“When someone places faith in the Bible, they place it in the direction of evidence, not against the evidence.”

[Karen] Welcome back everyone to this installment of I Believe Podcast. We’re presenting today another in our recent series about the authenticity of the Bible. If you stumbled on this and haven’t seen other segments, we invite you to do so starting with the Overview cast, and we’d love to hear from you and have you tweet about this using hashtags #bibletruth and/or #ibelievepodcast or #faithingod.

We are happy to have our guest D.M. Johnson back with us. Today, we’re eager to discuss with you authenticity of the Gospels within the New Testament canon of scripture. We’ll do that by contrasting them with some gnostic writings and then verify their positioning in the canon through eyewitness testimony, for which we provided some general information in the overview. Dave, we are glad to have you here with us!

[D.M.] I’m glad to be back!

[Karen]  Before we move into eyewitness testimony, let’s just say this to set things up:  As many of you are aware, the Gospels are a huge target of atheists and the skeptical and secular community. Many want to dismiss them as mythical, or as legends that developed over time. Others like to say they are written far too late to have credible accounts regarding what really happened in New Testament times. We also have some who try to confuse the issue as to what Gospels actually belong in the Holy Bible. These individuals point to Gnostic Gospels which have been much popularized by movies and books in the culture like The Da Vinci Code.

Let’s start off by talking about the dates of the Gospels in the New Testament canon and contrasting them with the Gnostic Gospels which are not in the canon.

Ancient Writing Norms

[D.M.] This is something that’s important as we talk about this, Karen: to emphasize how biographies were written in antiquity. Some people are mistaken about the Gospels, and they think about the words that are there, and they think the words written are exactly what was said. And we know from the sermon summaries that we have, it’s not like a tape recorder. Those were genuine sayings of Jesus, and genuine events recorded, but there’s a lot of misconception as to how biographies were written, and to your point, when they were written. So one of the things, it’s important to look—we’ve been doing a lot as we go through these podcasts—is to look at what non-scriptural accounts would do.

If you contrast biographies, and you look at for instance, some of the more famous biographies of Alexander the Great are written 400 years after Alexander [was alive]. So by contrast, a really good case can be made, that we have these Gospels, some people think we have these Gospels as early as before 70 CE, and the latest people [scholars] have John at 90 or 95 CE. If we look at it and contrast from that perspective, we have accounts where witnesses would still be alive.

Just quickly, that case for being written before the year 70 CE, is because  we know that the temple was destroyed then, and that was prophesied throughout the Bible. So we know if that was the case, that they were written after [the temple was destroyed], certainly they [the Gospels] would have mentioned it. So a lot of people think it [the Gospels were written] before then [70 CE]. But either way, we know by contrast to these other writings, they were actually written quite early in comparison.

Some people will also say, “Isn’t it anonymous within the text itself?” Luke doesn’t refer to himself as Luke, things like that; they’ll say that they [the Gospels] are anonymous. It’s important to think about what was common back at that time. We have Plutarch, and biographies survive that were written by him, and he never refers to himself in the text. But people, we’ve talked about, they almost want to apply a ridiculous double standard when the Bible is involved with these kinds of things. But in fact—yeah, that’s how people [wrote]. So even if we accept that liberal dating, which—you know, you’ve got Mark at 60 CE, Matthew 70-75 CE, Luke 75-80, and John 90-95, you’d still have eyewitnesses alive, and that’s why the dates matter.

Some people wonder, “Why does it matter when it was written?” It matters because if it was written hundreds of years later, you don’t have eyewitnesses that would have been there.

There’s an interesting story about P52—we’ve talked about that—and that is the oldest piece we have that is currently catalogued. It’s a fragment of John’s Gospel. And it’s fascinating because before it was discovered—the Christology in the Gospel of John is very high in what it says about Jesus, and it was the main target [of skeptics] and people were trying to date it at way back, late in the 2nd century. And when they found it [P52], they sent it to four different paleographers who confirmed that it was written very early—after 100 CE, up to 125 CE. And one of them even said it was written around 90 AD. So, it was a copy, therefore we know that John was far before that.

Intellectual Consistency

If we stay intellectually consistent, which is something I try to do, we look at this—to say that it was written 40 years later [after Christ’s death], that would be ridiculous. We need to take a step back for a minute. What if we were talking to a Vietnam veteran—that would be about like the Gospel of Mark. It wouldn’t be ridiculous at all for him to write a memoir of what happened, especially if he had a group of people and he was telling these stories of what took place. You wouldn’t even dare say, “Oh, you don’t really know what happened.” So if we think of it that way, to a vet of WWII or Vietnam, it makes perfect sense that it could be accurate accounts.

[Karen]  Thank you. That puts it right in perspective.

I think it’s good to reflect as we go through this, on some of the prior podcast content as well.  These Gospels just include a multitude of things you would just never make up—if you haven’t seen the cast on the principle of embarrassment and enemy attestation, you might want to check that out. We also spoke before about significant archaeological findings, which, though they never are shared to prove truth on their own merit, they do give strong evidence that corroborates with what we have in holy writ of the Bible. We don’t see that same kind of evidence around the gnostic Gospels.

Gnostic v. Canonical Gospels

I think most people are at least roughly familiar with the main themes of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—that is, that they center around and focus on the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. So let’s dive into some of these Gnostic texts by contrast; some of you might be unfamiliar with them or may just to find it interesting to note how different they are.

Definition of Gnostic

Dave, would you first define “gnostic” and then go over some passages of those Gospels at a high level idea of content emanating from them before contrasting the evidence that points to them being written at a much later date.

[D.M.] Yeah, that would be good for us to do. So Gnostic or Gnosticism comes from the Greek word “Gnosis,” which is basically like a special knowledge. The concept behind Gnostics, is that they felt salvation came through understanding true meanings of teachings and by obtaining this special or certain knowledge.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas of of a literary genre—it’s considered a Gnostic writing—it’s also what some people would call a “sayings Gospel.” It consists of 114 sayings that are supposedly attributed to Jesus. And I should mention: nobody in antiquity thought this Gospel was actually written by the Apostle Thomas. I want to make sure people understand that.

Let’s start off by having you read one of the sayings from the Gospel of Thomas, if you wouldn’t mind?

[Karen]  Sure. The first saying in the Gospel of Thomas says:

And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” [1]

Just a comment on this saying: From this it seems Dave, that what you said earlier about the description of Gnostic is at play. This seems to infer right off the bat that the way to get eternal life is not by salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, but rather by finding this “interpretation of sayings.”

[D.M.] Exactly right, so we see here, from right out of the gate, that this is clearly a gnostic writing. Let’s read saying 114. This is a really interesting one; I think you’ll like this one.

[Karen]  Saying #114 says:

Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” [1]

This saying is troubling to say the least, a significant aberration from what we really get in the pure Gospel of Christ. This seems to me like something you can’t just brush by; it’s very noteworthy. In fact, it seems to me that it’s almost fashionable or trendy for people to embrace these alternate Gospels without really examining this kind of content.

[D.M.] Yeah, it really is. And the funny thing is that people who try to say that the Gospel of Thomas is as early as the other Gospels in the Bible often dismiss this saying and say it was added later. There is no textual evidence to back that up. There are also other troubling sayings in Thomas as well, that don’t match up with what we see in the other Gospels.

Evidence For and Against the Gospel of Thomas

[Karen] I think it would be effective if we followed the pattern we did in previous casts—where we took a look at some of the textual issues and laid out the case for why some think this is really early writing and why others view it as having been furnished towards the end of the second century as late as 175 CE. Let’s set the stage of the controversy and then Dave, we’ll have you speak to it.

The Jesus Seminar—we alluded to that in a previous podcast—wrote a book called The Five Gospels [2]. For those unfamiliar with this gathering, the participants were a self-appointed group of liberal scholars that got together and got lots of media buzz in the 90s. They had a system where they used colored beads to actually vote on whether or not Jesus said a particular verse. Red bead meant that Jesus did say whatever verse they were discussing (that might remind you of some New Testament copies where you see Jesus’ words in red, only they were recasting this based on their own speculation); pink bead signified that He just may have said it; grey that He probably didn’t say it; and black connoted that He didn’t say it. In their very unacademic evaluation, they put the Gospel of Thomas as having more red than any Gospel except Luke! Pretty amazing.

