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The Trustworthiness of the Gospel Narrative
(The First Three Gospels)

Critical Questions : being a course of Sermons delivered in St Mark's Church, Marylebone Road, N.W. By A.F. Kirkpatrick, H.B. Swete, R.J. Knowling, A. Robertson, W. Sanday, A.C.Headlam, With a Preface by James Adderley (London: S.C. Brown, Langham and Compagny, Ltd. 1903,29-56

That thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.”
St. Luke 1,4.

These words explain the motive by which the author of the Third Gospel was led to compose his work, and doubtless a similar purpose was in the minds of those who wrote the First and the Second. At first it was thought sufficient to impart certain facts by word of mouth to converts who sought for Christian baptism; they were orally instructed in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But oral teaching cannot rise to the “certainty” of the written document; it lacks the precision of the latter, and it does not inspire equal confidence. The Church soon began to feel the need of memoirs of the events on which her faith and hope are based, and the Synoptic Gospels, as the first three of our Gospels are called, were among the early attempts which were made to supply this want.

At the outset Christianity was not a literary or book religion. Jesus Christ committed nothing to paper; on the one occasion when He is said to have written, He wrote with His finger on the dust of the Temple-court pavement. Nor did He delegate to His disciples the duty of writing down His words or actions. More than once He spoke of a future preaching of the Gospel to all nations, and He even foretold that a particular incident in His life would find a place in that preaching; but of a written Gospel there is not a word in His recorded sayings. There is nothing surprising in this, for Jewish teachers were accustomed to impress their teaching on their disciples by frequent repetition, trusting to memory for its reproduction. On memory, then, the disciples of Christ would naturally rely for their report of His sayings and deeds. They had been promised supernatural aid in their efforts to recall them, and, as a matter of fact, the things which they had seen and heard came back to them in a surprising way. But to write down their recollections was an after-thought, which probably occurred to their converts rather than to themselves.

When the idea of writing Apostolic memoirs had once taken hold of the Church there was no lack of writers. Many took in hand to “draw up a narrative” of the Gospel history. Of these written “Gospels,” as they soon came to be called, the Church accepted four only as authoritative. They are the four which we read to-day. Although no copy of our Gospels now exists which is older than the fourth century, yet they are so largely quoted by Christian writers from the middle of the second century onwards that there cannot be the slightest doubt of the substantial identity of our books with those that were read in the great centres of early Christian life, at Rome and at Lyons, at Carthage and at Alexandria.

If it be asked to what these four Gospels owed their pre-eminence in the judgment of the second century, the answer seems to be clear: they were attributed to Apostles or to companions of Apostles. The First and the Fourth were believed to be the work of St. Matthew and St. John respectively; the Second and the Third came, it was held, from disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul.

This attribution, though so early, must not, of course, be assumed to be correct. The titles of the Gospels are not part of the originals, which are in fact anonymous. Before the claim made on their behalf by Irenaeus and other early writers can be accepted, it must be subjected to rigorous criticism.

In the case of the First Gospel, the evidence as to St. Matthew's authorship is far from convincing. It is true that Papias, whose memory went back to the Apostolic age, says that “Matthew wrote the Oracles,” which may mean that he wrote a Gospel. But he adds that Matthew wrote “in the Hebrew tongue,” whereas our present Gospel of St. Matthew is written in Greek, and is clearly not a translation but an original work. It cannot, therefore, be the book intended by Papias. It may, indeed, embody St. Matthew's “Oracles,” or a part of them; and the persistent tradition which connects it with his name seems to point in that direction. But all that we can say with certainty is that the writer was a Palestinian Christian, and that he wrote in the first century. As to the origin of the Second Gospel we have more definite information. Papias tells us that Mark attended St. Peter as his interpreter or dragoman, and afterwards wrote down from memory the words and acts of Christ as Peter reported them in his public teaching. This statement receives apparently independent confirmation from three great centres of early Christianity, and there is some reason for believing that the Second Gospel was known to the Church as the “Memoirs of Peter,” before it came to be called “the Gospel according to St. Mark.” Internal evidence is favourable to the Petrine origin of St. Mark. It is distinguished by a freshness and a movement, a simplicity and a directness, which suggest that it came from an eye-witness, and one such as St. Peter, the eager and vigilant Apostle who was our Lord's most prominent disciple.

