Did the Gospel Writers Check Their Sources?
If earlier collections of Jesus’ sayings did exist there is no reason why the gospel authors should not have quoted them, provided they were satisfied with their accuracy.
Although Luke was not, as far as we know, an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry or resurrection, his expressed concern is to provide an orderly and accurate account. Switches from ‘they’ to ‘we’ in Acts chapters 16, 20, 21, 27 and 28 show he accompanied Paul on a number of his journeys, including times in Jerusalem, Rome and at the house of Philip the Evangelist. So he had ample opportunity to check his sources first hand, as he claims to have done. As noted elsewhere, he is nowadays ranked very highly amongst historians for the accuracy and detail of his writings.
Mark was nephew to Barnabus (Colossians 4:10), a leading figure in the early church. His mother’s home in Jerusalem was a meeting place for the church which Peter was known to have attended (Acts 12:2). The early church fathers tell us he served as Peter’s interpreter. Consequently, we know he had good access to first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. It is even possible he was himself present at Jesus’ betrayal (the reference to the young follower of Jesus who fled naked appears only in Mark 14:51-2).
Matthew, also known as Levi, was one of the twelve apostles, and so would have known from his own experience whether or not his sources were reliable.
John, as already noted, was one of the twelve and does not appear to have used any source other than his own recollections.
Evidence of first-hand knowledge
The underlying language
Jesus ministered almost exclusively to his own fellow countrymen, and would therefore have originally taught in Aramaic, which was the local tongue of 1st century Israel. It has been mentioned that the early church Fathers say Matthew originally wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic. But although all surviving texts are based on Greek versions, and the other gospels were written in Greek, scholars agree that all the gospels reveal clear evidence of Aramaic figures of speech in many of the quotations attributed to Jesus.
The evidence of underlying Aramaic effectively rules out the claim that the Gospels were a later Greek fabrication. Nor does it merely show that some sayings were copied from earlier Aramaic manuscripts, for this phenomenon is observable not only in the synoptic passages, but even in narratives found in just one gospel. For example, the repeated use of ‘and’ in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus (Lk 2) is typical of Aramaic: but not Greek. Similarly, John’s highly personal account contains many Aramaisms. This argues strongly that the writers either had their own independent, native sources, or were themselves thinking in Aramaic.
If the gospel writers did have their own sources we should expect to find differences that reflect these personal sources and recollections of events: and this is exactly what does occur. Each contains differences and whole passages that are unique to that author, and the omission of which from the others cannot be accounted for except by saying that this must be either a fabrication or a unique personal source.
Even more interesting, perhaps, are the sometimes subtle differences even in common passages. For instance, despite its brevity, Mark’s gospel includes observations of Jesus’ personal reactions that are not found in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke, (e.g. 1:41, 3:5, 9:23-5, et al.). If Mark were merely copying from other sources, or others had copied from him, these little details are not easily explained: but they are readily understood in the context of the personal testimony of Peter on which Mark is reported to have based his gospel.
A Lost Culture.
Palestine in the time of Jesus was quite unlike the culture of the surrounding Graeco-Roman world. But 40 years after Jesus’ death, Jerusalem’s Temple was destroyed. Within 100 years, Hadrian had renamed the city Aelia Capitolina, erected a temple to Jupiter on the ancient temple site and issued a decree, forbidding circumcision on pain of death, which triggered a revolt by Simon Bar Kochba, a self-proclaimed Messiah, in AD 132. It was ruthlessly quashed; 50 fortified positions and 985 villages were destroyed. So, too, was Jerusalem; when rebuilt, on a lesser scale as a Roman garrison, all Jews were forbidden. Bar Kochba’s persecution of Christians, who refused to rally to his cause, also marked the final separation between Judaism and Christianity.
Yet, as already discussed, one of the principal factors that has discredited the higher critics’ theories concerning the origins of the gospels has been the sheer ‘Jewishness’ of the accounts, and the wealth of intimate historical detail they contain – accurately describing a cultural background unknown to the Graeco-Roman culture in which Christianity had taken root and at a level of detail unavailable to a later author.
For example, in his gospel Luke (3:1) speaks of Lysanias as Tetrarch of Abilene during the time of John the Baptist, c. 27 AD. It used to be said that the only such person died in 36 BC: but an inscription dated between 14 and 29 AD and referring to ‘Lysanias the Tetrarch’ has since been found near Damascus. Luke also describes how, in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth, the incensed townsfolk led him to the edge of the hill on which their city was built, intending to throw him off (Lk 4:29). Nazareth was such an insignificant place that until recently it was argued that there was no place of that name at the time: but it is indeed sited exactly as Luke describes. Also, an intriguing inscription which came to light here* suggests that, early in the first century, this obscure village may have attracted the attention of no less a person than Claudius Caesar.
In Acts 19:24-41, Luke describes a town-wide riot and civic gathering (an ‘Ecclesia’) in the theatre at Ephesus. Archaeological excavations have uncovered a theatre capable of holding 25,000 people, and inscriptions show it was indeed the official venue for such ‘Ecclesias.’
Luke also records numerous details, such as precise titles and names of little known public officials, that are meticulously accurate and could only have been written be someone with detailed knowledge of those places at the exact time of writing. For example, he describes the ruler of Malta, where they were shipwrecked (Acts 28:7), as ‘Chief Man of the Island’ – an unusual title, but inscriptions confirm it. He speaks of Gallio as proconsul of Achaia when Paul was at Corinth (Acts 28:12). A letter from the emperor Claudius, found at Delphi, refers to ‘Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend the proconsul of Achaia’. What is more, it has been established that he held this position for just one year, from 51-52 AD; and the dates match Luke’s account. Many times scholars have challenged the accuracy of these details: time and again subsequent discoveries have proved Luke to be right.
