ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Religion and Philosophy»
  • Christianity, the Bible & Jesus

The Gospels, can we trust them?

Updated on June 20, 2015
lawrence01 profile image

Loving God and loving mankind is an important part of who I am, in these hubs we explore what it's like to really follow Jesus.

Are they true?

The early gospels, are they really what they claim to be?
The early gospels, are they really what they claim to be?

First things first

This hub started out as part of my refuting Catherine Giordano's hub "Jesus, did he really exist? or is it just a myth?" raising doubts about whether Jesus really existed. That's how I started researching this hub but the journey that it's taken me on in the last couple of weeks has been incredible as I've slowly and methodically peeled back some of the mists of time to reveal a story that's as amazing as it is true.

I started researching the hub convinced that I would find the evidence to refute the claim that the gospels couldn't really be trusted as they are at best later copies of a story written down hundreds of years after the events they describe. That if there was a Jesus he was very different to the Jesus we read about in the Bible. Instead of telling you whether I was right or not I'd like to share the story and what I found. READ ON

The earliest gospels

Can these be real?
Can these be real?

The earliest gospels

As I started reading up on the earliest manuscripts I found that the skeptics were partly right. The earliest complete copies of the New Testament are from the fourth century, they are the following

  1. Codex Vaticanus.
    Fourth century Greek codex written on Vellum (Parchment) resides in the Vatican library and has done since the 15th Century. It has almost the complete Septuagint (the Bible that Jesus and Paul knew). The only books missing are the first four chapters of the Book of Maccabees and the prayer of Manasseh.
  2. Codex Siniaticus.
    Dates from around 325 AD. The Codex was found in the rubbish at the Saint Catherine's monastery (by Count Von Tischendorf in 1859) they were using the manuscript to light the fire in the Kitchens. The Count purchased the codex and took it to St Petersburg (Russia) where it stayed until 1936 when Stalin sold it to the British Library where it now resides. It is also written on Vellum (parchment)
  3. Codex Alexandrinius.
    A fifth century Codex that we can trace the history of almost from the time it was written. It stayed in Alexandria until it was taken to Constantinople by the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church in the early 1600's and shortly given to King Charles the first of England where it was put into the British Library around 1630.
  4. Codex Ephraemi.
    Fifth century Codex of almost the whole New Testament (only second Thessalonians and second John are missing) this manuscript is really unusual in that while it's a codex (a hand made book) the parchment is recycled where the ink was washed off and another text was written over the top. Paleographers restored the original text in 1840

These are the earliest extant complete copies of the New Testament, but they aren't the earliest copies of the gospels! The earliest complete copies of the gospels go back much further than that but first we probably should explain some things.

Point to note is that when the King James Bible was translated none of these Codices were available as no one in the west knew they existed. The King James Bible is based on a seventh century text called the "Textus receptus" So the accusation is partly true, but only partly. All Modern translations (the the exception of the New King James) are based on the latest (earliest) texts. The New King James simply adds notes where the texts differ.

The oldest fragment

What it says

31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. 32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

Side 1 (John 18 verses 31-2 Reverse is verses 38-40)

The reverse side

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

How do you date a document?

There are literally tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts. Not all of them are Bible manuscripts. We also have all the writings of the ancients that have been left to us, but how do you date the manuscripts. How do you know if they are real or a forgery?

There are three things that experts use to date a manuscript

  • Material it's written on. they date

There are three types of material that we find manuscripts on. Papyrus is the earliest form of writing material. it's made from the Papyrus reed that grows along the banks of the Nile. The flax is woven together and generally makes a rough document for writing. All the early fragments of the New Testament are on Papyrus which indicates to us that they date from before 400AD but that's not the only way they are dated. Papyrus was used up until around 400 AD when it started to be replaced by Vellum is actually an animal skin that is soaked in urine for weeks and then scraped until all the fur is removed and only the smooth skin is left to write on. Vellum is also known as Parchment (all four fourth century codices are on Vellum/Parchment) Vellum was used from around 400 AD to around 1300 AD when early forms of paper started arriving from China (incidentally British acts of Parliament and the marriage licenses of the British Royal family are all written on Vellum) Paper was developed in China in the first century AD but took time to reach the west. It didn't start arriving in significant quantities until around 1200 AD.

