Heretics knew how to hide texts judging from the existence of the Nag Hammadi texts and so on. The very existence of the Gnostic gospels and non-canonical material refutes this claim. If the Church had such control over the Pauline epistles then why not over the Gospels? Fourthly, this argument is flawed in that it assumes the existence of something that has not ever been proven to have existed in the first place. The simplest explanation for the absence of these manuscripts, if they even existed at all, is the fact that manuscripts do not last very long unless preserved (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls). Then there is the fact that the Church did not have the means to do this and furthermore, Of course, the simplest explanation is that these texts never existed at all, or were lost due to lack of adherence to these texts. Lastly, another point assumed is that, if these texts existed, that had equal or better claim to being right than the “winners” of the “theological war” and what heretical documents we do have certainly do not fit that description.
In order to prove that a passage is an interpolation, a critic must fulfil nine criteria.
1. Textual Evidence.
2. Ideological Disparities.
3. Stylistic/Linguistic Differences.
4. Incongruity of Passage in Context.
5. Dependence on Later Literature/Dependence on Historical Context.
6. External Attestation.
7. Textual Variations.
8. Explanation For the Interpolation.
Then and only then may they have a case and only then will arguments have to be made specifically against interpolation.
Isn’t the Bible supposed to be Inerrant?
A particularly ignorant claim made by sceptics and critics of Christianity is that if God existed, He would have made sure to preserve all copies of the Bible without error. In other words, the presence of any error means that the Bible is not the Word of God. I like to call this argument the ‘exegetical-get-out clause’, as it is most oft employed by sceptics who have just had their favourite “bible contradiction” destroyed by a Christian. This is, of course, also a misunderstanding of the doctrine of inerrancy. Now, for some reason, critics erroneously believe that the doctrine of Inerrancy is that the Bible is the literal word of God and, as such, there can be no errors etc and that the Bible says this. This is simply a fundamentalist understanding, one not supported by the Bible or even required for one to even be a Christian. God’s Words is referred to as pre-existent and unchanging, but this has nothing to do with copies of Scripture on Earth. The Biblical doctrine of Inerrancy is that the message contained in the Bible is without error, not that every copy of Scripture on Earth is 100% without error. Belief in inerrancy is not even a requirement to become a Christian, as former sceptics who became Christians like Frank Morison and C.S. Lewis believed in the historicity of the Resurrection but not in the inerrancy of the Gospels. This is also a problem as it would mean literacy would be a requirement for belief, which would be absurd. Critics also seem to be unaware that more nuanced translations are needed as languages evolve. The English language has changed not only since the hundreds of years since the KJV, but in the decades since the NIV. Another reason why Inerrancy is unnecessary is because it leads to bibliolatry. One need only take a look at the beliefs of fundamentalist and extremist Christians to see this. A prudent note, is that the reason critics seem to believe that an incorrect view of Inerrancy is biblical and necessary is because they have either spent too much time listening to fundies, or they are “former fundies” themselves. I use quotation marks there because, although they have changed caps, they are still riding the same horse so to speak.
Here is a list of factors of why inerrant copies of the Bible are not required to be preserved: -
The Coercion Factor. The presence of inerrant copies would implicitly coerce people into conversion when the choice to become a Christian is a choice that must be made freely.
The Provision Factor. No one person had the same understanding. No language or culture is the same in structure and outlook. There would therefore need to be a different translation of the Bible for every human that lives, will live and ever has lived. Not only is this impractical but, again, is inherently coercive.
The Implementation Factor. How would God do so? Freeze up the scribe if they were to write an incorrect translation, control their bodies, kill them if they were about to make an error? There is no way that is not inherently coercive.
In short, it is far easier, simpler and more responsible to reckon with textual criticism instead of lazily expecting God to pave the way for us. Being a disciple is a vocation, not a vacation.
Copyist Errors and Conjectural Emendations
Similarly, there are those indifferent to textual criticism that lazily dismiss all and any explanation involving copyist errors, despite the fact they are used by textual critics of secular documents. Such arguments are completely ridiculous and are just another exegetical-escape-clause type of intellectual fail. Let us use an example from a secular document. In the work of Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD), Amores 3.3.41, there is what is perceived as a copyist error: -
"Why complain and abuse all of heaven?"
This is a restoration of what Ovid is thought to have written, yet there is no textual evidence for this reading. This is what is known as a conjectural emendation. Many copies say “throughout” (toto) instead of ‘all of’ (toti), yet ‘all of’ has been restored as the correct reading. Why, one may ask. The reason why the change was made was because, quite simply, it made more sense. The poet, not being a bird, cannot complain throughout heaven. This was obviously realised by some unknown Italian humanist who quickly made the necessary change.
[James Willis, Latin Textual Criticism (University of Illinois, 1972), 59.]
It is important that we set this precedent in order to show what the critics’ fault logic would do to textual criticism. For instance, many uninformed and ignorant sceptics and critics of Christianity criticise the explanation that somebody copied it wrong because we lack the originals and so cannot know that it was copied wrong. Of course, the originals for Ovid do not exist and textual critics are completely unperturbed by it. This raises the pertinent question: How do we discover a copyist error and justify a conjectural emendation? There is a factor, namely, if there is any corroborating evidence supporting what appears to be more correct reading.
Let us look at an example from the Old Testament.
1 Kings 4:26: "And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousands horseman."
2 Chronicles 9:25: "And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen; whom he bestowed in the chariot cities, and with the king at Jerusalem."
Which is correct? Textual critics have long since determined that the second is the case and that 1 Kings was distorted accidentally. The reasons for this being: -
• The reading found in 2 Chronicles.
• Archaeological data indicating that 4,000 would be an appropriate number for a nation the size of ancient Israel, whilst 40,000 would be overly excessive.
• 4,000 fits in better with the number of horsemen.
• The spelling of 40 in ancient Hebrew differs to 4 only in the ending.
As we have seen, why did God allow errors and similar type of arguments do not cut it, so what other objections have been made? Well, one critic argued claims of copyist errors are impossible as the same incorrect figure would have been copied into hundreds if not thousands of different manuscripts and so someone would have noticed. Of course, this argument is ignorant of ancient composition techniques. There would not have been thousands of copies derived from a single source. Writing in ancient times was rare. No, there would have been one error in one document that would have been preserved that would have not been copied until the advent of mass copying procedures and schools. It happened with Ovid and it happened with the Bible and, as previously noted, only 1% of the entire New Testament contains any meaningful differences and, also as noted, are not in serious matters but trivial details.
The Many Failings of Bart Ehrman
Perhaps the most oft-cited textual critic by critics and sceptics of Christianity, Bart Ehrman’s principal failure is not in what he says, but what he conveniently leaves out. Notably, what he presents to the lay public is markedly different to what he actually presents to his fellow scholars. Whilst a scholar in the field of textual criticism, he frequently speaks outside of his field and it seems that his purpose is not to seek and present truth but to deconvert as many people as possible. We shall focus on two of his works, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which was written for scholars and Misquoting Jesus, which was written for the general public. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture presents the thesis that scribes who copied the New Testament occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views. It should be noted that in this volume, Ehrman does not argue that scribes misunderstood their texts and perverted them but, rather, they engaged in an interpretative process in which they were trying to preserve what they perceived to be the accurate meaning of the text against heretical misinterpretations. Ehrman does not argue that they made such changes out of malice or to try to convert more people but to prevent the misuse of scripture. Here is a pertinent analogy. When the character Mickey Mouse was originally conceived, there was a poster of him that read “Always Gay!”. This was before the word had any connection to homosexuality and meant simply happy or joyful. Later homosexual activists took the poster to mean that Mickey Mouse was a homosexual. Disney officials then changed the poster to read “Always Happy!” to avoid the poster being misused. In other words, the scribes made the changes as heretics were reading meanings into the text that were not there and Ehrman argues his case with a varying degree of success. This can be contrasted with Misquoting Jesus. Whilst it does serve as an adequate introduction to textual criticism, and Ehrman does mention the intentions of the scribes were good at least once, he leaves a substantial amount of critical information out of this volume. Let us look at three examples he gives.
A favourite example of Ehrman’s is Mark 1:40-41: "And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be clean". Ehrman argues that the word rendered “compassion” should actually read “anger” but was changed by scribes puzzled by Jesus’ anger towards the poor leper. Is Ehrman correct about “anger” being the original reading? Most likely, yes. Ehrman’s argument here is coherent and logical and fits in with the evidence and context. Was it such a problem that Jesus was angry in this passage? This is where the problems start emerging. The evidence shows that scribes were not embarrassed by Jesus’ anger in other passages. One must ask why anger was problematic for Christians in this case and not others and why indentify Jesus with YHWH of the OT? It is important to note that in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman points out that Jesus’ anger here fits in perfectly with the rest of Mark’s Gospel. Yet in Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman claims that Jesus’ anger here is a problem. Is Jesus’ anger here morally problematic here? From the way Ehrman tells it, Jesus got angry at some poor leper who just wanted to be healed, yet, if we look at the cultural context of the situation, we can see that this is not quite the case and there is quite a good reason for Jesus’ anger here. In Ancient times, lepers were not permitted to live in the cities and had to openly declare themselves as unclean. The fact this man got so close to Jesus tells us that he was not covered head to toe with leprosy and suffering great pain. The preceding passage tells us that Jesus was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. The healing took place publicly meaning this leper forced Jesus’ hand to get an immediate healing. Once Jesus touched the leper, people would have immediately considered ritually unclean. Later passages note that after the man proclaimed the healing publicly, Jesus could no longer enter the city until the time of ritual impurity passed. Jesus’ ministry would have been interrupted by this and so Jesus’ anger was justified given that the leper could have just waited for Jesus to have moved elsewhere and gotten Jesus to perform the healing privately. Whatever the reason was for this change, scribal embarrassment certainly was not it.
Another example Ehrman uses is Matthew 26:36: "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but my Father only". Many manuscripts do not contain the words “nor the Son” and Ehrman argues that this was because scribes were embarrassed that Jesus did not know something. Is Ehrman correct about the original reading? In this case, the answer is ambiguous. The evidence does not clearly show which reading is correct, however there is a similar passage in Mark that uses the phrase “nor the Son” and all the evidence points to that being the correct reading in Mark. It is interesting to note that in all six times Ehrman mentions Matthew 26:36, he does not mention Mark 13:32 once. The actual reason cannot be known, but it is obviously not the reason Ehrman tries to present. The question of why Jesus did not know the hour and day is purely theological one that will not be dealt with here.
The third example we shall look it as 1 John 5:7: "For there are three that bear the record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one". It is widely recognised that this does not belong in our Bibles as it was not penned by John and was not conceived until the 16th century. This begs the question, why even mention it all? Ehrman claims that this is essential to the doctrine of the Trinity and without it, the Trinity must be inferred from a range of passages. As noted earlier on, this is simply untrue. As usual, Ehrman presents a different case in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which he completely leaves out altogether because it can scarcely be dated prior to the Trinitarian controversies that arose after the period under examination.
One must ask oneself. Why use such dishonest methods? Well, when your arguments are shite, like poor old Bart Ehrman’s, then the more honest method, i.e. telling the truth, just won’t cut it for the purpose at hand, namely, the deconversion of as many people as possible. If Ehrman simply presented Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, then it would not serve this possible. It quite obvious then, that Ehrman is not an honest scholar. In Misquoting Jesus, he notes that his interest in Textual Criticism began because he desired to know the very words of the New Testament. Therein lies the problem. Ehrman retains an unhealthy focus on individual words over the broader ideas as if this were the only the way to understand Scripture. This is not the case and is merely a sign of Ehrman’s fundamentalist misunderstanding of Scripture.
Authorship of the New Testament
As we can see, the textual transmission of the New Testament was more reliable than any other ancient document. Still, there are critics who attempt to shed doubt on the authority of the New Testament by disputing the authorship of its 27 books. There are two principal problems with disputes over NT authorship. The first being, the arguments against the authorship of the NT have not changed. In other words, they are of the outdated argument, shout louder variety. The second problem is that critics do not apply to the NT books what is applied to secular documents and instead raise the bar to levels that would automatically fail every secular ancient document in existence. In reality, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever as to who wrote Tacitus’ Annals, yet the evidence for who wrote the NT is a lot stronger than for Tacitus writing Annals. Once again, this your average anti-Christian bias seeping in. Let us actually take a look at Annals.
The first criterion is internal evidence of attribution. In other words, whose name is on the document? Whilst not absolute evidence, it does serve as a starting point on which one must either defend or attack. Tacitus’ Annals names Tacitus as the author in one place, at the beginning. Whilst there are critics who argue that the names on the Gospels were “added later”, why not argue a similar thing for Tacitus, or any other secular work for that matter? Three words, anti-religious bias. Often critics will adhere to claiming “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”, which is not a logical argument but something Carl Sagan invented out of his backside. Of course, what is extraordinary about Matthew being the author of Matthew? The problem with ECREE type of argument is that the definition of “extraordinary” is entirely arbitrary and subjective. The fact remains that critics and sceptics or Christianity subject the New Testament to unfair levels of criticism. Of course, this is only the starting point in affirming authorship so complaining about internal attestation is rather meaningless in and of itself anyway. There is, of course, the long-standing assumption that the Gospels were completely anonymous, however, ancient documents were written on scrolls, which contained the name of the author on the outside of the scroll. It was not until the advent of the Codex (an early form of book) that indicating the author at the beginning of a work became widely used.
