Reliability of the Gospels

by Maulana Muhammad Ali

The Light (Pakistan), 1st February 1922 Issue (Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 2–4)

The earliest existing manuscript of the Gospels that was found in 1859 is a Greek manuscript which, we are told, was made about the middle of the fourth century after Jesus Christ. Being found on Mount Sinai in the Convent of St. Catherine, it is known as the Sinaiticus.

Another, known as the Alexandrinus, which is now in the British Museum, belongs to the fifth century.

Another, called the Vatican, belongs to the fourth century, but is incomplete.

And these are said to be the three chief manuscripts.

As to their condition and reliability, I will quote, not a critic, but a commentator of the Bible, the Rev. J.R. Dummelow:

“To begin with, the writers of the Gospels report in Greek (although they may have had some Aramaic sources) the sayings of Jesus Christ, who for the most part probably spoke Aramaic. Nor is it likely that these writers or their copyists had any idea that their records would go beyond the early Churches with which they themselves were familiar.

The same applies to St. Paul. His letters, now so valued, were messages only intended for the Churches to which they were addressed. Those who first copied them would not regard them at all ‘Sacred’ in our sense of the word.

Nor even in the later centuries do we find that scrupulous regard for the sacred text which marked the transmission of the Old Testament. A copyist would sometimes put in not what was in the text, but what he thought ought to be in it. He would trust a fickle memory, or he would even make the text accord with the views of the school to which he belonged.

Besides this, an enormous number of copies are preserved. In addition to these versions and quotations from the early Christian Fathers, nearly four thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are known to exist. As a result, the variety of readings is considerable.”

What reliance can be placed on documents which were transmitted so carelessly and with such additions and alterations by the scribes? Even their authorship and the date of writing are absolutely uncertain.

The first of the canonical Gospels is advertised as the Gospel according to St. Matthew, who was an Apostle. But it is certain that that Gospel was never written by him. It was written by some unknown hand. The story of its authorship as given by the commentator, whom I have quoted above, is that probably St. Matthew had written in Hebrew a book of “Logia” or “Oracles”, which is not to be met with anywhere, except that Papias, writing in A.D. 130, credits St. Matthew with the composition of such a book.

“Of a Greek translation of these ‘Logia’, our author seems to have made such liberal use, that he ack­nowledged his obligations to the Apostle by calling his work ‘according to Matthew.’”

This explanation speaks for itself. St. Matthew may have written a certain book which is not met with anywhere except in the reference in Papias. The rest is all a conjecture. There is not the slightest evidence that the unknown author of the first Gospel had a copy of this book or of its translation in the Greek, nor that he made any liberal use of it. The conjecture is based simply on the fact that he called it the Gospel according to St. Matthew, but he might have done it as well if he had only the oral traditions of St. Matthew.

The next Gospel is that of St. Mark, who was a companion of St. Peter, and the following testimony as recorded by Papias about A.D. 130 is relied upon in ascribing the authorship of the Gospel to him:

“Mark, having become (or having been) Peter’s interpreter, wrote all that he remembered (or, all that Peter related) though he did not (record) in order that which was said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him, but subsequently, as I said, (attached himself) to Peter, who used to frame his teachings to meet the (immediate) wants (of his hearers), and not as making a connected narrative of the Lord’s discourses.”

Even if we accept this evidence, the Gospel of St. Mark may be said to have been based on the oral tradition of Peter, but even this evidence does not make it certain that the Gospel in our hands was actually written by St. Mark, and higher criticism favours the view that he was only the author of the nucleus of the present Gospel ascribed to him.

St. Luke too was not a disciple of Jesus, but a disciple of the Apostles, and he is said to have followed St. Paul.

And as regards the fourth Gospel [John], there is no doubt that it is a much later composition.

As regards the dates of the various Gospels, the most favourable view as regards the first three Gospels is that they were written about the year A.D. 70, but higher criticism favours a much later date, and internal evidence is regarded to point to this conclusion.

In a discussion as to the date of canonical Matthew, we are told that

“many are disposed to bring down the date of the entire Gospel as late as to A.D. 130.”

An earlier date can only be admitted if a great many passages may be treated as later interpolations.

As regards the date of St. Luke, the conclusion arrived at is that

“the year A.D. 100 will be the superior, and somewhere about A.D. 110, the inferior, limit of the date of its composition” (Encyclopaedia Biblica).

The considerations as the authorship, the date, and the transmission of the Gospels, the very large variety of manuscripts and readings, and the undeniable existence of interpolations in them, reduce their creditability to the minimum; and hence a criticism of them in the Encyclopaedia Biblica leads the Rev. E.A. Abbot to raise a very important question:

“The foregoing sections may have sometimes seemed to raise a doubt whether any credible elements were to be found in the Gospels at all.”

The answer to this question is that, in all the Gospels, the following five passages may be treated as surely credible:

1. The passage that shows that Jesus refused to be called sinless:

“Why callest then me good; there is none good but one; that is, God” (Mark, 10:18).

2. The passage shows that he held that blasphemy against himself could be forgiven:

“All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgive unto men” (Mark, 12:31).

3. The passage that shows that his own mother and his brethren had no faith in him and that they sincerely thought that he was mad:

“And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him; for they said, he is besides himself” (Mark, 3:21).

From 5:31, it appears that these friends were his own mother and brothers.

4. The passage that shows that Jesus Christ had no knowledge of the Unseen:

“Of that day and of that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the son but the Father.” [Mark, 13:32; Matthew, 24:36]

5. The passage that speaks of the cry of despair that he uttered on the cross:

“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew, 27:46).

To these five are added four others dealing with his miracles, and these nine passages are said to be

“the foundation pillars for a truly scientific life of Jesus.”