Authentic Gospels

C S Lewis, one of the 20th century’s leading spokesmen for Christianity, wrote many bestsellers, including the ‘Narnia’ children’s stories. Both his life story and his books were turned into films. He died almost 60 years ago, but he was still alive when I first started reading his books. I never met him face-to-face, but our lives overlapped and I have a personal, albeit tenuous, link with him. Owen Barfield, a member of the “Inklings” (the literary club that included both C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien), had a son, who became one of my friends. In fact, one of the Narnia books was dedicated to him.

My tentative link with this famous author illustrates a point I want to make about the 4 Gospels.  Scholars have alleged that the gospels were written long after the events they described and can’t be regarded as authentic accounts. That’s misleading. The 60 years that have passed since C S Lewis died is about the same as the gap between gospels and later documents that prove their authenticity. The gap was even less for the Gospel of John, because John was long-lived by the standards if his time (probably 90). Some of the writers who quoted from the 4 gospels early in the 2nd century had known the Gospel writers personally. Others knew them second-hand, much as I ‘knew’ C S Lewis. Their connections were not distant. They knew how long ago the Gospels had been written. They knew that they were authentic.

Archaeology has given us access to written commentaries, quotations, and translations dating to the early 2nd century (meaning the years 100+). A man called Clement, who lived and worked alongside Paul, wrote a letter that quotes from St Paul’s writings. Another man, named Polycarp, had a similar connection with Paul, and verified his teachings. Paul, of course, didn’t write a ‘gospel’, but his companion, Luke, certainly did – and he was also known to Paul’s disciples. Other early writers knew the Apostle John personally – and John lived almost to the end of the 1st century. The 4 Gospels were widely quoted from by the early 2nd century, and a man called Tatian, writing in the middle of that century, went as far as writing a “harmony” of the Gospels. You can’t write a harmony until you have all 4 books together in one place.

We can’t be sure who wrote “Matthew”, or “Mark”. We can be reasonably sure that “Luke” was written by the man Paul referred to as “the beloved physician” – a man who accompanied Paul on his travels. It is equally likely that “John” was written by the man we always thought was the author. Why do I say that? Because people who knew him personally confirmed that he wrote that gospel. Not only that, but the book itself contains elements consistent with an eye-witness account. John wrote about Jerusalem as if he knew the place personally – although the Romans had destroyed much of the city by the time he wrote his Gospel.

Some stories about Jesus must have been committed to writing within the lifetime of the Apostles. But the stories were already well-known. Oral traditions are powerful, especially in non-literate communities, but also in our own time. In school playgrounds, jokes and riddles that I heard as a child are being repeated today; they don’t learn them from written records, but from oral traditions passed from child to child. The stories Jesus told, and the smart answers he gave, were in easy-to-memorise forms. Some of them are almost poetic. Many of them are witty and compact. The parables Jesus told have a memorable simplicity of form. As for the miracles, anyone who saw them would never forget what they had seen.

Scholars have suggested that there was an earlier ‘gospel’ that was used as a source for some of the Gospels. We can’t be sure of that, but it is possible. And it’s also possible that there were fragmentary notes and letters that could be used as sources. Since no such documents have ever been discovered, this can only be speculation. But, if the only sources were human memory and oral traditions, there is no reason to doubt their authenticity.

The death and resurrection of Christ occurred around AD32. Between then and AD60, the Apostles carried his message orally throughout the Roman empire. By AD50, Paul had started writing his letters, and the 1st of the Gospels were written within the following 20 years. The last Gospel (John) was probably written around AD90. We can’t be certain of these dates, but the fact that these books were being quoted from, and even translated into other languages, by the early 2nd century means that they must have been around long enough to be copied and circulated – without the help of printing, or mechanised transport.

If these events had occurred today, the stories, the reports, and the books would have become instantly available worldwide. But handwritten, and hand-carried, documents take longer to circulate. Not so long, however, as to cast doubt on their authenticity. Let’s be clear about this: ‘authentic’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘true’; but I will address that question separately. For the time being, it’s enough to say that the Gospel writers were close enough to the events they described to be counted as credible witnesses.

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