Trustworthy Documents

What evidence is there for the reliability of the NT documents I am discussing (and encouraging you to read)? Do the documents we have today actually trace right back almost 2000 years? Just how do the publishers know what to publish? (In 'Arguments Aplenty#1' I posted an example of the critical assertion that the original documents have been seriously corrupted or even lost.)

In view of the drift of my blog it will be appropriate to focus on the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), with priority to Mark. Here are a few major considerations, some of which I am extracting from an essay by a professional.

I think it is important to appreciate the circumstances of the time and the implications of those circumstances for the actors in the drama. The topic involves reasoning from known facts. The situation then was very different socially and legally from ours. The people held responsible for the creation and dissemination and retention of the Gospels (as for all the other NT documents) were, at best, insignificant in the scheme of things. Their work was appreciated at the personal level by those who accepted the message and welcomed Jesus into their lives. However, they had no more status than any other 'ordinary' individual of the 'poorer sort'. They had no expectation of, and no claim on, their authorities for power, or favour, or support, or benefits, or concessions or exemptions (- that treatment would come later, with all its attendant problems). Their situation was rather the reverse.

There are good reasons to imagine a time of simmering opposition and insecurity at the time documents were being created and circulated. A reading of the book of 'Acts' will illustrate the situation. Divine honours to the Emperor could be ordered. Antagonism could be expected from Jewish authorities and from faithful adherents to Judaism. Pagan enmity might also be aroused. Judaism was unpopular and could draw mob violence. Christians were associated with Judaism, and seemed to their critics even worse. Jesus had warned his first followers.

That word, 'Christian', was new to the language in Antioch in about the year 46. Seems it may have been made up to (disparagingly?) label  disciples of Jesus. Those disciples were always carrying on about 'Christ'; that would have been so in the synagogue(s), with resulting discord and division. Perhaps there were debates or disputes in the Antioch market place. About 18 years later the label had evidently spread, because it was readily spoken by King Agrippa in Jerusalem. Does that not indicate a growing recognition that these disciples were not proper Jews?

The Christians adopted a new form of belief. They were not actual adherents to any state religion, so they were a danger to the Roman Empire. By the year 64 the Christian 'class' could be blamed by Nero for the fire which destroyed much of Rome, and be persecuted accordingly.

Then, as now, there was a view that people of a state should accept the religion of that state with its requirements. Foreign ways are suspect. Judaism was the (odd but) recognised ancestral religion of the subject nation of Israel. It could be properly practised, and in turn sacrifices for the Emperor were offered daily in the Jerusalem Temple. Jewish practice could exist as simply another religion from one part of the Empire. I think that had Jews actively promoted monotheism and rejection of the gods they would surely have encountered the coercive power of the Roman state. The idea of a true God displacing the familiar gods was simply unthinkable. Such an idea would have to be resisted or preferably stamped out! Safety lay in being inconspicuous or secret. Secrecy created more suspicion....

Opposition to Christians (and to some extent to Jews) could also arise from commercial concerns. There was a lot of money involved in religion and many people could profit from religion.

The original Gospel messengers had a Bible - the OT. Their scriptures were sacrosanct. There is little indication the apostolic band and first believers thought they were adding to the Bible (but see 2 Peter 3:16). Accepting, holding and using authentic written versions of Jesus' words and works would be with caution, needing some validation. However, there was already a tradition in the church (churches) of God in the 'Apostolic Age' to receive and distribute apostolic writings, such as Paul's letters. (This form of communication was the norm in their communities.) These written expositions of Jesus drew on the primitive message, already known by the recipients.

I said the 'church of God' had tradition. By church of God I do not imagine anything like an accumulation of denominations, nor even a denomination. To give them flesh, I imagine independent local groups ('churches of God'), cooperating with and respecting others known to them. Travellers (like Paul) linked these groups more widely. (That was not without problems - as we can read in the ancient document 'Shepherd of Hermas'.) They (the churches) were, so to speak, a theocracy, owing direct allegiance to God, and love to one another. They had no central authority modelled on that of the Empire. (Centralised power would come within 'church' circles, with attendant results, as mentioned above.)  

