Anonymous, Modified, Changed, Altered and Edited

by Ibn Anwar

 Many avid Christians both professional and lay would have it that the books of the Bible and the four canonical Gospels namely, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are totally infallible and inerrant containing no errors or mistakes of any kind. This is quite a natural position to take for those fundamentalists who believe in Christianity as the truth and the only avenue that offers the way to salvation. They may naturally feel that questioning the validity of the texts that make up the primary sources of their religion undermines the credibility of the message found therein. Nevertheless, there are conservative, honest and candid Christian scholars who have meticulously studied the 5000 or so manuscripts that support the New Testament who are ready and willing to concede that it is beyond the realm of foolhardiness to claim that the books of the New Testament have never been changed. Indeed, to make such a claim is to commit intellectual suicide in the world of academia. In this article we shall explore the degree of reliability of the four canonical Gospels with respect to their authorship by looking at testimonies of the scholars on Christianity.

 Christian missionaries often peddle the idea that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry. Is there any truth to this claim? Let us see what the Christian scholars(and ex-Christians like Prof. Bart D. Ehrman who nevertheless remain experts in the field of textual criticism)  have to say about this subject.

 When it comes to the New Testament no one will question the primacy of the words attributed to Jesus above all else. That is to say the "words of Jesus" are of greatest import. We read in Matthew 7:24,

"Every one therefore which heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man, which built his house upon the rock:"

See also 2nd John, verse 9

 In the Red-Lettered version of the KJV for example we have the "words of Jesus" highlighted in red. Unfortunately, however, these words although attributed to Jesus are not as reliable as some might want to make them out to be. They are filled with ambiguity, mystery, contradictions, discrepencies and numerous other problems. For starters we have no contemporary record from the time of Jesus. We find the following admissions most telling,

"However desirable it might be to have available records of Jesus' words and deeds that were made during his lifeimte, we must acknowledge that we have none." [1] (emphasis added)

"Reliable knowledge of Jesus, his life and teaching, is limited. The years of his adolescence and young manhood are shrouded in silence, and his active ministry of not over two or three years is treated only briefly in the Gospels. There are only four short accounts of Jesus' ministry, and these record what people though of his as well as what he did and taught. Beyond the narrative of his teachings and actions nothing is known of his personality, physical appearance, or bearing that might account for the remarkable charismatic power which he held over his disciples and the masses who at one time followed him." [2] (emphasis added)

There is no doubt the main source of information regarding Jesus are extracted from the four gospels. Objective and unbiased scholars(even conservative ones) however, have deemed the texts to be subjective and are not honest to detail. We read the following from the Cambridge Companion to the Bible,

"The primary sources of our knowledge of Jesus, therefore, are the gospels: the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But as the title "gospel" (good news), implies, and as the opening word of Mark makes explicit, they are not objective reports but propaganda." [3] (emphasis added)

It continues,

"Since Mark is the shortest of the three synoptic gospels, it has sometimes been assumed that it is an abbreviation of Matthew. Careful comparison among the synoptic Gospels(Matthew, Mark, and Luke) shows, however, that both Matthew and Luke presuppose the contents and the order of Mark, though each of the other writers modifies Mark in order to fulfill hiw own special aims. Passages in Mark that the church later found difficult are either omitted or basically modified." [4] (emphasis added)

  In the book the authors provide a textual example for the above assertions from Mark 6:5 whereby we find that Jesus was not able to do many miracles due to the people's unbelief. Luke totally changes and edits the story and moved it to Luke 4:16-30 and deleted the part about Jesus' inability or deficiency. The same goes with Matthew in Matthew 13:58.

  In fact, contrary to popular Christian belief that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts the Bible scholar and theologian Prof. Raymond E. Brown says,

"The view that the evangelists were not themselves eyewitnesses of the public ministry of Jesus would be held in about 95% of contemporary critical scholarship." [5]

  In the previous article The Oldest Text of the New Testament we saw that Christian missionaries/apologists may claim that the primary sources for Islam are untrustworthy due to the idea that they were compiled over 200 years after the fact i.e. the hadith. Of course this claim is baseless. We know very well that Imam Bukhari was not the first compiler of hadith. For example, we have the famous Muwatta' of Imam Malik, the hadith compilations of Imam Al-Shafi'e, Imam ibn Hanbal and Imam Abu Hanifah etc. all of which predate Sahih Bukhari. Though we may not have their original manuscripts there is hardly any objective scholar who would say that those works that today survive in copies were not written by the scholars they are attributed to. In any case, in Islam besides textual tradition we also have what is called isnad or chain of transmission for our texts that gives further credance to our source materials and something which is non-existent in the Christian tradition. I find it amazing that Christian apologists have the gaul to debase Islam on the basis of late manuscript evidence when it is the exact problem which their religion has. Today, we know for a fact that there are no manuscript evidence for any of the Synoptic Gospels from the 1st or second century that may be deemed reliable. The scholar Helmut Koester readily admits this,