A second example is  Elaine Pagels, who  wrote a popular book regarding the Gospel of Thomas—Beyond Belief—where she advanced some theories about her early dating of The Gospel of Thomas [3]. (And we’ll put these sources on our website so you can check them out.) So it seems we have a dates across the spectrum on this Gospel.

Let’s analyze the reasons some date this Gospel early, and contrast it with reasons which point to it dating much later than our New Testament Gospels.

[D.M.]  We mentioned that we would go through this. With most of the Gnostic writings, it’s clear cut—they were [written] really later. Some different schools of thought in regards to the Gospel of Thomas.

Evidence Supporting Thomas

Some people think its [written] early for the following reasons: One reason is that it’s a sayings Gospel. Some of you may have heard of something called “Q” that biblical scholars will talk about; which actually comes from a German word [quelle] that means source. Most people think that Mark probably came first, and we see some areas there where Luke and Matthew use some of that [same] material. We also have areas where Luke and Matthew have something that isn’t in Mark, or maybe it is. So this is a hypothetical source that people think may have been very early. Some people think that since Thomas is a list of sayings, so maybe that’s the case with it as well [also traced back to the same hypothetical source]. There are also scholars who point out that it’s [Gospel of Thomas] not exactly like Q, but that’s the reasoning for some people.

The other thing that Elaine Pagels points out: John’s Gospel kind of has Thomas in more of a speaking role than other Gospels. So she put forth this theory that John’s Gospel was a response, a literary response to the Gospel of Thomas [4].

Evidence Against Thomas

When you read some of the more conservative scholars, they put forth a really strong case—and Craig A. Evans and Nicholas Perrin date the Gospel of Thomas very late, after 170 or 175 CE. And here are the reasons why, kind of to go to the other side of the evidence:

  • One reason why it that it quotes or alludes to a large portion of the New Testament: many quotes or allusions, from all over the New Testament [5].

  • Another reason is we don’t see any early material that’s unique to Thomas quoted by any of the early church fathers.

  • And the copy that we do have is in Coptic. But one thing that’s really interesting—and scholars do this kind of thing—is that when you translate that into Syriac, something pretty amazing happens. The sayings don’t just look like they’re in an arbitrary order; it looks like there may be some “catch” words where sayings tie to each other by different words in them.

  • And the other thing that’s really interesting is that Thomas is referred to as Judas Thomas, which is an appellation that’s unique to what we saw in the Syrian church back in the late second century.

  • The other reason is, there was a student of Justin Martyr called Tatian, and he put forth a work known as the Diatesseron that was basically an amalgam of the four Gospels. This work [Gospel of Thomas] appears to follow the Diatesseron’s ordering of events, so obviously if Thomas was based on the Diatesseron, that puts it [Thomas] as later than 170, 175 CE [6].

So based on this evidence, when I look at it, my conclusion is that Thomas was written after the apostles and people who knew Jesus had died; at least 100 years after Jesus. If we’re just being  truly consistent, it looks to me like we’re going to get more accurate information from the Gospels we have in the canon. Some of the things that are in Thomas reflect the canon, but it’s more likely that those were leveraged from the canonical Gospels, and not the other way around.

[Karen]  Well, those are 8-10 significant points to consider there. It is so interesting to look at these other writings. I think it shows over and over the reasons we have the Gospels we do in the New Testament.

Legendary Development

I’d like to touch on the point of legendary development. In our earlier cast, we talked about the early creedal material Paul quoted in his letters, which proved it was too early for that to point to any kind of legendary development. There was nothing in his reports that seemed like an embellishment. I would like for us to look at one of these other Gospels so that we can illustrate the legendary development and contrast it with a report from one of our Gospels.

So I’ll read a few verses from Mark, then Dave, you can read from a later Gospel so we can show the difference in the accounts and let people judge for themselves. Sound good?

[D.M.] Yeah, let’s do that.

[Karen] OK. I’ll use the NIV for this read:

“But when they looked up, they say that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,“ he said.  You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “he is going ahead of you unto Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. [7]

So as I read this, it’s actually a pretty sober and straightforward telling of history.  Let’s contrast it with one of the other so- called Gospels thought to be written later so we can see a contrast. Dave, do you have a passage you’d like to read to illustrate this?

