I have long said that, if the four Gospels found in the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - were not the founding documents of Christianity, virtually no one except a few crackpots would challenge their authenticity or their historical accuracy. After all, they are better attested than any other work of the ancient world, by far. The closest rival is Homer's Odyssey, of which there are some 700 Greek manuscripts, of which the oldest dates some 900 years after the original work's composition. With the New Testament, on the other hand - well, there are 6000 Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which date within a generation of the originals. Of those 6000 Greek manuscripts, over a third of them are our Gospels, including the oldest known fragment of the New Testament (for the moment) - the Rylands Papyrus Fragment, which contains six verses from John 18 and is generally dated around 110-125 AD (most scholars feel John was written around 95 AD). That figure doesn't even begin to count the Syriac, Latin, and other languages into which the Gospels were copied within two centuries of their composition, or the thousands of quotes from the Gospels found in the writings of second and third generation Christian works from the Second Century. While there are many variant readings in these hand-copied manuscripts, the variations are generally minor and there are only a handful of passages in the whole NT where the original wording is in any serious doubt. In other words, when it comes to the four Gospels, we are pretty darned sure that the manuscripts we have today are virtually identical to the original works.
But does that make them history? Not necessarily. There are many myths and legends of the ancient world which have been passed down that no one takes seriously. We may study the great tales of Greek mythology, but we don't really believe that Zeus and Poseidon were real, or that they castrated their father Kronos, or that there really was a god-king named Osiris who ruled over Egypt and was sewed back together by his wife Isis after his jealous brother cut him into pieces. Nor does anyone really think that Hercules was real, or that he performed the twelve labors legend ascribes to him. So are the Gospels just mythology then?
Well, take a look the first few verses of the Gospel of Luke: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught." That does not sound like a fairy tale, does it? More like the introduction to a court briefing, or a historical essay. Myths, by definition, are stories that form over a long period of time. Sometimes they conglomerate around an actual historical figure (there may have well been a man named Romulus who helped found the city of Rome), but they generally incorporate more and more fantastical details around that person until the historical figure at the heart of the myth is lost in a sea of tall tales, exaggeration, and hero worship. Invariably, the mythical figure lived long, long before the time when his tale was recorded. Jesus was never represented in the Gospels as anything other than a real person, born in recent history, with known associates who passed along his teachings.
Skeptics will tell you that the Jesus of the Bible was a mythologized historical figure. The radical Galilean teacher who drew a large following and then was crucified by the Romans had a series of tall tales woven around His person over many years, until He became a supernatural being who could heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, and ultimately conquer death itself. Of course, for this to be true, two things have to be assumed about the Gospels: First, that they were not written by eyewitnesses or drawn from eyewitness testimony - since the real eyewitnesses would have known that all these ridiculous, supernatural stories about Jesus were just tall tales. And secondly, that the Gospels were not written down until Jesus and his original followers were long gone and the myths had sufficient time to form and crystallize among the second and third and fourth generation followers of Jesus.
The problem is, both of those assumptions are false. I know, there is a cottage industry of books by skeptics like Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong and a host of others who will do their best to convince you that the Gospels were not written down for a very long time - maybe a century! - after the crucifixion. But hard scholarship belies their claims. First of all, a single century really isn't time for a fully blown myth to form. Look at Suetonius' biography of Julius Caesar. It was written a hundred and fifty years after Caesar's death in 44 BC, but it is still considered one of the standard sources for Julius Caesar's life, and his account is generally considered accurate. The fact is, all four Gospels were composed in the First Century AD. Even if they were composed in the 90's AD, that puts them within 60 years of Jesus' death. And the majority of scholars believe that the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written between 60 and 80 AD. Certainly they were around by the 90's, since Clement of Rome quotes from all three in his letter to the church at Corinth, composed in 96 AD. By the second century, all three of these Gospels were widely regarded as authoritative and apostolic in origin. John's Gospel may indeed date to the 90's AD - but that comports well with several early accounts that John lived to be a very old man, over 100 at the time of his death, and that he wrote his Gospel near the end of his long life. John also alludes to his unusual longevity at the end of his Gospel.