"Since there is no second-century manuscript evidence; the quest for the text of the Synoptic Gospels in the second century is identical with the question of the earliest usage of their text in other writings." [6](emphasis added)

  When studying the gospels and other writings concerning them it is difficult to miss dates that are attributed to the gospels by certain Christian writers. For example, one may commonly come across claims that the Gospel of Mark was written in 70 A.D. You will be able to notice that usually when such claims are made not a shred of evidence is offered as substantiation for the given date. In reality, there is no proof for such dates. They are really made on the basis of nothing short of guess work and conjecture as Dr. Neil S. Fujita testifies,

"Scholars usually assume it to have been written shortly after A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans."

The Christian predicament is compounded further by the fact that these four gospels are absolutely anonymous! Can you imagine your sibling bringing to court an anonymous document which states that he is to inherit more than half the family estate which posthumously came into existence after the death of your parent and the court takes the anonymous will and gives him the said inheritance? No, any reasonable man will eschew such a notion since no court of law in the world will consider such a faulty document that is untraceable to the alleged source as legitimate. This is precisely what we stumble upon when dealing with the Gospels.

 Diocesan priest and professor of Biblical Theology and chairman of the department of theology at Barry University, Miami, John F. O'Grady says about Mark,

"The Gospel itself never states anything about its author, its origin, or the time of composition." [7]

He continues later under the heading "Anonymous Evangelists",

"Who wrote Mark? First, recall that nowhere does the author identify himself. The same is true for all the Gospels. Matthew does not identify himself, nor does Luke, and in the Gospel of John the author seems to identify himself with the beloved disciple, but this cannot be equated with the apostle John(Jn. 21:24).

In the past we have assumed that the authors were male - with emphasis on the word "assumed"." [8] (emphasis added)

The Gospels have been traditionally attributed to the respective names. For instance, Ignatius and Origen thought that the author of Matthew was indeed Matthew, one of the chosen 12 disciples of Jesus. Papias and Iranaeus thought that the author of John was John Mark etc. It would appear today that these early major Church fathers were mistaken in their belief. I wonder where the Holy Spirit was then? Does it not mention that "He will guide you into ALL truth"? Let us now carefully consider the words of Dr. Neil S. Fujita concerning the Gospels,

"Traditionally the writer of the Second Gospel has been identified with John Mark. This identification, however, is uncertain; there exists no evidence in the New Testament which bears out this assertion. For the sake of convenience, we call the author of this Gospel Mark." [9] (emphasis added)

It is merely out of CONVENIENCE that the Gospel is called Mark instead of saying for example the second book of the New Testament, Chapter 5, verse 3. Out of convenicne one may say Mark 5:3. It is not based on grounded knowledge, but, only to facilitate easiness!

Concerning Matthew he writes,

"Traditionally this Gospel has been considered to have been written by Matthew, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. there is nothing to suggest the personal identity of the writer. The very fact that the writer used Mark's Gospel and the Q source well indicates that he was probably not a direct companion of Jesus.

"The use of Mark also points to the date of the composition of the Gospel after A.D. 70. It is a matter of conjecture how much later than 70;" [10] (emphasis added)

Concerning Luke he writes,

"In the opening statement (1:1-4), the author explains the aim and reason for writing the Gospels.for the sake of the "most excellent Theophilus"."

"Since at least the second century A.D., the author has been identified as Luke, "a beloved physician", and a companion of Paul(Col. 4:14). This identification, however, is by no means conclusive; there is no definitive evidence to support it." [11]

So, Luke wrote the Gospel not for the sake of God or Jesus or anything like that. Rather, the "gospel" was written for some unknown guy "Theophilus".

Concerning John he writes,

"At least since the latter part of the second century A.D., this Gospel has been traditionally ascribed to John, the son of Zebedee, but it must have been written after the apostle's time, as it betrays rather clearly a later stage of the theological and historical development of the early Church." [12] (emphasis added)

As we have seen early tradition ascribe Matthew Levi the tax collector, john Mark, Luke the physician and John of Zebedee to the four canonical Gospels, but, we know now that this is nothing more than mere conjecture devoid of proof. The total anonymity of these writings is further confirmed by the scholar Keith F. Nickle,

"It now appears unlikely that any of these identifications is accurate. At any rate the date to verify these ancient traditions sinply are not available." [13]

"We must candidly acknowledge that all three of the Synoptic Gospels are anonymous documents.

