Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 23, No. 2, 2024
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Jason McDonald
  Contributing Editors
Louis René Beres
David Solway
Nick Catalano
Robert Lyon
Chris Barry
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editor
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
  Photographer Jerry Prindle
Chantal Levesque
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Charles Tayler
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Robert Lyon is a retired clergyman who divides his time between Guelph, Ontario and Melaque, Mexico. He taught high school English, Latin, Greek and science, and served as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His latest book, Don’t Throw Out Your Bible, from which the essay below is excerpted, is now in print.

I have previously argued that supernatural events in the Bible may become believable if we stop thinking of them as violations of natural law, and see them instead as God’s use of possibilities that God had already built into his creation. That means that such events were at the same time both natural and supernatural. Of course, the most significant “both-and” event is God’s coming among us uniquely in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe to be both human and divine. As Christians understand it, the coming of the God-man is the event to which the whole of the Bible was pointing, and his second coming is the event for which the whole of human history is waiting.

But for anyone who is unaccustomed to viewing the world in such terms, this certanly does stretch the imagination. Which makes it critical to show that the New Testament writings, especially the accounts of Jesus in the gospels, are reliable. For if the accounts of what Jesus did and said are not reliable, we cannot justify making him the focus of anything, let alone our understanding of God, the universe, and the meaning of life.

We have to start our inquiry with the reliability of the text of the New Testament, for if our current Greek text is not close to what the original authors wrote, we may already be at a dead end. A lot of people do not realize what an abundance of evidence there is for the integrity of the New Testament text. That evidence includes more than 5600 early manuscripts and fragments, including 11 from barely 100 years after the actual events. By contrast, we have only 7 copies of the works of Plato, the earliest of those coming from 1200 years after the author. We have only 10 copies of Caesar and 49 of Aristotle, and the earliest of those come from 1000 and 1400 years after their authors. Only Homer gets even close, with 649 manuscripts, the earliest dated 500 years after him.

In the case of the New Testament, which has about 800,000 words, the copyists were remarkably accurate. The variations among all 5600 manuscripts amount to only about 2% of the total text, and none of those variations affects any significant teaching. Actually those differences afford an advantage: by analyzing them, manuscript science is able to establish the original text with something like 99% accuracy.

So much for the reliability of the Greek text. What about the actual content? That will depend on whether the gospels are based on reliable eye-witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus, and whether they were written while the church’s corporate memory was still trustworthy.

The earliest books of the New Testament, Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonika, were written around AD 48, which was only about 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection. Paul’s letter-writing continued until the mid-60s when he and many other Christians were martyred under the Emperor Nero. It is hardly surprising that the mid-60s is also the time when the gospels began to be written, in response to the need for a more permanent record of the Christian teaching.

Mark, the earliest gospel, is thought to have been written around AD 65, in anticipation of Peter’s martyrdom. Peter promises his readers: “I will see to it that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” (2 Peter 1:15)

Eusebius (263-339 AD) quotes a writing by Papias (60-130 AD) who recalls that the Apostle John used to say: "Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, though not in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded, but not making, as it were, an arrangement [that is, chronologically] of the Lord's oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them."

That seems to have been the general understanding among First-Century Christians. Irenaeus (AD 135-202) confirms Papias’ statement: "After their departure [martyrdom], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”

A common theory among New Testament scholars is that the gospel attributed to Matthew was compiled from Mark’s gospel (there are many passages where they are almost identical), plus a collection of “Jesus sayings” that the scholars call “Q” (from the German word Quelle, “source”), plus some other details of Jesus’ life that the compiler had access to. Eusebius, again quoting Papias, says that “Matthew put the ”logia” of Jesus in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.” ”Logia”, here, means “sayings”, but also implies the stories that contain those sayings. “Hebrew” likely means Aramaic, the language spoken in First-Century Israel. So it seems likely that Papias (AD 60-163) had already identified the mysterious “Q” and its author, centuries before contemporary scholars had even theorized its existence. What is less certain is whether Matthew himself was also the final compiler of the gospel that bears his name. The gospel attributed to Matthew is dated around AD 75.

