Evidence for the Authenticity of the Synoptic Gospels

The Gospel According to Matthew

As with each of the other gospels, the author of this one does not put his name to the gospel; but this doesn’t mean that it was not written by Matthew, the disciple traditionally regarded as its author.  As I pointed out for John’s gospel which is also technically anonymous, secular historians frequently also did not attach their name to their books; but we do not disqualify these books because anonymously written and cast doubt on their authorship.  From the time there were Christian writings, Matthew’s gospel was only ever and universally regarded as being written by Matthew the tax collector and disciple of Jesus.  If Matthew’s gospel had circulated in its first appearance with his name not appended to it as it is today, it is very likely that there would be competing authorship theories; but it didn’t; and there are no competitors.  The Church has always known that Matthew wrote “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”.

Some Internal evidence

Just as for John’s Gospel, there is also much internal evidence that Matthew wrote the gospel attributed to him.  “For example, whilst all the Gospels have a number of stories about tax collectors, Matthew is the only one that records the narrative of Jesus paying his own personal tax” (Clifford 1991, p19).  Quoting Judge Edmund H. Bennett, Clifford writes “Why should Matthew be more likely to mention this particular fact than any other evangelist?  When we remember that he was himself a tax-gatherer, and therefore especially interested in and observant of anything related to his own profession, the answer is obvious” (Clifford 1991, p 19-20).

Chapman says “Ancient writers pointed out that whereas the lists of the Apostles in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts all mention St. Matthew’s name, only St. Matthew’s own Gospel adds the words ‘the publican’, for to be a tax-gatherer or ‘publican’ was regarded by the Jews as the worst disgrace.  So he relates his own call by Christ, when sitting at the seat of custom, whereas St. Mark and St. Luke, telling the same story, give the name ‘Levi’ instead of ‘Matthew’ so as to shield St. Matthew from the infamy of his former calling” (Chapman 1944, p 6).

As a tax collector, Matthew would have been familiar with keeping financial accounts; which means he was literate, and well qualified to write a gospel; and as he was a tax collector, it would not be in a forger’s interests to forge a gospel and name it after him, one of the least significant of Jesus’ disciples.  This fact alone suggests that the traditional ascription of the Gospel to Matthew is because it was actually written by Matthew.  France says “the writers of the early Christian centuries offer us no other candidate for authorship, and a tradition which is both early and unanimous should not be simply assumed to be false unless the nature of the book itself makes it clearly inappropriate”.  (France 2002, p 906).

The Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew

It was widely accepted in the early Church that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew and it was later translated into Greek.  The tradition that there was a Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew has some substance to it because it was referred to, among others, by Papias, Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius.  And Jerome reports that there was at least one copy in existence in his own time: “Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain.  The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered.  I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it.  In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew.  Wherefore these two forms exist ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son,’ and ‘for he shall be called a Nazarene’” (“Lives of Illustrious Men” p 362).

There are varying views as to whether Matthew wrote his gospel first in Hebrew, but a good discussion of it can be found on the following link:  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10057a.htm

The Gospel According to Mark

Mark was not a well-known figure compared to Peter, James, John, Paul etc.; and his unexpected departure from Paul’s missionary team to Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) and Paul’s subsequent reluctance to take him with him on his next missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41) would make him an unlikely candidate for a fraud or well-meaning bishop or scribe to attach his name to a gospel.  Neither was he an apostle; any self-respecting fraud would want to attribute their writing to an illustrious name which carried authority, and Mark just wouldn’t suit.  And there is nobody else whose name has been attached to this gospel; it has always and universally been regarded as having been written by John Mark.  The date of its authorship is between about 40-60 AD, depending on whether you regard Matthew as having been written first, as the Church has always believed, or whether Matthew used Mark when writing his gospel, as much of contemporary scholarship believes.

It has also always and universally been regarded by the Church as Peter’s gospel, recorded by Mark.  He came from Jerusalem, as his mother’s house was there (Acts 12:12), and would therefore have known many of Jesus’ followers.  It was at his house that Peter announced his miraculous escape from the prison to the many Christians who were there praying for his release (Acts 12:12-17).  Mark was thus a valuable witness to what Jesus said and did.  It is likely this connection with his mother’s house, and Peter and the other disciples and believers frequent congregating there, that there developed a relationship between Peter and Mark, with Peter later referring to Mark as his son (1 Pet 5:13).