The third of the Synoptic Gospels tells its own story. It is clearly the first part of a larger work of which the Acts of the Apostles formed the second; and though neither the Gospel nor the Acts bears the name of the author, the evidence which identifies him with Luke, the “beloved physician” of St. Paul, is sufficient to satisfy a reasonable criticism. 1 need not enter into the question of the Lucan authorship of the Acts, which will be discussed in another sermon. <note 1> But assuming that St. Luke wrote the Acts, he also wrote the Gospel, for it is admitted that the two books show the hand of the same author. Now St. Luke was not only a personal disciple of St. Paul, but he was with St. Paul in Palestine for some considerable time during the years 56-59; and he then had opportunities for collecting materials for his Gospel from persons who had been taught by the older Apostles, and from Jarnes the brother of the Lord. That Luke made good use of these opportunities it is fair to infer from the preface to his Gospel. We may therefore reasonably expect to find in the Third Gospel genuine reminiscences of the life of Christ, gleaned on the spot, and in part at least from first-hand evidence.

We will now examine the Gospels themselves with the view of ascertaining the sources of their information. Here we shall not go far without discovering that the Synoptic Gospels contain a large proportion of common matter. If we write or print St. Mark's Gospel in a central column, placing St. Matthew and St. Luke in parallel columns on either side, it will appear that nearly the whole of St. Mark is either in St. Matthew or in St. Luke, and that the greater part is in both. But that is not all. Further examination will show that St. Mark, on the whole, is nearer to the original form of the common tradition than either St. Matthew or St. Luke. The opinion is growing among scholars that St. Matthew and St. Luke had before them, when they wrote, either our present St. Mark, or a document closely akin to it; and that they incorporated the substance of it into their history. Thus for the whole framework of the Gospel, history we are ultimately dependent upon the source whence St. Mark drew his narrative: in other words, as we have seen, upon the teaching of St. Peter.

It must not, however, be supposed that St. Matthew and St. Luke simply reproduced St. Mark. If we go through the First and Third Gospels and strike out everything that they have in common with the Second, there will still remain a large element which is common to St. Matthew and St. Luke, and also certain passages of considerable length which are peculiar to one or the other of them. The element which is common to both consists largely of discourses of our Lord, in which, you will remember, St. Mark is singularly deficient. It is to this that we owe in particular the great body of teaching which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. From what sources the materials of the Sermon were taken we do not know; but the man who can suppose that it was produced by the Apostolic Church after the Master's death shows himself incapable of forming an opinion on questions of literary history. The sayings which compose the Sermon on the Mount are differently grouped by the two Evangelists, and to some extent differently expressed; but the teaching they embody bears unmistakable marks of having proceeded from the Master Himself. Nor can any reasonable critic doubt the origin of that great series of parables which is peculiar to St. Luke. Whatever may have been the channel through which they reached the Evangelist, there was but one mind in that age, or indeed in any other, which could have conceived the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son, the Unjust Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Widow and the Judge, the Pharisee and the Publican. Renan has called St. Luke's Gospel the most beautiful book in the world. But its unique beauty is largely due to the access possessed by St. Luke to a chapter in our Lord's life and teaching which was unknown to the other Evangelists.