So, what a document is written on can tell volumes about when it was written. Something that looks really old but is written on paper can't be from the first few centuries, but then again it's unlikely that something written on Papyrus would be a young document!

  • Carbon dating.
    Carbon dating is used only sparingly on the manuscripts as it can only give a approximate date within fifty to a hundred years for the date of the material and tells nothing about the actual document itself. Some of the major libraries refuse to use it as it involves cutting the document (a small portion) and destroying it in a mass spectrometer. The theory is that Carbon decays at a uniform rate over time (this is disputed) and should give a good indication of when the plant (Papyrus is a plant, Vellum/parchment is animal skin and paper is plant based) was ceased to live and indicate the age of the material.

Carbon dating has been used on some documents like the fourth century Gospel of Judas (National Geographic did this) to verify that the results they got from Paleographic dating were accurate. In fact the Paleographic dating gave a more precise date for the manuscript than the carbon dating did. Carbon dating put them at 320 to 370 AD but Paleographic dating refined that to 340 to 350 AD.

  • Paleographic dating.
    Language changes over time and locality. Words we used all the time in the 1990's are out of fashion and new words are 'in vogue' If we can track when languages change then we have a good idea of when something was written. Try reading a novel from the 1980's and see the change in language, you can tell it's from the 1980's right? Or a clever writer has set the novel then using the language of the time (but even then little things give it away that the novel is set then but not written at the time).

Also little clues sometimes give away where the novel is written. Phrases that we use that mean different things to different people. For me a classic example is the word FAG, In England and Australia it simply means a cigarette, in the USA it's a insulting slang word for a Gay person! (I found this out the hard way when I was in the US on leave and a mate I was with asked a guy for a cigarette using the wrong word! It took us an hour for us to convince him that my mate was a dumb Brit and get him to put the gun away!).

Paleographic dating is done by teams of experts (not Theologians) specializing in the ancient languages and is a painstaking process, they are interested in only one thing and that it how old is the document?


What about the books individually?

I haven't put a link to the earliest surviving gospel of John in as it's the photo and the pop up earlier in the hub and dates from 117 to 125 AD.

The earliest complete manuscripts for the gospels do date from around the turn of the second to third centuries but there are quotes from them in the writings of the early church fathers that date from much earlier than then and can be traced back to at least the turn of the first to second centuries!

The Diatesseron

Around 150 AD one of the early church fathers by the name of Tatian wrote a harmony of the gospels using the materials found there. The work is called 'The Diatesseron' and uses about 75% of all the material in the gospels. Tatian took out stuff where the gospels duplicate each other and re-arranged some of the passages but the bulk of the material is the same. This book was used extensively by the Assyrian church of the East (outside the Roman Empire) and

This is told from a Jewish Messianic viewpoint

How many manuscripts

How many fragments and manuscripts of the NT do you think there are?

See results

So, how many gospels and fragments are there.

Well, if we take the first thousand years of the church we do have over ten thousand fragments and gospels. Before you laugh so hard you fall off your seat I'll point out that the earliest manuscript we have of Homer, Julius Caesar and almost all of the ancient writers are about one thousand years after the writer penned the words!

So the for first thousand years of the NT we have ten thousand gospel manuscripts and fragments of the NT but only one or two of all the other manuscripts!

Going back to five hundred years after Christ we only have about a thousand Codices, gospels and fragments! But none of any of the others (yet they aren't doubted)

Going back to one hundred and seventy years after Christ we are down to only two hundred fragments (of the gospels) but still the quotes of the Apostolic fathers that leave only about fifteen verses of the entire NT in doubt! They are the last few verses of Mark (all fragments and quotes of Mark before 150 AD seem to end with the empty tomb and the women wondering what the heck is going on! but after 150 AD the ending we have appears!). The other part we can't be sure about is the story in John Chapter eight of the woman caught in adultery!