The Gospel of Peter

[D.M.] I do – Let me give a brief background on this document for those listening. This passage I’m going to read is from an account commonly referred to as “The Gospel of Peter.” It was found in the 1880s in Akhmim, Egypt, in the codex inside the coffin of a Christian monk who had died in the 9th century. Inside this codex there was a writing called “The Apocalypse of Peter”; there were also some other writings in there, including an account of St. Julian from the Byzantine era, and there was a Gospel in there without its beginning or ending. Peter appears in that Gospel and narrates it.  Because of that and the fact it was found alongside the Apocalypse of Peter, it is often referred to as the Gospel of Peter. Archaeologists has thought it was probably the Gospel of Peter that early church figures like Eusebius and Bishop Serapion had warned was falsely attributed to Peter.  So people didn’t think it was legitimate or written by Peter, I want to make that clear. In fact we don’t even know it’s a copy of that same Gospel [8].

So I’m just going to read from that, and you can contrast it with what Karen just read:

“Early in the morning, as the Sabbath dawned, there came a large crowd from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas to see the sealed tomb. But during the night before the Lord’s day dawned, as the soldiers, were keeping guard ,two by two in every watch, there came a great sound in the sky, and they saw the heavens opened and two men descend shining with a great light, and they drew near the tomb. That stone which had been set on the door rolled away by itself and moved to one side and the tomb was opened, and both of the young men went in. Now when these soldiers saw that, they woke up the centurion and the elders—for they also were keeping watch. While they were yet telling them the things they had seen, they saw three men come out from the tomb, and two of them sustaining the other one, and a cross following them. The heads of the two they saw had heads reaching up to heaven, but the head of him that was led by them went beyond heaven. And they heard a voice out of the heavens saying, ‘Have you preached unto them that sleep?,’ The answer that was heard from the cross was, ‘Yes.’” [9]

So we have the tomb surrounded by a huge crowd and soldiers, two figures so tall their heads are up to the clouds, Jesus so tall his head is above the clouds, and a talking cross. Pretty interesting stuff.

[Karen] I think that is pretty conclusive when those are so contrasted back to back; you can answer for yourselves, which Gospel has the legendary development? We’re taking it right to the text here, and it’s pretty obvious which Gospel really has the legendary development.

I know that some people also when thinking about the Gospels try to say that it is written like myth. I would like to share a quote from C.S. Lewis about literary style of the Gospels. I should just say in the way of reminder to our listeners: C.S. Lewis was once an atheist. He became converted to Christianity and obviously knew a fair bit about literature, being such an accomplished author.

“All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels, and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.” [10]

I just love that quote by Lewis. It’s interesting to think back at our cast where we talked about the criterion of embarrassment. The New Testament is not the way mythology reads.

[D.M.] I love C.S. Lewis. He still has such an influence with some of the things he wrote.

Common Names

I wanted to talk about some things that would be near impossible to get right by accident. One of those things would getting names correct. Some interesting research has taken place around this subject since 2002. Imagine for a minute writing a history about something that happened decades ago in another country—maybe back in the 60s or 70s. And you’re writing something about that time period in France, or in Egypt, or who knows where. And trying to get the popular names right.

You know, my mom is a schoolteacher and she’s always talking about having seven kids with the same name—how these names change over time. And one thing that’s really fascinating is this research that’s come out on names. What they’ve done is they’ve taken all the names from all the historians writing at the time, from all of the engravings, and all the evidence, and ranked them so you can see how popular they were. When you stack it up against the New Testament, it’s absolutely fascinating.

So on Wikipedia, if you go to look up a name, sometimes it’ll say, “Do you want the poet? The athlete? The singer?” They call it disambiguation. And in the New Testament they do that as well. With common names they do that, and with rare names they don’t. So for instance, the most common name at that time and place in the world was Simon. So you see Simon Peter, Simon the Leper, Simon the Canaanite, Simon the Tanner—there’s always a qualifier because it was such a common name.

[Karen] Those are not accidents.

[D.M.] Right, they’re not accidents. Then you see other names which aren’t common, and they don’t do that. Even Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. Later we hear about Barjesus. There’s others as well. So it’s very fascinating. Sometimes they’ll put a qualifier of their father’s name, sometimes it’ll be their job or occupation, or their hometown. If you take them, and look again, at the New Testament, and the writings which are outside the New Testament, it’s just fascinating.