The first message about Jesus was oral. His witnesses were able to pass on his words and deeds as he had instructed. As Paul, Peter and others spread the Gospel they did not have the four Gospels to leave with the converts. Did they have anything written about Jesus, other than the OT, or OT selections? Some scholars say definitely not, no written NT text; others say, possibly. This is a question which has occupied much time and study.

At the time of the writing of the NT and when messengers were spreading the Good News, there were still witnesses about. They could call attention to any errors. Incapacity and death of the witnesses from natural causes or even from unpredictable persecution would give impetus to collecting written accounts. Further impetus could come from the realisation that Jesus' return to reign was not imminent. It is possible and probable that different locations treasured different collections (for example, Alexandria and Rome). Those originals would be known then to be from authentic sources.

I know of no reason to think of Jesus having 'reporters' making records as he went about doing good.  Important Roman officers apparently had such an assistant (the accensus). The 'secretary/reporter' role may then have been well enough known but is not evidenced in the ministry of Jesus.

The author of Luke does tell us how he went about putting his Gospel together. See his introduction (chapter 1:1-4). The author of John also gives us a glimpse of his working in John 20:30-31 and 21:24-25. There are also internal indications of written text.

During the second century, four Gospels as we know them were brought together and given the names they now bear. There are very ancient traditions for the authors of the final documents. For many, many centuries those labels and those documents were firmly established.

As the years passed it was no longer illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. (More than that there were other impacts I am not discussing.) In that vastly changed circumstance the NT documents, as we have them today, could be listed in Alexandria by Athanasius in 367 and in Carthage by a council thirty years later. The Empire by that time offered no impediment to such activities.

The Gospels are not biographies and are not written in the way a contemporary author of our times would write. They reflect the literary standards of the first century (and after). Copyright did not exist! No concern about plagiarism. No central authorised publisher - the only multi-national business was the Empire. Sequence contained in a Gospel is not necessarily based on time but may be arranged by similarity of content. Another Gospel may have 'pericopes' placed differently. Some of the extracts are clearly compressed in one author or another.

The issue of the relationship of the four Gospels to each other is not easy. Matthew and Luke are not identical but contain, (usually in both) about 91% of Mark.  Matthew and Luke also share a large collection not in Mark. It is possible (with the technology) to put (say) Mark's account of the Last Supper alongside that of Matthew or Luke. So then the parallels appear. So do the differences. This phenomenon is also a matter of much scholarship. The fourth Gospel is in a different category, best encountered by reading it. The arrangement and content of John is as per the author's explanation I cited above. (I used John's Introduction in the 'Introduction' to this blog.)

So, humanly speaking, we have 'home made' texts emerging from unimportant origins. A suspect subculture was responsible for the creation and circulation and treasuring amongst the outsiders of the literature we know as the NT. All of this work was laboriously handwritten on papyrus or parchment, in scrolls or codices. We might actually be surprised that any survived. Nonetheless, survive they did, and not just bits. Was this not miraculous?

The oldest known fragment (Rylands Greek papyrus 457) is kept at the University of Manchester.

Here are some (2004) statistics relating to the ancient Gospel manuscripts (but see source below):
  • 2,328 surviving items, including -
  • Segments of John 18, given a date of 125 CE (or, AD) - Rylands 457.
  • 21 papyri containing major sections of one or more Gospels from 3rd and 4th centuries.
  • 5 NTs from 4th and 5th centuries
So the scholars trying to reproduce the 'original' documents have a lot to work with. I note an estimate that 97%, or more, of the first written Gospels are recoverable from the materials. The fact that it is not 100% does not need to be disturbing. The discrepancy, 3%, at most, accounts for the variants we find in published NTs. (For example see 'on Variants' post relating to the John chapter 1 passage I posted in 'Introduction'.)

Nonetheless, many educated people addressing these ancient documents feel with a greater or lesser reluctance that they must strain out the camels before swallowing the rest (to adapt a metaphor from Jesus). They are left with material more acceptable, on one or more grounds, to them. It is a pity to discard too easily and all I can hope is that you will read the NT for yourself. I trust this blog makes the records of Jesus accessible to you. (At this point I am not mentioning the OT but may do so later.)

UPDATED 17 Jan 2020: See information/discussion on  the McDowell website

Primary data source: Blomberg, C.L., Gospels, Historical Reliability of, in The IVP Dictionary of the NT, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004