Over on BBC One at 10:30am on a Sunday morning there’s a TV show called: “The Big Questions” hosted by Nicky Campbell. If you’ve never seen it (because you’re hopefully watching bethel:live instead!), it’s designed to be a lively debate show which features expert panelists and lots of interaction with the studio audience.
During the show, it’s host (Nicky Campbell) often assumes the role of Devil’s Advocate – imagine a more laid back version of Jeremy Kyle – who’s job it is to provoke discussion and debate.
You may have read in the press this week his rather sweeping statement about the origins of the gospels during a heated exchange. Louise Davies, (Director of Christians on the Left) was talking about the gospel writers and made the comment that they were there when the events took place. At this point Nicky Campbell interjected with:
No, it (the Bible) wasn’t written by people who were there with Jesus. It wasn’t, according to most biblical scholars.
NICKY CAMPBELL (The Big Questions)
That’s a very big statement to make, and said publicly with confident authority might be very damaging to people’s beliefs about the Bible for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Now, he may have been saying it for the sake of the debate, or dramatic effect, but I do feel this “Big Question” warrants a reply. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but that he wasn’t sharing as an opinion – but as a factual reality, (hoping to firmly settle the matter) by someone with nothing like the expertise required to make that claim.
The truth is that we all have a tendency to accept simplistic and sweeping generalizations rather than seriously examine the facts for ourselves, and this is particularly true of things we want to believe. For example, we are very slow to believe bad things about our friends and quick to assume the worst about people we don’t like. We’d like to live in a black and white world, and for those not wanting to believe statements questioning the authenticity of the gospels are easy and attractive to swallow without critical engagement.
But… with all due respect to Nicky Campbell… he is just simply wrong about the authorship and authenticity of the gospels. And I can make that statement on the basis of the facts.
One important question to ask: is who does the Bible say wrote the gospels? Well, unlike modern books they don’t come with it’s author’s photo and brief biog inside the back cover; some biblical books tells us themselves who wrote them, and others don’t.
Let’s briefly explore the gospels here one by one:
1) Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew’s Gospel is written anonymously, and contains no claim as to who wrote it. However, in the early church Matthew’s Gospel was one of the most popular and was widely circulated. The Early Church Fathers (including those from first/second century) are unanimous that it was Matthew (who was still alive at the time). In fact, according to the Biblical Scholars that Campbell referred to: “there is no patristic evidence that anyone else was ever proposed as the author.” (D.A. Carson & Michel Wilkins).
This Matthew was the Tax Collector (who is sometimes called Levi) who was called to be a disciple by Jesus Himself! Which means that he was there when these events took place. When he writes about Jesus walking on the water, feeding the five thousand, casting out demons, healing the lame and the blind, raising the dead… he knows what he is talking about, in fact he was willing (along with all the other disciples) to stake his life upon it rather than deny what he had written.
Throughout Matthew’s gospel there is a fascination and thorough knowledge of the Old Testament prophecies which is again consistent with a Jewish author. The Greek in Matthew’s gospel is exceptionally good, which is consistent with the fact that Matthew (as a tax collector) had to be fluent in at least three languages (Aramaic, Latin and Greek). It is a highly organised and methodical book, again consistent with Matthew’s job in reporting tax records to the Roman authorities. There is simply no good, historical or textual reason to doubt the Early Church Fathers or the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel.
2) Mark’s Gospel
Again, Mark’s Gospel itself makes no claim as to who wrote it – but the Early Church Fathers are unanimous that it was a man called John Mark and never considered that that was in doubt.
We meet John Mark in the Book of Acts (Acts 12:12), who comes to faith and joins his cousin (Barnabus) in the missionary work of Paul, and later, Peter. In fact Paul refers to him as my: “fellow coworker” (Col 4:10) Peter refers to him as: “my son, Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). The early church father, Papias (who lived 60-130 AD) wrote that: “Mark became the interpreter of Peter.” Either meaning that he translated as Peter was preaching, or (more likely) that he wrote his gospels based on Peter’s preaching and conversations he had had with him.