For instance, the top two names, outside the Gospels, 15.6% of men had those two names. Inside the Gospels and Acts, 18.2% [of men had those same names]. Really close. If I take the Gospels and Acts, the top 9 men’s names: outside the Gospels we see 41.5%. Inside the Gospels and acts, 40.3% [of men with those names]. So you can see it’s exactly legitimate with things that are going on outside [11].

If I take the top women’s name outside the New Testament, it’s Mary. The top women’s name inside the New Testament is also Mary. This is just more evidence in favor of the Gospels. You wouldn’t get that right if you were guessing.

And there are all kinds of other research that has come out along these lines; everything from the kinds of trees that are mentioned, and all these kinds of details about cities and geography that you just wouldn’t know if you weren’t an eyewitness to this [12.

[Karen] I love that rich, internal consistency.

Debunking the “Telephone” Myth

I know one of the common things said by the skeptical community out there about the Gospels and the New Testament in general is that the writings emerged as does a conversation when you’re playing the telephone game because we know that many things were preserved by oral tradition before they were written down. The argument is that just like in that game you play when you were little—where you have a circle and you start to whisper a secret to the first person, then they pass it on, and on—the end message is nothing like what was said originally. Talking about this in one of his books, probably the most popular skeptical scholar of the New Testament in the country today, Bart Ehrman, said the following:

“What do you suppose happened to the stories [about Jesus] over the years, as they were told and retold, not as disinterested news stories reported by eyewitnesses but as propaganda meant to convert people to faith, told by people who had themselves heard them fifth- or sixth- or nineteenth-hand? Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game at a birthday party?” [13]

As I said, I have seen lots of skeptics put this forward. I think it would be good for our listeners to hear the reasons this probably isn’t a very good analogy to what took place with regards to our New Testament. Could you speak to that for a minute?

Paul writing his epistles.

Paul writing his epistles.

[D.M.]  Yeah, and as you said, a lot of skeptics have said this. But a lot of scholars have showed why this analogy is flawed:

  • First of all, this is how Jewish people passed on sacred tradition. These were not trivial things they were relaying.

  • The other thing to think about is—when you think about the telephone game, the whole purpose of the game is fun for kids to play, and the purpose is to skew the message; they deliberately do it.

  • And the other thing, if you think about in that game, it’s said only once, and it’s whispered.

Whereas when we have the transmission of the New Testament in this oral tradition:

  • It was repeated over and over,

  • And it was in public, in front of a lot of people where it could then be corrected.

  • It was composed and formulated and memorized; sometimes it would have a rhythmic pattern to it, or even in a  hymn [form].

  • The other difference is in the telephone game you say it one-on-one, where this was said by many, to the community. As I said, you could have it be corrected.

So if you just think of things we do in public: if you sing “Happy Birthday,” or state the Pledge of Allegiance, you’re going to get it right. You’re in a room full of people, you’re used to saying it, it’s been said before, and you have the corrective effect of other people being there.

Some people have even gone so far as to compare the telephone game to how the text was transmitted. And we need to realize that when the New Testament was in writing, you didn’t have just one person saying something to go back [to the time of Jesus], you could go, not only to that copy, but to other previous copies. Scholars and scribes didn’t only rely on the last thing that was said to them.

So if you look at it in totality, that [the telephone game] isn’t the best example: that’s not the way the New Testament was transmitted[14].

[Karen] Thank you for that.

Independent Detail

I know lots of times the argument against the Gospels which people set forward, too, is the calling out difference in details mentioned within the Gospels. Some people call these “contradictions.” But think about this: I recently read the book Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace. I really liked how he talks about what constitutes good evidence and how he compares it to some of his cases he worked as a detective. It’s a good read for anybody who is interested. It is quite obvious that when you think about it….that with witnesses you expect independent testimony. You also expect to have some different details and emphasis by different individuals. Otherwise you don’t really even have independent testimony, do you? I mean, as Wallace points out, it would be considered collusion in a court of law if people got up and said the exact same thing, described the exact same way, right, Dave?