During the Second, Third, and Fourth centuries there were numerous Gospels composed that claimed to be written by major figures in the life of Jesus. There is a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Judas, a Gospel of Peter, as well as a dozen or more others. All of them were promoted by splinter sects - many of them by a group known as the Gnostics, who broke off from the mainstream apostolic church around the end of the First Century. Not one of these Gospels was embraced by the mainstream church or accepted by the men known as the Apostolic Fathers - people like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, and Irenaeus, who were born in the latter part of the First Century and who could remember encountering the disciples of Jesus when they were young men. All these men accepted the canonical Gospels and rejected the Gnostic works for the forgeries that they were. All four of the Biblical Gospels were ALWAYS associated with the same names we hang on them today, so the traditions of authorship go back as far as the Gospels themselves.
While the exact date the Synoptic Gospels were written may never be determined, the fact is that the arguments for early authorship actually carry a lot more weight than those for later authorship, when viewed objectively. Let's look at Luke's works in closing. Luke wrote two books in the New Testament - the Gospel that bears his name, and the Book of Acts. Acts tells the story of the disciples of Jesus from the time of His resurrection right up until Paul's journey to Rome under arrest, having appealed his case to Caesar (Nero Caesar, to be precise) when he saw that he could not get a fair trial in Jerusalem. The book ends with Paul still awaiting trial in Rome, receiving guests, and preaching the Gospel to all who come to see him. The date would have been around 62 AD at that point.
The next eight years were HUGE years for the early church. The Great Fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed the Christians for starting it and outlawed their faith, Peter and Paul were both put to death, along with some 20,000 Christians in the city of Rome alone. James the brother of Jesus was killed by an angry mob in Jerusalem at the beginning of a great rebellion in Judea, and - oh, yeah! The city of Jerusalem was sacked and burned by the Romans, and the great Temple of Herod was torn down to its foundations, exactly as Jesus had predicted in the Gospels. Now, a careful historian like Luke, who records many, many details in his two books with painstaking accuracy - so much so that classical archeologist Sir William Ramsay regarded him as "a historian of the first rank." Why didn't Luke record any of these events that loomed so large in the history of the early church?
Occam's Razor is an ancient premise that the simplest explanation is nearly always the most likely. If we use that in this case, the answer becomes very clear: Luke didn't include the Great Fire, the deaths of Peter and Paul, or the destruction of the Temple in the Book of Acts because THEY HADN'T HAPPENED YET when he finished his books! No other explanation of their omission makes more sense than this. So what does that mean?
Well, it means that the Book of Acts was written before 62 AD. That means the Gospel of Luke - his "former treatise," as Luke calls it in the introduction to Acts - would date even earlier, perhaps around 60 AD. And since virtually all scholars agree that Luke used the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as sources for his own work - well, that means both of them were likely completed before 60 AD as well. So let's do the math now - assuming Jesus was crucified in 33 AD, which most scholars feel is the most likely year, then that would place the three Synoptic Gospels as all having been written in the late 50's AD. That's only 25 years after the fact! We know, at that time, that James the brother of Jesus was still alive. Peter and John were still alive. Jesus' mother may well have outlived her son by as many as 20 years, so the Gospel writers would have had access to her version of events as well. In short, all the major eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were likely still alive when the Gospels we have in our Bible today were written.
You may believe or not believe them, as you see fit. But one thing is perfectly clear - they are NOT myths, not by any scholarly accepted definition of the term. They are early accounts of real events, composed by or with the testimony of eyewitnesses. In short, they are HISTORY.
Now, if you like historical FICTION, I have written a book that weaves the writing of Luke's works in with the history of the Roman Empire in the mid to late First Century AD. If you enjoyed what I wrote above, or just like historical fiction and this time period in general - well, here's the Amazon link. Enjoy!!