Saturday, October 10, 2015

Are the Gospels too late and Unreliable?

By Keith Thompson

Dating of the Gospels a problem?

Muslims claim the gospel biographies about Jesus were written too late to be reliable. However, this is a false, hypocritical claim since their Koran was written 600 years after Jesus and yet Muslims claim it offers reliable, historical information about Him.

Moreover, in regards to the details of the life of Muhammad, their earliest extant writing is Ibn Isaq’s biography Life of Muhammad written around A.D. 750 which is 118 years after Muhammad’s death.

The fact is the dating of the gospels is not at all a problem. They were written between 40 and 65 years after Jesus lived. This is the same amount of time between the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and now. Yet, there are many reliable eyewitness accounts of the Vietnam War from survivors written today (Donald L. Gilmore, D. M. Giangreco, Eyewitness Vietnam, [Sterling, 2006]; Rufus Phillips, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned, [Naval Institute Press, 2013]).

Also, compared to other ancient writings we have about prominent figures, the gospels were written far closer to Jesus’ life then they were. For example, our earliest biographies of Julius Caesar are Plutarch and Suetonius who wrote around 140 to 160 years after Julius Caesar’s death.

Reliability of the oral Jesus tradition

Now, another reason the dates of the gospels are not a problem is because the culture of Jesus’ early followers was a skilled memorizing culture that specialized in preserving oral tradition. This is why we can know the oral Jesus tradition that made its way into the written gospels is trustworthy. There is much evidence of ancient Mediterranean memory skill in the environment of Jesus’ followers. Ancient education was very focused on memorization unlike today (Quint. Inst. 1.3.1; Plut. Educ. 13, Mor. 9E; Mus. Ruf. frg. 51, p. 144.3-7, etc). The first century Roman elder Seneca noted he was able to recall over one hundred recitations he learned from his youth, as well as list 2000 names he memorized as a child in perfect sequence (Seneca, Controversiae, passim; 1 pref. 2). Also, in another ancient source we’re told an elderly sophist was able to name 50 names in perfect sequence after only hearing them once (Philost. Vit. Soph. 1.11.495). Moreover, the first century rhetorician Quintilian noted orators memorized whole speeches which were often times several hours long (Quint. Inst. 11.2.1-51).

What is more, communal memory, which is what Jesus’ disciples engaged in, was even more reliable because the individual disciples who all heard the same teaching would help remind each other of different points. We know this took place in the ancient Mediterranean (Philost. Vit. Soph. 1.22.524).

In regards to young Jews, they would practice memorizing the Torah at home and in school (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 149; Watson, Education, p. 312; Riesner, Education elementaire, idem, Jesus).

In regards to the Jewish disciples of rabbis, which is what the apostles were to Jesus, they were expected to memorize their rabbi’s teaching and sayings through intense repetition exercises (Sipre Deut. 48.1.1-4; Goodman, State, p. 79; b. Ber. 38b; Gerhardsson, Memory, pp. 113-121, 127-129, 168-170). Muslim scholar Shabir Ally falsely claims the early disciples did not memorize his sayings and deeds to preserve them for later gospel composition. He claims, “We do not have on record that anyone went about in the early decades of the first century memorizing the actual words of Jesus” (Let the Qur’an Speak, Dr. Shabir Ally Reviews Robert Spencer’s ‘Did Muhammad Exist?’). However, the evidence we just amassed proves that is exactly how Jesus’ environment was.

And, ancient disciples often also engaged in note-taking while their teacher or rabbi was speaking. The ancient Jews of Jesus’ time did this (Gerhardsson, Memory, pp. 160-162). Scholars note Matthew, as a tax collector, would have done this since he would know how to read and write (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 149). In fact, the first century writer Papias confirms this since he noted “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language” (Papias quoted in Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.16). This is note-taking. In fact, at a conference the classicist scholar George Kennedy showed a group of New Testament scholars his research on how ancient disciples would write notes when listening to their teacher. One form critical scholar who was present, Reginald Fuller, said these findings warrant an entire revision of the skeptical attitude on the New Testament passing of tradition (Paul Eddy, Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend, [Baker Academic, 2007], pp. 251-252).