The opening sections of St. Matthew and St. Luke call for special notice. The Infancy and Childhood of Christ found no place in the witness of the Apostles, whose association with our Lord did not begin till He was thirty years of age. Consequently the Petrine memoirs, our Gospel of St. Mark, are silent on this subject. To St. Peter the baptism of Christ, and not His birth, was “the beginning of the Gospel.” From whence, then, did the first and third of the Evangelists obtain their information? It is to be observed that their accounts are wholly independent. They have nothing in common here beyond the bare facts of the miraculous conception, and the birth at Bethlehem; and even these are approached from different points of view. There is, therefore, a double tradition of the Infancy. The accounts are complementary, and not mutually subversive; but they have evidently come from two distinct sources. Our thoughts naturally turn to Joseph and Mary. It is remarkable that while St. Matthew's account looks at the whole matter from Joseph's point of view, St. Luke deals with the story as it affects the Lord's mother. Throughout the story in St. Matthew St. Joseph is prominent. It is Joseph who receives the announcement of the conception; it is Joseph who takes the Child and His mother into Egypt, who brings them back, who decides to settle in Nazareth; whereas in St. Luke it is always Mary who is in the foreground of the picture. This fact suggests very forcibly that St. Matthew's story came from the circle of Joseph's acquaintances, while St. Luke's was derived, either directly, or through members of the Church of Jerusalem, from the Mother of Christ.

The Virgin Birth of our Lord is the subject of another sermon in this series, <note 2> and 1 will say no more about it now. But it raises the whole question of the Gospel miracles, and with that question I must deal as fully as time will allow.

We have seen that the verdict of the second century as to the origin of the Synoptic Gospels is on the whole uphold by recent research. Both external and internal evidence point to the oral teaching of the Apostles as the principal source of their contents, and to the immediate disciples of the Apostles as the circle among whom the books took their present form. They have, therefore, a strong a prioiri claim to be regarded as trustworthy records; indeed, few passages in ancient history have such early and satisfactory attestation as the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet there is one circumstance which, in the judgment of many persons, more than counterbalances all that can be said for the credibility of tile Gospels. They are undoubtedly full of the miraculous, and the miraculous, it is widely assumed, cannot be historically true. This objection is not to be met by an attempt to shake the miracles of the Gospels apart from the rest of the history. The miracles of the Gospels are not an accretion which may be removed by critical processes, but a thread which runs through the whole tissue of the narrative. Nor is there the slightest reason for supposing that the story was ever nonmiraculous. The earliest of our Gospels, St. Mark, is not less deeply impregnated with the supernatural than the other two, and no ingenuity can purge it of miracles.

If, then, miracles are under no circumstances credible, the Gospels, notwithstanding all that has been said or can be said on their behalf, must be pronounced unhistorical, so far as they relate miraculous events. This conclusion in its crudest form has been felt by not a few serious inquirers to be intolerable, and they have sought relief from it by distinguishing between miracles of healing which may be explained by the action of the human will upon human beings brought under its power, and miracles of a cosmic or purely physical character which find no parallel in our experience. The distinction is interesting and real, and it may be welcomed by believers, because it enables many persons to accept as historical much in the Gospel story which they would otherwise have felt themselves bound to reject. “Who can say,” asks Dr. Harnack of Berlin, “how far the influence of soul upon soul and of soul upon body reaches? who can still maintain that any extraordinary phenomenon that may appear in this domain is entirely based on error and delusion?” “In our present state of knowledge,” he adds, “we have become more careful, more hesitating in our judgment; … that the lame walked, the blind saw, and the deaf heard, will not be so summarily dismissed as an illusion.” <note 3> This is well said, and it strikes a note which will awaken a response in many minds. But it does not dispose of the difficulty; for the miracles of the Gospels were not all wrought upon intelligent subjects able to respond to the Master's will by the answer of a personal faith. Some of them were wrought upon inanimate matter, and it has been observed that these belong to the common tradition. The stilling of the storm, the feeding of the five thousand, the raising of the daughter of Jairus, are all imbedded in the narrative of St. Mark. If these narratives are in their very nature incredible, it is evident that the most important of the sources of the Gospel history has been corrupted by the imagination or the dishonesty of its author.