Around 160 AD Tatian wrote his Diatesseron in Aramaic!! That means the gospels had to have been around long enough and accepted widely enough to be recognized not just within the Empire but outside it as well (The Assyrians lived outside the Roman Empire in the Parthian Empire, the Roman's deadliest enemies).

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that on the day of Pentecost there were Jews from Parthia (Modern day Iran and Pakistan, both outside the empire) Ethiopia (outside the Roman Empire) and Media (also outside the empire) there was no way Rome ever had control of the early church as too much of it was outside the Empire! they all had the gospels from a very early time as some translations into their languages attest (third and fourth centuries with Matthew possibly being written in Aramaic at the start and the Diatesseron translated into Aramaic in the second century!)

Below is a comparison that I found on a website to show how well authenticated the New Testament and the gospels are compared to the other ancient writings.

Comparison with the other Ancient documents

Document
Date
Earliest copy
Discrepancy
Volume of copies
Accuracy
Lucretius
Died 55 BC
1,000 AD
1,050 years
2
?
Pliny
110 AD
850 AD
750 years
7
?
Plato
427 to 347 BC
900 AD
1,200 years
7
?
Herodotus
480 to 425 BC
900 AD
1,300 years
8
?
Julius Caesar
100-44 BC
900 AD
1,000 years
10
?
Tacitus
100 AD
1,100 AD
1,000 years
20
?
Aristotle
384 to 322 BC
1,100 AD
1,400 years
49
?
Homer (illiad)
900 BC
400 BC
500 years
643
95%
New Testament
1st Century AD
2nd Century AD
less than 100 years
5,600
99%
These aren't all the ancient writers we have but they are all the copies of these documents we have!

Pretty good

After researching all this you probably see why I say that I believe that the Gospels are pretty accurate in what they tell us about Jesus. What you and I believe about him may differ and it may be the subject of debate around a good cup of coffee (or a cold beer) but there's no denying what he did.

Incidentally all the others in the table actually wrote 'books' but Jesus had to rely on his disciples for that, he never had time to pen his thoughts he just got on with the job that his Father had sent him to do, to show Humanity that there was a God who loves us and wants us to know him!

As for whether Jesus is God, well Christians have been debating that for two thousand years and my beliefs on that will probably be different to the next person, we'll still be debating it in two thousand years time if he hasn't come back before then! (both Islam and Christianity teach it's Jesus coming back)

In a sense I've only just scratched the surface of the evidence for the reliability of the gospels but there's a few links in for you to follow up.


The next hub in this series might explore how Christianity exploded outside the Roman Empire and how it grew in the East and South, how Rome probably did try and take control but the faith was just too big and it's been 'gloriously out of control' ever since!

Hope you enjoyed the hub. meanwhile you might want to look at my other hubs on the subject

Blessings

Lawrence

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Rawspirit

      Glad you enjoyed the hubs. By the way I don't expect that people will agree with everything I write, but that's part of the fun of hubpages and sometimes the debates can be as intersting as the hubs!

      Blessings

      Lawrence

    • the rawspirit profile image

      Robert Morgan 2 years ago from Hutchinson Island, FL - Myrtle Beach, SC - Scottsdale AZ

      Thanks again Lawrence, I had no idea there was so much material available to prove that Jesus was not just a made up character. I will read the other two. Blessings

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Rawspirit

      It helps when you know where to look! I do have a theological background so I knew some of this, but it was still fascinating to research.