Now, the gospel writers used earlier written sources too which further helps to bring the dating of the content of gospels earlier (Mark D. Roberts, Can we Trust the Gospels?, [Crossway Books, 2007], pp. 64-67). Scholars note Matthew and Luke used what is known as the earlier “Q” source. Luke used the earlier “L” material and other written eyewitnesses sources (Luke 1:1-4). Matthew used his own sources known as “M”. And Mark used a pre-Markan source (Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, [InterVarsity Press, 2010], p. 215). So for Muslims to only mention how the gospels were written down 40 to 65 years after Jesus, without mentioning these earlier sources they used, is dishonest.

What is more, the fact the genre of the gospels is Graeco-Roman historical biography, and that this ancient genre is seen to be quite reliable by scholars, is evidence for the reliability of the gospels, despite their date of composition. The consensus of scholars now is the gospels are Graeco-Roman historical biography due to the work of Charles Thalbert and Richard Burridge. Burridge is a classicist scholar who initially set out to refute Thalbert and prove the gospels are not Graeco-Roman biography. However, after his tedious study he ended up agreeing with Thalbert that that’s what the gospels are (Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, [InterVarsity Press, 2010], p. 202). Burridge’s book which demonstrates this is called What are the Gospels? One example proving this is the gospels have the same amount of words ancient biographies had: i.e., between 10,000 to 25,000 words. Other genres had a different amount of words (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 79). Another example proving this is ancient biographies often started with or focused on the person’s adult career, which is what we have with the gospels. This is significant because the intended genre of the gospels was not novel, mythography, drama, fiction or tragedy etc., as some sometimes allege, but instead serious Graeco-Roman historical biography.