Clifford writes “The book of Mark contains a clue that suggests its authorship.  The tradition of the early church is that it was Mark who wrote this Gospel for Christians in Rome and Italy.  This Gospel alone mentions in detail the healing of the deaf and dumb mute and records Jesus’ actual spoken word ‘Ephphatha’ (chapter 7, verse 34).  The writer translates this Aramaic word as ‘be opened’.

Judge Bennett’s point is that this affirms the tradition that Mark was written for non-Jews, as an explanation of the local Aramaic word was necessary.  Therefore, as Bennett implies, if the tradition as to the readership of the Gospel is internally verified, one can rely on the assertion of tradition that Mark is the author.

Peter, in my view, is a more dominant figure in Mark, failures and all, than in the other Gospels, suggesting he was the man behind the scenes.  This is the suggestion that many receive as they read the Gospel.  Further, New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd observed that Peter’s message in Acts 10, verses 34-43 has a similar structure to the chronology of the book of Mark.  This substantiates a reliance by Mark on Peter’s spoken word” (Clifford 1991, p 20).

Further comment on Peter being “the man behind the scenes” in this gospel comes from Alan Cole.  He writes “The early church believed that Mark got many of his facts from Peter, for they knew that Mark himself had not been a disciple of Jesus during his lifetime.  We cannot prove this point, but we do know that both Mark and Peter were together in Rome in later years (1 Pet 5:13).  We also know that Peter was intending before his death to make a permanent record of his memories of Christ (2 Pet 1:5).  Most of the early church fathers believed that Mark’s gospel was this record.  Certainly there are many details in the gospel that are best explained as personal memories of Peter, e.g., descriptions of incidents at which only Peter, James and John were present.  Another possible clue is that the gospel is very uncomplimentary to Peter, pointing out all his faults and failings.  As Peter later became such an important man at Rome, it is hard to see how these could have got into the gospel unless Peter himself had insisted on it” (Cole 2002, p 947).

Papias

Papias (70-155 AD), bishop of Hierapolis, says of Mark’s gospel “And the presbyter said this.  Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.  It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ.  For he neither heard the Lord or accompanied Him.  But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities (of his hearers), but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings.  Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them.  For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into his statements” (“Ante Nicene Fathers” Vol 1, “Fragments of Papias” VI, p 155, Hendrickson Publ.).

However, Professor Ehrman discounts Papias as a credible witness because “scholars have almost uniformly rejected just about everything else that Papias is recorded to have said in the surviving references to his work” (Ehrman 2010, p 109).  Is he right?  Can we trust Papias?  What are the things Papias wrote that Professor Ehrman objects to?  Ehrman states categorically that Papias gives us two bits of solid information about Matthew that aren’t true of “our” Matthew; that our Matthew is not just a collection of Jesus’ sayings; and that our Matthew was not originally written in Hebrew but in Greek.

Having cast doubt on Papias’ statements about Matthew by saying they are unreliable, Professor Ehrman questions Papias’ reliability in his statements about Mark.  The first is that Papias indicates that his information was received third- or fourth- hand.  He then tells us that one of the points Papias makes is certainly wrong because “one of Mark’s two primary goals was to tell everything that he had heard from Peter about Jesus.  There is simply no way that can be true”.  He says that it only takes about two hours to read the whole of Mark’s gospel, and asks if it is feasible that for all the time that Peter spent with Jesus, and all the time that Mark spent with Peter, “are we to imagine that all Mark heard was two hours’ worth of information?” (Ehrman 2010, p 109; emphasis his).

Considering his last statement first, that Papias says Mark’s aim was to tell everything he had heard from Peter about Jesus, the use of superlatives is a common characteristic in speech.  For example, a child comes home from school and says he needs to have a specific brand of shoe because everybody has them.  And in Matthew 8:34, we’re told that “all the city came out to meet Jesus” (RSC-CE).  In the story about the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, John tells us that many people in the city believed in Jesus because the woman testified “He told me all that ever I did” (Jn 4:39).  And John writes “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).

I could go on, but we get the point.  Nobody hears or reads this kind of thing and takes it literally; the point the speaker is making is that the vital things or the most significant things are being spoken of – and we get that.  So Professor Ehrman once again makes a misleading statement about Papias.  But worse than this, he denigrates evangelical scholars for accepting Papias’ statements about Matthew and Mark, saying “I suspect it is because they want to have support for their own points of view….and have decided to trust Papias when he confirms their views, and not trust him when he does not” (Ehrman 2010, p 110).