But are miracles incredible under the circumstances which the Gospels presuppose? The Life which they describe is confessedly unique in the history of man; the Personality has no equal. In purity, in majesty, in strength, in sweetness, in love, Christ stands alone and unapproachable; His character is altogether beyond our experience; it is human, and yet superhuman; there is in it that which corresponds with our idea of the Divine. Consider whether the wonders which the Gospels attribute to the Person of Christ are not consistent with their presentation of His life. Realise to yourself, if you can, the Christ-life; place yourself in its presence, and then ask whether it still seems to you unnatural that this Man should still storms and walk on waves and raise the dead. Both the character and the works are supernatural, that is, they are equally beyond experience; but they are consistent, they are of a piece; they form a dramatic unity which cannot be broken. The character, it will be admitted, is historical; it could not have been imagined. As little could miracles, such as Jesus is said to have wrought, have been imagined by the men of His generation; what signs of Messiahship or of Godhead they would have devised may be seen by comparing the miracles of the Apocryphal Gospels with those of the Synoptists. The Synoptic miracles display a dignity, a reserve of power, a purpose of love, a didactic aim, which are in harmony with the character of Christ, and cannot fail to impress the reader who comes to them with an open mind.

If there should be any present to whom a physical miracle is still inconceivable, even when attributed to Christ and consistent with all else that we know of Him, 1 would invite them to fix their thoughts for the present on the character and teaching of Jesus as they are to be gathered out of the Gospels. Even if He never wrought a single miracle, if the stories told of His power over Nature are untrustworthy, the Person who is the centre of the Gospel narrative deserves the closest study from all thoughtful men. I venture to endorse here the counsel which Professor Harnack gave to the six hundred students at Berlin who heard his lectures on Christianity. “We must not try,” he says, <note 4> “to evade the Gospel by entrenching ourselves behind the miraculous stories related by the Evangelists. … If there is anything here which you find unintelligible, put it quietly aside. Perhaps you will have to leave it there for ever; perhaps the meaning will dawn upon you later, and the story assume a significance of which you never dreamt.” Perhaps, 1 will add, the day may come when you will find in the faith of the Incarnation a complete answer to your doubt.

Meanwhile, however, let us set the miracles on one side, and interrogate the Gospels on other points where we can test their trustworthiness. They spread before us a large canvas covered with scenes taken from the life of the time and country in which our Lord moved. This life was peculiarly complex. Let me give a single instance. From Capernaum to Jerusalem the distance is but eighty miles, as the bird flies; yet in passing from one place to the other the Lord and His disciples came under another form of government, and the physical, social, and religious conditions were also changed in many important particulars. This variety of circumstances is depicted by the Evangelists with great minuteness, not in introductory chapters or separate paragraphs, but unartificially, and as a part of the story. Incidental references of this kind expose a writer, as you know, to numerous pitfalls, unless he is either a contemporary and has been upon the spot, or has made himself intimately acquainted with the age and country of which he writes. But the scrutiny of generations of scholars has failed to detect anachronisms or other blunders in the allusions which the Gospels make to the immediate surroundings of the Ministry and Passion. Here and there statements as to points of history and chronology have been challenged; but the local colouring, the references to strictly contemporary events, the numerous side-glances at politics and the religious questions of the day are, so far as they can be tested, true and exact. This is the more remarkable when we remember that the earliest of the Gospels was written more than thirty years after the events, and the other two after the destruction of Jerusalem and the downfall and dispersion of the Jewish people. The state of things which they describe is that of the time of Christ, not that of the time of the writers; and this impression is deepened by every fresh reading of the books. I do not see how it is possible to avoid the inference that the substance and most of the setting of the Gospels is earlier by a generation at least than the date of their composition – in other words, that they, in substance, the witness of contemporaries.