This is also significant because ancient histories and biographies were expected to show great care for accuracy. Luke-Acts is a multi-volume history – the first volume being biography. And Mark, Matthew and John are Graeco-Roman historical biography. Proof ancient historians and biographers were concerned with accuracy will now be shown. First, ancient historians affirmed histories were to be truthful (Jos. Ag. Ap. 1.26; Dion. Hal. Thuc. 8). The second century Lucian of Samosata wrote that good historians did not falsify events showing there was an expectation not to do so at that time in history (Lucian, Hist. 12). In fact he said “if you are going to write history you must sacrifice to truth alone” (Lucian, How to write History, 40). Ancient rhetorical historians affirmed they should not only be skilled rhetoricians but also good researchers (Dion, Hal. Ant. rom. 1.1.2-4; 1.4.2). Likewise in the 1st century B.C. Cicero said, “Everybody knows that the first law of history is not daring to say anything false; that the second is daring to say everything that is true” (Cicero, De Oratore, 2.62-63). Pliny the Younger was contemporaneous with the gospels and noted histories should be based on genuine facts (Pliny. Ep. 8.4.1). The Greek historian of the second century B.C., Polybius noted historians ought to be acquainted with the places they write about, that they should do thorough investigation of what they write about, that they should not get facts wrong, and that they should not fabricate sources (Polyb. 12.3.1-2; 12.4c.2-5; 12.4d.1-2; 12.28.12; 12.9.1-12.11.7). Ancient historians thought it best to report recent events based on eyewitness oral tradition or to be an eyewitness themselves (Jos. Life, 357; Ag. Ap. 1:45-49, 56; War 1.2-3; Xen. Apol. 2; Ages 3.1; Dion Hal. Thuc. 7; Plut. Demosth. 11.1; Arrian Alex 1, pref. 2-3; Jervell, Future, p. 119). Material can be multiplied.  In sum, people at the time of Jesus had high expectations for ancient histories and biographies. This adds to the case that the gospels, as Graeco Roman historical biographies, were reliable, despite the date of their composition. Credit is owed to Craig Keener’s book The Historical Jesus of the Gospels and Michael Licona’s book The Resurrection of Jesus for providing us with much of the information of this particular section.
Disciples were illiterate?
We have already proven from internal and early external evidence the gospels were written by eyewitness disciples in the cases of Matthew and John, and associates of the eyewitness disciples in the cases of Mark and Luke. However, Muslims claim the disciples were illiterate and thus could not do note-taking to help preserve oral tradition or write the Greek New Testament gospels attributed to them. They often quote Agnostic critic Bart Ehrman on this who claims,
Something like 90 percent of the general population was completely illiterate — that is, unable to read and write at all. ... In the end, it seems unlikely that the uneducated, lower-class, illiterate disciples of Jesus played the decisive role in the literary compositions that have come down through history under their names” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, [Oxford University Press, USA, 1999], p. 45).
However, such a view has been challenged by recent scholarship. As Craig Keeneer notes, “Certainly the supposition that few Palestinian Jews could write has been challenged and shown inaccurate” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 149).
There were Jewish synagogues in first century Palestine according to Josephus, Philo, Luke-Acts, the Theodotus inscription, and the discovered remains of pre-70 A.D. synagogues at Galma, Herodium, Masada, and Qumran (Paul Eddy, Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend, [Baker Academic, 2007], p. 246). And these synagogues functioned as education centers for young Jews so they could learn to read Torah and write (see John P. Meier, Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p. 277; R. Reisner, Jesus als Lehrer, pp. 123-206). This refutes the idea first century Palestinian Jews were illiterate.
Also, Eddy and Boyd note we have evidence of writing from military personal and slaves at Jesus’ time, as well as a second century clay-tablet written in Latin by a bricklayer’s assistant in a rural area – thus proving poor rural labourers, which is what the disciples were, could indeed read and write (Eddy, Boyd, Jesus Legend, [Baker Academic, 2007], p. 243).
In regards to the disciples of Jesus specifically, we already argued (Papias quoted in Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.16) since Matthew was a tax collector he would have been able to read and write his gospel (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 149). Moreover, Luke, as a doctor and historian (Luke 1:1-3; Col. 4:14) would have known how to read and write. Regarding Mark, we know from early and late second century historical evidence that he wrote down Peter’s testimony for his Gospel which of course requires the ability to read and write (Papias quoted in Eusebius, Church History, III.39.15; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.1; Clement of Alexandria quoted in Eusebius, Church History, VI.14.6). In regards to other early disciples of Jesus, Eddy and Boyd note,
“. . . Luke notes, quite incidentally, that ‘many’ before him had attempted to write accounts of what went on among the early Christians (Luke 1:1). On top of this, there are sayings in Paul’s letters that parallel sayings in the gospel traditions. This may suggest that sayings were written down and circulated well before the Gospels were written. Even more forceful, however, are the strong verbal similarities between Mathew and Luke when recording material not found in Mark. These similarities can be accounted for most easily by supposing that Matthew and Luke shared a common written source (Q). . . . In light of all this, it does not appear that the disciples were altogether illiterate. . .” (Paul Eddy, Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend, [Baker Academic, 2007], p. 250-251).
Finally, Muslims often misunderstand Acts 4:13 to teach the disciples Peter and John were illiterate. However, the text doesn’t mean that. As the exegete Craig Blomberg points out, “It is a myth that most first-century Jewish men were illiterate-an idea sometimes based on a mistranslation of Acts 4:13, which implies only that the first disciples [Peter and John] were not formally apprenticed to a rabbi after reaching the age of thirteen” (Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, [B&H Publishing Group, 2009], p. 47 parenthesis mine).

Disciples did not know Greek?

Muslims often claim the disciples did not know Greek to be able to write the Greek gospels. However, in light of the disciples being from rural Palestine, Keener relays,

“Although Aramaic was probably the first language of most Galileans outside the urban centers, even in Lower Galilee, Greek was widespread in Palestine; even the Semiticist Gustaf Dalman long ago recognized the use of Greek in Jerusalem” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 158).

To prove this Keener cites the following studies: (Millard, Reading and Writing, pp. 102-117; Mussies, “Vehicle”; Van der Horst, “Funerary Inscriptions”; Sot. 7:1, §4; Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, p. 3; Hengel, Pre-Christian Paul, pp. 54-62).