But the consensus view (i.e. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) has always been that Papias’ statement is reliable.  If Professor Ehrman is correct, where is his evidence?  He is challenging the long-accepted view so the onus is on him to back up his challenge with proof, rather than merely putting doubt in people’s minds and leaving it there.  Is it not rather Professor Ehrman who wants to remove Papias as a credible witness so there is one less to contradict his false claims and statements?  It is true, and nobody denies it, that Papias did record some bizarre things; but he only reproduces them as things he had heard, and was passing them on, just as Herodotus did.  That doesn’t negate everything he said.  Besides, we only have fragments of his writings so we don’t know all that he said, whereas those who recorded and preserved these fragments had access to the five books that Papias wrote.  Therefore, they had a better understanding of Papias than unbelievers like Professor Ehrman.  It is sheer academic arrogance that so many modern-day Western scholars think they know the past better than those who lived in it.

So the Church has always accepted Papias’ statement, not simply because Papias wrote it but because he was recording an already known tradition.  Papias didn’t invent the story that Mark recorded Peter; he reproduced an existing tradition, a tradition of which the Church was already aware.  Eusebius, in whose history this record is found, didn’t question it.  He did express doubt on other things that Papias wrote about, saying “The same person, moreover, has set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature”; but he has no doubt about the truth of Papias’ statement that Mark’s gospel is a record of Peter’s preaching.

The Gospel According to Luke

Luke indicates in Acts 1:1 that he had already written his gospel, so this must have been prior to 62 AD, the time of Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome; it may have been completed as early as 58 AD.  And it must have been before 70 AD, as the sack of Jerusalem by the Roman legions occurred in that year.  Luke records Christ’s prophecy of this event which, if it had already occurred, he would have recorded as well.

Chapman writes: “St. Luke had plenty of time during the two years he lived with St. Paul at Rome to write the book of Acts.  The date of his Gospel is earlier.  He may have written it in his first year at Rome, or before this while St. Paul was in prison for two years at Caesarea, or even earlier yet.  One reason for thinking he wrote it at Rome might be that St. Mark’s gospel was written there, and that it was at Rome that he became acquainted with it, and used it for his principal authority, as containing the recollections of the Prince of the Apostles.  But he must have collected the materials which are peculiar to him before he left Palestine” (Chapman 1946, p 29).

As with Matthew and Mark, Luke’s gospel doesn’t have his name attached to the text but, also with Matthew and Mark and secular histories, it doesn’t matter because this was common.  “Both style and language offer convincing evidence that the same person wrote Luke and Acts.  The ‘former book’ of Acts 1:1 then is likely a reference to the third Gospel as the first of a two-volume series, and the fact that the writer dedicates both books to Theophilus also strongly argues for common authorship.  Since church tradition unanimously attributes these two works to Luke the physician, a close associate of Paul (Col 4:14; Phm 24; 2 Ti 4:11), and since the internal evidence supports this view, there is no reason to dispute the Lukan authorship” (“New Spirit-Filled Life Bible” NIV).

As they do with the other three gospels, the Church has always accepted that Luke was the author of the gospel attributed to him, and the witnesses for Luke’s gospel, i.e. John’s gospel, Papias, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, 1 Clement, are the same as for the other gospels, so we need only look at internal evidence.

For example, Ross Clifford, writing of Judge Bennett’s view of the evidence for Luke’s gospel, says “The book of Luke would be expected to have medical emphases if Luke were the author, for he was a doctor.  And we do have such evidence!  All four Gospels record the incident where Peter cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.  But Luke alone (chapter 22, verses 50 and 51) documents Jesus restoring the man’s ear.

In addition, where Matthew and Mark speak of Peter’s mother-in-law as having a fever, Luke diagnoses (chapter 4, verse 38) a high fever.  Similarly Luke (chapter 5, verse 12) records Jesus as not just healing a leper, but a man full of leprosy.  Judge Bennett confirms that passages like these endorse Lucan authorship (emphases his).

It is also interesting to note that Luke (chapter 8, verse 43), unlike Mark (chapter 5, verse 26), makes no mention of the woman with the haemorrhage having spent all her money on doctors.  Perhaps this is a case of professional etiquette!” (Clifford 1991, p 20-21).

Luke’s use of Matthew and Mark

Chapman suggests an interesting view of why the gospels have passages and words in common.  It will be seen from the following quote that he accepts that Matthew was first written in Hebrew, and this Hebrew Matthew was written before the other gospels.

