The physical evidence that the Gospels are genuine productions of the early church is of two kinds.
- The received text of the Gospels is based on a large number of manuscripts in the original language, Greek, together with a large number of ancient versions in other languages.
- Some of the surviving Greek manuscripts of the Gospels date from not long after the time when Jesus lived.
Numerosity of Ancient Manuscripts and Versions
Over five thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in whole or in part are extant today (1). By comparing the manuscript evidence for the Gospels with the evidence for other important ancient writings, we see that the Gospels are uniquely well attested. The work best preserved after the New Testament is Homer's Iliad, represented by 647 manuscripts (2). Many other works rest on a very tenuous foundation. There are only nine or ten copies of Caesar's Gallic War, and none is earlier than A.D. 800 (3). Livy's history is based on only twenty manuscripts, Tacitus's history on only two (4). Of the eight manuscripts of Thucydides' history, only one is earlier than A.D. 500 (5).
In addition, there are many thousands of ancient manuscripts preserving versions of the New Testament in languages other than Greek (6). Among these versions are the Old Latin and Old Syriac (Aramaic), both of which originated well before A.D. 200 (7). Others represented in the manuscripts include the Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Gothic, and Slavonic (8).
The many manuscripts and versions agree with each other to a remarkable extent. Most variant readings are misspellings or other obvious errors. It has been estimated that doubt attaches to only one word out of a thousand (9), and none of the words in dispute is crucial to deciding any question of history, ethics, or doctrine. The striking consensus among so many ancient manuscripts and versions of the Gospels guarantees that the text transmitted through the ages to us must be substantially the same as the original text. We can be sure, as we read the Gospels, that we have what the authors wrote rather than a text filled with late corruptions, reflecting the thinking and fancy of men who lived long after the time of Jesus.
Early Date of Some Ancient Manuscripts
One of the pioneers of higher criticism was the German scholar F. C. Bauer, active in the middle of the nineteenth century. He championed the view that all four Gospels were written at the end of the second century A.D. This view was quickly accepted by all scholars disinclined to accept the Bible as supernatural in origin, and even many Bible-believing scholars were so in awe of German scholarship and so fearful of being left behind by advances in knowledge that they began to concede a late date for the Gospels. In the present century, however, new evidence has undermined Bauer's theories. The many early manuscripts which have come to light prove that the Gospels could not possibly have been written later than the first century.
The most ancient among the manuscripts preserving the entire text of the New Testament are the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, both from about A.D. 350. But a great many manuscripts bearing portions of the New Testament date from much earlier. The oldest are the following:
manuscript) 0189 in
|Papyrus 64/67 in
Barcelona and Oxford
|Matthew 3:9, 15;
26:7-8, 10, 14-15,
|about A.D. 200|
|Papyrus 46 in Dublin,
known as Chester Beatty
Papyrus II (12)
|most of Paul's letters
to the churches
|about A.D. 200|
|Papyrus 32 in Manchester,
known as Papyrus
Rylands 5 (13)
|Titus 1:11-15; 2:3-8||about A.D. 200|
|Papyrus 77 in Oxford,
known as Papyrus
Oxyrhynchus 2683 (14)
|Matthew 23:30-39||late 2d
|Papyrus 66 in Geneva,
known as Papyrus Bodmer
|nearly the full
Gospel of John
|Papyrus 90 in Oxford,
known as Papyrus
Oxyrhynchus 3523 (16)
|John 18:36-19:7||about A.D.
|Papyrus 52 in Manchester,
known as the Rylands
All these dates enjoy general approval. The chief tool for assessing when a manuscript was written is paleography, the study of ancient writing. The script of the Rylands fragment, for example, bears features characteristic of handwriting during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian (98-138). Recent scholarship sets the date of the fragment closer to 100 than to 125 (18).
John probably composed his Gospel in Asia Minor (19). Yet the Rylands fragment, from a papyrus copy of the Gospel, was found at the site of an ancient provincial town in Egypt, probably in the same vicinity where the copy was made. If the Gospel had disseminated so far by the early second century, it must have been written some years earlier, perhaps well before A.D. 100.