Let us now look at the second factor, external evidence of attribution. What did other people say about who wrote the document in question? In the case of Annals, external attestation is rather thin. Now critics try to claim that since early Church fathers did not mention the Gospel authors by name, then this means they were anonymous. Well, in the second-century, Ptolemy quoted Annals but did not mention Tacitus by name. Does this mean Tacitus’ Annals was anonymous? In the third century, Christian writer Tertullian identifies Tacitus as the author of Histories, another of Tacitus’ works. In the fourth century, several authors mention Tacitus but do not mention him as being an author of Annals. It is not until Jerome (c. 340-420 AD) until authorship of Annals is attributed externally to Tacitus. Tacitean scholars have zero doubt that Tacitus actually wrote Annals, so why do critics attack the NT when it has far superior external attestation than any ancient secular document?
The last criterion for assessing authorship would be internal evidence of style. One would expect Tacitus to write like a government official of Rom, well-educated, good grammar etcetera. Of course, most writers used scribes seeing as writing was such a laborious process back then, the effect this had would vary depending on the method and skill of the scribe (e.g. verbatim dictation from the author, or just write notes and write what the author intended in their own fashion). These criterions together can thus be used to adequately ascertain authorship of ancient documents. Let us now look briefly at two other secular documents, Celsus’ de Medicina and Cicero’s Academici Libri. Virtually nothing is known about this Celsus, who is different to the Celsus engaged by Origen. Internal evidence is firm yet late (dated to approximately 9th century AD). External evidence is firm too, being mentioned by Quintillian (35-100 AD) and Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) and, since Celsus was likely born around 25 BC, not late. Internal style is also very good as the writing displays that the author was one with extensive medical experience, albeit a non-professional, as he writes in the first person, mentioning patients he had treated and other medical writers. As for Cicero, internal and stylistic evidence is excellent. There were two different versions of this work made, likely because others copied it without Cicero’s consent. Cicero lived between 106-43 BC and is mentioned by Pliny, Quintillian, Plutarch and Minicius Felix. The external evidence is thus good, but not as good as external evidence for the NT documents.
Authorship of Matthew
Concerning internal attestation, the manuscript universally names Matthew as the author of Matthew with one slight exception. A third-century manuscript P1 contains portions of Matthew but does not name Matthew as the author. This would only make a point against Matthean authorship though, if P1 stood alone without the additional evidence recorded. Concerning external attestation, we have six good examples of this. Papias (c. 125 AD) wrote:
“Matthew made an arrangement of the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each translated them as they were able...” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.16
This quote is preserved by Eusebius who uses this as a way of explaining the origins of the Gospel of Matthew, causing some to believe that this might be referring to an early Hebrew or Aramaic version of Matthew. It is the burden of proof to show that Papias was unreliable, especially seeing as he described himself going through the methods recommended by ancient historians such as Lucian. Namely, critical inquiries, collecting eyewitness testimony, setting down the data in notes and then arranging the data in a coherent presentation.
Irenaeus (c. 130-c.200 AD) wrote: “Now Matthew published also a book of the Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the Church.” – Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.13
Pantaenus wrote around 180AD: “..he there found his own arrival anticipated by some who there were acquainted with the gospel of Matthew, to whom Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached, and had left them the gospel of Matthew in the Hebrew, which was also preserved until this time.” – Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 10.3
Origen wrote: “As I have understood from tradition, respecting the four gospels, which are the only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the world. The first is written according to Matthew, the same that was once a publican, by afterward an apostles of Jesus Christ, wrote it in the Hebrew.” – Ecclesiastical History, Book6, Chapter 25.4
Eusebius wrote: “Matthew, also having first proclaimed the gospel in Hebrew, when on the point of going also to other nations, committed it to writing in his native tongue, and thus supplied the want of his presence to them, by his writings.” – Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 24.6
Jerome wrote: “Matthew – who was also called Levi – was an apostle and former tax-collector. He first composed the gospel of Christ in Hebrew letters and words in Judea for those from the circumcision had believed. Who later translated (his gospel) into Greek, is not quite certain, Moreover, the Hebrew itself is still held today in the library at Caesarea (Maritima) , which the martyr Pamphilus carefully put together. I also was able to make a copy from the Nazarenes, who use this volume in Beroea, a city in Syria. In it, it is to be noted that whenever the evangelist made full use of testimonies from the ancient scriptures – either on his own or from the Lord Saviour – he did not follow the authority of the Seventy translators [i.e. the Greek Septuagint], but of the Hebrew. These are two (examples) of this: “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” (Matt 2:15) and "For he shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:23). – Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 3.
Let us now look at the internal stylistic evidence, both positive and negative for Matthean authorship. Positive evidence of Matthean authorship. In the story about a publican called to follow Jesus, the publican is called Levi in Mark and Luke, but Matthew in Matthew. Similarly, Mark and Luke refer to "his house” where Matthew refers to “the house” which would be standard of writing of his own house in a third-person narrative. Matthew is described as a tax collector, and his alternate name suggest that he was a Levite. These descriptions of Matthew fit in well with what is written in the Gospel bearing his name. A Levite would normally be a Pharisee and would receive training for Temple service. Mathew shows significant signs of this: substantial OT quotes and references, his use of typology and concern with Jewish issues. Because there was room only for a certain number of Levites, he would probably have had to seek vocation elsewhere and since he became a tax collector he would have been rejected by the Pharisees. Matthew also shows signs of being a Hellenised Jew in that he has good Greek style and familiarity with the Roman world, which, again, fits in with the idea of Matthew being a tax collector.
Negative evidence is a combination of literary and chronological evidence. Let us first look, however, at the literary evidence presented by critics against Matthean authorship. Some have cited that the way in which Matthew is written suggest that Matthew is not the author because it is systematic, so therefore non-biographical. However, this is a non-sequitur for quite a few reasons. Firstly, a topically ordered account can yield biographical information and secondly, this assumes that apostolicity is for some reason incapable of using anything other than a chronological ordering. Why would a tax collector not be systematic in their writing? Afterall, tax collectors were supposed to be good organisers not good narrative writers, and Matthew’s Gospel is well organised to serve as a teaching tool.
Let us now look at the chronological evidence. Each argument given can be arranged logically as the following:
(I)X element in Matthew could only have been written after 70 AD or later.
(II)The historical Matthew would have been dead by then.
(III)Therefore, Matthew did not write the Gospel of Matthew.
Let us look now, at each specific case presented against Matthean authorship. Critics claim that specific passages (21:41-45, 22:7, 24:15 and 27:25) reveal knowledge of the war against Rome, thus requiring a late date as a whole. This objection is also repeated for the other Gospels, so it shall be dealt with in detail here. It is prudent that this argument rests entirely on the out-of-hand rejection of predictive prophecy. Either way, let us look at the evidence to defuse this claim. Firstly, the context of Jesus’ statements indicates a time before the temple was destroyed. The story of the fish and the coin (17:24-27) would have been completely irrelevant if the temple were not standing and problematic in that the temple tax went to the pagan temple of Jupiter after 70 AD. Secondly, Jesus’ warning to flee to the mountains does no fir the picture if it were 70 AD. By 68 AD, the mountains were full of Romans and terrorists. From that point on, people fled to Jerusalem, not from it. Lastly, predictions of destruction of the temple were not unique and would not be too much of a wild guess considering the turbulent relations between Israel and Rome. Prior to Jesus there were predictions of the Temple being destroyed in the Old Testament, and the intertestemental book of 2 Maccabees. Other passages used to support this claim are simply too vague.
Another claim is theological and community developments appear late, specifically those in Matthew 18:15 and 20:19-20. It is hard to see, however, that 18:15 is a late development seeing that there are similar sentiments in Leviticus 19:17. 28:19-20 reflects numerous verse in the OT and follow sentiments in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 and 2 Corinthians 13:14. A third claim is that because Matthew uses the phrase “to this day” when referring to events around 30 AD, that this means it was written around 70 AD. This argument is fairly ridiculous as it merely assumes that “to this day” indicates a long period of time. How long can we wait until we can start using the phrase “to this day” to describe a past event? The Berlin wall was destroyed 18 years ago yet remains destroyed “to this day”. The last case presented against Matthean authorship is that Matthew reflects Judaism of the time after 70 AD. According to critics, since Matthew emphasises the Pharisees, references “their” synagogue, and gives Jesus the title ‘Teacher’, this shows that Matthew referenced Jewish customs that arose after 70 AD. Of course, Matthew references the Sadducees just as much, who lost power after 70 AD. The “their” synagogue is supposedly a reference to a separation between Judaism and Christianity after 70 AD. Except, that Matthew was merely referencing the Galilean synagogue and that there was plenty of Jewish-Christian tension prior to 70 AD. The ‘Teacher’ title is claimed as being a post 70 AD title, yet this claim is moot as we don’t know enough about 1st century Judaism to know whether this title was used that early on or not. These arguments would actually be good arguments if the examples they gave could be conclusively shown to be post-70 AD authorship, and these arguments are perfectly logical, except the examples they give do not show this and so we must reject these arguments against Matthean authorship.
If we treat the books of the New Testament like any other ancient document, i.e. fairly, then the evidence shows that Matthean authorship of the Gospel of Matthew is an extremely high probability as it shows high deposits of Matthean tradition, and also was possibly edited later by either a student of Matthew or Matthew himself.
The Authorship of Mark
The internal attestation here is universal. There is no copy of Mark that does not say Mark is the author. External attestation here is extensive too.
“Mark indeed, since he was the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, but not in order, the things either said or done by the Lord as much as he remembered. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him, but afterwards, as I have said, [heard and followed] Peter, who fitted his discourses to the needs [of his hearers] but not as if making a narrative of the Lord’s sayings; consequently, Mark, writing down some things just as he remembered, erred in nothing; for he was careful of one thing – not to omit anything of the things he heard nor to falsify anything in them.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.16
Clement of Alexandria:
“The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it... When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 14.6-7
“Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.” – Irenaeus, Against the Heretics, Book 3, Chapter 1.1
“that which Mark published may be affirmed to be whose interpreter Mark was.” – Irenaeus, Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 5.
Eusebius briefly refers to Mark as the publisher of his own Gospel. [Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 24.6]
“Mark was a disciple and interpreter of Peter. Having been requested by the brethren in Rome, he wrote a brief Gospel just what he heard Peter relate. When Peter heard this, he approved and published it on his own authority for reading in the churches, just as Clement wrote in the sixth book of his Outlines – also Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis. Peter also mentioned Mark in his first letter: “She who is in Babylon chosen together for you, sends you greetings and so does Mark, my son” (1 Peter 5:13) – signifying Rome figuratively under the name of “Babylon”.” – Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 8.
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. There are two strong pieces of internal stylistic evidence that is in-line with what we have heard about Mark in the above external attestations. Firstly, Mark’s Gospel is centred around Peter more than any other Gospel. Out of all the disciples, Peter is given favour. He is the first to be mentioned, he is shown as being in Jesus’ inner circle and is mentioned more times on paper than any other Gospel. There are also personal touches that reflect Peter, phrases such as “Simon and his companions” and many third person verse if put in first or second, would fit right in Peter’s mouth and 1 Peter identifies Mark as being a companion of Peter. Secondly, Mark’s Gospel has the character of an eyewitness account such as the use of incidental details etc that are paralleled in Matthew etc. In addition, literary analysis reveals that somebody like Peter was behind it. Limited use of vocabulary, “man on the street” style Koine Greek, few rhetorical devices of the sort used by uneducated men and uncomplicated sentence structure all point in the direction that Mark’s Gospel was based on traditions imparted by Peter.
Let us now look at negative evidence presented regarding Markan authorship. There are only two charges levelled against Markan authorship, that there are geographical errors in Mark and that there is the presence of late theology in the Gospel of Mark. Regarding the first claim, there are six passages cited. Mark 5:1 “They went across the lake to the region of Gerasenes.” Critics point out that the city of Gerasenes was not on the lake (Sea of Galilee). Of course, Mark is referring to a region near/of the city, not the actual city itself. Mark 7:31: “Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went though Sidon, down to the sea of Galilee and into the region of Decapolis.” Critics claim that this passage presents going through Sidon merely to get to the Sea of Galilee as the shortest route, which would be an error. Of course, this too is a misreading. What Mark is saying is that Jesus took his ministry on a purposeful route through Tyre, to Sidon, then to the Sea and then the Decapolis. Mark 8:10: “He got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.” Here critics contend that there is no such region mentioned anywhere in other literature. This is a particularly stupid argument given that many ancient documents reference locations not mentioned elsewhere, and many locations etc mentioned in the Bible have been since discovered (e.g. the Hittite Nation). Mark 8:22-23: “And he cometh the Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and out his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.” Critics claim mark misidentifies Bethsaida as a town or village when it was actually a city. However, critics neglect to show how the respective terms were applied in documents in ancient time or if they were consistently applied to settlements with particular characteristics. Mark 10:1: “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan.” The objection and answer is the same as those for Mark 7:31. Mark 11:1: “And when they came nigh to Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives...”. Critics claim that Mark lists Bethphage and Bethsaida in the wrong order. However, this is just Mark listing them in the way most people were familiar.