[D.M.] Right. To me, this comes back to being consistent with how we treat ancient history. If we took, for instance, the great fire of Rome in antiquity, both Tacitus and Suetonius talk about this [15]. But the details from these historians are very different; in fact, you can’t even harmonize them. But no historian in his right mind would act like the great fire of Rome had never happened; there’s no way they would do that. It would be totally unreasonable to make that kind of a conclusion.

So the Gospels are ancient documents with independent detail, and we would expect them to have independent detail. We need to treat the New Testament the same as we do these other [ancient] accounts, and as we’re going to see, sometimes those independent details actually lock together and stand up in 3D to actually make a stronger case.

How Independent Detail Can Happen

Sometimes you may hear some people say that in one Gospel one person was healed, but another Gospel talks about two people being healed. We right now, we’re sitting here….and if I say, remember that one time I was at your house? That doesn’t mean there wasn’t another person here doing the sound; it’s not a contradiction at all. But when you talk about it [this gathering] you may refer to it that way.

Also, if we take the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. You look at that, and even with some of these other subtle details, you have that common core from all four people [Gospel writers]. Here’s a person who was part of the Sanhedrin [Joseph of Arimathea]. They [Gospel writers]  would never make that up because he would have been a prominent person and could have said that Jesus wasn’t buried there or that it didn’t happen. But yet they said it. So there’s kind of inconsistencies sometimes you’ll see, when it’s the Bible vs. secular history.

[Karen] Thanks for pointing that out.

Gospels Are Attributed to Their Genuine Authors

I think one thing our listeners would really enjoy is hearing the evidence that’s there which attests to the fact that these Gospels are written by who we think they were. We used the word “authenticity” when naming this cast series—8 Points on the Authenticity of the Bible. When something is authentic, that means it’s true to the events it narrates. Genuineness, however, is something a little different. If something is genuine, it means that it’s written by the person to whom it’s attributed. This is really important because it helps rule out rival theories (e.g. that the document is a late mythical composition). Obviously if we can show that there are really good reasons and evidence to show that the authors are people who would have been in a position to know about the things they talk about….that would be huge. So, Dave, would you walk us through the timeline of attestation for traditional Gospel authorship for the Gospels we have within the canon of our New Testament?

[D.M.]  Yeah, let’s go through the timeline. We’ll start with those who were close to the Apostles and move outward.

Historical Evidence that the Gospel Authors are Genuine

1. We have Papias of Hierapolis, who was discipled by John, one of the Twelve Apostles; so we have him in about 125 CE. And he states that:

  • Mark was the interpreter of Peter, and wrote down what Peter preached accurately, though not necessarily in order.

  • He says that Matthew wrote the Oracles, they called it the Logia, in the Hebrew language— which we know Aramaic was a form of Hebrew [16].

2. Then if we go a little further out, we have Justin Martyr in about 150 CE, and he says:

  • That the Christians possessed memoirs, he calls them, of Jesus, which were also called Gospels. These were written by the apostles and those who were their followers, he tells us. These tell us of such events as the Magi, the agony in Gethsemane, remember we had the earlier question of this;  here we have early evidence saying that it, in fact, happened [17].

3. So we have even a student of Justin Martyr, Tatian, putting together the Diatesseron, as we talked about, which means through the four. It’s interesting, because up through the 9th century, there wasn’t really a copy of it that anybody knew about. In 1888, we found out that we had a copy, but nobody had known what it was. Critics had for a long time said that it couldn’t have been the Diatesseron because of the Gospel of John, people had doubted [what the document was] because we had a lot of skeptics around John, which is fascinating because it opens with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So it [the Diatesseron] starts out just like John does.

4. We also have a fragment called the Muratorian fragment, from about 170 CE. And this is, in effect, kind of a Latin translation of a document that scholars think goes back to about, as I said, 170 CE.

  • Virtually all scholars agree that it refers to Matthew and Mark in its initial [writing].

  • And then it starts talking about Luke the physician, who it says was a companion of Paul, and who wrote the Gospel from the reports of others. If you go read the first four verses of Luke, he talks about how he went and interviewed people [18].

So it [the Muratorian fragment] is perfectly in harmony with what we know [from the New Testament]. Since he [Luke] hadn’t personally seen Jesus, it makes sense that he would [interview people].