This means that, although Mark himself wasn’t personally an eyewitness to Jesus, he had direct access to one of the earliest disciples; he is personally connected to and thoroughly involved with the ministry of the earliest church leaders! From a historical standpoint this is considered gold dust!
Mark is the shortest of all the gospels and is written in both very fast paced and direct style, things we know to be consistent with the personality and preaching style of Peter. Remember too Peter’s own claim about the message he preached:
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
2 PETER 1.16
3) Luke’s Gospel
Again, belief in Luke as the author of this gospel (and the book of Acts) stretched back as far as the first century. Ireneaus (130-202 AD) writes: “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.” describing Luke as “the follower and disciple of the apostles.” Like Mark, we meet Luke in the book of Acts. Whereas Mark travelled with Barnabus and Peter, Luke follows Paul on his missionary journeys. Having written about “they” and “them” for half of the book, the language changes to “us” and “we” once Luke comes to faith and joins the church!
Once again, as far as the early Church Fathers are concerned, there is no other candidate than: “the beloved doctor” for the author of this gospel.
So, what did Luke claim to be writing about?
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
The Greek word that we translate as “carefully investigated” is where we get our word: ‘autopsy’ from today! And when Luke claims to have spoken to ‘eyewitnesses’ and written an ‘orderly account’ he wasn’t joking. Luke’s writings contain a level of detail and description that leaves most writings from antiquity behind in the dust. He is widely respected and regarded as one of the greatest historical writers of his generation.
His interest in the specifics of the types and lengths of the medical conditions that Jesus healed is unparalleled, and is again consistent with the writing of a physician. Unlike Mark, who based his gospel on Peter’s recollections, Luke goes even further and compiles his own casebook full of eyewitness testimony from his own careful investigations. Luke’s claim is not to be creating a first century myth or novel but an “orderly account… so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1.4) – and in the millennias since, no serious historical argument has been able to dispute this.
4) John’s Gospel
Finally, we come to John’s gospel – the only gospel that has it’s author’s name stamped on it… kind of…
Throughout John’s Gospel, there is a mysterious character referred to as the “disciple Jesus loved”… – not that Jesus didn’t love them all, but the word used there in the Greek is for a deep friendship and connection. This disciple was Jesus’ closest friend.
Then, right at the end of the gospel, the author dramatically unmasks himself to reveal:
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
When you compare the lists of disciples mentioned in the other of the Gospels with the one in John 21:2, simply by a process of elimination, John isn’t only the strongest option – he is the only one.
This makes a lot of sense when you consider some of the things that John records (as both an eyewitness and as Jesus’ closest friend) that the other gospels don’t:
- The long and private conversations with individuals (something you’d share with a close friend but unlikely to have lots of eyewitnesses)
- The inner thoughts of the disciples rather than simply their words and actions
- Detailed descriptions of Jesus’ own emotions, thoughts and motivations
- The key relationships he claims to have with James and Peter, and even the High Priest
All ring with a unique authenticity and authority.
John concludes by telling us that, for reasons of space(!), he has had to be selective in the material he has included:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
This explains why his gospel is such a different style to the other three, and why he (probably writing much later in life) has chosen to focus on some of the core things that bolster our faith:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.
The Famous Four
So, of the four gospels, the evidence (both internally and externally) points us to Mark and Luke being written by personal friends of eye-witnesses, and Matthew and John being written by eye-witnessed themselves, i.e. – his actual disciples! And that’s just from a whistle-stop tour that barely scratched the surface of all the evidence that’s available! Christian or not, this is incredibly exciting.
I choose to believe the Bible because it is a reliable collection of historical documents written down by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. They report supernatural events that took place in fulfillment of specific prophecies and claimed that their writing are divine rather than human in origin.
The Big(ger!) Question:
We are all guilty at times for latching onto a sweeping generalization that suits of beliefs… but the reality is rarely as simple as a soundbite… but perhaps the bigger question at play here is this: if the Bible can be taken seriously… then where might lead?
…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.
What if he’s right? What if that’s really true? Now there’s a big statement that’s worth investigating…
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