As well as numerous details of local Palestinian customs and life-styles, there are larger items. It used to be argued that all the disciples, plus Jesus, could not have fitted into a single Galilean fishing boat: but in 1986 the remains of a Galilean boat of that period were discovered: it was about 8 metres long and over 2 metres wide – easily large enough! John similarly gives a graphic description (Jn 5:2-3) of a pool in Jerusalem, Bethesda, which was destroyed by the Romans. Excavations have uncovered its remains and, as John says, it had five colonnades; this unusual arrangement being due to a central partition dividing the pool in two.
Then there are the holy sites. For example, at Capernaum there are the remains of a Byzantine church. Beneath this had been reverently preserved the remains of an even older structure, apparently built as a house in the first century BC and converted to a place of public worship around the end of the first century AD. According to Egeria (c. 380 AD), ‘At Capernaum, the house of (the prince of the apostles) has been made into a church, with its original walls still standing.’ If correct, this would be the house of Simon Peter’s mother in law, where Jesus stayed in Capernaum. But even if not, its construction certainly accords with the descriptions in the gospel accounts.
There are also tombs at Jerusalem, in the ‘Dominus Flevit’ catacombs, with inscriptions such as, ‘Jesus, have mercy’, and ‘Jesus, remember me in the resurrection’. Dating from between 35 and 50 AD, they clearly show there were believers in the city at the time given by Luke in Acts. One of the names, ‘Shappira’, appears in Acts 5:1, and in no other 1st century source, Christian or non-Christian. Not only that: but on the Mount of Olives, near Bethany, a 1st century family sepulchre was discovered with a number of stone coffins, some of which were marked with crosses and the name of Jesus. Amongst these were three bearing the names Mary, Martha and Eleazar (a variant of ‘Lazarus’). Could this actually be the final resting place of the man whom Jesus raised from the dead (c.f. John 11:1-2)?
As has been mentioned before, there is substantial evidence of underlying Aramaisms and use of Jewish literary forms in both the sayings of Jesus and the narrative portions of the gospels. Jesus also makes use of Rabbinic styles of argument, such as answering a question with a question (e.g. Lk 2:46-9, 20:3-4, 20:41-4, etc.) and inferential reasoning marked by the phrase, ‘how much more..’ (e.g. Mt 6:28-30, 7:9-11, Lk 11:13, etc.). On many occasions in his teaching, Jesus echoes or even quotes sayings of Jewish rabbis. He also frequently uses Jewish forms of speech, such as hyperbole (deliberate exaggeration, as in Mt 7:3-5, 19:24, 23:24, Lk 14:26, etc.).
Then there are the many allusions to Jewish customs and attitudes. There are many references to religious sacrifices, feast days, etc. Many have wondered why Jesus and his disciples apparently had their Passover meal a day early, when the ‘official’ Passover began on the evening of the day Jesus died. But research shows the Galileans, and some other groups, did not reckon the day from sunset to sunset, as was the official practice; so that for them the Passover began on the preceding evening. Then there are the rivalries and uneasy alliances between the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and Roman authorities, and the hatred of the Jews for the Samaritans and their general contempt of non-Jews.
Jesus himself comes across as unashamedly Jewish and directing his own ministry primarily to the Jews; although unlike most of his contemporaries he was quick to recognise and commend true faith amongst non-Jews. But if large portions of the gospels had been invented, or even doctored, by Greek sources, as critics like to suggest, the strong Jewish emphasis of Jesus’ teaching, and of the early church (e.g. Mt 10:5-6, Mk 7:24-30, Acts 11:19), is exceedingly difficult to explain.
Even John’s gospel, generally held to have been the last written, abounds in similar detail. At one time it was claimed that many of the religious terms and concepts that appear in his Gospel were unknown at that time and only came into use in the second century. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has soundly refuted that argument; for they contain many Essene writings from around the time of Christ that use very similar terminology. Indeed, so Jewish has it been shown to be that some now think it was the first gospel to be written, whilst others suggest Jesus might even have been an Essene himself!
Fiction or non-fiction?
Critics try to assert that the gospels are the result of ’embellishment’ by the authors, and that the accounts of Jesus’ teaching and miracles were adapted as necessary to suit the needs of the early church. But all these details and many, many more show that the gospel writers were intimately acquainted with the culture of early first century Palestine. Had they been later inventions, as those scholars who wish to discard them need to believe, such a level of consistency in detail would simply not have been achievable.
Such claims also fail to take account of the now generally accepted early dating of the gospels and the evidence for the integrity of the gospel writers, discussed in a following article.
The New Testament letters make it clear that there was intense concern amongst the early church leaders to prevent any corruption of the teachings of Jesus. For example, some claim Paul was a major ’embellisher’; but his letters show him to be very careful not to confuse his own opinions with the teachings of Jesus: ‘I give this command (not I, but the Lord): … To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): …’ (1 Corinthians 7:10-12). So if there had been any corruption of Jesus’ teachings at such an early stage, when the apostles themselves were still alive, one would expect clear evidence of a major controversy. This is not the case; whereas Acts and the epistles do speak quite candidly of disputes concerning circumcision, for example. Similarly, the circulation of heretical and apocryphal writings (including a Gnostic version of Mark’s gospel) during the second century did arouse controversy, as referred to in the writings of Irenaeus.
So what may we reasonably conclude? Based on the evidence shown it appears that the gospel writers were well placed to confirm or deny the accuracy of their sources, and that the accounts presented are, in their view, a true and reliable portrayal of the facts concerning the life and ministry of Jesus.