5.  We then have Irenaeus of Lyons, in about 180 CE. And he says:

  • That Matthew was the first to be written; it was written in the Hebrew dialect, which he’s referring to Aramaic there;

  • He said that Mark was a disciple of Peter, and handed down his Gospel based on what Peter had preached;

  • That Luke was a companion of Paul and had recorded the Gospel according to how it was preached by him;

  • And he says that John was a disciple of the Lord, and had published a Gospel while living in Ephesus, in Asia [19].

So up until this point—about 180 CE—we have these people, and they’re giving us essentially the same thing [as the Gospels]. You know: Mark gave us the Gospel as it was known by Peter, and we have Luke , and the rest of these things. So if we look at it [the evidence], we have a really consistent story thus far.

6. Then if we go to Clement of Alexandria, he’s in about 180 CE, saying that:

  • Mark wrote his Gospel, by request, of his knowledge of Peter’s preaching at Rome. again, this is the same thing we’ve heard.

  • Matthew and Luke were published first, and their Gospels contained genealogies.

  • So John’s Gospel is the last to appear, and he [Clement] says it was written at the urging of his [John’s] friends [20].

7. Then we have Tertullian of Carthage, in about 207 CE. He says that:

  • The Gospels were written by Matthew and by John, who were Apostles,

  • And by Mark and Luke, who were, as he calls, them “apostolic men,” in other words, people who knew the apostles and lived at the same time they did.

  • So it says again, Mark’s Gospel is the record of Peter’s preaching.

  • He [Clement] says that the Gospels bore the names of the authors of antiquity, and that the ancient churches vouched for them and for no others [21].

And at this time, as he’s saying this, he was actually criticizing a heretical sect that Marcian had founded. He’s basically saying that their Gospels have had the names of their proper authors from the get-go, and Marcian had of course taken the Gospel of Luke and altered it—had taken out the parts he didn’t like. So this is kind of that back and forth [between ancient writers].

8. The other interesting person, I think you’ll find this interesting, Karen, is Celsus. I think we talked about him before. He’s an enemy of Christianity, and it’s fascinating what he says. This, to me, is the wisdom of God, when you read some of this. He says in one of his scathing things as he’s going through railing on the Christians—and of course he abuses and twists all the teachings— but he says, “I have chosen these things from your own writings, in order to wound you with your own weapons” [22]. So it’s interesting that even an enemy of Christianity is saying, these are your books, and he doesn’t talk about any other books except for these [the four Gospels].

So we’ve just walked through the timeline of somebody who knew the Apostle John, clear out to 207 CE with what we’ve just read from Tertullian, it’s interesting that we have a few things at play here: the attestation we have is significant, it’s early, it’s consistent, and it’s geographically diverse. If you go and look at where these different people were who were saying these things, they were basically at the four corners of the empire of that time. It wasn’t just one person who said it. So there really is no rival tradition; this was coming from all over the empire, and was attested from early on, all the way down.

[Karen]  That’s a potent package for our audience to consider. I’m hoping that scales are falling from some of the skeptics’ eyes, as they consider especially all of these casts together, and then prayerfully consider as well the divinity of the New Testament Gospels.

It’s also interesting to point out that we have letters from the early church fathers like Polycarp and Ignatius. These letters also use parallels from the Gospels. It just seems like if you wanted to make something up and you wanted it to get a following, you would choose Peter, James, John, and maybe Andrew. You would never make up Luke or Mark as authors.  Luke is barely mentioned on the New Testament, while he was a companion of the apostle Paul, and while he interviewed eyewitnesses,  He was not, however, in the Quorum of the Twelve. Then you think about Mark. Mark was basically giving Peter’s account, which we know from history [23] [24]. But why on earth would you make up that Mark was the author? He again is mentioned rarely in the New Testament and had a little bit of a falling out with the apostle Paul [25]. Then if you think about that… Matthew, yes he was part of the twelve, but he would have been very low on the social ladder so to speak. He was a tax collector! We all know how the tax collectors were viewed in the first century. There is no logical reason that somebody would choose him from the list of apostles to attribute a book to. So with the exception of John, you really wouldn’t have a case or reason to attribute these works to these men, if they didn’t write them. You just wouldn’t invent the authorship, because you wouldn’t have gotten much mileage out of the claim. The most logical reason to have their names attributed seems to me is because they are in fact the ones who wrote them. Could you talk about the first person really on record who came forth and challenged the traditional authorship?