The evidence of all this is in part accessible only to the student. But much of it is before the eyes of every intelligent and thoughtful reader of the English Bible. Let any one who doubts the trustworthiness of the Synoptic Gospels read afresh with attention the earliest of the three, the Memoirs of Simon Peter, written by his interpreter, John Mark; and ask himself whether it does not bear upon its surface the hall-mark of reality. No book that ever was written is less a work of art, and yet none is more instinct with life. In Galilee the figures which move across the stage are those of fishermen and toll-gatherers, Rabbis from Jerusalem and courtiers from Tiberias, disciples of John and disciples of Jesus, and a mixed crowd brought by the great roads from all parts of Palestine. We follow the Master into the Synagogue, or into Peter's house, or as He passes along the shore or steps into the boat. His teaching is full of the surroundings in the midst of which He moves. We see the sower or the reaper at work in the cornfields upon the hills above the Lake, the mustard plant growing to the size of a tree in the rich plain of Gennesaret, the peasants' houses scantily furnished with bed and pallet, lamp and lampstand, wine-skin and cup; the wayfaring man passes by with his girded tunic, with sandals on his feet, and a wallet slung across his back; before us is the little lake, usually still and smiling, but at times thrown into wild disorder by gales sweeping down upon it from the western hills; on the eastern shore are the downs on which the swineherds feed their charge, and from which now and again a savage maniac, who has made this wilderness his dwelling-place, rushes out upon the traveller. We pass from Galilee, and all is changed. We are in the Temple-court, and we see the money-changers and the vendors of sacrifices at their work, and the country folk from Bethany carrying their wares across the court on their way to the city. The Scribes are no longer, as in Galilee, the leaders of society; in Jerusalem the place of honour belongs to the chief priests, and the Pharisees are confronted by the Sadducees, of whom little or nothing was heard in the North. It is in the Temple, and not in the Synagogue or the open country, that the crowd collects to hear the Master teach. This faithfulness to the surroundings of the narrative makes for the general trustworthiness of the sources.

Can the Gospels be equally trusted when they draw the picture of their central character? Is the Christ, as they portray Him, an historic person, or is He the creation of the Evangelists, or of their Apostolic predecessors? It is not uncommon for disciples to glorify their master when he is gone, until their loyal appreciation grows into a cult, and a false lustre is shed upon words or deeds which do not rise above ordinary standards. May not something of this kind have occurred in reference to the Synoptic portraiture of Christ? May it not be a glorified image of Jesus of Nazareth, and not a true likeness of His very self ? Such a view may plausibly, though not, I think, rightly, be taken of the presentation of Christ in the Fourth Gospel, or in the Epistles of St. Paul; but it will not bear examination in connection with the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Christ calls Himself the Son of man, a name which is but once or twice given to Him by His followers. He reveals His Messiahship only by degrees, and not publicly until just before the end. He lives with the Twelve on terms of intimacy; Peter once even ventures to rebuke Him. His Transfiguration is the one occasion on which His superhuman glory is revealed, and the three witnesses are forbidden to speak of it during His lifetime. He is “meek and lowly in heart”; He is at home with poor folk and little children; He sends the rich empty away. Adoration is rarely offered to Him; He does not even accept the title of “Good Master,” without protesting against a possible misapprehension. This is not such a conception of Christ as could have originated in the Apostolic age. Still less was it suggested by Jewish expectations; a Messiah who refused a crown, who lived the life of an itinerant teacher, who suffered the death of the Cross, was not such a Messiah as any Jew of the time looked for or desired. Whence, then, came the picture of the Christ which the three Synoptic Gospels consistently offer? 1 can see no escape from the conclusion that it was drawn from life. The Central Figure of the Gospel story, no less than the surroundings, bears the stamp of truth.

The Christian faith does not stand or fall with the trustworthiness of the Gospels. If it could be proved that the Gospels were the work of the second century, and of little value as historical documents, the Church would have lost one line of defence; but others would remain. The Gospel was preached to the world before a single Gospel was written, and the Gospel would continue to be preached if all the written Gospels were discredited or destroyed. There would remain the witness of the Church and Sacraments; there would remain the witness of the Spirit of Christ in the individual life: “he that believeth hath the witness in himself.” There would remain also the work of Christ in the world, and the gesta Christi, the great effects wrought by Christianity upon the world, which have raised modern life with all its faults so immeasurably above the standard of purity attained by Greece and Rome. The men who think that they strike a deadly blow at Christianity by casting doubt on the Gospels, altogether miscalculate the strength of the Christian position. Nevertheless they are capable of inflicting grievous injury upon those who are influenced by their representations. Such persons often cast away, together with their faith in the Gospels, all belief in the supreme claim of Christ; or, at best, Christ becomes for them a mere symbol for vague and uncertain ideals of goodness. Never was it more imperative that Christians should possess a definite faith resting on a sure foundation of fact. It is an age of rapid change, of transition from the old order to a new; all knowledge is called in question; all beliefs go into the crucible of an exacting, yet often hasty and imperfect analysis. In religion, at least, we need to feel the ground under our feet; we must have, if not certainty, yet such relative security as the nature of the case allows. It was in order that the Church might for all time possess that security that the Gospels were written. Read them with serious attention. Read them with the simple desire of knowing and obeying the truth, and they will work in you a growing conviction, strong enough for the needs of your personal life, that the Christ to whom they bear witness is a great reality, that the story of His life and death and resurrection is not a fable cunningly devised, or idly imagined, but a splendid and a saving fact.