Secondly, New Testament scholar and Greek expert Stanley E. Porter argues,

“Among Jesus’ disciples, not only Andrew and Philip had Greek names, but the names of Simon, Bartholomew and Thaddaeus may well have derived from Greek or gone easily into Greek. This scenario of Greek speaking is consonant also with the fact that several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen [e.g. Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee James and John - see Mark 1:16, 19], which would have required that they conduct much of their business of selling fish in Greek” (Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research, [A&C Black, 2004], p. 152 parenthesis mine).

For his source showing fishermen needed to know Greek, Porter cites the following study: (J. A. L. Lee, ‘Some Features of the Speech of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel’, NovTT 27 (1985), pp. 1-36, esp. p. 6).

Thirdly, even if not all the early disciples could read and write Greek, even though we established many could, there is good evidence, contrary to the claims of some, that in first century Palestine scribes were paid to write for people (Allen Millard, Reading and Writing, pp. 168, 176, 178). Thus, such disciples would have paid a scribe to compose their gospels and epistles in Greek. To quote Millard on some of the evidence proving this took place in the environment of Jesus' disciples,

“Nevertheless, scribes continued to do most of the writing and that was still the case in the first century. . . . By the New Testament times most scribes still earned their living through clerical tasks, in administrative offices or on the street. The letters and legal deeds from the ‘Bar Kochba Caves’, which are often signed by the scribe, illustrate their work. . . . Outside official circles, commerce, legal matters and family affairs all called for secretarial skills, providing a livelihood for a multitude of scribes in Palestine. . . . There are references to private letters in various sources from 1 Maccabees onwards, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 11b) recalling how Rabbi Gamaliel II, about AD 100, dictated them to an amanuensis (cf. Paul’s use of Tertius, Rom. 16. 22). Actual examples of papyrus survive in Palestine from the early second century, and there are short notes in Hebrew and Greek from Masanda. The Bar Kochba caves have also yielded legal deeds in Greek and Aramaic. . . . In one case the scribe was the husband of the woman involved in the deed and signed on her behalf, she, it is said, ‘borrowed the writing’. For the Greek documents, their editor stated ‘The quality of writing in these subscriptions differ [sic].’ One man’s ‘hand may be described as that of a practiced, experienced writer’. . . . While the majority of these deeds date from the beginning of the second century, they continue a type current earlier. The deed dated in Nero’s second year bears the name of the scribe with the preserved names of two witnesses and a fragmentary Aramaic deed in a ‘late Herodian’ hand has the name of five . . . in the first century” (Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, [A&C Black, 2005], pp. 168, 176, 178).

Gospels are biased propaganda?

Muslims sometimes claim the Gospels are biased propaganda with agendas written by Christians and thus they cannot be seen as historically reliable. They will quote John 20:31 to support this: “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). They argue since this gospel was written with an agenda so that people would believe in Jesus for salvation it can not be historically reliable.

Firstly, the Koran is biased propaganda with agendas written by Muslims. So this is an inconsistent argument. Koran 25:1 says it was written as a theological admonition for people, thus showing the Koran too was written with an agenda or motive. Does that nullify it as historically reliable?

Secondly, ancient biographers near the time of Christ often wrote their stories in the context of teaching moral lessons (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 82; Burridge, Gospels, 150), yet their works are seen as reliable in spite of this. Based on the early evidence Jewish scholar Geza Vermes notes, “a theological interest is no more incompatible with a concern for history than is a political or philosophical conviction” (Geza Vermes, Jesus in his Jewish Context, [Fortress Press, 2003], p. 18).

Regarding moral agenda in ancient histories, Keener notes, “No less careful ancient historian than Polybius begins his multivolume history by observing its utilitarian value: people ‘have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past.’ Likewise, Tacitus, one of our most reliable historical sources for the early empire, emphasizes that the biographic study of history promotes virtue. . . . Lucian, a stickler for historical accuracy . . . allows for history’s edifying value, i.e., moral lessons, provided they flow from the truth” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 119). Moreover, the ancient biographer Cornelius Nepos who died in 25 B.C. said biographers focused on the morals of their subject (Corn. Nep. 16 [Pelopidas]).

