How Reliable Are the Gospels?
“The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking.”—Burton L. Mack, retired professor of New Testament studies.
THE above-quoted professor is not alone in this view. A number of scholars have questioned the reliability of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the Bible accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Why do some view the Gospels as myths? Should their opinion raise doubts in your mind about the truthfulness of the Gospels? Let us examine some of the evidence.
The Reliability of the Gospels Questioned
During the first 17 centuries of our Common Era, the reliability of the Gospels was never seriously questioned. However, especially from the 19th century onward, a number of academics have considered the Gospels, not as inspired by God, but as concocted by men. In addition, they have denied that the Gospel writers had firsthand information about Jesus and have insisted that such men were unable to record reliable history. Furthermore, they have concluded that the similarities in structure and contents in the first three Gospels—sometimes called synoptic, meaning “like view”—indicate that the evangelists copied extensively from one another. Critics have also rejected Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection as described in the Gospels. Some have even claimed that Jesus was not a historical person at all!
These same individuals have concluded that Mark must have written the first of the Gospels, since it seems to add little to those of Matthew and Luke. The critics have also assumed that Matthew and Luke used the book of Mark to compile their Gospels and that they consulted a supplementary source—a document the scholars call Q (from the German Quelle, or “source”). According to Bible scholar A.F.J. Klijn, this popular hypothesis “degraded the Gospel writers to compilers of isolated stories.” Such a notion actually makes the Gospel writers plagiarists and mythmakers. This theory has undermined faith in the divine inspiration of the Bible.—2 Timothy 3:16.
Were the Gospel Writers Plagiarists?
Do the similarities between the synoptic Gospels indeed prove that the writers simply copied from one another? No. Why not? For one thing, Jesus promised his disciples that the holy spirit would ‘bring back to their minds all the things he had told them.’ (John 14:26) Therefore, it is not surprising that the Gospel writers remembered and recorded some of the same events. Granted, some of the Bible writers may have read and referred to the work of other Bible writers, but such a practice would suggest careful research, not plagiarism. (2 Peter 3:15) Additionally, The Anchor Bible Dictionary states: “Dependence on oral tradition could easily account for the memorable sayings of Jesus being recorded in identical form.”
Luke stated that he had spoken with many eyewitnesses and had “traced all things from the start with accuracy.” (Luke 1:1-4) Does that sound as if he were a plagiarist or a mythmaker? On the contrary! After a thorough analysis of Luke’s writings, archaeologist William Ramsay concluded: “Luke is a historian of the first rank: not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
The testimony of the early Church Fathers, including that of third-century theologian Origen, likewise suggests that the apostle Matthew was the first to write a Gospel. Origen wrote: “The first is written according to Matthew, the same that was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who having published it for the Jewish converts, wrote it in the Hebrew.” Obviously, Matthew, an apostle and eyewitness, did not need to plagiarize the writings of Mark, who was not an eyewitness. What, then, are the facts concerning the claims that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and a presumed document called Q?
Was the Gospel of Mark Written First?
The theory that Mark’s Gospel was written first and served as a source for Matthew and Luke is not based on “one logically cast-iron argument,” admits The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Yet, many scholars feel that Mark wrote his Gospel before Matthew and Luke wrote theirs because, they claim, Mark adds little to the other Gospels. For example, 19th-century Bible scholar Johannes Kuhn insisted that Mark’s Gospel must have been written first. Otherwise, Kuhn said, “one would have to imagine that Mark had cut the two scrolls of Matthew and Luke up into little snippets, mixed these together in a pot, and produced his Gospel from this mixture.”
Since Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, it is not surprising that it contains the least amount of unique material. Still, that does not prove that it must have been written first. Further, it is simply not true that Mark adds nothing to Matthew and Luke. In Mark’s vigorous, fast-moving account of Jesus’ ministry, there are actually more than 180 passages and fascinating details that are not found in Matthew and Luke, making it a truly unique account of Jesus’ life.—See box on page 13.
What About Document Q?
What can be said about document Q, which some claim was a source for Matthew and Luke? James M. Robinson, professor of religion, states: “Q is surely the most important Christian text that we have.” That statement is surprising because document Q does not exist today, and in reality, no one can prove that it ever existed! Its total disappearance is all the more remarkable because scholars claim that several copies of the document must have circulated. In addition, document Q is never quoted by the Church Fathers.
Think about this. Q is supposed to have existed and to have supported the hypothetical priority of Mark’s Gospel. Is that not a case of one hypothesis built upon another hypothesis? When it comes to theories such as these, we are wise to keep this proverb in mind: “A simple man believes every word he hears; a clever man understands the need for proof.”—Proverbs 14:15, The New English Bible.
The Gospels—Authentic and Reliable
In their speculations and unfounded hypotheses, critical scholars have distracted many from examining the reliable Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. These accounts clearly show that the early Christians did not view the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as myths. Hundreds of eyewitnesses confirmed the truthfulness of these facts. These early Christians, who were willing to face persecution and death to follow Jesus, fully realized that being a Christian would be senseless if Jesus’ ministry and resurrection were mere fantasy.—1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 17, 19; 2 Timothy 2:2.
Referring to the controversy that surrounds the hypotheses about the supposed priority of Mark’s Gospel and the mysterious lost document Q, George W. Buchanan, professor of theology, says: “Concentration on hypotheses of origin distracts the Bible student from studying the text itself.” That thought is in harmony with the apostle Paul’s counsel to Timothy not “to pay attention to false stories and to genealogies, which end up in nothing, but which furnish questions for research rather than a dispensing of anything by God in connection with faith.”—1 Timothy 1:4.
The Gospels are reliable. They contain trustworthy accounts of eyewitnesses. They are based on thorough research. They bring to us many fascinating facts about the life of Jesus Christ. Therefore, like Timothy of old, we do well to heed Paul’s words: “Continue in the things that you learned and were persuaded to believe.” We have solid reason to accept that “all Scripture is inspired of God”—including the four Gospels.—2 Timothy 3:14-17.
[Box on page 13]
If Mark Had Not Been Written, We Would Not Know That . . .
Jesus looked around with indignation, being thoroughly grieved at the insensibility of their hearts (Mark 3:5)
John and James were surnamed Boanerges (Mark 3:17)
the woman with a blood flow had spent all her resources (Mark 5:26)
Herodias was nursing a grudge against John the Baptizer and Herod stood in fear of John and kept him safe (Mark 6:19, 20)
Jesus invited his disciples to rest up a bit (Mark 6:31)
the Pharisees washed their hands up to the elbow (Mark 7:2-4)
Jesus took the children into his arms (Mark 10:16)
Jesus felt love for the young ruler (Mark 10:21)
Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Jesus privately (Mark 13:3)
a young man left his linen garment behind (Mark 14:51, 52)
Mark’s Gospel contains many more firsthand details not found in the other Gospels. Our appreciation for it will surely grow when we take time to meditate fully on the value of all such significant details.