Can We Know the Gospels are Still the Real Deal?

It’s one thing to inform skeptics of the New Testament that Christian scholars have uncovered and brought to light undeniable evidence pertaining to who wrote the Gospels and when. It’s quite another to prove they haven’t been “monkeyed with” over the centuries. After all, isn’t it human nature to mess up almost anything? Forgeries and distortions are common in the field of archaeology, in every genre of art known to mankind, in currency, in official documents, and even in private letters supposedly exchanged between famous individuals. That’s why an entire science devoted to detecting fakery had to be established in every genre. The result is that unless one can present the bona fide original item in question there are bound to be doubts raised about its authenticity. Take the infamous U.S. Declaration of Independence for example. They’re still trying to figure out if what sits in the National Archives is the genuine article or not. The earliest piece the government has hermetically sealed in a vault is a fragment of paper dubbed the “Composition Draft.” It’s been verified to be in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting and is positively from circa 1776. But the nice, neat one with all those fancy signatures at the bottom Americans take for granted as the “real deal” doesn’t exist except in the form of early reproductions printed up and sent to all the states for ratification. Thus if we’re talking about not being sure of something not quite 240 years old yet then how can we possibly trust that what was penned almost 20 centuries ago hasn’t been thoroughly manhandled and corrupted by now? Since that’s a legitimate question a non-believer might well ask, we Christians must be ready to answer it with facts and concrete data. There are two questions we should focus our attention on in this arena. First, are the biographies of Jesus contained in the Scriptures reliably intact? And second, have other legitimate books concerning Him been intentionally left out of the Bible by the church and, if so, why?

 

I’ll tackle query number one for now. The issue of determining reliability when it comes to ancient documents isn’t unique to the Holy Word of God. Basically, anything written down before the invention of the printing press is subject to being placed under a veil of suspicion. The Bible has one very significant distinction going for it, though. More copies of it have survived the passage of time than any of the other ancient writings. The importance of that fact can’t be understated. The more copies scholars can assemble from different areas of the planet that agree with each other, the better they can compare content and eventually figure out what the original documents intended to convey. Obviously, establishing the precise age of the copies is a crucial factor. Here again, the Bible has a beefy leg up on other manuscripts. There are copies of the Gospels dating back to within a few generations after they were initially authored. In stark contrast, with other ancient texts we find anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years elapsing between the creation of the original and the earliest surviving copy. Plus, there are many copies of translations of the Holy Word in other languages. From the original Greek the books were translated into Latin, Syriac and Coptic relatively quickly and soon after into Armenian, Gothic, Georgian and Ethiopic idioms. Therefore, even if we didn’t have any copies of it in the original Greek, we could still piece together enough data from the other translations to reproduce the fundamental contents of the Gospels. We also have a vast number of verse quotations found in commentaries, sermons, letters, etc. from the early church leaders to draw conclusions from.

 

However, few closed-minded critics will be persuaded by any of that logic. They’ll insist on cold, hard info using non-biblical examples and we must be knowledgeable enough to address their demand. A good person to begin with would be Tacitus, the Roman historian who wrote his Annals of Imperial Rome somewhere around 116 A.D. The first 6 installments of his tome exist today only in one manuscript, a copy made circa 850A.D. Chapters 11 through 16 are in a separate copy from the 11th century. The rest is, as they say, “gone with the wind.” Then there’s the work of the celebrated 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus. There are only 9 Greek manuscripts of his The Jewish War. The copies we have were made in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries. In other words, the connection between the era during which they were created and the 21st century is so tenuous as to be almost non-existent while there are over 5,000 New Testament manuscripts that have been cataloged to date. In that category the Gospels have no rival. The closest competitor would be Homer’s Iliad, the book so revered in the literary world. There are fewer than 650 Greek copies still around and many of them are in bits and pieces because they were made in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, long after Homer wrote his epic in 800 B.C. If the Iliad is the runner-up with those flimsy stats backing up its accuracy then it’s little wonder modern biblical scholars have no trouble deeming the New Testament books as close to the “real deal” as they come.