Books for study and reference

The following are a few of the best known and most accessible books in English upon the study of the Synoptic Gospels. An asterisk has been placed before those which are suitable for readers who are beginning the study of the subject.

1. The Text of the Gospels Synoptically Arranged.

  • *Edwin A. Abbott & W.G. Rushbrooke, The Common Tradition of the Synoptic Gospels in the Text of the Revised Version (London: Macmillan and Co., 1884). Or,
  • *Wright, Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek (Macmillan).
  • W. G. Rushbrooke, Synopticon: An Exposition of the Common Matter of the Synoptic Gospels (London: Macmillan: 1880). .

2. On the Synoptic Problem.

  • *Robinson, On the Study of the Gospels (Longmans).
  • *Bennett and Adeney, Biblical Introduction, N.T. ch. ii. (Methuen).
  • *Sanday, Book by Book: the Synoptic Gospels (Isbister).
  • F. H. Woods, "The Origin and Mutual Relation of the Synoptic Gospels" in Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica: Essays Chiefly in Biblical and Patristic Criticism, by members of the University of Oxford 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890): 59-104
  • Sanday, Gospels (Supplement), in Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, edition 2 (Murray).
  • Sanday, Survey of the Synoptic Question, in the Expositor, IV. iii. (Hodder and Stoughton).
  • Stanton, Gospels, in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible (T. and T. Clark).
  • Sir John C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae: Contributions to the Study of the Synoptic Problem (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899; 2d ed., revised and supplemented,1909).

3. On Introduction.

  • *Bennett and Adeney, Biblical Introduction, N. T. ch. i. (Methuen).
  • *Bacon, Introduction to the New Testament (Macmillan Co., N.Y.).
  • Westoott, Introduction to the Gospels (Macmillan).
  • Salmon, Introduction to the New Testament : Lectures i.-xi. (Murray).
  • Weiss, Manual of Introduction to the New Testament (Hodder and Stoughton).

4. On the Life, Teaching, and Times of Jesus Christ.

  • *Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Longmans).
  • *Latham, Pastor Pastorum (Deighton and Bell).
  • *Moorhouse, The Teaching of Christ (Macmillan).
  • *Stapfer, Palestine in the Time of Christ (Hodder and Stoughton).
  • Sanday, Jesus Christ, in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible (T. and T. Clark).
  • Weise, Life of Christ (T. and T. Clark).
  • Schüser, History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (T. and T. Clark).
  • Dalman, Words of Jesus (T. and T. Clark).

5. On the other Subjects connected with the Study of the Gospels.

  • *Criticism of the New Testament, Lectures by Sanday, Kenyon, Burkitt, Chase, Headlam, J.H. Bernard (Murray).
  • *Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient MSS. (Eyre and Spottiswoode).
  • Kenyon, Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Macmillan).
  • Westcott, History of the Canon of the New Testament (Macmillan).
  • Sanday, Inspiration (Longmans).
  • Smith, G. A., Historical Geography of the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton).
  • Turner, Chronology of the New Testament, in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible (T. and T. Clark).

Note 1: See Sermon III.

Note 2: See Sermon V.

Note 3: What is Christianity? (Mr.T. Bailey Saunders' translation of Das Wesen des Christentums), p. 27f. Dr. Harnack, it is fair to say, “does not believe that a storm was quieted by a word.”

Note 4: What is Christianity p.29.