Regarding theological agenda in ancient histories, Keener observes, “Diodorus could describe ‘historians as ‘ministers of divine providence’ who arrange their accounts in the light of their understanding of providence of human events.’ Dionysius of Halicarnassus includes among history’s lessons the virtue of piety toward the gods. . . . Josephus is often explicit about [God’s] providence in human affairs” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 122 parenthesis mine).

Thus, one should not dismiss ancient biographies and histories such as the gospels just because there is moral or theological motive or agenda. This was common.

Contradictions in the Gospels?
Muslims claim there are irreconcilable contradictions in the Gospels which allegedly prove they are unreliable. However, such Muslims are inconsistent since they use arguments on this issue from unbelieving naturalist, materialist scholars who do not believe in the supernatural or for the possibility of harmonization. Yet, these same Muslims nevertheless believe in trying to harmonize Koranic texts non-Muslims allege to be contradictory. This is hypocritical. 

Also, the Koran, Sunnah and Sira literature claim the Bible is uncorrupted and in pristine form, so Muslims are running a fool’s errand on this issue (e.g. Koran 4:136; 5:46-47; 5:68; Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 38, Number 4434; Ibn Isaq, The Life of Muhammad, [Oxford University Press, 2014], pp. 102-104, 268).
Moreover, rarely do Muslims study the bulk of scholarly Christian works which address the so-called contradictions unbelievers bring up. For example Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Geisler’s and Howe’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Arndt’s, Hoerber’s and Roehrs’s Bible Difficulties and Seeming Contradictions, etc. In depth, conservative exegetical commentary sets also do a good job at addressing alleged contradictions (e.g. PNTC, NICNT, BECNT, EBC, etc.).

One of the lists of alleged contradictions Muslims like to parrot comes from Bart Ehrman. He often offers the following in his presentations: “Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark?” 

We will address these two. Though he lists more which we have already responded to.

Did Jesus die the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Well, John does not say Jesus died the day before Passover meal was eaten. He says Jesus died on the “day of preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14) which does not refer to the day of preparation for the Passover meal which was on Thursday, but instead to the day of preparation of Passover week which was indeed on Friday (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp. 603-604). The phrase is paraskeue tou pascha. In the ancient literature, there are no examples where paraskeue or “preparation” ever refers to the day before a feast other than the Sabbath. So it is not talking about preparation for the Passover meal or feast. Carson further proves its instead referring to the day of preparation of Passover week which was on Friday, with the following ancient references (Josephus, Ant. xvi. 163; xiv. 21; xvii. 213; Bel. Ii. 10; Lk. 22:1; Didache, viii. 1; Martyrdom of Polycarp, vii. 1). So, when Mark says Jesus died the day after Passover meal (Mark 14:21; 15:1), which was Friday, there is no contradiction because John is saying he died on the day of preparation of Passover week which was also Friday. Both agree.

Did Jesus die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Well, Mark does not say Jesus died at 9 a.m. Mark 15:25 says Jesus was crucified at 9 a.m., big difference. However, Mark goes on to say in Mark 15:34-37 that at the ninth hour (or 3 p.m.) Jesus “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” So Jesus died at 3 p.m. according to Mark, not 9 a.m. This is a major blunder on Ehrman's part. As for John, John 19:14 says Jesus was carried away to be crucified at “about the sixth hour.” This is going by Roman time since John wrote in Ephesus, the Roman province of Asia (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1.; Eusebius, Church History, 3.1.1.; and note Montanists in Phrygia close to Ephesus used John’s Gospel). This means Jesus was carried away to be crucified at about 6 a.m. according to John, and was actually crucified at 9 a.m. according to Mark. And again he died later that day at 3:00 p.m. according to Mark 15:34-37. Hence, there is no contradiction.

