Christians are prone to overstatements such as the simple claim that the New Testament is a historical document. However, this is incorrect, since they are religious works, not historical documents. There is a reason why your public or university library has the Gospels classified as religion, not history. Your public university does not include the Gospels in Ancient History 100 courses.
If the Gospels are historical, then they have to stand up to critical analysis. Once critical analysis is applied, they are anything but reliable history, and i will expand why:
No Gospels or Jesus of Nazareth known in the 1st century
We must distinguish between the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament: the NT epistles of Paul and Revelation and Acts do not contain explicit knowledge of the Gospel events or biographical information of Jesus of Nazareth, for they contain high spiritual formula instead. Now, moving on to the Gospels, since they are what most Christians suppose to be historical.
Gospels Not written by eyewitnesses
It is painfully clear that the Gospel of Mark was not written an eyewitness, because:
- the writer is often ignorant about the geography of the region
- the writer is often ignorant about the customs of the locals
- Papias , circa 130 explains Mark was not an eye-witness
- Clement and Tertullian later agree Mark was not an eye-witness.
The Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke both copied large amounts of Gospel of Mark word-for-word, so they can hardly have been eyewitnesses either. They also changed, deleted and added to GMark to suit differing purposes and audiences – showing they did not represent historical events, but religious mythology.
Manuscripts of the Gospels are a century or more late
Christians are quick to claim that the historical writings and the date of the events are very close. This is factually incorrect, because of the paucity of positive evidence. all we have instead are:
- a few WORDS possibly of Gospel of John from early 2nd century
- most of John from circa 200
- several verses of Gospel of Matthew from c.200
- several chapters of synoptics from 3rd century
The earliest substantial manuscripts of the synoptic Gospels date back to two centuries after the alleged events.
Citations of the Gospels are a century or more late
The extrabiblical knowledge of the Gospels or its content does not appear until a full century after the alleged events:
- The first mention of Gospels is not until perhaps circa 130 with Papias.
- the first substantial quotes from the Gospels is not until circa 150 with Justin
- The first numbering of the Four Gospels is not until circa 172 with the Diatessaron.
- the first naming of the Four Gospels is not until circa 185 with Irenaeus
The Gospels became public knowledge in the middle to late 2nd century, which is about a hundred and fifty years after the alleged events. Once approximately 150 years of oral tradition has passed, history is considered immaterial and vacuous, lost among the legendary accretions.
Early Doubts about the Gospels
During the first appearance of the Gospels there are doubts: Trypho, circa 130 seems to doubt Jesus, and Celsus, circa 175 exposes the Gospels as fiction and based on myth.
Later writers also criticized the Gospels as fiction: Porphyry called the evangelists inventors of history and Julian called Jesus spurious and invented.
There are no contemporary references to Jesus of Nazareth or the Gospel events. None. A lack of neutral reports of the events in the Gospels further reduces the Christians’ claim of historicity.
Many differences in Gospel manuscripts
Christians are also very eager to argue that there exists a similarity in content among the gospels. However, the manuscripts do not show exact similarity because, in fact they show excessive variation. There are NO TWO substantial manuscripts of the Gospels which are identical.
It is estimated there are 300,000 variations in the NT manuscripts, 30,000 in Gospel of Mark, even 80 or so in the Lord’s Prayer.
Furthermore, these changes were often driven by arguments over dogma in the early centuries. Bert Ehrman’s classic work The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture shows in detail four examples of how the scriptures were altered by early Christians to argue their points.
To finish, I will list a typical list of modifications of the scriptures. Note that such changes are not just minor things like spelling errors, they show variation of the some of the most fundamental issues of Christian dogma including – the virgin birth, the baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, the trinity, even the resurrection.
Examples of Corruptions to the NT
- Markan appendix – not found in early manuscripts – there are now FOUR differing versions of endings to Mark (the short, plus 3 versions of how it ends)
- Matthew. 6:13 – to this day, there are different versions in various bibles – the early manuscripts show that “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” is a later addition.
- Luke 3:22 – early witnesses have : ” . . . and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou are my son, this day have I begotten thee”
later manuscripts have the KJV version : “…Thou art my beloved son; in thee I am well pleased”
- John 9:35 – The KJV has “…son of god”, but the early manuscripts show “..son of man”.
- John’s periscope of the Adulteress – not found in the early witnesses – generally agreed to be a later addition.
- Colossians 1:14 – the phrase “through his blood” is a later addition.
- Acts 9:5-6 – Absent from early manuscripts – a later addition.
- Acts 8:37 – “And Phillip said, if thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” Absent from early manuscripts – a later addition.
- John 8:59 –“…going through the midst of them, and so passed by” Absent from early manuscripts – a later addition.
- 1 John 5:7 The Trinity formula found here only originated centuries after the events. Bruce Metzger notes : “The passage is absent from every known Greek manuscript except eight, and these contain the passage in what appears to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate . . . “
The passage is quoted by none of the Greek fathers, who, had they known it, would most certainly have employed it in the Trinitarian controversies (Sabellian and Arian). Its first appearance in Greek is in a Greek version of the (Latin) Acts of the Lutheran Council in 1215.