The last claim is that the there is a theme of suffering present in Mark that could only be present if it was written after the Neronic persecutions. Of course, Nero was not the first to persecute Christians rendering this claim moot. The evidence quite evidently shows then, that there is little reason to doubt Markan authorship of the Gospel of Mark.
The Authorship of Luke and Acts
Internal evidence is excellent and without question. Every copy of Luke and Acts state that Luke was the author. As for external evidence, this is too unequivocal and excellently attested.
“...Luke, Paul’s associate, also set down a book the gospel that Paul used to preach.” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1
Clement of Alexandria, whilst mentioning Mark’s authorship of Mark, he also indicates that he clearly takes for granted that Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 14.6-7]
“And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts.” – Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 24.16
“For even Luke’s form of Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul.” – Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 5
Eusebius briefly mentions Luke being the author of Luke. [Ecclesiastical History, Book3, Chapter 24.16]
“Luke (was) a physician from Antioch. As his writings indicate, he was not ignorant of the Greek speech. As a follower of the apostle Paul and his companion in all his travelling, he wrote a gospel.” – Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 7.
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. The content of Luke reflects the sort of person we would take Luke to be. Linguistically, Luke uses language that would reflect a well-educated man and indicates a clearly cultured author in that Luke has the best Greek in the entire New Testament and the author utilises Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques. He is not of Jewish origin as his knowledge of Aramaic and Hebrew is limited and had the luxury to write a two-volume account, thus pointing to a person of independent means and/or a retainer of a well-to-do person such as Theophilus. The literary style always reveals the author to be highly sensitive and empathetic. This description would fit perfectly with what we know of Luke the Physician. The abrupt ending of Acts indicates an early date as it ends with Paul awaiting trial. If it had been written later, then the author, having mentioned the martyrdom of Stephen et al. would most certainly have mentioned Paul’s martyrdom at the hands of Nero and not to mention the deaths of Peter and James, brother of Jesus. Other indicators of a pre-70 AD date include zero reference to the destruction of the Temple or the Jewish war in 66, makes reference to Temple controversies, mention the prominence of the Sadducees, the division between Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews, the positive portrayal of the Temple and Pharisees, concern for Jewish and Gentile co-existence and so on.
The negative evidence levelled against Luke does not dispute that Luke actually authored Luke and Acts (although there are some crackpot fringe lunatics that probably do somewhere) but whether or not Luke and Acts were written early enough to have had access to eyewitnesses. As such, there are four such claims and we shall take a look to see if they are valid. The first is that the author shows no knowledge of Paul’s letters. This just assumes that Luke would have had a reason to refer to them. Luke was compressing thirty years of Church history as he had limited space. This also serves as an argument for an early date, as a likely explanation would have been, Paul was still alive at the time of the writing and so there would have been no need to rewrite Paul’s writings when people could still hear them in person. A second argument is that Luke differs with Paul in theological matters. This argument because it makes another unwarranted assumption, namely, that Luke had to agree with Paul 100% about everything or that they had identical perspectives. This claim simply neglects the extent to which it was possible to associate with and work with another without necessarily sharing their views. The third claim is that the apologetic tone suggest a time where Christians were trying to appease the Romans as in the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). However, this completely fails to take into account earlier periods where Christians were suffering under the Romans. This also fails in that it assumes Christians were trying to appease anyone, let alone the Romans. The last claim is that because it references many Gospels being in circulation, which suggests a later date. Of course, Luke 1:1 is referring to those who have attempted to draw up an account, not those who have actually written Gospels. Inadequate reasons have thus been given to us to cause us to doubt Lukan authorship of Luke and Acts. There is simply no reason to make contrary claims.
The Authorship of John
This is the only one of the four Gospels where the task of ascertaining authorship is not as clear-cut. The reason for this is that there is no distinction whether the John named is John the Apostle or John the Elder. Internally, the Gospel of John is somewhat stronger than other Gospels, no other name is on any copy of John. Externally there are two issues, the aforementioned issue of which John is being mentioned and also there was one group that denied the authority of the Gospel of John as they disagreed with John’s theology, a heretical sect called the Alogoi.
“John, the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his breast, published the Gospel while he was resident at Ephesus in Asia...” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 1.2
Some discussion has arisen whether or not this John, son of Zebedee or another John.
“If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders— what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice." – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.4-6
This statement of Papias reflects the existence of two prominent people named John in the earliest Christian circles, one an apostle like Matthew and James, the other a lesser disciple like Aristion.
Eusebius comments on this statement of Papias, adding:
“It is worth while observing here that the name John is twice enumerated by him. The first one he mentions in connection with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the apostles, clearly meaning the evangelist; but the other John he mentions after an interval, and places him among others outside of the number of apostles, putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him a presbyter. This shows that the statement of those is true, who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present day, is called the John’s. It is important to notice this. For it is probable that it was the second, if no one is willing to admit that it was the first that saw the Revelation, which is ascribed by name to John.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39.4-6
There is also the possibility that the two John’s are actually the same person, because he fit into both categories. This shall not be decided here, as either option results in an authoritative eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus.
Theophilus quotes John 1:1 and attributes it to John, but does not mention if this is Apostle John or John the Elder. [Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, 2.22]
Irenaeus refers to author of John as being one of the apostles, thus giving us cause to believe that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John. [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22.5]
Clement of Alexandria and Origen both mention John as being the author of John, but do not mention if this is John the Elder or John the Apostle. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 14.7; Origen, Homily on Luke, 1.1]
The evidence thus slightly favours the Apostle John as being the author of the Gospel of John. Let us now look at the interior stylistic evidence. The evidence here supports either Apostle John or John the Elder being the author of John. John shows a detailed familiarity with the geographical of Palestine and Judaism. The level of knowledge in John is extensive and correct, the author accurately understands Jewish customs, is imbued with knowledge of the Old Testament, is aware of finer points of distinction amongst pre-70 AD Jewish sects, has excellent knowledge of the geography and topology of Israel, regularly demonstrates Jesus and his Jewish opponents discussing halakhic (legal) matters particularly unique to Israel and demonstrates an affinity with distinctive Samarian forms of thought. The method upon which the author refers to John the Baptist indicates that author’s name was most likely John. Throughout the Gospel of John, the author refers to people using two of their names in single instances such as Simon Peter and Thomas Didymus. To identify John the Baptist simply as John would mean that the author was named John otherwise they would have needed to distinguish which John they were mentioning. Another important factor is the omission of stories where John is prominent. There a number of synoptic episodes featuring John that are missing. In an ancient honour and shame setting John would not have mentioned episodes where he was prominent to prevent arousing jealously amongst others. The last piece of evidence slightly supports the author being the Apostle John and that is the use of professional fisherman’s terms. Matthew uses financial language, Luke uses medical language and in John, the distinct technical term for cooked fish used in the fishing trade is utilised.
Let us now look at the evidence levelled against Johannine authorship. It is claimed that John uses Gnostic language that would not have been used by an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. This is, of course, patently false. Study has shown that John’s ideology is closer to that of other Jewish system of belief like those of the Essenes and Philo of Alexandria et al. Another claim is that John depends on the Gospel of Mark. This is just begging the question, as it a priori assumes that John could not have witnessed the same memorable stories as Peter. Another claim is that since John does not mention James, the brother of Jesus, then it was not written by an eyewitness. This is a completely pointless objection. John is a Gospel, not a history of Jesus’ family. A rather amusing claim is that the Gospel of John does not display the level of interest in Galilee we would expect if John had been the author. The problem with this claim being, there is ample interest shown in Galilee. Of course, how much is “what we would expect” is completely arbitrary and subjective rendering this claim moot and pointless. Another objection is that the Gospel of John is in good Greek but John and Peter are described as illiterate in Acts 4:13. Actually, Acts 4:34 says that they had not studied under the Pharisaic rabbis, not that they were illiterate. Furthermore, Acts 4:13 could not have been regarding illiteracy since how could the priests know from a speech that they could not read or write? Even if John were illiterate, there were hundreds of disciples and followers of Jesus who could read and write that could have acted as a scribe for them. This objection also assumes that illiterate disciples remained illiterate and also neglects the factor of scribal assistance.
Perhaps a more peculiar objection is the claim that John would not have referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. This is once again, yet another example of imposing modern sensibilities onto ancient peoples and customs. Modern people see this as being too egotistical, yet in the New Testament world, egotism had not even developed. People thought of themselves in terms of group membership rather than as individuals. People were expected to be forthright and honest about what they possessed, not bragging but simply stating what was correct. If Jesus did love the author, then they were perfectly free so. Of course, the main objection here is that critics see this as erotic and/or sentimental, yet, as aforementioned, this is retrojecting modern views and customs onto ancient people. The word used, agape, simply means that Jesus looked out for this disciples’ interests, albeit in an unusual way. A rather stupid objection made is that John’s knowledge of Judaism is incorrect. Some critics cite John 18:13 to claim that the author believed that there was a new high priest every year. Well, let us take a look at John 18:13: ...and bought him first to Annas, who was the father of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.” Saying this indicates the belief that there was a different high priest every year would be like saying the statement: “2001, Tony Blair was Prime Minister that year” as meaning the person saying it believed that there was a different Prime Minister of the UK every year.
A more reasonable objection is that John was martyred too early to have authored the Gospel of John, citing a Church tradition that states John and James were killed at the hands of the Jews. Yet, this tradition only states that they were killed by Jews, not that they were killed at the same time. Of course, an important factor is the date when the Gospel of John was actually written. Whilst some date John as late as 90-100 AD, it could be pre-70 AD. Many argument for a later date are the same as those arguing against Johannine authorship and also the same as arguments for dating the synoptic later. Those have already been answered, however, a few more things can be said. Church authors testify that John was written last of the Gospels, but this only means a late date if we assume late dates for the synoptic. Whilst there are those that argue that John mentioning activities like baptism and communion show a late ecclesiology, both of these are simply expressions of rituals before the time of John (Qumran baths and fellowship meals). John 5:2 refers to the pool of Bethesda in the present tense. This would only make sense if John were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Another claim is that the theology of John is very developed and so therefore late. This is simply a subjective presupposition. John’s idea of the logos has parallels in the works of contemporary Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria as well as in Paul’s letters and pre-Christian Jewish literature. A rather odd claim is that the use of the phrase “the Jews” mean a late date, yet this is hard to see when Paul uses the phrase “the Jews” in his letters that have been dated to the 50s AD. Another claim is that John makes no mention of the Sadducees and is so therefore late seeing as the Sadducees lost power after 70 D. Of course, John does not mention the scribes who came into their own after 70 AD. One last minor claim is that John alleged refers to the expulsion of Christians from synagogues in 9:22 and thus reflects a time after 85 AD. Of course, there was no ban of attendance by Christians, the benediction mentioned is a curse, not an expulsion.
The last major claim is that John reports parallel events differently than the synoptics, differing in style and content, thus meaning that the author is not John. This is a very complex claim, as it goes into specific instances in the text that need to be answered individually. We shall look at five of the most common examples given by critics. The first of these is the cleansing of the temple. John places this event at the start, yet the synoptics place this event at the end. Of course, the most likely explanation is that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. Jesus, as an observant and pious Jew, would most likely have visited the Jerusalem Temple many times in his life. Cleansing the temple as an act of prophetic demonstration is not something that would have been done once, this giving weight to this idea. There are two more factors that also support this thesis, the first of these being that the Gospel of John utilises an incidental chronological marker. John 2:20 notes that the Temple had been in construction for 46 years, which places the incident around 27-28 AD at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The second factor is that in the Gospel of John, Jesus merely orders the dove sellers et al. to leave the temple, whereas in Matthew and Mark he actually overturns their stalls, thus indicating more than visit to the temple. It is possible that John dechronologised this event, although there is no valid objection against a dual cleansing either.