Another alleged contradiction Muslims commonly raise has to do with how long Jesus was dead before rising. After quoting Matthew 12:39-40 which says Jesus would be dead for three days and three nights, Muslim apologist Ahmed Deedat wrote, 

“Jesus was supposed to have been crucified on a Friday afternoon. . . . So Friday Night he is supposed to have been in the grave, Next morning – Saturday (DAY) he is supposed to be in the grave. Saturday NIGHT also he is supposed to be in the grave. But Sunday morning – the first day of the week, when Mary Magdalene visits the sepulchre, she finds it empty. . . . The answer we were after was 3 [days] and 3 [nights], but unfortunately we are getting 1 [day] and 2 [nights]” (Ahmed Deedat, Was Jesus Crucified?, [Library of Islam, 1992], pp. 29-30 parenthesis mine). 

However, Deedat did not understand the Hebrew method of reckoning days Jesus was using which is why he came up with those figures. As D. A. Carson observes,  “In rabbinical thought a day and night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole (cf. SBK, 1:649, for references; cf. further 1 Sam 30:12-13; 2 Chron 10:5, 12; Esth 4:16; 5:1). Thus according to Jewish tradition, ‘three days and three nights’ need mean no more than ‘three days’ or the combination of any part of three separate days” (D. A. Carson, Matthew, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, [Zondervan, 1984], p. 296). Thus, Gleason Archer concludes, “According to ancient parlance, then, when you wished to refer to three separate twenty-four-hour days, you said, ‘Three days and three nights’ – even though only a portion of the first and third days might be involved” (Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, [Regency, 1982], p. 328). 

Same Story told differently in the Gospels?

Muslims wonder why the gospels tell the same story a bit differently at times. Well, this was common in ancient biography and did not render the work erroneous. For example, the first century writer Plutarch penned many biographies. Yet, among his various biographies the same story is often told a bit differently on purpose because he was using common compositional devices. The gospels used these as well and they were not regarded as erroneous. 

These devices include “spotlighting” where one main figure is focused on in an account where as in other accounts more figures might actually be present. Another device is called “compression” where events are portrayed as happening in a shorter period of time than they actually occurred. Another is called “transferral” which is when words or deeds of a person or group are transferred to the dominant person in the story. Another is called “displacement” which is when the author removes an event from its context and places it to another for his literary purpose. And lastly, there is “simplification” which is where although in one biography an event may be very detailed, in another it may not be because detailing it is not essential to that work’s objective.

Michael Licona has demonstrated these are not contradictions. They are simply ancient compositional devices. And they account for many of the so-called New Testament errors Muslims and other unbelievers bring up. Licona is currently working on a book establishing this, but for now one can get more details about his research from the following lecture and podcast: (Michael Licona, Why are there Differences in the Gospels?, Houston Baptist University, February 4, 2014; Deep Waters with Nick Peters, Talking about Plutarch with Michael Licona, July 12, 2014). 

Plus, as Sam Shamoun has shown, the Koran tells the same stories in different places with different words and details. Thus, Muslims are inconsistent.

Textual Variants

Muslims like to make a big deal out of the fact that there are around 400,000 textual variants in the thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts we have. However, because of their lack of understanding of the field of textual criticism, they severely over-state the significance of this. It must be noted there are a lot of variants because there are a lot of manuscripts. Scholars affirm about 99% of these variants are not viable or meaningful – meaning they don’t change the meaning of the text or reflect the original reading (Daniel Wallace, M. James Sawyer, J. Ed. Komoszewski, Reinventing Jesus, [Kregel, 2006], p. 63).

The majority of the variants are minor spelling differences or nonsense errors that have no impact on the meaning of the text and which are easily spotted to not be the original reading. For example, the name “John” can either be spelled Ioannes with two n’s or Ioanes with one n. Every time it’s spelled differently in an ancient manuscript that counts as a textual variant even though we know it’s saying “John.” The second most common variants are ones that do not affect translation or which involve synonyms. For example, some manuscripts will mention names like “Mary” or “Jesus” while others use the definite article with the names saying “the Mary” or “the Jesus.” These all count as variants but of course don’t affect translation. Moreover, sometimes manuscripts will have words in different order even though scholars know what is being conveyed, whatever word order is used in the manuscript. The third most common variants are ones that affect the meaning of the text but are not viable or reflective of the original reading. And lastly, there are those variants which both affect the meaning of the text and are viable or a possible reading of the original. But these only make up about 1% of the variants (Daniel Wallace, M. James Sawyer, J. Ed. Komoszewski, Reinventing Jesus, [Kregel, 2006], p. 63).