On the basis of early manuscripts and other evidence, such as we will discuss below, virtually every Biblical scholar today recognizes that all four Gospels must have been written during the first century A.D. The following chart presents three currently popular schemes for dating the Gospels.
|Scheme Favored by Many Liberal Critics||Scheme Proposed by John A. T. Robinson||Traditional Scheme|
|All of the Gospels were written between A.D. 70 and A.D. 100. None of the traditional attributions is correct.||All of the Gospels were written before A.D. 70, John being the earliest (20).||The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written before A.D. 70. John was written about A.D. 90.|
Robinson, late fellow and Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, was in the top rank of New Testament scholars. A lifetime of study and thought led him finally to the view that the entire New Testament was written before A.D. 70. His book Redating the New Testament shows that a painstaking and impartial survey of the evidence disallows any scheme which assigns later dates to the Synoptics (21).
Testimony of Other Ancient Christian Writings
From ancient Christian writings outside the corpus of Scripture come two kinds of testimony vindicating the authenticity of the Gospels.
- Gospel citations and parallels appear even in the earliest noncanonical Christian writings, in those dating from the late first or early second century.
- Noncanonical Christian writings from the second century attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Early Citations and Parallels
Besides the books of the New Testament, six other Christian writings from the period before A.D. 125 have survived. These writings are known as the works of the Apostolic Fathers (22).
All of these contain allusions to Jesus' life and teaching. In some instances, the allusion shows that the author was familiar with the Gospels as we have them today. In other instances, the allusion seemingly depends not on the Gospels but on oral tradition—that is, on personal recollections of what Jesus or His apostles had taught (23). Yet even the allusions that may be based on oral tradition do not contradict the Gospel record. Thus, the works of the Apostolic Fathers are doubly potent for authenticating the Gospels.
- Each direct citation of a Gospel proves that at the time of the citation, the Gospel was already in wide circulation.
- Each residue of oral tradition shows by its convergence with the Gospels that the Gospels come from men close to the beginnings of the church.
Let us consider these works individually.
The Epistle of Polycarp
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, wrote this epistle to the Philippians in approximately 120 (24). He quotes from the New Testament about sixty times (25).
The Epistles of Ignatius
In approximately 115, as Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, journeyed to a martyr's death in Rome, he wrote the seven short letters now known as his Epistles (26). These contain inexact but unmistakable quotations of Matthew, Luke, and John (27).
The Shepherd of Hermas
As edifying reading, The Shepherd is much inferior to the other noncanonical early Christian writings. The author, one Hermas, recalls a series of peculiar visions that he imagines were divine in origin. The work has been dated by some in the 90s, by others in the middle of the second century (28). Robinson puts it at 85 (29). The work does not quote directly from the New Testament, but presupposes the existence of a Roman church presided over by elders (30).
The Epistle of Barnabas
The author of this lengthy epistle identifies himself simply as "one of yourselves" (31). Although he quotes extensively from the Old Testament, he refers to the New Testament only once, when he quotes a saying of Jesus (32). Yet he does clearly set forth Christian doctrine. Since the author is aware of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, but is ignorant of the Jewish rebellion in 132, scholars agree that the epistle was written between these limits. The date commonly assigned to it is 130 (33), but J. B. Lightfoot, the scholar responsible for the standard edition of the work, placed the epistle earlier, between 70 and 80 (34). Recently, Robinson urged a date of about 75 (35).
Clement was a bishop of Rome during the closing years of the first century. Most scholars have decided that this letter to the church at Corinth was written in about 95 (36), but Robinson, following G. Edmundson, argues that the correct date is probably about A.D. 70 (37). The letter contains a number of remarks strongly reminiscent of the synoptic Gospels (38).
The Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles
The Didache is an early manual for the churches. In its treatment of ordinances, procedures, and ethical questions, the work has an obvious Jewish flavor. The regulations that it proposes for fasting strike us today as legalistic (39). The work is especially important as evidence that the early church practiced immersion (40) and opposed abortion (41). The dates assigned to the work spread over a wide range, from the middle of the first century to the fourth century A.D. (42). But the obviously primitive character of the church mirrored in its exhortations has convinced many scholars to accept an early date, among them both Lightfoot and Robinson (43). Robinson argues that the Didache was written at Antioch between 40 and 60. The work contains numerous quotations of Jesus, especially from His Sermon on the Mount (44). Although their source is apparently oral tradition, nearly all of these quotations are closely parallel to passages in the synoptic Gospels. Nothing in the Didache is at variance with the Gospel record.
The evidence furnished by early Christian writings severely cramps the view that the Gospels are late distillations from a large body of spurious stories and sayings which evolved gradually after Jesus' death. Jesus died in A.D. 33. Yet the latest possible date that the physical and citational evidence permits us to assign the Gospels is about A.D. 100, which falls within the life span of men who could remember the life and ministry of Jesus.