Another specific case of difference between John and the synoptics bought up is Jesus’ self-identification. Critics bring up places in the synoptics were Jesus would not let people or demons indentify who he was. Yet this is a not a case of Jesus not wanting his identity known, rather this is Jesus taking into consideration ancient social principals. If Jesus had been plain about his divinity and messianic nature in public, this would have aroused serious envy as he would have been claiming a high level of honour and would have been seen as taking honour from others. This is more serious than it first sounds since in the ancient world, honour was serious value that was taken very seriously. In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaimed himself openly only in front of his disciples (his ‘in-group’ where his identity was already established) or in front of his enemies. Other instances such as in front of the Samaritan woman, Jesus allowed them to reach the conclusion themselves. In other words, John’s portrait of Jesus is the same as the synoptics, namely that Jesus was mindful of current social factors etc and acted accordingly. Another objection in this regard is that John focuses more on teachings than miracles. This just shows that the focus was different and in no way suggest historical differences. Another objection is that John does not mention Jesus using parables to teach. This is, of course, absurd as there is absolutely no reason to suggest that Jesus was incapable of teaching in long discourses in addition to parables, not to mention all of the other techniques that would have been available at the time. The last major consideration is that John only mentions the Kingdom of God once. Again this is arbitrary and subjective.
The Gospel of John is most definitely the hardest out of the four Gospels to ascertain the author, but there can be no question that the author of John was an authoritative eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, whether John the Apostle or John the Elder. Whilst such distinction is unnecessary, as either author would have been an authoritative eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, I believe that the evidence slightly favours the Apostle John as being the author of the Gospel of John.
The Pauline Epistles
Thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament are letters from Paul to various churches. It is important to note before we continue that seven of these, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon, are universally accepted as 100% genuinely Pauline. Internally, all are attributed to Paul, externally all are attributed to Paul, internally all scholars agree that these letters are Paul’s. Whilst there are a few fringe dissenters who would try to claim that these letters were not written by Paul, these claims are unanimously rejected by serious scholars.
The Authorship of Ephesians
Before we continue onto the analysis of the Letter to the Ephesians, it is important to take into account a variety of factors. Ephesians contains more hymns and liturgical material than any other letter, Ephesians is not always found attributed to Ephesians and is clearly intended for gentile readership. We can thus conclude that Ephesians was a general letter/encyclical intended to be delivered to a range of gentile churches, that makes use of church wide liturgical and hymnal traditions that survived because of Timothy’s influence, who was a friend of Paul and a leader at Ephesus. Additionally, there is strong reason to suggest that Timothy acted as a scribe for Paul. Internally, whilst manuscripts may vary on the destination, all name Paul as the author. Externally, attributions are unanimous: -
“...Paul declares in his letter to the Ephesians...” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 2.3
Clement of Alexandria mentions and quotes from the epistle to the Ephesians although does not mention the author. However, he had previously quoted 1 Corinthians as being “from the apostle” and when quoting from Ephesians uses the phrase “he writes” indicating he considers the author of Ephesians to be the same person as the author of 1 Corinthians.
Since Paul was a prisoner at the time, and most likely in chains, the odds that a scribe wrote part or whole of the epistle to the Ephesians is quite high. A trusted scribe would shape vocabulary, style and composition to those used by the writer who would assume responsibility of authorship whilst the scribe committed the writer’s message to writing. As mentioned, the prime candidate for this is Timothy, as Paul was his mentor and friend. Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Ephesians contains eighty of what is known as hapax legomena, or words not used elsewhere (such as in other Pauline letters or the New Testament as a whole). This is quite common in the other Pauline epistles, with fifty in Philippians and one hundred in Romans. Some cite vocabulary usage a problem, however, as, whilst, typical Pauline vocabulary is used, there are used in non-Pauline senses. Let us look at three examples. In Ephesians, the word ‘church’ is used to refer to the whole body of believers whilst elsewhere it is used to refer to local bodies. Of course, this usage is found in Colossians and in 1 Corinthians. Also, the idea of church (ekklesia) having wider reference has its roots in the Jewish conception of all believers as a corporate body. The usage would also make sense if Ephesians were an encyclical. Critics make issue of the use of the word ‘devil’ as Paul preferred using ‘Satan’, however, the word ‘Satan’ appears 8 times in the Pauline epistles outside of the Pastorals. The last issue is that the word “fullness” only appears in Ephesians four times, yet, of course, only six times elsewhere in Paul and not with a spiritual meaning in both places. Critics also complain that sentence lengths in Ephesians are much longer than sentence lengths in other Pauline letters. Of course, this we can attribute to the use of liturgical material and both this objection and the objection regarding vocabulary can simply be put down to the use of a scribe.
Lastly, critics makes issue of supposed theological differences. Here we shall look at seven examples given. Some complain that the emphasis on justification present in other Pauline letters is not to be found in Ephesians. This argument assumes that Paul would feel the need to stress justification in every writing he did, as justification was simply not an issue here. For example, critics claim that there is a lack of emphasis on Christ’s death, yet this is mentioned only twice in 1 Corinthians and thrice in Galatians. Critics complain that Ephesians 2:6 offers a ‘realised eschatology”: “6 And he raised us up with Christ and gave us a seat with him in the heavens. He did this for those in Christ Jesus.” This is obviously a prolepsis, as we are not in heaven now yet Ephesians goes on to give advice on living on earth. Critics complain that Ephesians 2:14 could only have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem: “14 Christ himself is our peace. He made both Jewish people and those who are not Jews one people. They were separated as if there were a wall between them, but Christ broke down that wall of hate by giving his own body.” This is, of course, reading things into the text that are not there. The words used in this passage refer to a partition between rooms or a fence erected for protection.
Critics claim that Ephesians 2:15: “15 The Jewish law had many commands and rules, but Christ ended that law. His purpose was to make the two groups of people become one new people in him and in this way make peace.” contradicts Romans 3:31: “31 So do we destroy the law by following the way of faith? No! Faith causes us to be what the law truly wants.” In Ephesians, Paul is referring specifically to the laws of the old covenant, which were used as a social barrier between Jews and Gentiles, giving each group different identities. Paul is saying how in Christ, these identities are no longer relevant. In Romans, Paul is discussing the moral foundation behind the law. Critics complain that Ephesians 3:1-13 seems as if it looking at Paul’s apostleship from a distance. Of course, since Paul was in prison, and likely in chain, then this is actually the right time for this sort of reflection. Critics also claim that Ephesians 4:11: “11 And Christ gave gifts to people—he made some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to go and tell the Good News, and some to have the work of caring for and teaching God's people.” contradicts 1 Corinthians 12:28: “28 In the church God has given a place first to apostles, second to prophets, and third to teachers. Then God has given a place to those who do miracles, those who have gifts of healing, those who can help others, those who are able to govern, and those who can speak in different languages.” Yet, how is this contradictory? This just assumes that Paul has to write complete lists in exactly the same order etc, which is ridiculous. Lastly, critics claim that Ephesians 5:21-23 contradicts 1 Corinthians 7. Again, how is this contradictory? Ephesians is offering advice to those who were already married whilst 1 Corinthians is offering advice to those who were not yet married.
Whilst critics have attempted to remove Pauline authorship, most cannot help but describe it as a work of genius and great spiritual insight as well as a brilliant and comprehensive summary of Paul’s theological emphases. It can be thus said, if Paul did not write Ephesians then it was written by somebody living at the same time who had the same name. Ephesus was known as a place where Paul founded a church and was where Timothy lived. It is therefore most likely that Paul did write Ephesians, with Timothy acting as a scribe.
The Authorship of Colossians
As with Ephesians, Timothy is a prime candidate as a scribe, albeit easier as Timothy is clearly involved in the writing of the letter, Colossians 1:1: “1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus. I am an apostle because that is what God wanted. Also from Timothy, our brother.”
Internally, there is no question as all copies name Paul as the author. Externally we find implications that Paul is the author as well as explicit attribution.
Irenaeus quotes Colossians 3:5, naming the author as “the apostle”. All other quotes of Pauline letters in Irenaeus’ work are referred to “the apostle” also, thus indicating he considered the author of Colossians the same who authored all the other Pauline epistles, thus Paul. Clement of Alexandria likewise quotes “the epistle to the Colossians”, attributing it to “the apostle” and refers to the author of 1 Corinthians as “the apostle”, clearly connecting the two. [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 12; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book 1, Chapter 1]
Origen quotes Colossians 1:15 and name Paul as the author: -
“Let us now ascertain how those statements which we have advanced are supported by the authority of holy Scripture. The Apostle Paul says, that the only-begotten Son is the image of the invisible God, and the first-born of every creature.” – Origen, De Principis, Book 1, Chapter 2.5
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Like Ephesians, Colossians makes use of hymnal and liturgical material and was most likely written by a scribe, thus accounting for any unusual structures etc. Since Timothy is actually named at the beginning, he is prime choice for the identity of the scribe. Further reasons for accepting Timothy as the scribe include the widespread use of scribes in the NT world and the church’s care against pseudonymous documents. Colossians contains 34 hapax legomena, a common feature in the Pauline epistles. It is probably worth noting that most irregular word usage is down to quoting heretics as 83% of the hapax legomena are in the section addressing the Colossian heresy. However, some critics complain about the vocabulary used, yet objections like this are meaningless unless it is shown that a word ought or ought not to have been used. Some have claimed that is it odd that “law” is not mentioned, yet is obvious from the subject of Colossians that there is no need to have mentioned “law” at all. There are so many Pauline words used that Pauline authorship is virtually undeniable and has even led to some sceptics resorting to claiming that Colossians is composed of interpolations mixed with genuine Pauline fragments. It can also be noted that Colossians bears some similarity to Ephesians, strengthening the idea of Timothy as scribe even further. The conclusion is thus, as with Ephesians, that Timothy wrote Colossians under Paul’s direction.
The Authorship of 2 Thessalonians
Internally, all copies say that Paul is the author. Externally, we have a good series of attributions, Irenaeus attributes a quote from 2 Thessalonians to Paul, Clement of Alexandria attributes a quote from 2 Thessalonians to “the apostle”, and Tertullian and Hippolytus both attribute quotes from 2 Thessalonians to Paul. [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 29.1; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book 5, Chapter3; Tertullian, On the Resurrection, Chapter 24; Hippolytus of Rome, Treatise on Christ and the Antichrist, Chapter 63] Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Some critics claim that the eschatology of 2 Thessalonians contradicts that of 1 Thessalonians, however, this is Paul correcting people who misunderstood what he was writing in 1 Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul says that the parousia is imminent and in 2 Thessalonians he is saying, whilst it is imminent it is not THAT imminent. Other than this, critics complain that 2 Thessalonians is not as warm and personal as 1 Thessalonians, however, 2 Thessalonians was written as an urgent corrective, so it is doubtful that Paul would have had the time or occasion for pleasantries. Some try to claim that it is a forgery based off 1 Thessalonians, but there simply no evidence for that and the evidence for Pauline authorship is too strong. The conclusion is thus, 2 Thessalonians was most definitely written by Paul.
The Authorship of the Pastorals
Out of all Paul’s letters, none have come under greater fire than the Pastoral Epistles. Whilst the letter to Philemon regarded as authentically Pauline, critics dispute the other Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus). Whilst critics try to claim that they are pseudonymous, the evidence points to Pauline authorship with Luke most likely acting as a scribe. Internally and externally, attestation is a good as any other Pauline letter (with the exception of Romans and 1 Corinthians) and were rejected only by the heretic Marcion. It is the internal stylistic evidence that is the question here, and there are seven genres of objections bought up by critics, theological objections, historical objections, administrative objections, ecclesiological objections, relational objections, stylistic objections and specific linguistic objections.
The first principal objection here is that there is confusion over definition over the law. 1 Timothy 1:8-10: “8 But we know that the law is good if someone uses it lawfully. 9 We also know that the law is not made for good people but for those who are against the law and for those who refuse to follow it. It is for people who are against God and are sinful, who are unholy and ungodly, who kill their fathers and mothers, who murder, 10 who take part in sexual sins, who have sexual relations with people of the same sex, who sell slaves, who tell lies, who speak falsely, and who do anything against the true teaching of God.” Critics complain that this conflict with Galatians and Romans were the law is depicted as hostile to man, and that Paul would never claim that the law was not intended for righteous men. The two concepts of being hostile and a check on evildoing are not mutually exclusive. If we look at the verse, we see that the author says that law is good if used lawfully, compared to other Pauline Epistles, where Paul says that the law can become a curse unto man. In other words, these are contrasting verses. It is also hard to see that Paul would not see the law for the ungodly seeing as Jesus said he came to call the sinners, not the righteous. Notably the Greek word teacher used here is only found in two other places in the NT, namely, Luke and Acts, thus indicating Lukan influence. In context, this verse is simply addressing a heresy that misuses Jewish beliefs.