      This hub is actually part of a series (rebutting another hub that called the historicity of Jesus into question) thw first one is "Jesus, fact or fiction" and the last one is "In the footsteps of the Apostles"

      Glad you enjoyed this one

      Lawrence

    • the rawspirit profile image

      Robert Morgan 2 years ago from Hutchinson Island, FL - Myrtle Beach, SC - Scottsdale AZ

      Amazing amount of research. I am really impressed by your willingness to share what you have learned. Blessings

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 2 years ago

      I am so happy to hear you say those wonderful words, lawrence, there is even something more greater and that is to receive fulfillment , this passion can lead to a wonderful future, A journey to the real paradise Adam and Eve lost, it will be our turn to grow to perfection but with a lot of help and then we will truly be happy.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Deb

      My opinion is we don't take Jesus teaching seriously enough!

      I wasn't brought up with religion but sort of made my own choices as a teenager. When I joined the Army in the late seventies I was told I would do a tour in Northern Ireland and was hearing the line "Religion caused this wat" but the last time I read the gospels it was Jesus who'd said "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!"

      Yes it was the priests in Ireland causing a lot of the problems but it wouldn't be Jesus, he'd have been there trying to fix the real problems.

      Personally I could not be a pacifist because I believe Jesus teaches us to stamd up for the poor and oppressed (book of Amos and Hosea in the Old Testament and book of James in the New Testament not to mention Jesus own example) .

      Thats why I believe the gospels are important and if we'll take them seriously they'll change our world. I've got a hub about my time working among the Kurds that shows what happens when we do!

      Hope this at least partly explains why I'm so passionate about this.

      Lawrence

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Riddle me this, then. With all these available documents looked at and written all over the world, are all the holy books based upon them? If so, then why must we carry on with all these religious wars? I guarantee that if we don't look upon each other as equals, we will cause our own downfall as humanity.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      And by noting the subtle changes we can see what the original looked like. The point was that the gospels we have today can be trusted as faithful copies if the originals that show the picture faithfully.

      I agree the message is still intact.

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 2 years ago

      As you have noted scriptures we have are copies on copies and may have a change,

      But not losing the original thought or Idea of what is said, it is like a piece of Art say a Picasso. No matter how many copies of his art we can still see the picture he painted as a whole. Maybe the color will be different but the picture stays the same. So when we see his art we know it

      Not by color , but by the basics of his style.

      The scriptures has also a basics of style no matter how many have copied. It message is still intact.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Jodah

      Thanks for the visit and encouragement. Finding the information was really enjoyable so I'm glad folks enjoyed the hub.

      I agree with you and Bill but it was still fascinating the research this.

      Blessings

      Lawrence

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This was another engrossing hub Lawrence. Well done on the research, and your daughter is right, you should teach RE. I agree with Bill that whether all that is written in the scriptures is believable or not, it is Jesus' message such as the parables that is the important part. Voted up.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Larry

      Pleased you found the hub interesting.

      Lawrence

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      JMcFarland

      The thing with so many copies is that we can look and see the variants thus knowing when something is changed to suit a group. With so many copies scholars are confident that the New Testament we have is a faithful copy if the original.

      You're right about not having the original gospel manuscripts, scholars believe that at best we have third or fourth generation copies but they are confident with the fragments and quotes from early second century men who were disciples of the Apostles (some writing in the late first century) that we have a reliable New Testament that may not be all the Apostles wrote but can be verified as accurate in what it tells us!

      Thats what my hub does say

      Lawrence

    • JMcFarland profile image

      Julie McFarland 2 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      You're right, variants mostly are scribal errors. That being said, however, some variants insert whole passages, change meaning dramatically and add things to the text that were never originally there. We cannot compare the documents we have to the originals because there are no originals. And your hub title was whether or not we can trust the gospels, woke all you talked about was the number of copies we have, beginning 300 years or so later. That does not answer the question of your hub. For further research, I suggest reading forged, misquoting Jesus and the orthodox corruption of Scripture, all three by Bart ehrman, a biblical scholar. The first two are written for laymen, the last is more aimed at scholars.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Johan

      Thank you for the comment. I agree many simply reject the New Testament through hearing what someone else said about it and not checking the information themselves. I put the links in so people don't have to take my word for it, they can check what I say out.