 

The condition of these manuscripts varies. Keep in mind there was no such thing as sealing valuable documents in clear plastic laminate back then. Duh. The earliest are on fragile fragments of papyrus (the “paper” of that age, made from the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt). There have been about 100 of them found that contain one or more passages or books from the New Testament. The most notable are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri discovered in 1930. They contain portions of the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, an impressive amount of the 8 letters of Paul plus parts of Hebrews and Revelation. They’ve been dated back to the years between 200 and 300 A.D. A separate group of papyrus scrolls from the same era has almost two-thirds of John’s Gospel while yet another collection contains snippets from both his and Luke’s books. The relatively short time span between the writing of the originals and these copies is highly significant, to say the least. If pressed into entering the realm of minutiae one can relate that a tiny piece of John’s Gospel (measuring less than 3×4 inches in size) has been determined by a host of experts to have originated between 100 to 150 A.D., during the reigns of Emperor Hadrian or perhaps his predecessor, Emperor Trajan. This was stunning news at the time of its discovery (1934) because many theologians firmly held the belief that the original Gospel according to John didn’t even come into being until after 160 A.D. and, therefore, was not as reliable as the others. This fragment, found in a clay jar buried far away in Egypt, proved that John wrote his book when his memories of Jesus were still fresh and, thusly, should be taken seriously.

 

But wait, there’s more! There are over 300 copies inscribed on parchments made from the skins of cows, sheep, goats and antelope from around 350 A.D. They’re labeled uncial manuscripts and are written in upper-case Greek letters. One in particular, the Codex Sinaiticus, contains the whole New Testament. A more cursive style of calligraphy, called miniscule, emerged around 800 A.D. and there are more than 2,800 of them in existence. In addition, there are over 2,400 lectionaries, collections of NT verses arranged for church readings, that have been preserved. That means there are well over 5,600 Greek manuscripts of the Gospels in the world today. Not to mention the manuscripts in other tongues. Bring in those of the Latin Vulgate, Ethiopian, Slavic and Armenian variety and the total rises to over 24,000!  The bottom line established by all these big numbers is that, compared to any other ancient literary works, the Gospels figuratively register megatons of weight on the reliability scale. Renowned Professor F.F. Bruce said, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” Former director of the British Museum, Sir Frederic Kenyon, wrote in 1940 that, “…In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. The last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”

 

A truly stubborn skeptic’s response to all of the above might well be, “So? That still doesn’t mean lots of mistakes weren’t made in all this copied-by-hand, one-scratch-at-a-time business. Don’t inevitable errors enter into the equation no matter how unintentional they might be?” The honest answer is yes, they certainly do. Conditions in those days were primitive, to put it mildly, and those doing the tedious copying were all too human. But again, when dealing with really old stuff in general, context is a crucial component to be considered. To wit: Greek, unlike English, is an inflected language. It makes a huge difference. Understand that in English the sequence of words in phrases like “car hits bike” and “bike hits car” is quite significant. Not so in Greek. One word functions as the subject of the sentence notwithstanding where it appears so, as would a misspelled word, a minor variation such as that would’ve been considered inconsequential. Yet we’re not dealing exclusively with ancient Greek language idiosyncrasies here so we can’t just wave these pesky inconveniences off and act like they don’t matter.

 

For instance, a Jehovah’s Witness will argue the implications are enormous. When they say that the part in 1 John 5:7-8 wherein it speaks of “…the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost being a united Trinity isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts they’re absolutely correct. However, that discrepancy doesn’t automatically negate the legitimacy of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Check out where immediately after the Son gets baptized the Father speaks and the Spirit descends on Him. And Paul ends 2 Corinthians with The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (13:13). Throughout the Bible the Trinity is well-represented. Thus that particular variation doesn’t warrant becoming overemphasized. (My preferred translation of the Bible is the NET version due to its inclusion of extensive, informative footnotes that go to great lengths to offer the reader insights into issues such as controversial addendums/omissions. It assures me that no one’s trying to hide or disguise anything when it comes to the Scriptures.) Discrepancies do exist, but they’re rare. Bible scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix concluded, “The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5 percent pure.”

 

This brings us to the second question. The one that involves the canon. By that I mean the convention of church leaders overseen by Augustine of Hippo. He called three synods on canonicity: the synod of Hippo in 393, the synod of Carthage in 397 and another in Carthage in 419. One might ask, “How did those early church honchos determine which books would be included in the ‘official’ Bible and which ones they’d toss into the trash bin?” Well, first off, consider that the priests and experts who took on this sacred task didn’t take their assignment lightly whatsoever. It took many, many years of diligent research and debate in order for them to arrive at their final conclusion. All the books in contention had to meet three vital criteria. They had to have apostolic authority (having been written or dictated by one of the apostles). They had to conform to what was referred to as the “rule of faith.” That meant it had to be rationally compatible with what the body of Christ had traditionally accepted as truth. And the books had to have had continuous acceptance/usage by the church at large. Were there passion-filled differences of opinion? You betcha boots. They probably had to check their knives at the door. But there was also a high degree of unanimity over the majority of what was eventually deemed worthy of being included in the New Testament. Never forget God’s in control of everything. British commentator William Barclay said, “It’s the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.” If you’re curious enough to peruse the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Truth or the Gospel of Nativity of Mary (all of which were written centuries after Christ) you’ll soon realize they’re all rather odd. Some, like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary, sport titles unrelated to their real authorship. Still, some insist that the Gospel of Thomas should be on equal footing with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

 

The Gospel of Thomas (unearthed among the Nag Hammadi scrolls found in 1945) claims to have “the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.” It contains 114 sayings attributed to Jesus but says nothing about His miracles or works. Experts think it was written in Greek in Syria about 140 A.D. While some of it lines up with what the other four Gospels say, there are portions that just don’t jive. In one passage Jesus is quoted, “Split wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me there.” That statement suggests pantheism, the Eastern belief that “God is everywhere and everything.” It also ends with Jesus saying, “Let Mary go away from us, because women are not worthy of life” and “Lo, I shall lead her in order to make her a male, so she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Say what? That’s not something the Christ who stopped an infuriated lynch mob in their tracks from stoning to death an adulterous woman would say, would it? When it comes right down to the nitty gritty, in light of that sort of Buddhist-tainted, antifeminist rhetoric, the Gospel of Thomas did a splendid job of excluding itself. Some still believe there was some kind of politically-motivated conspiracy afloat to keep the book out of the canon but the fact is it simply doesn’t fit. Bruce Metzger said, “The canon is the separation that came about because of the intuitive insight of Christian believers. They could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John; they could hear it only in a muffled and distorted way in the Gospel of Thomas, mixed in with a lot of other things. When the pronouncement was made about the canon, it merely ratified what the general sensitivity of the church had already determined.” The fact that some books (notably James, Hebrews and Revelation) took a while longer to be accepted shows just how deliberate and careful those in the council were. They wanted to get it right.

 

So there’s plenty of evidence to prove the book we’ve got in our laps every Sunday morning as we sit in the pew is the real deal. The late Benjamin Warfield, a respected professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who held four doctorate degrees, said this: “If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must… declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied – a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words… The New Testament [is] unrivaled among ancient writing in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use.” What the plethora of “alternative” gospels, epistles and apocalypses that popped up all over the place during the first few centuries following Christ’s ascension tells us is this: There were numerous attempts to corrupt and/or radically alter the central message of the cross and of Jesus’ soul-saving ministry of grace but all of them failed. It seems to me that if the Creator of the universe was willing to sacrifice His only begotten Son to rescue us from the eternal punishment our sins deserve, then the act of making sure His Holy Word remained inviolate and free of the devil’s shenanigans would present no problem to Him whatsoever.

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