The second principle objection in this area is that there is an apparent confusion over ‘faith’. In the Pastorals, the author refers to ‘the faith’ in a creedal way whilst in the other Pauline Epistles Paul refers to faith in a personal way. Of course, Paul mentioned faith in a creedal way elsewhere (Romans 4:12, Romans 4:16, 1 Corinthians 16:13, 2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 1:23, Galatians 3:23, Galatians 6:10, Philemon 1:25, Philemon 1:27, Colossians 2:7). Critics also complain that the Pastorals are lacking Pauline mysticism, of course, what constitutes as mysticism is arbitrary and subjective. The last principle objection in this area is that there is a supposed confusion over baptism. Titus 3:5 “5 he saved us because of his mercy. It was not because of good deeds we did to be right with him. He saved us through the washing that made us new people through the Holy Spirit.” Critics claim that this depicts baptism as necessary for salvation, of course, the ‘washing’ being referred to is a metaphor for the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
These objections claim that the Pastorals do not fit in with the chronology of Acts, which is an odd argument in and of itself considering many of the same critics who argue against Pauline authorship of the Pastorals also dispute Lukan authorship of Acts. Critics claim that Acts 20:25 and 28 indicate that Paul is unable to return to the East. However, looking at the entire passage (Acts 20:17-38), one can see quite quickly that it does not say that Paul will not return to the East, but that he did not expect to see them again. Another objection is that, allegedly, there is no evidence of a journey to the East or Paul’s release from prison. Really? There is quite a bit of evidence for this. Acts 26:30 points out how Agrippa and Festus declare that Paul has done nothing wrong and Philemon 1:25, 2:24 and 22 all indicate that Paul expected to be released. Clement, a 1st century church father, indicates that Paul was released: “Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.” 1 Clement 5:6-7
This line objection is the claim that the author does not deal with false teachers as Paul does in other epistles. This is quite an easy objection to answer. The Pastorals were being written to long-term associates who would not have needed to be instructed about elementary teachings and so obviously not theological novices like those in the churches of Galatia, Corinth etc. The following passage also provides an explanation, 1 Timothy 3:14-15: “14 Although I hope I can come to you soon, I am writing these things to you now.15 Then, even if I am delayed, you will know how to live in the family of God. That family is the church of the living God, the support and foundation of the truth.”
Paul intended to provide teaching but wrote ahead in case he were delayed, which he was as he was imprisoned again.
This line of argumentation basically states that the organisational structure depicted in the Pastorals is too advanced and so must have been written after Paul’s death. Of course, this is mostly just arbitrary and subjective. It is merely presumed that churches could not have developed so far in Paul’s time. Paul was an organisation genius and in many cases in history, there have been rapid progressions, such as the rapid development of Germany between the years 1989 and 1990. The problem with this claim is that there are indications that there is such a level of development present in other NT churches and that the development is not as advanced as most critics seem to believe. Church officials referred to in the Pastorals (elders and deacons) are found elsewhere, such as Philippians and Acts. The level of administration is still a long way off from the organisational level present in 2nd century monarchical episcopacy.
The first of these objections is that Paul would not have made a second journey to the East seeing as he prided himself in breaking new ground for the gospel. Of course, this is a ludicrous objection for two reasons. There was absolutely no reason why Paul would not want to check up on things in person or visit friends. The second problem supports the first; Paul stated that he wanted to see the Corinthians again. The second of these objections is that the author is apparently too condescending to Timothy. Of course, the passage critics cite indicate places where Paul is listing things he wants Timothy to instruct others. In addition, Paul considered Timothy his son and fathers have always been known for repeating basic advice to sons even when they are adults. Another objection is that there are time problems in 2 Timothy. Critics complain that Paul would not have asked Timothy to bring his coat and books to him as his execution was imminent. Of course, travel times were not as slow as critics would like to believe and 2 Timothy indicates that Paul did not expect an immediate execution. The last of these objections is that if Paul were really the author, then he would not have wasted time assuring Timothy that he preached the truth. Except, the heretics and the next generation of Christians would have undoubtedly called Paul’s authority into question.
This is where the serious arguments begin. Whilst critics argue that differences from traditional Pauline vocabulary indicate that Paul was not the author, the evidence actually shows Lukan influence. The Pastorals show a similarity in vocabulary to Luke and Acts. Luke, Acts and the Pastorals share 37 words not found elsewhere in the New Testament. There are also certain Hellenistic influences and allusions to Philo and the LXX that an educated gentile convert would be very familiar with. Furthermore, the Pastorals also contain lots of traditional Pauline vocabulary and 2 Timothy 4:11 notes that Luke is the only person who has remained with Paul. The level of Greek used in the Pastorals is quite high, something it shares in common with Luke and Acts, whilst Paul tended to user a lower form. The evidence thus strongly indicates Pauline authorship with Luke as a scribe.
Specific Linguistic Objections
Critics claim that language of the Pastorals reflects that of the 2nd century. Whilst 211 out of the 308 words used can be found in the works of 2nd century Christian authors, only 20 are unknown before 90 AD. Others complain that out of 112 particles, prepositions and pronouns used in the affirmed Pauline Epistles, only 58 can be found in more than one of the Pastorals and only 20 appear in all three. The letters to the Ephesians and Colossians only had six particles in common and the Pastorals only contain 7 particles not found elsewhere in the NT and, furthermore, Paul’s tone in the Pastorals are different because of who he is writing to and why. The Pastorals also contain 175 hapax legomena, which, whilst some critics claim is too many, is a common feature of Pauline Epistles and indicative of Lukan influence. Some critics complain of the lack of passion in the Pastorals. However, by this time, Paul is rather old and advanced in years and is also awaiting future execution. The last factor, is that, if these letters were not by Paul why do they include personal details and request that Timothy bring Paul’s coat and books? The sheer amounts of evidence that point to Pauline authorship has caused some to implicate a “clever forger”, however, this is theory driving the facts, not the other way round. The evidence thus shows Pauline authorship, with the case being highly likely that Luke acted as a scribe. If this were a secular document, then there would be little discussion over who wrote the Pastorals.
The Authorship of Hebrews
Hebrews is the only truly anonymous work in the entire New Testament as, internally, there is no mention of authorship. Fortunately, there is enough evidence to come up with a list of likely candidates. Externally, there is no agreement:
Eusebius discusses Clement of Alexandria’s views:
“He says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts. But he says that the words, of Paul the Apostle, were probably not prefixed, because, in sending it to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced and suspicious of him, he wisely did not wish to repel them at the very beginning by giving his name.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories, Book 6, Chapter 14.2-3.
“That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledges himself ‘rude in speech’ 2 Corinthians 11:6 that is, in expression; but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.” - Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories, Book 6, Chapter 14.2-3.
Elsewhere, Origen quotes Hebrews attributing it to Paul, although this was probably not a clear statement of attribution. [Origen, De Principis, Book 1, Chapter 2.5]
“...If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote this epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it. But let this suffice on these matters.” - Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 14.2-3.
“For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas...” – Tertullian, On Modesty, Chapter 20.
Thus, the candidates so far are Paul, Luke, Barnabas and Clement.
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Whilst Paul seems a likely candidate, there is some evidence stacked against him being the author of Hebrews. The language and style are unlike anything written by Paul. The language and style are very similar to those used in Luke and Acts, although Luke would not have been so familiar with the Jewish scriptures as the author of Hebrews was. Barnabas was a Levite and so would have been familiar with Jewish scriptures, however, another suggestion for authorship has been made, namely Apollos. Hebrews refers to baptisms in the plural, thus hearkening back to Apollos first knowing only the Baptism of John. Hebrews shows affinities with Alexandrian philosophy and theology and Apollos was from Alexandria. Lastly, Hebrews is eloquent, bold and proficient with Scripture as Apollos was reputed to have been. There is one final suggestion, and that is Hebrews was the product of multiple authors working together, which best explains the diversity present. Hebrews has stylistic similarities to Luke and Acts, there is the proficiency with scripture, Alexandrian thought and stylistic elements indicative of Apollos and there are teachings similar to Pauls. Whilst the statement that only “God knows” remains accurate, we can be certain that Hebrews came from an authoritative source. I believe that the evidence supports the thesis that Hebrews was written by multiple authors and that these authors were most likely Luke and Apollos with input from Paul.
The Authorship of James
Before we begin, it is important to note that the author in question is Jesus’ brother James, not the apostle James. Internally, all copies name James as the author, however, externally the evidence is thinner. The first external attestation to authorship of James to James is Origen, whilst some may say this is a long time, it is the same amount of time between the writing of Annals and first external attestation to Tacitus. Of course, there are signs of James in 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas indicating it existed much earlier. Lack of greater external attestation is most likely since James is mostly moral teachings, and would thus be useless in theological debates.
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Critics make issue that James makes no mention of events in Jesus’ life and that the author never refers to himself as Jesus’ brother. However, this is a non-issue. As aforementioned, James was a form of moral discourse, called paraenesis, so it is hard to see how this would fit in with the genre. It should also be noted that Acts, James is never called ‘the brother of Jesus’. James would not have mentioned his relation to Jesus as it would have been too forward and would have resulted in drawing envy. Critics also complain that James is too anti-legalistic to have been authored by James, however, similar sentiments were expressed in rabbinic statements and the Old Testament rendering this claim moot. Others claim that because it is written in good Greek and uses the LXX, then it cannot have been written by James. However, James was a competent Palestinian bilingual. Hellenistic influence in Palestine at the time also makes it impossible that use of the LXX removes James as author. Jewish writers such as Josephus were capable of producing Greek of equal quality.
Whilst evidence is thinner for this book then other books in the NT, it is still the same amount that a number of secular documents have. This combined with poor arguments levelled against James’ authorship mean that we have no choice but to accept James as the author of James.
The Authorship of 1 Peter
Whilst there is actually little question over who wrote 1 Peter, there are still a few scholarly dissenters who raise objections to Petrine authorship. Internally, all copies of 1 Peter name Peter as the author. Externally, there is firm external attestation.
Irenaeus quotes 1 Peter and attributes it to Peter:
“...and Peter says in his Epistle: “Whom, not seeing, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, ye have believed, ye shall rejoice with joy unspeakable;” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 9.2.
“And for this reason Peter says “that we have not liberty as a cloak of maliciousness, “but as the means of testing and evidencing faith.” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 16.5.
“And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail,’ has left one acknowledged epistle...” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 25.8
Clement of Alexandria:
““But if we also suffer for righteousness’ sake,” says Peter, “blessed are we. Be not afraid of their fear, neither be troubled. But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to him that asks a reason of the hope that is in you, but with meekness and fear, having a good conscience; so that in reference to that for which you are spoken against, they may be ashamed who calumniate your good conversation in Christ. For it is better to suffer for well-doing, if the will of God, than for evil-doing.”” – Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book 4, Chapter 7
“Addressing the Christians of Pontus, Peter, at all events, says, "How great indeed is the glory, if ye suffer patiently, without being punished as evildoers ! For this is a lovely feature, and even hereunto were ye called, since Christ also suffered for us, leaving you Himself as an example, that ye should follow His own steps."And again: "Beloved, be not alarmed by the fiery trial which is taking place among you, as though some strange thing happened unto you. For, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings, do ye rejoice; that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye are reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; because glory and the Spirit of God rest upon you: if only none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men's matters; yet (if any man suffer) as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this behalf."” – Tertullian, Scorpiace, Chapter 12
“[o]ne epistle of Peter, that called the first, is acknowledged as genuine.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 3.1.
Let us look at the internal stylistic evidence. The first principle complaint is that the Greek used in 1 Peter is too good for a Galilean of limited education and so cannot have been written by Peter. Of course, this just presupposes that Peter could not have learnt Greek that well. More probably, Peter enlisted a scribe and/or translator, which is what happened with Mark’s Gospel. A second complaint is that it is too early for the sort of persecution recorded in 1 Peter, however, this is just absurd. As a deviant ideological movement, Christianity would have been subject to immediate persecution such as verbal and social harassment. Two minor complaints is that there is not enough of Jesus’ life and that Peter had no business writing to gentile churches in Asia as that was “Paul’s territory”. These arguments are really the bottom of the barrel. The problem is that there are references to Jesus’ life in 1 Peter and that there was absolutely no reason why Peter would not write to churches in Asia minor. We can thus conclude that arguments against Petrine authorship fail due to lack of substance and that it is certain that Peter wrote 1 Peter.
The Authorship of 2 Peter
Out of the two Petrine epistles, this one actually has a level of doubt concerning ascribed authorship and is probably one of the most difficult books in the Bible to defend given that. Internally, all copies name Peter as the author, however, external attestation is not as clear.
“And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail,’ has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 25.8.
“...we have learned that his extant second Epistle does not belong in the Cano; yet, as it has appeared profitable to many, it has been used with the other Scriptures.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 3.3.
“Further, the two epistles, which circulate as Peter’s, are also different in style among themselves and in character, and in word character; from which we understand that he used different interpreters as necessary.” – Jerome, To Hedibia
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Ironically, critics cite the personal references as proof of a forger, which is interesting seeing as how the same critics argue that the lack of these in other letters indicates proof of forgery. It should be obvious by know, that this is again theory driving the facts and not the other way round as it should be. Peter is reminding his audience of his prior life and letter. Critics also make issue of the author’s reference to a ‘collection’ of Paul’s letters indicates a late date, yet how so is unclear. The author is referring to the fact that Paul had written more than one letter, which he certainly had done. Critics also claim that the reference to “our fathers” dying means that 2 Peter was written when early Christians had died off and thus out of Peter’s lifetime. However, this is a faulty reading as the author is quoting those who are mocking Christianity. Another objection is that Peter would not have relied on Jude’s letter since he was a direct disciple of Jesus. Of course, Jude was a brother of Jesus, so who outranked who? Peter might have recognised the seriousness of Jude’s warnings and added on to them, although some have noted that Jude probably borrowed from 2 Peter, not the other way round. Another claim is that 2 Peter is attacking a form of Gnosticism which appeared in the late 2nd century, however, it has long since been noted that forms of Gnosticism existed before then. Lastly, critics claim that the reference to “your apostles” is too distant for someone like Peter, yet this is just arbitrary and subjective. It is this apparent that the only real objections to Petrine authorship is external attestation, of course, the evidence as a whole points to Petrine authorship being the best hypothesis.