      Glad you liked it

      Lawrence

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Bill

      Thank you for the compliment about the research. I agree with you about the message being more important than the messenger.

      Personally I love digging stuff like this out and sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction!

      Glad you enjoyed it

      Lawrence

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Very interesting.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Word55

      Thank you for the comment. Truth is I enjoy this kind of research. I was thinking to do a hub like this sometime but some comments I came across "kind of sped up the process"

      An interesting comment yesterday from my daughter spoke volumes to me, she told me she thinks I should train to be an RE teacher as when they have it at school she falls asleep but when we talk about it she listens (the food on the table has nothing to do with holding her attention!)

      Happy fathers day

      Lawrence

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 2 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Good research and arguments-most people who reject the validity of the New Testament have not done the detailed research needed to do that. They do so on the basis of ignorance and incorrect assumptions. Well done!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nice job of research here, Lawrence. True or make believe, the gospels are excellent reading. I'm not sure I even care one way or another regarding their validity. I care much more about the message of Jesus.

    • word55 profile image

      Word 2 years ago from Chicago

      Very interesting read here. i'm glad you find the story of Jesus to be true and not fiction.Thanks for doing the vast research. God bless! HAPPY FATHER'S DAY if you are a father...

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Thats why I put the table in at the end. We accept these people as being real, we accept the records they wrote yet the earliest ones we have are five hundred years after they died!

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 2 years ago

      Also genealogy of family trees are copied, So that is just how the bible And it words have survived centuries despite deterioration of materials used.

      But we can see other artifacts to prove cross Ref the truth by history and science. History

      Tells us Governments who ruled in a period of time , yet is very true , that Ceasars, pharaohs , Jewish nation known as Isreal as the bible gives much history , Egypt and the many God's they worshiped are listed in the bible and are very true.Alexander the great also , and how he would conquer and rule a short time , and four Generals would turn into great world powers effecting us today.

      People are truly behind time in which we are living .it is easier for people just to reject then to really see the truth .

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Kiss and Tales

      I'd agree with that. The fact is that the people who examine the ancient documents see the copies as important as they tell us how popular the writing was. The gospels were widely enough read that by a few years after their writibg they were recofnized not just through the Roman world but the whole known world as far India and Ethiopia and translation had begun!

      Thank you for the comment

      Lawrence

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 2 years ago

      to add I do not think we can just throw away the idea of copies, because we use copies ourself in just about everything , even copies of books have been ppublished pictures of copies , birth certificates. And death, all are copied for our own records so now because it is the bible now people want to say it is not credible. Certainly if your Id. of licence can be copied to represent you then surly I believe these copies are,

      just as important and useful.

    • lawrence01 profile image
      Author

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      JMcFarland

      You are correct as the majority that we have seem to have differences. The reason for that is 99.99% of them are spelling mistakes or grammar errors!

      The majority of texts we have today are the ones the early church didn't use as they had mistakes in them. The ones they did use were so well used they eventually fell apart and may be only fragments left.

      The interesting thing is almost none of them have the same mistake! This lends to their credibility and argues for tge accuracy of the whole, it's also why the modrrn translations look at as many manuscripts as a possible and take nothing for granted with them.

      There is a lot more to include but I did want to keep the hub to a reasonable length.

      One of tge ways an ancient document is authenticated is by how many variants there are.

      Hope this helps

      Lawrence

    • JMcFarland profile image

      Julie McFarland 2 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I may have missed something when reading this hub, but it hasn't done anything to prove the validity of the gospels. It just used the common argument that there are lots of copies of them do they must be true. You failed to mention, however, that there are more variations in all the copies and fragments we have than there are words in the new testament. Most of these variations are insignificant. Some aren't. But having a lot of copies does not make the stories in then true or accurate. Contrary to your assertion, there is doubt as to the historicity of Jesus. You also didn't mention that the Gospel writers are not eyewitnesses, and are all anonymous. This is not a strange, unfounded minority claim. It is the concensus of biblical scholarship by believers.