Repeating an accusation doesn’t make it true. Critics of Christianity have made the same false claims for years—for example, that the New Testament manuscripts were radically corrupted and that powerful people wrongly suppressed other valid Gospels. Yet despite these repeated claims, historical evidence doesn’t support the charges.
Scholars Don Carson and Mike Kruger have spent their careers studying the New Testament manuscripts. Responding to the claims of Bart Ehrman and others that early Gospels were suppressed in the name of orthodoxy, Carson says, “The actual evidence we have runs exactly in the opposite direction.” He explains that the first-century church had a strong confessional consensus and that proto-Gnostic gospels didn’t start to proliferate until the second century. Both Carson and Kruger believe we have many reasons to trust the New Testament manuscripts that have been passed down to us, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
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Michael Kruger: When it comes to misconceptions about the New Testament, these are many, and people have all kinds of ideas in their head about what the New Testament is like and where it came from. And all kinds of misconceptions are out there. One I’ll just mention, to begin with, is one we hear a lot, particularly in recent years with the writings of Bart Ehrman and others, which is this idea that the New Testament has been radically changed in its text over a number of years. People think that scribes have altered it so significantly that it’s been corrupted and can’t be recovered, and, really, we’re at a loss to know what the New Testament authors really wrote.
And this does confuse a lot of people. That argument not only is popular in critical circles, it’s also popular in the Muslim world, this idea that the New Testament can’t be relied upon in terms of its transmission. There’s all kinds of responses to that. I’ll just mention one, and that is we have manuscripts that date back very early in the history of the Church, all the way back to the 2nd century. In other words, we can get very close to the time period when the original manuscripts were written.
We wish we had something from the 1st century. We wish we had the autographs. But we have manuscripts so close there’s just not enough time there to expect wholesale massive changes in the text. So even just the dating of our manuscripts gives us a good start in terms of textual reliability.
Don Carson: And it’s worth adding to that, I think, that if you do comparisons with other ancient documents—Caesar’s “Gallic Wars,” for example, written within a century, more or less, of when the New Testament documents were written—we have precisely three manuscripts that have come down from the Middle Ages for the “Gallic Wars,” as contrasted with about 5,000 manuscripts of whole or part of the Greek New Testament and about 8,000 manuscripts of early translations.
The evidence is simply overwhelming and stunningly early to write things off so freely. It’s more imagination than fact.
Kruger: Yeah, and I would add to that, too, that people make comments that Christian scribes were not competent, and they were often unable to be reliable in their transmission efforts. And some have even argued that Christian scribes were illiterate and couldn’t read. Those are overstated arguments. Actually, when we look into the early centuries, we see a very robust textual culture in the early Christian movement.
We have good reasons to think the scribes were competent and capable. We can look at the handwriting in the manuscripts and see that they really did know their task and knew what they were doing. So when you consider what Don mentioned with the number of manuscripts and the date and sort of the scribal infrastructure related to Christianity, we really can trust that we have the text that was originally written.
Carson: Another myth that has become popular is that, originally, there were a lot more Gospels . . . Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Peter, and a number of other documents. And, unfortunately, the Orthodox, being nasty types, gradually squished down any competition, and what we’re left with are the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that are found within the canonical New Testament.
To arrive at that sort of conclusion, you have to demonstrate, number one, that those alternative gospels are early and that the canonical gospels are relatively late. This is a fairly new . . . in terms of the history of the church . . . a fairly new error that argues that, originally, there were many, many, many interpretations, and they squished down in about the 4th century to one group that came to be called the “Orthodox Group.”
The actual evidence we have runs exactly in the opposite direction. There is an initial confessionalism with some diversity of emphases that, by the 2nd century, is already being challenged with a Proto-Gnostic movement and so on. The traditional dating for the Testament of Judas, for example, is pretty late. The Gospel of Thomas is 2nd century, mid-2nd century at the earliest, as far as I can see.
There’s a lovely little book by Chuck Smith . . . Charles Hill, rather, Chuck Hill, Charles E. Hill, called “Who Wrote the Gospels?” It is pretty accessible and works through the evidence in a powerful way. I think there’s one other element to it that has to be remembered. When we speak of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, we’re using “gospel” as if it’s a literary genre, and so there’s this Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John.
But in the 1st century nobody used it that way. It was the Gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and so it was understood to be one gospel. And that common gospel has certain shared elements, Jesus’ origins, his public ministry, and, ultimately, his death and resurrection and so on, according to the various witnesses, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Whereas, if you look at something like the Gospel of Thomas, so called, from the 2nd century, it’s not a gospel in that sense at all. It’s a collection of about 114 statements with two or three little historical snippets, no focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not gospel in any 1st-century sense at all. It’s a collection of Jesus’ sayings collected by we do not know whom approximately in the middle of the 2nd century.
So when you look at usage of what “gospel” means and how they’re put together and the early dating of the gospels and so on, I think the evidence is overwhelming that the canonical gospels really did come first. And instead of thinking of the great diversity, which is to be praised simply because of the diversity itself, according to modern diktats, and then it’s squeezed down into an enforced orthodoxy, it’s just exactly the opposite. And that needs to be recovered.
Kruger: Yeah, I mean, I’ll just add one other final thought on that, and that is people often make it sound like apocryphal gospels were as popular, or even more popular, than the canonical ones in the early church. You get this impression that kind of no one knew what to read, and everybody’s reading all kinds of stuff. And everybody had their own gospels, and Gospel of Thomas was as popular as the Gospel of John and things like this.
But we have little ways to tell how popular books were. One of the ways we can tell is the remnants of manuscripts they left behind, and the canonical gospels have so many more from those early centuries than all of the apocryphal ones that we have. And another way we know is from the frequency of citations. Patristic sources, yeah, they occasionally reference an apocryphal gospel, but the overwhelming weight of Patristic citations is all in the favor of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
And so, taking all of those things together, we can really be confident that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are really the best Gospels in our New Testament.