One great difficulty besetting a late date for the Gospels is the names they have borne throughout church history. They have always been known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All four attributions refer to leading figures in the early church. Matthew and John were among the twelve original disciples of Jesus. Mark helped in the work of both Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5; 2 Tim. 4:11) and Peter (1 Pet. 5:13), the foremost apostles of early Christianity. And Luke was a frequent companion of Paul during his later missionary travels. Hence, either as an eyewitness of Jesus' ministry or as a close associate of eyewitnesses, each man had the firsthand information needed to write a Gospel. Also, as we will demonstrate, each had the needed ability.
If the traditional attributions are correct, the first three Gospels should probably be dated somewhat before A.D. 70. Since Jesus' disciple John was reputed to have lived a long life, the latest feasible date for the Gospel of John is about A.D. 90.
The earliest evidence concerning the authorship of the Gospels comes from the writings of Papias, a bishop in Asia Minor during the early part of the second century. Fragments of his work entitled Exposition of Oracles of the Lord, written between 130 and 140, have been preserved by later writers (45). According to the historian Eusebius (fourth century), Papias said, "Now Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he was able" (46). In other words, Matthew gathered Jesus' sayings into a single compilation written in either Hebrew or Aramaic (scholars are not sure which language Papias intends). This early compilation was no doubt Matthew's first step in composing a Gospel.
A tax collector by profession before Jesus called him, Matthew was undoubtedly able to write, although in his day writing was not a common accomplishment (47). Perhaps he served as official scribe of the twelve disciples and wrote down the Lord's discourses as they were given. Since Jewish schools taught proficiency in rote learning of oral teaching, it is more likely that Matthew first memorized Jesus' sayings and then wrote them down later. The amount that a Jewish boy memorized during his education likely exceeded by far the material recorded in Matthew's Gospel (48).
The same Papias also said, "When Mark became Peter's interpreter, he wrote down accurately . . . all that he [Peter] remembered of what was said or done by the Lord" (49). We infer that the Gospel of Mark is based on the preaching of Peter.
Mark's mother owned a large house in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12) and his uncle, Barnabas (Col. 4:10), who was a leading Christian, was evidently well-to-do (Acts 4:36-37). So it is probable that Mark came from a prosperous home, where he might have learned the skill of writing.
Luke and John
Luke was a physician (Col. 4:14) who likely had received training at one of the Greek schools of medicine (50). As such he was eminently capable of writing Luke and Acts, the two books assigned to him by tradition. That John too was an educated man seems implicit in his remark that he was personally known to the high priest (John 18:15).
Witness of early writers
Justin Martyr, who lived in the first half of the second century, testifies in The First Apology that the common worship of the church in his day centered on readings from the prophets and "memoirs of the apostles" (51). Elsewhere in the same work, he says that these memoirs were also called "Gospels" (52). The first harmony of the four Gospels appeared in about 170, when Tatian, a leader of the church in Assyria, composed his Diatessaron ("through four") (53). At about the same time, an unknown author compiled a list of New Testament books that has partially survived in the mutilated manuscript known as the Muratorian Fragment. The opening portion of the list is now lost, but the first words of the fragment, which apparently concern Mark, suggest that Mark was the previous entry. The next entries are Luke, explicitly identified as the third Gospel, and John (54). Irenaeus, writing before A.D. 200, names all four Gospels in the familiar order "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John," saying that this is the order in which they were written (55). It appears incontestable that by the middle of the second century, the Gospels were well known as a collection of four books in the order and under the names they retain today.
It is hard to imagine how the Gospels might have acquired these names if they are false attributions. The latest possible date we could suppose for the origin of these names is about A.D. 150. But even then, many were still alive who had learned about the beginnings of Christianity directly from the apostles or from converts of the apostles. Moreover, the wrong names that might have been tacked onto the Gospels do not include the present names of the Synoptics. Any inventor of false attributions would have wanted to associate the Gospels with major figures in the early church. He would not have assigned the first Gospel to Matthew, the only publican among the twelve disciples. Nor would he have credited the second to Mark, remembered chiefly for his failure to finish his missionary journey with Paul (Acts 13:13; 15:36-41). Nor would he have selected Luke from the margins of New Testament history and made him the author of the third Gospel (56).