Challenges to the Traditional Gospel Authorship

[D.M.] The first person whose name we know to challenge the authorship was someone named Faustus. And we have Augustine responding to Faustus. And it’s interesting to take and minute and realize when this is happening; it’s happening around 400 CE.

So we went through our timeline, from the apostle John all the way through, and now it’s 400 CE before we have someone whose name we know challenging the authorship. That’s significant. That would be like me now challenging the author of the Declaration of Independence. Even though we know, it’s been passed down by attestation all the way. It’s significant that there are so many centuries before somebody comes forth and says that.

An Unbroken Chain of Evidence

It’s interesting what Augustine says as he’s responding. He says, “Why does no one doubt the genuineness of the books attributed to Hippocrates?” For those who have never heard of Hippocrates, he was a famous physician—when a doctor goes and takes the Hippocratic oath, that’s the Hippocrates we’re talking about here. Augustine basically says, why does nobody doubt that? Then he says, “Because there is a succession of testimonies to the books from the time of Hippocrates to the present day, which makes it unreasonable either now or hereafter to have any doubt on the subject.” He continues, “How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and to her similar writers, but by the—” and he calls it “—the unbroken chain of evidence?” So he basically points out the same double standard that we’ve been talking about. He says it’s been attested all the way down, and he calls it an “unbroken chain of evidence” [26].

[Karen] Love that. I wanted to just quote something I think is very telling from Justin Martyr (150 C.E.) :

“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.” [27]

This shows how these documents were treated by the early church and also shows that for the Gospels to be read as scripture in weekly services, they must have been extremely highly regarded and known very well by Christians throughout the world. It’s also good for us to remember what was touched on in a prior cast  Polycarp wrote a letter in which he referred to well over a dozen books from the New Testament. There really are all kinds of different evidences that support a Biblical Christian faith.

Dave, I would like to end our cast with a scripture that I think is fitting since this cast is talking about eyewitnesses. This is from 2 Peter 1:16:

“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” [28]

I think is really important for us to state that there is good reason for us to have faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible.

Thanks for joining us, audience and Dave, on this edition of I Believe Podcast.

[D.M.] Thank you, Karen.

Additional Episodes:

{Overview} 8 Points to Consider: The Authenticity of the Bible

Parenting and Self-Government: Interview with Nicholeen Peck

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1. Source: Gospel of Thomas, saying 114,  (accessed 02/08/2014)


2. Robert W. Funk,  The Five Gospels: What did Jesus really say? The search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. (New York: Polebridge Press, 1993).

3. Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2004).

4. Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2004)

5. Lee Strobel. The Case for the Real Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 36.

6. Nicholas Perrin, “Thomas: The Fifth Gospel?” Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society 49 (March 2006): 66–80

7. Mark 16:4-8   (NIV)

8. Interview with Craig A. Evans.  Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 44.

9. The Gospel of Peter. See Ron Cameron, The Other Gospels (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 80-81.

10. C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, 209.

11. Ilan, Tal Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part I: Palestine 330 BCE – 200 CE 2002.

12. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006)

13. Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted pp 145-147

14. Interviews with Scholars Darrell Bock, Daniel B. Wallace, and Craig Blomberg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PZEYfLxtsM (Accessed 02/08/2014)

15. Tacitus, Annals XV.42; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars book VI

16. Eusebius in his Church History (3.39.14-15) writes of Papias (c.120 A.D.)

17. Justin Martyr, First Apology; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho

18. Lecture by Dr. Tim McGrew http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gldvim1yjYM Accessed 02/09/2014

19. Irenaeus, Against Heresies

20. Lecture by Dr. Tim McGrew http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gldvim1yjYM Accessed 02/09/2014

21. Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.5

22. Origen against Celsus.

23. Papias, quoted in Eusebius History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1965). 3.39.15 / pp. 103–4

24. Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1

25. Acts 15:37-40

26. Augustine, Against Faustus 33:6 (~CE 400)

27. Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch 67

28. 2 Peter 1:16 (KJV)

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