“Now it seems perfectly clear that when St. Luke was composing his Gospel he possessed no complete translation of St. Matthew; but it seems equally clear that before it was finished he came to know our Greek St. Matthew, and that he revised many parts of his Gospel according to the wording of his translation, but not any of those parts he had taken from St. Mark, evidently being aware that St. Mark’s authority, St. Peter, had used St. Matthew, so that St. Luke prefers St. Mark to St. Matthew.  He also must have introduced here and there short pieces from Matthew, but was unable to interpolate much into his nearly complete manuscript.

I have said that St. Luke respects the order of St. Mark.  In fact he inserts his additional matter into St. Mark in great chunks, and never in small details.  He has a long piece at the beginning of Our Lord’s Birth, and a long piece at the end of his Resurrection.  Of the other additions, the longest is an interpolation of scarcely less than nine chapters at about the end of St. Mark’s ninth chapter.  All this gives a series of incidents and discourses and parables, described as taking place during Our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem.  There does not seem to be any strict chronological order either here or elsewhere in St. Luke.  He often strings together incidents with only vague indications of time, and hangs one saying on another without any logical connection.

The extraordinary beauty of St. Luke’s Gospel depends chiefly on those parts, more than a quarter of the whole, which are in no other Gospel.  Of these portions the most famous and the most dearly loved by Christians, is that which comprises his first and second chapters…” and Chapman goes on to mention those passages which are unique to Luke’s gospel.

“Thus all these additions of St. Luke are of astonishing beauty.  How painfully he must have collected them, and how carefully and wisely selected them!

We can now guess why he omitted a third part of St. Mark, whose Gospel he evidently venerated and wished to complete.  What he omitted would not be lost, since it was in St. Mark.  But he had so much to add of infinite value to souls.  And he is evidently anxious not to exceed a single volume.  For there was a definite size for a roll of commerce, and St. Luke has reached the limit of custom and convenience.  His is the longest book in the New Testament, and the publishers and booksellers would have allowed no more.  And when we examine what St. Luke has omitted of St. Mark, we can almost invariably guess the reason.  In most cases it is a duplicate which he omits”, and Chapman then recounts the omissions” (Chapman 1946, p 32-35).

Conclusion

The evidence presented here is considered sufficiently strong to be accepted as evidence in a court of law.  It is also regarded by the Church, both east and west, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, since the beginning of the Church, as being evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels attributed to them.

The gospels will always have critics who will do their best to neutralise them because they are the word of God; they are the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  They require a response from all humanity.  The response of unbelievers is to reject them because they reject God.  Their cry is “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Lk 19:14).  And they think that if they can discredit the gospels, they make God disappear.  They try to get as many people as possible to shake their fists at God along with themselves and foolishly think that they are beyond accountability.  But the word of God still stands, and it remains a witness against them, pronouncing judgment on all who disobey.

Bart Ehrman is now in the vanguard of those who resist God and deny his word and his claims on them.  Like many others, he has been deceived by the attacks of the higher critics on the bible, and now he joins them, “deceivers and deceived”.  He says “I came to think of the Christian message about God, Christ, and the salvation he brings as a kind of religious “myth”, or group of myths….. Jesus’ death was not a myth, but the idea that it was a death that brought about salvation was a myth” (Ehrman 2010, p 275-276).

The contrast is clear, and vast.  Between the two is a great gulf which cannot be crossed.  It is the difference between life and death, heaven and hell.  Ehrman can call God a “never-dying eternal Nazi” if he likes (Ehrman 2010, p 276), but as far as eternity is concerned, God is the only friend he has; and if he rejects him and his offers of peace with God and joy both now and forever, he must face God as an enemy, and an eternity without him.

 

References

“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, by Bart Ehrman, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.

“Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” 1991, by Ross Clifford, publ. Albatross Books, Sutherland, Australia.

“Lives of Illustrious Men: Jerome and Gennadius: Jerome” Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 3, p 362, publ. Hendrickson 1995.

“New Bible Commentary 21st Edition: Reading the Gospels – What is a Gospel?”, 2002, p 896, 897, by R. T. France, publ. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.

“New Bible Commentary 21st Edition: Mark – Introduction”, 2002, p 947, by Alan Cole, publ. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.

“New Bible Commentary 21st Edition: John – Introduction”, 2002, p 1022, by Donald Guthrie, publ. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.

“New Spirit-Filled Life Bible NIV: Luke – Introduction”, 2002, 2014, p 1302, by J. Lyle Story, publ. Thomas Nelson, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc.

“The Four Gospels” 1946, by Dom John Chapman, publ. Sheed and Ward, London, England.

Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

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