So noting there are around 400,000 variants in the thousands of New Testament manuscripts can sound like a really big deal, but if you know basic textual criticism you will realize it is not. As Timothy Paul Jones notes in his refutation of one of Bart Ehrman’s books,

“Most of these 400,000 variants stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationships between nouns and definite articles – variants that are easily recognizable . . . . In the end, more than 99 percent of the 400,000 differences fall into this category of virtually unnoticeable variants! Of the remaining 1 percent or so of variants, only a few have any significance for interpreting the biblical text. Most important, none of the differences affects any central element of the Christian faith” (Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, [InterVarsity Press, 2007], pp. 43, 44).

The fact is, because New Testament transmission was uncontrolled (unlike in Islam) and very rapid (meaning we have a massive wealth of thousands of early biblical manuscripts to study), the New Testament is thus the best attested book of antiquity which allows textual critical scholars to dispel variants and produce reliable translations. Thus, the New Testament is a living text which cannot be corrupted! As the textual critic Phillip W. Comfort remarks,

Because of the abundant wealth of manuscripts and because several of the manuscripts are dated in the early centuries of the church, New Testament textual scholars have a great advantage over classical textual scholars. The New Testament scholars have the resources to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament with great accuracy, and they have produced some excellent editions of the Greek New Testament.  Finally, it must be said that, although there are certainly differences in many of the New Testament manuscripts, not one fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading” (Phillip W. Comfort, Texts and Manuscripts of the New Testament in The Origin of the Bible, [Tyndale, 2003], p. 189).

Did the Council of Nicaea eliminate other valid Gospels?

In their book Jesus: Prophet of Islam, Muslim authors Muhammad Ata ur-Rahim and Ahmad Thomson falsely claim it was the Council of Nicaea of A.D. 325 which selected which books would be included in the New Testament, and that there were allegedly hundreds if not thousands of gospels they "arbitrarily" chose from (Muhammad Ata ur-Rahim, Ahmad Thomson, Jesus: Prophet of Islam, [TTQ, INC., 2003], p. 105).

However, this is historical fiction which no modern historian would affirm. Their book provides no sources for these claims because there are no meaningful sources which say such things. The Council of Nicaea dealt with combating Arnianism, not the canon of the New Testament. As even the non-Christian critic Bart Ehrman states, “. . . the Council of Nicaea . . . did not deal with the matter of canon” (Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, [Oxford University Press, USA, 2004], p. 93).

For contemporaneous data on the Council of Nicaea including the Nicene Creed, events leading up the Council and the proceedings of the Council see Letter of Eusebius of Cæsarea to the people of his Diocese which is also called Letter on the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, Book III and the Synodal Letter sent out after the council. These sources prove Nicaea dealt with Arianism and had nothing to do with the canon of scripture.

Now, if one looks at the historical evidence regarding which books were accepted among the early Christians prior to the formation of the canon, there were not hundreds or thousands of books which were being considered as legitimate by them. The Muratorian Canon of A.D. 170, Origen’s Canon of the mid third century, and Eusebius’s Canon of the early fourth century etc., accepted basically all the New Testament books Christians today accept. And the books they list as unreliable or forgeries to not be regarded as canon are few in number, not hundreds or thousands. Moreover, they were mostly a few dubious Gnostic forgeries of the second century, not serious first century orthodox books (Gregg R. Alison, Historical Theology, [Zondervan, 2011], pp. 42-44).

Church historian and theologian Gregg R. Allison explains how the canon of the early Christians from second to the fourth century prior to canonization actually looked like thereby refuting this dubious Muslim propaganda:

“It should be noted that nearly all of the New Testament writings that we consider canonical were viewed similarly by the early church: the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and (at least in many circles) the Revelation of John. Several writings that are now considered canonical – James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews – were on the ‘fringe’ of the early church’s canon. . . . Still other writings were on the margins of the early church’s canon but ultimately were not included in the New Testament. The Letter of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and several other works appeared with some consistency in some of the lists of canonical writings. The church eventually recognized that none of these passed the tests of apostolicity and antiquity, and thus they could not be part of the canonical scriptures composing the New Testament” (Gregg R. Alison, Historical Theology, [Zondervan, 2011], pp. 44-45).