The Authorship of 1 John
Whilst 1 John is actually an undisputed book, some quibble on whether this was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of John or the letters 2 and 3 John. Internally, all copies name John as the author. Externally, we have the following: -
Irenaeus quotes from 1 John and attributes it to the apostle John:
“The Gospel, therefore, knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again, as John, the disciple of the Lord, verifies, saying: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have eternal life in His name,” foreseeing these blasphemous systems which divide the Lord, as far as lies in their power, saying that He was formed of two different substances. For this reason also he has thus testified to us in his Epistle: “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist doth come, now have many antichrists appeared; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us: but [they departed], that they might be made manifest that they are not of us. Know ye therefore, that every lie is from without, and is not of the truth. Who is a liar, but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? This is Antichrist.”” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 16.5.
“And again does he say in the Epistle: “Many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God; and every spirit which separates Jesus Christ is not of God, but is of antichrist.”” – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 16.8.
Clement of Alexandria:
“John, too, manifestly teaches the differences of sins, in his larger Epistle, in these words: “If any man see his brother sin a sin that is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life: for these that sin not unto death,” he says. For “there is a sin unto death: I do not say that one is to pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin; and there is a sin not unto death.”” – Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 15:6.
Tertullian quotes 1 John and attributes is to John:
“John, moreover, brands that man as "a liar" who "denies that Jesus is the Christ;" whilst on the other hand he declares that "every one is born of God who believes that Jesus is the Christ." Wherefore he also exhorts us to believe in the name of His (the Father's,) Son Jesus Christ, that "our fellowship may be with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ."” – Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 28.
“And this also John lays down in his epistle, that the love of God is not in them whom we see unwilling to labour for the poor. "Whoso," says he, "has this world's goods, and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his bowels from him, how dwells the love of God in him?"” – Cyprian, Treatises, Number 8, Chapter 3.
“But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 24.17.
Internally, there are no serious arguments made against Johannine authorship. The evidence firmly points to the author being the same author who wrote the Gospel of John , whom I believe to be the Apostle John (as opposed to John the Elder).
The Authorship of 2 and 3 John
Internally, all copies of 2 and 3 John name John as the author. However, with external attestation, there are some oddities.
• Irenaeus quotes 2 John and attributes it to John, but makes no mention of 3 John.
• The Muratorian fragment only makes mention of two letters of John, not three.
• Whilst Clement of Alexandria says that John wrote more than one epistle, it is not clear how many more than one means.
• Whilst Church writers like Origen and Dionysus of Alexandria accept 2 and 3 John as genuine, others, like Eusebius and Jerome doubt their authenticity and Jerome attributes them to the “elder John” rather than John the Apostle.
Whilst external evidence is not as strong as 1 John, it should be noted that earlier writers had less doubt over authenticity than later writers. Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. There are clear affinities in terms of vocabulary and concepts between 2 and 3 John with 1 John. Since 1 John is connected in a similar fashion to the Gospel of John, it thus apparent that all four documents were written by the same author. It is therefore the burden of proof on the critic to show otherwise. The only reasonable objection is that the author of 2 and 3 John refers to himself as “elder” rather than an apostle. Of course, this lends credence to the possibility that John the Elder and John the Apostle are one and the same. Even if that was not the case, there are still reasons why John would do so in 2 and 3 John and not in 1 John. Firstly, 1 John is a sermon whilst 2 and 3 John are personal letters and so it would not have been appropriate to use the “elder” designation in 1 John. Secondly, this could just be an appeal to his age, as “elder” was also used to refer to older persons. Either way, there is little reason to doubt that these two epistles were written by John the Apostle, given that the evidence is actually stronger than a lot of secular documents.
The Authorship of Jude
Internally, all copies of Jude name Jude, the brother of James as the author, thus making him a brother of Jesus (mentioned briefly in the Gospels). External attestations all name Jude as the author:
Clement of Alexandria:
“Of these and other similar sects Jude, I think, spoke prophetically in his letter- “In the same way also these dreamers” (for they do not seek to find the truth in the light of day) as far as the words “and their mouth speaks arrogant things.”” – Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 3.2.
““For I would have you know,” says Jude, “that God, having once saved His people from the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed them that believed not; and the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, He hath reserved to the judgment of the great day, in everlasting chains under darkness of the savage angels.”” – Clement of Alexandria, Instructor, 3.8.
“And Jude, who wrote a letter of few lines, it is true, but filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace, said in the preface, Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” – Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 10.17.
“These things are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case with the epistle that bears the name Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, Chapter 23.25.
Let us move on to internal stylistic evidence. Some critics complain that Jude 1:17: “17 Dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ said before.” indicates that the author is looking back and thus indicates a later date. This is, of course, completely arbitrary and subjective. Apostle do not need to be deceased for one to remember their words, or even quite old. Another complaint is that Jude is addressing a form of Gnosticism in verses 8 to 13, yet, as aforementioned, early forms of Gnosticism existed prior to the late 2nd century. Another objection is that the Greek is too good for somebody like Jude. However, this assumes that Jude was uneducated and did not know Greek. Furthermore, whilst the author has good Greek vocabulary, his syntax is not particularly good rendering this objection moot. Lastly, critics complain that Jude does not identify himself as a brother of Jesus. However, reason for not doing so is the same with Jude as it was for James, and it is noted that he mention that he is a brother of James, who was one of Jesus’ brothers and the Gospels mention a brother of Jesus named Judas (Jude is a variation of Judas and it is likely he changed his name to avoid being associated with Judas Iscariot). The only doubts externally, is later on in Eusebius’ time. Other than that, there is no reason to doubt that Jude wrote Jude.
The Authorship of Revelation
Internally, John is named as the author of Revelation, not just at the beginning, but multiple times in the text. Externally, we have the following attestations:
“And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem...” – Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 81.
Irenaeus quotes Revelation and attributes it to John, “the Lord’s disciple”. [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 20.6] Clement of Alexandria also names the author of Revelation as John, but does not mention which John this is. [Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Cook 6, Chapter 13]. Victorinus regarded John the Apostle as author of both the Gospel of John and Revelation. [Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse, Chapter 4.7-10, Chapter 10:1-2.] And in addition, Epiphanius attributes Revelation to the author of the Gospel of John also. [Epiphanius, Panarion, Section 4, Chapter 33].
“How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!” [ Origen, Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 36.
“It is said that in this the persecution the apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos in consequence of his testimony to the divine world.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 18.1.
“But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times. But the other two are disputed. In regard to the Apocalypse, the opinions of most men are still divided. But at the proper time this question likewise shall be decided upon from the testimony of the ancients.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 24.18.
“In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian having raised a second persecution he was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus later wrote commentaries.” – Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 9.
Let us now look at internal stylistic evidence. Critics complain on the dissimilarity of language and style in Revelation compared to other works attributed to John. Whilst this is noted, the other works of John were most likely written by a scribe and since John would not have had access to a scribe on Patmos, it is thus likely that the difference is because in Revelation, John is writing using his own words and not working with a scribe. Whilst critics would also complain that there is a lack of mention to the historical Jesus, this can be explained due the genre of Revelation. Revelation was apocalyptic literature, not autobiography and John’s audience would have been well familiar with the life and deeds of Jesus already. Whilst there are stylistic differences, there are some noted similarities in concept and language between Revelation and the other works of John. Revelation shares some unique words and imagery that can be found in the Gospel of John and the Johannine Gospels. Whoever wrote Revelation would have had the following characteristics. They were a Palestinian Jew with extensive knowledge of the Old Testament, they were familiar with the apocalyptic genre of literature in Judaism, they were familiar with the Jewish temple and practices there and was a native Aramaic speaker. The Apostle John fits the bill perfectly.
The New Testament Canon
Since arguments against reliability and authorship invariably fail, one last-ditch attempt at trying to score a pop at the New Testament is an attack on the Canon itself. Or rather, they claim that the very nature of having a Canon makes the New Testament unreliable. The principle objections being, ‘why were some books left out?’ and ‘the selective process was arbitrary and circular’. Let us take a look then, at the formation of the New Testament Canon.
How To Form A Canon
Whilst there are those who would complain that selecting a canon is a haphazard and subjective process, nothing could be further from the truth. Imagine if you had to form a canon for the United Kingdom. What would we decide to put in it? As we will soon see, it is not too difficult to draw a list of criteria for any sort of canon. For a ‘British canon’ you would most certainly have items like the Magna Carta, as well as the nation’s laws, executive and judiciary records and the nation’s history. What else, though? Can we get any more specific? Criterion #1: What is in the canon must reflect truth. Obviously, you would not want to include laws that are not really laws and you would not want to include false material if it were presented as truth. Obviously, the classic tale of King Alfred burning cakes would be excluded if reported as history but would make the grain if it were included as edifying fiction. Truth is a good starting point, but can we get any more specific? Criterion #2: What is in the canon must be relevant. For a British Canon, you would not include a history of the Ancient Near East or a history of Japan. As for the last, Criterion #3: what is in the canon must have been produced by an authoritative source. Every field, whether it be engineering, physics etc, there would be people whose views were more valuable than others. A British canon would have works by high government officials and experts in their fields and so on.
Let us now look at the formation of the New Testament Canon. We can already see that there would be a general list of criteria that any sort of canon would follow, but what about the New Testament Canon in particular? Contrary to popular belief, formation of the NT was not a blind, random and arbitrary process. The NT Canon was: “...not the product of official assemblies or even the studies of a few theologians. It reflects and expresses the ideal self-understanding of a whole religious movement which, in spite of temporal, geographical, and even ideological differences, could finally be united in accepting these 27 diverse documents as expressing the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and to his Church.” – Robert M. Grant, Formation of the New Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 10. Whilst there were problems with disagreement here and there, there was remarkable agreement as a whole as 20 of the 27 books now in the New Testament Canon were accepted easily. Whilst there are those who would claim that there was a “spectre of diversity” amongst congregations and even individual believers, the fact remains is that there was unanimous agreement for these 20 books throughout all Christendom, which, at that time, not only included the Mediterranean world, but places as far off as Britain and Mesopotamia. [Bruce Manning Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 254. Lee McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), 132.]
The 7 books that had a slightly harder time were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Jude 2 and 3 John and Revelation. Canonisation was a dialectical process where each book was evaluated by several criteria. In some cases, some books were harder than others to decide if they met the criteria and, whilst critics somehow try and claim this indicates an arbitrary process, clearly indicates that the system was in place and working. Now, contrary to popular belief, early Church fathers did not regard inspiration as a ground for accepting something into the Canon. The early Church certainly believed its scriptures were inspired but that they were not the only literature that was believed to have been inspired by God, i.e. the Jewish scriptures. The first criterion for the New Testament Canon was the Rule of Faith. In other words, nothing that is at variance with accepted scripture or teaches false doctrine. To be accepted, the book must conform to the community’s rule of faith. Whilst most people think that the NT Canon was decided by councils, a more accurate reflection of the matter is that the church councils recognised books that already held prominence from usage amongst early Christian communities. In other words, the canon was decided by individual churches and the councils selected the books that received unanimous acceptance and usage throughout the Church as a whole. [Lee M. McDonald, Formation of the New Testament Canon, (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 116.] This of course leads to the question, why did the churches pick these books? This, of course, leads to the second criteria, apostolic authority. In other words, to be accepted into the Canon, a book must have been written by a follower of Jesus. The most qualified person to write about a great teacher, no matter who it is, would be family (James and Jude), immediate followers, (the Apostles) or followers of the immediate followers (Luke and Mark). Whilst critics would try to claim the dispute over the seven aforementioned books indicates doubt of their authenticity, this instead shows the care and precision during the selection process.
Now that we have the criteria, let us now look at the actual selection process. Stage One: Founder’s Authority. Obviously, Jesus’ words would be considered authoritative and as early as Paul the words of Jesus already had a fixed form. [Bruce Manning Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 73.] Authority is then passed down to the Apostles and then their followers and early Apostolic Church fathers such as Clement, Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp et al. NT books cited to and alluded to by Apostolic Church Fathers are, all four Gospels, every Pauline epistle apart from three, Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, James and Revelation. Not cited or alluded to are Titus, Philemon, 2 Corinthians, 2 Peter, Jude and 2 and 3 John. With the exception of 2 Corinthians, all the books not mentioned were too short to warrant mention, especially in light of the fact that the total extent works of the Apostolic Church Fathers amount to a volume the same size as the New Testament. In other words, we would have been very lucky to have all 27 books mentioned and cited from at such an early date. It should be noted that no non-canonical book are recognised or quoted at this early stage. Stage Two: Clarification and Protection. This is really the main reason for an NT canon. To keep heresies from mangling and destroying Christianity, the church needed to set things down “in stone” and so a need to have an apostolic “stamp of approval” on materials was a must. Let us take a brief look at these heretics and how they spurred the church into formalising a canon.
