Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos with Katy Perry on Pandora (“Teenage Dream” playing when I typed last sentence] with a double espresso and two pumps white mocha.
First point: The Gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. They are all anonymous and the titles in your Gospels were added by later editors.
Second point: None of the Gospels claim to written by the name it bears. Again, these are later traditions.
These traditions do not begin appearing for about 100 years. Some people think that there is an early church father named Papias who attests to the eyewitness of Mark and Matthew, but in fact there are very solid reasons to think that Papias, who lived around the year 120-140 is not referring to our Mark or Matthew. The first time anyone mentions the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was Irenaeus in the year 180. One hundred years after these book were written. Let me reiterate that the Gospels were written anonymously and were not written by eyewitnesses.
But let me also make another point. Even if the Gospels were written by eyewitness, this would not guarantee that the Gospels are indeed accurate. Think about our legal system today. Are eyewitnesses always accurate in what they report? If so then why do we have trials that call into testimony more than one eyewitness? If eyewitnesses were always 100% accurate in what they report we wouldn’t need law courts, if we wanted to know what happen, we would just simply ask somebody. Eyewitnesses do not always get the information correct, but even if they did it wouldn’t matter because the gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers were living 40 to 50 to 60 years after Jesus died. They wrote the gospels in Greek, Jesus’ language was Aramaic. These Gospel writers were living in a different country, decades later. Where did they get their information from? They were not the followers of Jesus and they don’t claim to be the followers of Jesus. So, again, where did they get their information from? They heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation year after year, decade after decade. Now, what happens to oral stories that are transmitted orally? They change. The Gospel writers have discrepancies among them because the stories that were told to them and then retold, and then again retold decade after decade. And in the continual retelling of these stories, we know that the Gospel writers themselves sometime change the stories. This is why scholars might be able to tell you generally what the stories of Jesus were about, and they can list eight things that Jesus did, but they can’t tell you the details and agree. Why can’t they agree? Because there are so many discrepancies.
Archeologists do not use the gospels as a guide for their digs. Historians, however, do use the Gospels when trying to understand the Historical Jesus. But the Gospels are that we have. One thing that most Christians fail to understand is that we have much scanty documentation about the life of Jesus. Most people don’t realize this, but Jesus is never mentioned in any Greek or Roman non-Christian source until 80 years after his death. There is no record in these sources that Jesus even lived. In the entire 1st century of Christianity, Jesus is not even mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs. The first time Jesus is mentioned in a Roman or Greek source is by the Roman governor of a province in Asia Minor, named Pliny in 112. And even then Pliny doesn’t name him “Jesus,” he simply refers to his name as “Christ” in passing. That is the only reference within 80 years of Jesus death. Jesus is mentioned very briefly by the Jewish historian Josephus in the year 93, which is 60 years after his death; but he is mentioned in no other Jewish texts in the 1st century at all. If you want to know about Jesus, you have to turn to Christian sources. The earliest Christian source is the apostle Paul, but to the surprise of many Bible readers Paul scarcely mentions anything about the words and deeds of Jesus. Paul says a lot about Jesus death and resurrection but almost nothing about his words and deeds while alive. Which means we are left with the Gospels if we want the earliest writings concerning Jesus, which are written anonymously, not by eyewitness, and full of discrepancies.
Apologists usually retort, “but eyewitnesses were around and could have provided verification as to the validity of these texts.” This is one of hundreds of fabrications by Christian apologists. Christianity started out as a small group of Jesus followers in Jerusalem right after his death. Within 30 years there were Christian communities that were establish in and around the urban areas of the Roman Empire. There were Christian churches in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor (Turkey), in Greece, in Rome, possibly in Northern Africa, and almost certainly in Alexandria Egypt. Hundreds of people were converting, thousands of people were converting – how did they convert? By people telling them stories about Jesus. Who was telling the stories? If I convert you, and you convert your wife, and she converts her next door neighbor, and her next door neighbor converts her husband, and her husband converts a business associate, who goes to another city and converts his business associate … who’s telling the stories? Is it eyewitnesses? Are the 12 disciples talking to everyone and telling them the stories and telling them, “make sure you get this right.” The eyewitnesses are probably in Jerusalem. But where are the eyewitnesses in Ephesus? Where are the eyewitnesses in Tarsus? Where are the eyewitnesses in Alexandria? They are not there. The stories are changes and retold many times.
It’s important to know here that we do not have any originals of the New Testament. What we have are thousands of copies of the New Testament that were made, in most cases, centuries later. These copies that were made centuries later contain tens of thousands of mistakes.
This is the pivotal question: If God had inspired the Bible without error, why hadn’t he preserved the Bible without error?
Take the Gospel of Mark; whoever wrote Mark wrote it and then put it in circulation and then somebody copied the Gospel of Mark, then somebody copied that copy, then somebody copied the copy of the copy – so on and so forth – oh and by the way, we don’t have any of those copies. Everyone who copied the texts made mistakes. Our first surviving copy of Mark dates to around the year 220. Our first complete copy of Mark comes from around the year 350 (280 years after Mark!). We have thousands of copies of Mark. Now when you compare these copies of Mark they all differ from one another. What is striking is that the earlier you go to look at the manuscripts the more differences you find. The earliest copies have the most mistakes. What would happen if we found copies that were still earlier? The only evidence we have is the evidence that survived which suggests that the earliest period of copying contained the most mistakes. We have no way of knowing what the author was really trying to communicate.
Often you will hear apologists say that the New Testament is the best attested book from antiquity and therefore you can trust it. I agree. It is indeed the best attested book from antiquity, but the attestation is all from a 1000 years later. It doesn’t make sense to say you can trust it because it’s well attested, if the New Testament was well attested then you could say what the New Testament originally said. Whether you can trust it or not is another question. But the reality is that we have many late manuscripts of Mark and of every other book of the New Testament.
Do any scribal errors impact any important teaching of Jesus?
Did Jesus say, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”? Nope. This was not in the original NT Gospel and was inserted later by a scribe.
Did Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you go and sin no more”? Nope. Does it matter whether Jesus said it or not – turns out it was in a textual variant and it was not in the original New Testament.
Did Jesus say “go out into the world and preach the gospel to all of creation, he who believes in me will be saved but he who does not believe will be condemned?” – Nope, it’s only found in a later textual variant.
Did Jesus say, “These are the signs that will accompany those who believe, in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them, they will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover.” Nope. Does it matter if Jesus really said it?
Did Jesus give the entire Lord’s Prayer, or just half of it – as in Luke? Does it matter? It depends on which manuscript you read.
Does it matter whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in the New Testament? The only verse that comes remotely to teaching it is found in I John 5:7-8, yet, it’s a later addition.
Does it matter if the Gospel of John never calls Jesus the unique God or not. It’s based a textual variant.
Does it matter whether or not the Gospel of Luke teaches an atonement or not? The view that Jesus dies for the sake of others; well it depends on a textual variant.
Does it matter that Jesus was in such agony before his death that he began to sweat blood? It’s found only a textual variant found in the Gospel of Luke.
Does it matter that entire words, lines, paragraphs, and pages were left out by some scribes? Does it matter that there are numerous places in the New Testament where scholars cannot decide what the original text says.
Does it matter that we will never know what the original author said?
Many evangelicals claim that it does not matter. But I don’t believe them because many of these scholars devote many years to studying the manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? Major evangelical seminaries raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for manuscript projects to study these manuscripts; why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? It does matter.
How can the Gospels be a trustworthy and reliable guide if we have no idea what the original author even said? While the Gospels shed light on the Historical Jesus, they do not provide information that can be trusted.