This is the true picture of the canon of the early church, not this Muslim lie that there were hundreds or thousands of books being seriously considered as canon. This is the consensus of scholarship.

The aforementioned Letter of Barnabas written between A.D. 100 and 130 (Ferdinand R. Prostmeier, The Epistle of Barnabas, ed. William Pratscher, The Apostolic Fathers, [Baylor University Press, 2010], p. 33) is important to discuss now. This document various Christians in the early church liked is not the same as the later Gospel of Barnabas modern Muslims like and exploit, even though Muslim writers often confuse the two documents. To that issue we now turn.

Is the Gospel of Barnabas the original Gospel?

Because many early Christians liked the theologically sound Epistle of Barnabas written between A.D. 100 and 130, and because there is a later separate forgery called The Gospel of Barnabas which is sympathetic to aspects of Islamic theology (e.g. it talks about Muhammad, denies Jesus’ crucifixion, deity and sonship), Muslim writers often confuse the two writings and claim the early Epistle of Barnabas is the one that teaches Islamic themes even though it doesn’t. Both texts are easily accessible online and anyone can read them to see they are different.

The early Epistle of Barnabas does not deny Jesus’ crucifixion or deity, it clearly affirms those things many times. For example it says, “If therefore the Son of God, who is Lord of all things, and who will judge the living and the dead, suffered, that His stroke might give us life, let us believe that the Son of God could not have suffered except for our sakes” (Epistle of Barnabas, 7 Roberts-Donaldson Translation). And: “. . . if the Lord endured to suffer for our soul, He being Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,’ understand how it was that He endured to suffer at the hand of men” (Epistle of Barnabas, 5 Roberts-Donaldson Translation). So, the early Epistle of Barnabas affirms God the Father spoke to Jesus in Genesis 1:26 saying “let us make man in our image” thus affirming Jesus’ deity and it also affirms Jesus’ sonship and sacrifice for sins.

Now, although the later, separate Gospel of Barnabas does deny Jesus’ crucifixion and deity, that doesn’t matter because this document is a medieval forgery not written by the historical Barnabas. As Muslim scholar Cyril Glassé admits in his book The New Encyclopedia of Islam,

“As regards the ‘Gospel of Barnabas’ itself, there is no question it is a medieval forgery. A complete Italian manuscript exists which appears to be a translation from a Spanish original (which exists in part), written to curry favor with Muslims of the time. It contains anachronisms which can date only from the Middle Ages and not before, and shows a garbled comprehension of Islamic doctrines, calling the Prophet [Muhammad] ‘the Messiah,’ which Islam does not claim for him. . . . stylistically it is a mediocre parody of the Gospels as the writings of Baha Allah are of the Koran” (Cyril Glassé, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, [Altamira Press, 2002], p. 78 parenthesis mine).

Michael Licona lists some of these anachronisms contained in this document proving it is a late forgery,

“. . . the Year of Jubilee is said to occur every one hundred years (chapter 38). However, the Year of Jubilee was celebrated every fifty years until a papal decree in AD 1343, placing the date of writing sometime afterward. Medieval feudalism is mentioned in chapter 122 and medieval court procedures in chapter 121. Someone in the first century would not have known about these things. Wooden wine casks are mentioned in chapter 152 instead of the wineskins which were used in first-century Palestine” (Michael Licona, Paul Meets Muhammad, [Baker Books, 2006], p. 171).

Lastly, in chapter 42 of this forgery Jesus is made to say “I am not the Messiah.” Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah. So why they appeal to this fraudulent document is mysterious. It also says absurd things like Muhammad was the Messiah and that Jesus wasn’t, which even Islamic theology rejects. Islam teaches Jesus was the Messiah.

Thus, the modern Muslim appeal to this document as early proof for Islamic theology is totally erroneous and ridiculous.

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