Just as Peter, Irenaeus, and Papias give us clues about the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew, so Paul gives us clues about the writing of Luke’s gospel and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. While under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial and expecting martyrdom, Paul sent an intriguing request to his protégé Timothy: "Do your best to come to me soon. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments." (2 Timothy 4:9,11,13)

What makes that request so intriguing is that Paul is deliberately bringing together Mark and Luke, along with some important books and parchments. The words “the books and the parchments” imply that Timothy knew which books and parchments Paul wanted. But what might they have been? The gospel that Mark had previously written? Matthew’s collection of Jesus-sayings? Notes on passages in the Old Testament that foreshadowed the Messiah? Luke’s diary of his journeys with Paul? Early Christian instructional texts?

If you take Mark, who recorded Peter’s teaching, and Luke, the physician who accompanied Paul in his travels and had first-hand conversations in Jerusalem with people who knew Jesus, including family members like “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), and maybe even Mary, and if you set them up with certain important manuscripts at Paul’s direction, it is hard not to see this meeting as the publishing conference that resulted in Luke’s gospel and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke-Acts has traditionally been dated ca. AD 85, but Acts ends with Paul under house arrest and not yet a martyr, so Luke-Acts might actually have been started as much as two decades earlier.

John, the latest of the gospels, is traditionally dated around AD 90. But I once heard Dr Ernest Marshall Howse assure his congregation at Toronto’s Bloor Street United Church that the gospel attributed to John was actually written a century later, around AD 200. Of course, that sort of early 20th-Century skepticism discredits the reliability of John’s gospel and casts doubt on the truth of the stories it records. But in fact, there was no justification for Dr Howse’s skepticism, because at the time of his sermon the John Ryland’s Fragment had already been known to New Testament scholars for 40 years. Discovered in Egypt in 1920, this small piece of parchment contains five verses from John’s gospel; the handwriting dates it around AD 125 (+/– 25 years). So if people were already copying John’s gospel as far away as Egypt in the first part of the Second Century AD, dating the original within 60 years of the events is not improbable.

Of course, John’s gospel does pose some difficulties. Some critics object that John recounts incidents in Jesus’ life that are different from those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as if that should somehow discredit John’s story. In fact, John acknowledges that difference and says he chose his incidents because they suited his particular theological focus (John 20:30f). The synoptics record only one Passover, so it might be inferred that Jesus’ ministry lasted only a year; John, on the other hand, records a cycle of three Passovers. Again, there is no puzzle about the difference, because Papias (above) has already told us that Mark, on whom Matthew and Luke depend, recorded his material without having a particular chronological schema.

For many readers, the major difficulty with John’s gospel is the lengthy prayers and speeches, which we moderns might think a writer would not still have remembered verbatim sixty years after the events. There is a partial truth there, for the convention among ancient historians was to reconstruct a famous person’s speech, reflecting its purpose and whatever was known about its content. But as we shall see shortly, the likelihood that John reconstructed Jesus’ words accurately was higher than it might have been among Greek and Roman writers, because of its Jewish context. As a rabbinic rule stated, “It is a man’s duty to state [a tradition] in his teacher’s words.” In the Jewish oral tradition, accuracy was ensured by the teaching methods that the rabbis used and by the diligent repetition that they required of their students.

For some aspects of Jesus’ life the compilers of the gospels can claim “straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth” reliability. One such source, as noted above, was “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18), where “brother” may mean that James was an older half-brother or cousin rather than a full-sibling,. At the Council of Jerusalem, you see James as leader of the church there (Acts 15:13,19). And you see from the “we” at Acts 21:17 that Luke himself met James during one of Paul’s visits there. Another such source was none other than Jesus’ mother. At Jesus’ death the Apostle John took Mary into his care (John 19:27), and Mary, who would have been about 50 years old at that time, would have been a beloved figure in the early Christian community for several decades. They could not have had a better source for the infancy narratives and many other events.

So we have a Greek Testament whose text reflects the originals with 99% accuracy, and was composed over a 40-year period between 20 and 60 years after the events it describes, by writers who were either eyewitnesses themselves or had contact with eyewitnesses and eyewitnesses’ written records. No other document from the ancient world can claim that degree of validation.

But a question remains with respect to the oral period of about 30 years between Jesus himself and the actual writing of the gospels: How can we be sure that the eyewitnesses reported accurate information untainted by pious imagination? That’s our topic for the next issue of Arts & Opinion.





Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


Comedy Podcast with Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini
Bahamas Relief Fund
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal(514) 844-2172
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis