People who profess to believe in Jesus Christ often take the Bible, or more specifically, the Gospels, for granted. Most simply assume that they are God-inspired, and that’s the end of it. But, in these days if de-Christianization and cultural islamization, it is important for Catholics to know, and know it well, our foundations.
How historical are the Gospels? How authentic? How reliable? Let us investigate these important issues. First of all, how do we accept a document as truly historical? And what do we mean by the word ‘historical’?
A work is historical when it faithfully narrates past events; if it speculates about the past is not historical. It is ‘genuine’ or authentic, if the author is truly the person to whom the work is ascribed; if someone else put his name on to the work, it is a plagiarism; the work is trustworthy, if the author deserves credibility, is well-informed about the events related and tells the truth; if his reputation reveals a lack of seriousness, we will be slow in trusting what he narrates. Finally, the work must be intact, that is no parts are missing, otherwise important elements would be lost, which might modify the message in some manner.
Are the four Gospels historical in the sense of the criteria I expounded above? Most definitely!
First of all, the genuineness of the gospels is testified by both Christian and non-Christian writers of the first and second centuries. At that time, the Gospels were widely known in the early Christian communities, revered and carefully guarded by the faithful, especially the bishops, and were read at Sunday worship and carefully studied by the incipient scholars of the time. And this within only one hundred years of the deaths of the apostles. It is unthinkable that those men, who gave up their lives rather than deny the truth of their message, would allow forgeries to be circulated among their communities. Nobody dies for a lie.
The Jewish converts, always very zealous of their own religion, would not have accepted this crucified Messias unless they were thoroughly persuaded of the authenticity of the Gospel narrative, after a careful scrutiny of the prophecies of their own Testament, and then realized that everything came true in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone. The loss of the Temple, the registrar of the priesthood, the mixing of the tribes, the exiles, the absence of sacrifice, etc., etc., made them see that Jesus Christ was the promised Messias of the Old Testament.
The gentile Christians, both Romans and Greeks, used as they were to a life of moral licentiousness, would have never accepted to give up their customs for a life of sacrifice and risk of death, a moral code that made severe demands on them, unless they were thoroughly persuaded of its authenticity. Among them there were also many scholars, philosophers, very educated people, who were so convinced that they laid down their lives for the truth of the Gospel message.
On the other hand, since the early days of Christianity, pagan writers (e.g., Celsus, d. 200 AD) and heretical writers (e.g. Basilides, d, 130 AD), who attacked the Church from every angle they could think of, would certainly not have neglected to dispute the authenticity of the Gospels, if there were any shadow of doubt about it. But they did not. They may have disputed the divinity of Christ, or the Sacraments, or the authority of the Church, etc., etc., but no one ever disputed that the Gospels were authentic. It was only in recent centuries that agnostics and heretics raised their doubts about it – way too late, mate!
The faithful Christians knew very well the meaning of professing the Christian faith in public: it might mean death for them and their children. Death by fire, word, being eaten by beasts, the works. If the Gospels were not authentic, why should they sacrifice themselves and endanger their children’s future by accepting and promoting such frauds?
The Gospels have been widely quoted by writers from the first century, such as Pope Clement (96 AD), Ignatius of Antioch (107 AD), the Shepherd of Hermas (145 AD) and Polycarp of Smirna (155 D). The Didache deserves special mention, as it was written between 95 and 130 AD, as the first catechism of Christian doctrine ever written. It quotes from the Gospels many times.
A few more writers from persecution and martyrdom times, before the year 313 D, when Constantine gave freedom to the Church: Justin of Samaria, who became a Christian in 130 AD, testifies that the Gospels were written by the Apostles and were widely read at meetings of Christians on the days of worship (Sunday); Papias of Phrygia explained the circumstances of the writing of St Mark (120 D); Tatian wrote his harmony of the four Gospels, the Diatesseron – no historian has ever disputed its accuracy (170 AD); perhaps the best historian and apologist to be cited here is St Irenaeus of Lyon, who was a disciple of Polycarp, himself a disciple of St John the Evangelist, the last Apostle; his writings combine the traditions of both East and West, and has always been accepted as decisive.
The famous Tertullian (c. 200 AD) also defended the authenticity of the four Gospels, “which had been kept by the churches since apostolic times”. He specifically mentions that the Gospels were the work of the Apostles Mathew and John and the disciples Mark and Luke.
So, whenever an agnostic accuses the Gospels of not being authentic, we can simply respond with this: Let them prove their accusation in the first place. We do not have to defend the Gospels against gratuitous accusations. The principle is: quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. What is affirmed without proof, can be equally denied without proof. What is affirmed without arguments, can be denied without the need of arguments, either. So, let them present a solid historical argument to prove that the Gospels are not authentic. The onus of the proof in incumbent upon the accuser, not the defender. Let those who accuse the Gospels of being forgeries or inauthentic present their proof in the first place. Otherwise, we just ignore their groundless accusation and move on to something more important.
Next article: The authenticity of the Gospel writers – they were written by four men, called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Raymond de Souza KM is available to speak at Catholic events anywhere in the free world in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Please email SacredHeartMedia@Outlook.com or visit http://www.RaymonddeSouza.com or phone 507-450-4196 in the United States.