The first major heretic that there is significant evidence of is Basilides (117-138 AD), who denied that Jesus suffered on the cross and claimed instead that he switched places with Simon Cyrene, laughed at his enemies and ascended as Basilides did not believe that a divine being could undergo such suffering. The next major heretic was Valentinus (135-165 AD) who not only tried mixing Christian beliefs with Greek and Oriental beliefs, but had the audacity to write his own Gospel, the so-called “Gospel of Truth”. He was neither a follower of Jesus or any of his disciples and so there would be no reason for his works to be accepted as authoritative . Perhaps the most famous heretic, and certainly the one who caused the most stir, was Marcion (c.144 AD). Marcion was an intelligent and wealthy ship owner, but when called by the clergy in Rome to give further details about his ideals, what he had to say was so shocking that not only was he excommunicated, but a substantial amount of gifts he had donated to the church were returned to him also. Marcion’s principal idea was that the God of the OT and the God of the NT were incompatible and believed in some form of dualism. Marcion took authoritative books from the NT, like Luke and some of the Pauline Epistles, and altered to them to create an anti-Jewish version of Christianity. He certainly served as a wakeup call and has been described as the man who tabled once and for all the question of a new canon. Another group of heretics, called the Montanists, whilst not as destructive as other heretical groups, focused on the creation of “new scriptures” based on “ecstatic utterances” and thus tried to rubbish the idea of apostolic authority. Notably, the last group reflects what some critics have tried to paint early Christianity as whole like, yet the interesting thing is that this group were rejected as heretics for these kinds of views.
The last and final stage consists of final listing and forms of the New Testament Canon. Whilst there are some disagreements, there is overwhelming agreement for the majority of the NT canon and it was by c.200 AD that the New Testament Canon as we know it today was finalised, reaching its current form and significance. Let us now look briefly at how this occurred in each of the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire. In the East, all four Gospels were combined in a “mini-canon” called the Diatessaron by Tatian around 156 AD. Later (180-211 AD) we have Clement of Alexandria quoting from the majority if our current NT books. Origen (185-250) is the first to use the term New Testament and divided it into two collections, Gospels and the works of the Apostles. He does make note of the heretical Gospels, but does not say that we should burn them and instead quotes from them using the qualifier: “If anyone receives it...”. Origen accepted the 4 Gospels, the 13 Pauline Epistles, Revelation and some of the other epistles. In the West, Justin Martyr (c.150 AD) mentions the “memoirs of the Apostles” and quotes them, alluding to all four Gospels and even Revelation. Hippolytus (170-234 AD) acknowledged all four Gospels, 13 Pauline Epistles, Acts, Revelation and some of the other Epistles. Irenaeus (130-202 AD) quotes all NT books except for Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude. Tertullian (c.195 AD) made references to every NT book except for e Peter, James and 2 and 3 John. Cyprian of Carthage (c.246 AD) cites as authoritative all four Gospels, all 13 Pauline Epistles except Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation. Early Church Historian Eusebius refers to all 27 books of the NT Canon, and refers to 22 as universally accepted. The final listing comes from 367 AD where Athanasius of Alexandria set forth an NT Canon identical to the one we have today. The Councils of Hippo and Carthage (393 and 397 AD respectively) confirm this enumeration.
So as we can see, the New Testament Canon was decided upon by a number of acceptable logical criteria and the selection process was not arbitrary or subjective as critics would like to believe. The NT Canon was formalised to preserve the words and teachings of Jesus in order to protect Christianity from heresies corrupting its beliefs etc. Whilst various groups and such have tried to make changes or complained about the canon, all 27 books have remained since the dates of their being chosen. The NT books received complete support and the 7 that were disputed quickly followed suit. There was no theological battle, or councils of bishops and theologians stepping over the lay Christians making decisions for them. It is up to the critic to argue why the Church’s choices were in error, why their process was in error or some such. Of course, some critics complain that some books that were left out of the Canon are more authoritative than those selected and we shall take a look at these now.
The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas, like the Gospel of Judas, is a Gospel that presents an “alternate view” of Jesus. Of course, this was rejected from the NT Canon yet modern critics argue, spear-headed by the likes of Elaine Pagels and the Jesus Seminar et al., that the Gospel of Thomas is equally, if not more, valid that the legitimate Gospels. The big question here is, why? Not only does the Gospel of Thomas fail the test for canonicity, but it fails the test for authorship too. No, critics clamour for the Gospel of Thomas because of its heretical nature, and if it were shown it was more valid than the actual Gospels, then it would render a lot of Christian doctrine moot. In other words, agenda-based theory driving the facts. We shall soon see why the Gospel of Thomas was not part of the canon and that these critics are simply grasping at straws. The only evidence in the Gospel of Thomas’ favour, is internal attestation. That is it. External attestations are unanimous in declaring that Thomas did NOT write the Gospel of Thomas. The physical data agrees with this. The Nag Hammandi, the collection of texts where the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, had been dated to the 4th century AD, the earliest mentions of it are from the 3rd Century AD and the earliest fragments have been dated to the 2nd century AD. The bulk of mainstream scholarship have dated the Gospel of Thomas to around 140 AD, so why is it that critics frequently appeal to it as a rival to the canonical Gospels? It should be noted that defendants of the Gospel of Thomas extend liberties to Gospel of Thomas whilst setting absurdly high bars for the NT Gospels (of course). We shall now look at the internal stylistic evidence.
The first principal argument employed advocates of the Gospel of Thomas to try and date it earlier is that the Gospel of Thomas is composed of sayings, which is a simple format. Critics argue this points to an early date as it is a primitive sayings Gospel like the hypothetical Q document (said to have been the source of sayings for Matthew and Luke). Since there is nothing in the means of narrative, critics argue that it was written earlier as they argue such a Gospel could only be a product of an early church that did not recognise Jesus as divine. They then go onto claim that heretics “took over” the “sayings genre” caused “orthodox” Christians to produce the now-canonical Gospel from the Q document and reject the use of sayings only documents like the Gospel of Thomas. They argue that the Gospel of Thomas parallels Q and was “probably written 10 to 20 years after Jesus’ death”. To say this argument is absurd and ridiculous would be an understatement. Here are the facts: -
• Q is not an existing document and there is no agreement on whether it was merely a “sayings” Gospel or even if it did exist at all. This is a highly questionable assumption based purely on an a priori presupposed idea of “literary evolution”.
• Even if Q was just a sayings Gospel, it does not prove anything about the use of “sayings” listings in mainstream Christianity, as the group behind the Gospel of Thomas was anything but orthodox and secondly, this could hardly be called a “rich heritage”. This would be an extrapolation for which we have no grounds.
• The “sayings” format appears in documents that have been identified as late, such as the Gospel of Phillip, an anthology of seemingly unconnected sayings and statements, without any narrative or biographical structure, many of which being just as brief and cryptic as those in the Gospel of Thomas. [Phillip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2001), 69-70.]
• The claim that orthodox Christianity dropped the “sayings genre” because of heretics is completely unsupported by historical evidence and is purely speculative. Furthermore, orthodox Christianity was not in the habit of “giving up” on anything to outsiders and submitted to martyrdom and persecution. If that were not enough, but there is absolutely no allusion to any kind of controversy over a “sayings genre” anywhere in the NT or in any early Church literature whatsoever.
• There is no hard evidence that heretics began to use the “sayings genre” to the degree where it would be hard to tell the difference between orthodox and heterodox documents or even to the degree where it provoked such a reaction from mainstream Christianity. Furthermore, if such an event did occur then the early Church would have tried to reclaim the genre, not discard it and let the heretics have it.
• Genres have elaborate sets of rules regarding structure, form, style and so on, but the Gospel of Thomas has none of these rendering the “sayings genre” argument moot. Quite simply, the Gospel of Thomas has no genre and is simply a random collection of sayings.
The second principle argument laid forth by the defendants of the Gospel of Thomas is that the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are simpler than those of the canonical Gospels and are thus purer and represent a less developed tradition making it earlier. In other words, Thomas, or parts of it, look like what the early oral tradition has been presumed to be (primitive), therefore it has early primitive roots. Of course, this argument fails just as badly as the first. Here are the facts: -
• The Gospel of Thomas is actually a “degeneration” of a “higher” form into something more primitive. The history of literature attests to various “Golden Ages” of various genres with writers producing masterpieces only to be followed by lousy imitators. This trend continues today with movies and television.
• There is no consistent pattern present in the Gospel of Thomas. There is, however, compression, expansion and adaptation of Synoptic material.
The arguments for dating Thomas early fall spectacularly wide of the mark. Let us now look at the negative evidence. The very origins of the Gospel of Thomas place it in a later setting than the canonical gospels. There are two principal theories regarding its origins, the most prominent is that it originated from Gnosticism, a syncretistic movement that operated chiefly in the 2nd century, although variations existed prior to this time. The second theory is that it derived from a form of 2nd century Syrian-Christianity. Whilst both views have persuasive evidence, each view places the Gospel of Thomas squarely ahead of the canonical Gospels by a wide margin and does not allow the dating to any part of the Gospel of Thomas early. The format of the Gospel of Thomas was used by Gnosticism. The simple question and answer format and the beatitude present in the Gospel of Thomas were favourite forms of Gnosticism. [Bertil Gartner, The Theology of the Gospel According to Thomas (New York: Harper, 1961), 24-26.] The Gospel of Thomas was found in a collection of texts, called the Nag Hammandi, which consisted principally of Gnostic documents. The Gospel of Thomas also presupposes the structure of the Gnostic myth known as the Hymn of the Pearl. [Graham Stanton, Gospel Truth? (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1995), 87.]
However, recently, scholars have connected the Gospel of Thomas to a deviant form of Syrian-Christianity known in the 2nd century. The Gospel of Thomas lacks certain Gnostic teachings such as references to a sadistic creator God who made the material world. There is, however, links to Syrian Christianity, similar to that of Christian author Tatian, such as advocating of celibacy and asceticism, denial of rituals such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving. There is also literary and linguistic parallels to Syrian texts as well as reliance on Tatian’s harmonisation of the Gospels, the Diatessaron, which was composed around 140AD. [Nicholas Perrin, Thomas: The Other Gospel (John Knox: 2007), 13, 34-5,78, 82-3, 86.] Thus, the Gospel of Thomas relies on the canonical Gospels as a source, meaning it proceeded them chronologically. The Gospel of Thomas relies on the Diatessaron, thus making it impossible for it to be earlier than the 2nd century. The evidence of dependence on the canonical Gospels is colossal and hard to explain away for someone arguing in favour of the Gospel of Thomas’ originality. Of course, it is no surprise why critics try to prop up the Gospel of Thomas as a contender against the canonical Gospels. Because if it were shown to be original, it would cast doubt on the major claims of Christianity, so these critics will try their best to do so despite the monumental evidence stacked against them. Ultimately, the Gospel of Thomas depicts not what Jesus said, but what men wish Jesus had said, which really is not too different from the tactics of the defenders of the Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Judas
The second favourite contender to the canonical Gospels and probably the one that has received the most attention, is the Gospel of Judas. The question is, why? The experts all agree that the Gospel of Judas was authored sometime in the 2nd century AD and was not written by Judas or even by anyone that knew him. The manuscript itself is a 3rd or 4th century Coptic translation and when it comes to external attestation and internal stylistic evidence, it fails spectacularly. The Gospel of Judas was most definitely Gnostic in origin, and thus revolved around some sort of special knowledge or “Gnosis” that was required for salvation. The text itself gives us an idea of the kind of “Gnosis” it contained: -
“Jesus said to them, “How do you know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me.”
“But their spirits did not dare stand before [him], except for Judas Iscariot. He was able to stand before him, but he could not look him in the eyes, and turned his face away. Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You have come from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.” Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, “Stand away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the [twelve] disciples may again come to completion with their god.””
“Judas said, “Master, as you have listened to all of them, now also listen to me. For I have received a great vision.” When Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, “You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard? But speak up, and I shall bear with you.””
“The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each  [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments...]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments.”
One can see quite readily that the Jesus portrayed in the Gospel of Judas is teaching the sort of thing that would never have come from the mouth of a hardtack peasant teacher in 1st century AD Jewish Palestine. The Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is an elitist who mocks the disciples for not being as informed of him etc. Of course, if the historical Jesus had been like this, Peter and the other disciples would have beaten him up! This Jesus would have been a rogue deviant who would have been totally ignored by his Jewish contemporaries and regarded as a madman. This is the sort of thing that Gnostics cared about. This is all recognised by mainstream scholarship, so why the hype? Well, of course, non-expert critics and sceptics of Christianity want to cause a “crisis of faith” amongst Christians. It is amazing the sort of credence that uninformed sceptics have given the Gospel of Judas considering how late it is. Some have called it “as close to a contemporary account of what happened as many other accounts of Jesus”. If one of the canonical Gospels had appeared suddenly in the 4th century AD, one wonders if it would receive the same attention. Like those who support the Gospel of Thomas, defendants of the Gospel of Judas have absolutely no ground or legs to stand on.
Other than the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, there are a variety of other books not in the NT canon that critics complain give us “authentic views of Christianity”. It is not too hard to see that, like the Gospels of Thomas and Judas, these “lost books” were kept out of the NT for very good reasons and do not provided was authentic insights whatsoever. More often than not, critics have not even read the book in question and simply resort to subjective and biased “it was suppressed by the orthodox and so needs a fair trial” type of arguments. Let us take a look at these books.
Acts of John
This was a late 2nd century document supposedly by Leucius, a follower of John. However, there is no external attestation until the 9th century AD and teaches a form of docetic heresy.
Acts of Paul
This book was written by a forger, who admitted to writing this book.
Acts of Peter
This was written in the 2nd century AD and internal stylistic evidence shows that it is more creative than actual history as a number of miracles described in the book are often ridiculous and have no practical purpose whatsoever: -
“And the dog came unto Peter as he sat with the multitude that was come to see Peter’s face, and the dog related what he had done unto Simon. And thus spake the dog unto the angel and apostle of the true God: Peter, thou wilt have a great contest with the enemy of Christ and his servants, and many have been deceived by him shalt thou turn into the faith; wherefore thou shalt receive from God the reward of thy work. And when the dog had said this he fell down at the apostle Peter’s feet and gave up the ghost.”
“And Peter turned and saw a herring (sardine) hung in a window, and took it and said to the people: If ye now see this swimming in the water like a fish, will ye be able to believe in him whom I preach? And they said with one voice: Verily we will believe thee. Then he said – now there was a bath for swimming at hand: In thy name, O Jesu Christ, forasmuch as hitherto it is not believed in, in the sight of all these live and swim like a fish. And he cast the herring into the bath, and it lived and began to swim. And all the people saw the fish swimming, and it did not so at that hour only, lest it should be said that it was a delusion (phantasm), but he made it swim to a long time, so that they bought more people from all quarters and showed them the herring that was made a living fish, so that certain of the people even cast bread to it; and they saw that it was whole. And seeing this, many followed Peter and believed in the Lord.” – Acts of Peter.
Eusebius refers to this and other works ascribed to Peter also: -
“The so-called Acts of Peter, however, and the Gospel which bears his name, and the Preaching and the Apocalypse, as they are called, we know have not been universally accepted, because no ecclesiastical writer, ancient or modern, has made use of its testimonies drawn from them.” – Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 3.2.
Acts of Thomas
This is a 3rd century document that was externally attested to as the work of heretics.
Apocalypse of Peter
This was written between 125-150 AD, thus too late to have been by Peter. Whilst one church writer, Clement of Alexandria, considered it authoritative, Eusebius noted that it was not universally accepted.
This has been dated sometime between the 1st and 3rd centuries and one of three books that actually might have a case for being included in the canon. It contains moral teachings, liturgical material, instructions, and eschatological material and is completely orthodox in what it presents. Why it was not included was not clear, but it was probably due to lack of apostolic authorship and the redundancy of some of its material.
Epistle of the Apostles
This was composed sometime during the mid 2nd century and mostly just re-iterates what is in the canonical Gospels.
Epistle of Barnabas
It refers to the destruction of the temple in the past tense indicating a time after 70 AD, but predicts it will be rebuilt, therefore indicating a time before 135 AD when the Romans built a pagan temple on top of the site. Since it was written between 70-130 AD making it unlikely to have been written by Barnabas.
Gospel of the Ebionites
We no longer have any manuscripts of this 2nd century document, all we have quotes from it that show it was dependant on the canonical Gospels and taught odd things such as Jesus refusing to eat meat on the Passover etc.
Gospel According to the Egyptians
This work is unknown save from in quotes and was written around 150 AD. It promoted the doctrines of the Encratites, an ascetic group that refrained from wine, certain food and marriage.
Gospel According to the Hebrews
Yet another unknown document preserved only in quotes. Origen refers to it with the qualifier, "If anyone receives it”. Other than that there is not enough information to ascertain authorship etc.
Gospel of Mary
A 2nd century Gnostic document, similar to the Gospel of Judas, that contains obscure and peculiar teachings: -
“For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone.”
“Peter said to him, Since you have explained everything to us, tell us this also: What is the sin of the world? The Saviour said, There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin.”
“When the soul has overcome the third power, it went upwards and saw the fourth power, which took seven forms.”
“The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh, the seventh is wrathful wisdom. These are the seven powers of wrath.”
Whilst it certainly would have been interesting to read an account by one of Jesus’ female disciples, this Gospel is not authentic and far too late.
Gospel of the Nazareans
Another Gospel only preserved in fragments making it unable to be adequately tested for authorship etc.
The Gospel of Peter
This is an early 2nd century documented mention by Eusebius as not being universally accepted. Apart from teachings forms of docetic heresy, it concludes with an account of a talking cross emerging from Jesus’ tomb.
Gospel of Phillip
This is a 3rd century document similar to the Gospel of Thomas. It received some recent attention via the Da Vinci Code as it contains a story where Jesus kisses Mary Magdalene. Like the Gospels of Judas and Mary, it also contains obscure Gnostic teachings.
Gospel of the Saviour
The only existing manuscript of this is a fragmentary manuscript dated to the 4th century. Apart from being obviously too late, it contains clearly Gnostic teachings.
Gospel of Truth
Eusebius mentions a Gospel of truth by the heretic Valentinus. The only document with the same name that has been discovered, was found in the Nag Hammandi library alongside the Gospel of Thomas does not match the description. Either way, from what we know of both, they fail the test of external attestation as well as internal stylistic evidence.
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
Not be confused with the other Gospel of Thomas, this Gospel, allegedly by Thomas, describes Jesus early childhood. Apart from having no external attestation and being dated to the 2nd century it contains accounts of peculiar and often vindictive miracles: -
“And a few days after, as Jesus was walking through the town with Joseph, one of the children ran up and struck Jesus on the arm. And Jesus said to him: So shalt thou not finish thy journey. And immediately he fell to the ground, and died. And those who saw these wonderful things cried out, saying: Whence is that boy? And they said to Joseph: It is not right for such a boy to be among us. And Joseph went and bought Him. And they said to him: Go away from this place; but if thou wilt live with us, teach him to; pray, and not to blaspheme: but our children have been killed. Joseph called Jesus and reproved Him, saying: Why dost thou blaspheme? For these people live here hate us. And Jesus said: I know that these words are not mine, but thine; but I will hold my tongue for thy sake: and let them see to it in their wisdom. And immediately those who were speaking against Jesus became blind.”
“And Jesus reached the age of eight years, Joseph was a master builder, and used to make ploughs and ox-yokes. And one day a rich man said to Joseph: Master, make me a couch, both useful and beautiful. And Joseph was in distress, because the wood which he had bought for the work was too short. And Jesus said to him: Do not be annoyed. Take this piece of wood by one end, and I by the other; I and let us draw it out. And they did so; and immediately he found it useful for that which he wished”. – The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
It is thus apparent that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas fails every test for authenticity and warrant no place in the NT Canon.
This document is simply a combination of material taken from Paul’s epistles. Whilst it certainly does contain material by Paul, its contents are simply taken from other epistles meaning there is no reason to include it in the NT as all the material within is already present in the NT in the form of Paul’s actual epistles.
Shepherd of Hermas
This is an allegorical work similar to Pilgrim’s Progress and was quoted and used by a number of early Christian writers. However, like the Didache, lack of apostolic authorship prevented its inclusion in the canon.
This epistle, dated between 65-95 AD, was written by an alleged disciple of peter. Eusebius regards this as genuine and noted that it was used in many churches, however, it mentions things such as a phoenix being a real creature and so this is why it was not included in the NT canon.
Whilst there are other books critics are keen to throw into the air whilst proclaiming “why are they not in the canon?!”, these examples should give you a general idea of the background of non-canonical NT books and of the arguments and tactics of the critics. Notably, the critics methods of randomly selecting non-canon books and demanding to know why they are not in the NT is not too dissimilar to how they try to paint the NT Canon selection process.
Shattering the Nicene Myth
In a last ditch attempt at trying to cast doubt over the NT canon selection process, critics resort to a rather humorous attacks regarding the role of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in the canon selection process. Notably, these sort of claims are the kind found in popular fiction such as the Da Vinci Code et al. According to critics: -
• The Council of Nicaea was responsible for forming the New Testament Canon. Books were selected, by the Council, via a random process; e.g. all books were put in a closed box and shaken up, and the ones that ended up on top made it into the canon; or, they were thrown onto the table, and those that stayed on the table, stayed in the canon.
• Constantine himself had a significant, heavy hand in the decision over what books would be in the canon.
• The Council stripped NT books of content before they were canonised. For example, references to reincarnation were removed.
• All books excluded from the canon were gathered up and burned after Nicaea, Over 300 versions were destroyed.
Whilst surely indicative of the desperation and lows critics will resort to when there just isn’t any arguments left to throw against the reliability of the New Testament, there is absolutely no truth in these claims whatsoever, albeit some twisted distortions of what did happen. Let us look at the evidence: -
The Council of Nicaea was responsible for forming the New Testament Canon.
As we have seen earlier, this was most definitely not the case as we can see from the actual selection process. The Council of Nicaea actually was responsible for the creation of 20 canons, none of which being the New Testament Canon. Instead, these canons were about different areas of church practice with subjects ranging from the disposition of those who had been castrated in terms of vocation in the priesthood to the declaration that standing upright was an inappropriate position for prayer. In other words, the Council of Nicaea concentrated on theological issues such as the Trinity etc. The main focus was whether or not Jesus was an eternal being or a being created at a finite point in time as believed by the heretic Arius.
Constantine himself had a significant, heavy hand in the decision over what books would be in the canon.
Constantine had no role WHATSOEVER in the decision of what books went into the NT canon. The 27 books were decided upon around 100 years earlier. All Constantine did was order that 50 copies of the New Testament be produced as, once that happened, who would dare add or subtract from it? Constantine chose the order of books in the copies of the NT he ordered, but that was all. He ordered copies, not content. [David Dungan, Constantine’s Bible (Fortress: 2006)].
The Council stripped the NT books of content before canonising them.
This is actually a case of textual criticism, not opposition to canonisation, but either way there is absolutely no textual or historical evidence that supports this notion whatsoever.
All books excluded from the canon were gathered up and burned after Nicaea. 300 versions were destroyed this way.
The Council of Nicaea ordered the destruction of the works of the heretic Arius and that is all. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Council or Constantine ordered the destruction of non-canon books and would not have been even possible as the church would not have had the means to destroy every manuscript of every non-canon and every heretical book. The fact we have non-canon books still in existence refutes this claim.
Whilst there are those who try to paint Constantine and the Council of Nicaea as an early version of Palpatine and his Sith Lords, there is just no evidence for any of these ridiculous claims. We have thus seen, that the oral and textual traditions of the New Testament are impeccably reliable. In fact, the New Testament books are the most textually reliable ancient documents in existence, whether its contents are factual or not and beat the nearest secular contenders by a considerable margin. The NT Canon was decided upon to preserve the teachings of mainstream orthodox Christianity and to protect Christianity from heresies. The books that were selected were authoritative, relevant and true to the entirety of orthodox Christendom, with any doubts over certain books getting ironed out. The books that made the grain were not chosen by Constantine or any council but by every church at the time. Those who try to poke holes at the reliability of the oral and textual traditions, authorship of the NT books or the selection process of the NT Canon simply have no ground and no legs to stand on. Whilst you may disagree on whether the contents are factual or fictional, they are most certainly the most textually reliable ancient documents in existence and to say otherwise is to argue in the face of evidence.
Recommended Reading: -
Samuel Byrskog, Story as History (Brill: 2002)
David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Phillip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts (Broadman and Holman, 2005)
Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus (IVP: 2006)
Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale University Press, 1997)
Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Uppsala Gleerup-Lund, 1961)
William Graham, Beyond the Written Word (Cambridge University Press, 1987)
Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity Press International, 2000)
Phillip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Bruce Manning Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987)
Arthur Patzia, The Making of the New Testament (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995)
E. Randolph Richard, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (J. C. B. Mohr, 1991)
Daniel Wallace, J Ed. Komoszewski, and M. James Sawyer, Reinventing Jesus (Kregel: 2006)
Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel (Trinity Press International, 2003)
Jocelyn Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind (Routledge, 1997)
Robert H. Stein, Methods and Message of Jesus’ Teaching (John Knox, 1994)