WARNING: This column is not for the general reader; it is for the specialist in biblical arcana, especially reserved for publication on the Christian sabbath. The general reader approaches it at his own risk. The author will not be responsible.
Maybe you remember the column I wrote a couple of weeks ago scrutinizing the claims of readers as to what Jesus had in mind with regard to poor people.
In it I casually mentioned that “the gospels were written well after Jesus died, by men who almost certainly had not met him, so that the quotations in them would not meet the standards of any newsroom in today’s world.”
That elicited a response from one Dave Hart of Cohoes, who wrote on our website that I was mistaken, that the gospel of Luke was written “only about 30 years after the events told in it, half the time for the accounts of World War II,” and therefore, presumably, just as reliable as World War II histories if not more so.
Further, that Luke “even states he was given the gospel by eyewitnesses,” and that “Mary was still alive to tell what happened.”
As for the authors of the other three gospels, Brother Dave says even though Mark wasn’t a disciple, “he lived contemporaneously with Jesus.”
He says, “Matthew was a disciple who walked with Jesus for three years.”
And he says, “John was an eyewitness,” and his gospel was “written only about 60 years after the events.” And more in that confident vein.
Alas, he doesn’t tell us where he got his information, whether from sources divine or terrestrial, so we must take it on faith if we take it at all.
For my part, I relied on the Oxford Bible Commentary, a 1,300-page compendium of essays by 77 biblical scholars; the Interpreter’s Bible, a 12-volume bulwark of Protestant scholarship; and an old college textbook that I’ve got lying around, A Historical Approach to the New Testament, by Frederic R. Crownfield, professor of biblical literature and religion at Guilford College.
Those authorities are generally in agreement that Luke’s gospel was written not 30 years after the events it relates but in the 80s or 90s of the first century, which is to say, 50 to 70 after the last event it relates, the death of Jesus in approximately 30 A.D., and therefore 80 to 100 years after the first events.
And of course it was written before tape recorders and newsreels existed, not to mention Life magazine, so to compare its stories with modern histories of World War II is wide of the mark.
That Mary was still alive to tell what happened is a clear misreading of Acts 1:14. Mary was alive at a gathering of the disciples shortly after the resurrection, that’s all, not 50 or 100 years later.
And that Luke says, more or less, he got his information from eyewitnesses means it was hearsay, and old chewed-over hearsay at that, not that it was reliable.
My sources agree that the first gospel to be written was Mark’s, but it was not written until about 70 A.D., most likely in Rome, and of course, like the other gospels, it was written in Greek. (The language of Jesus and his disciples was Aramaic.)
We don’t know when Mark was born or when he died, but that he “lived contemporaneously” with someone who died 40 years before he wrote his book, in another land, the clear-eyed reader will see as a stretch.
As for John being an eyewitness and writing his account “only about 60 years after the events,” that strains credulity on the face of it. Sixty years is not “only”; it’s a lifetime, and probably more than a lifetime in those ancient days. That John could have written so long after the crucifixion and still have been an eyewitness to events preceding it, is unlikely.
According to my sources, his gospel was written around 90 to 100 A.D., maybe in Antioch or Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, maybe in Alexandria in Egypt. There is nothing in it to indicate he was an eyewitness.
That leaves Matthew, identified by Brother Dave as “a disciple who walked with Jesus for three years.”
That is simply a confusion of the disciple Matthew with the author of the gospel bearing the same name, which was a common one.
The Oxford commentary says the gospel was written in the last quarter of the first century and notes that it is largely a copy of Mark.
The Interpreter’s Bible says it “cannot have been written by an eyewitness. It is a compendium of church tradition, artistically edited, not the personal observations of a participant.”
Professor Crownfield sums up: “The gospels were written by people who were not eyewitnesses, a generation or two after the events they tell about, far from the scenes they depict, in an alien language and under the influence of a strange culture.”
That is my basis for saying the quotations attributed to Jesus would not meet the standards of today’s newsroom.
I meant no harm. I was just trying to put a dusty historical matter in colloquial terms. But if I erred I need to be told the source of the correct information so I can learn from it.