.All the Gospels in the New Nestament are anonymous works." [14] (emphasis added)

The Toronto theologian F.W. Beare joins the ranks,

"second century guesses that gave the four canonical gospels the names by which we now know them; for they were originally anonymous documents of whose authors nothing is known." [15] (emphasis added)

In fact, the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were really added later:

"The Gospels that came to be included in the New Testament were all written anonymously; only at a later time were they called by the names of their reputed authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." [16]

The above statement is supported by R.T. France,

"the headings ?According to Matthew' ; ?According to Mark' etc., are not part of the text of the Gospels. are generally believed to have been added early in the second century." [17]

Although his astute observation regarding the anonymity of the gospels is right on the mark, the latter is not so. His mentioning that it is believed that they were added "early in the second century" is yet another example of how the Christian world is awfully filled with nothing short of GUESS WORK! The scholar G. A. Wells contradicts R.T. France's conjecture,

"And so we find Iranaeus (bishop of Lyons about A.D. 180) naming all four as they are now named, and as the first to do so." [18] (emphasis added)

G.A. Wells' observation that they were added later in the second century is supported by Prof. Raymond E. Brown's own words,

"Let me add that the designations that you find in your New Testament, such as "The Gospel According to Matthew"(note that the oldest designation is "According to" and not "of"), are the result of late-second-century scholarship attempting to identify the authors of works that had no identification." [19] (emphasis added)

Prof. Emeritus Edwin D. Freed says,

"Most NT scholars agree that the gospels are anonymous and that the present titles probably were not added until sometime in the second century. Because the form of the title is the same for every gospel, a title was probably given to each only after the gospels had been collected as a group of four. Then the name of a well-known person was included in the superscription of each gospel. But the superscription read,"the gospel according to," not "the gospel by" Matthew or Mark or Luke, so the gospels as we now have them are anonymous." [20] (emphasis added)

Thus we now know that it was only close to the end of the second century that the four Gospels were given the names that they today bear and not just early in the second century as R.T. France claimed.

As if the matter is not bad enough as it is the problem is even further compounded by the fact that many changes, deletions, additions, editing, modification etc. have taken place in the four gospels. Strange as it may seem some of these changes that have been scholarly established as interpolations(fabrications) are still counted as authentic by millions of Christians the world over. Some of these interpolations include the longer ending of Mark 16, the famous story of the adulteress in John 8, Luke 24:12 etc.(Refer to 265-266 in Misquoting Jesus for some ten known interpolations under the top 10 list at the end of the book).

Further more, we now know that numerous other Gospels existed alongside the four chosen ones e.g. the Gospel of Peter. Many of you might be wondering as to what were the reasons behind choosing the four as they are found in today's canon and discarding a whole lot of others. Fear not. Iraneus who was one of the early Church fathers tells us why,

"it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel. it is fitting that she should have four pillars."(Against Heresies 3.11.7) [21]

In other words, the gospels were chosen because there are four winds and four zones. It is not because God decreed it so! In fact, none of the Gospels ever claimed inspiration and to have composed books meant for the entire world with universal teachings that are to last until judgment day. Keith F. Nickle says,

"The widespread popularity that each of he Gospels eeventually enjoyed far surpassed the modest goals for which the evangelists originally composed them. Much less could they have conceived in their most extreme fantasies, twenty centuries of continuous use of their documents by generations of Christians. They were simply writing their Gospels for their community.

  When Christians later did make a wider use of the Gospels, they were employing them for purposes and situations beyond the uses for which they were originally designed." [22]

After taking into considerastion all of the above information on the gospels can one still honestly claim that they are absolutely reliable beyond any shadow of doubt? I believe it is safe to declare a resounding NO!



[1] Howard Clark Kee, Eric M. Meyers, John Rogerson, Anthony J. Saldarini. The Cambridge Companion to the Bible(1997). Cambridge, U.K. : Cambridge University Press. p. 447

[2] Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin. Toward Understanding the New Testament(1990). Salt Lake City: Signature Books. p. 30

[3]  Howard Clark Kee, Eric M. Meyers, John Rogerson, Anthony J. Saldarini. Op. Cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Raymond E. Brown. Response to 101 Questions on the Bible(1990). Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press. p. 59-60

[6] Helmut Koester. the Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century, Gospel Traditions in the Second Century(1989). Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 19

[7] John F. O'Grady. The Four Gospels and the Jesus Tradition(1989). New Jersey: Paulist Press. p. 67

[8] Ibid. p. 68

[9] Neil S. Fujita. Introducing the Bible(1981). New Jersey: Paulist Press. p. 123

[10] Ibid. p. 129

[11] Ibid. p.134

[12] Ibid. p. 140

[13] Keith F. Nickle. The Synoptic Gospels(2001). Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 43

[14] Ibid. 84

[15] F.W. Beare. The Earliest Records of Jesus(1964). Oxford: Blackwell. p.13

[16] Bart D. Ehrman. Lost Christianities(2005). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 3

[17] R.T. France. The Evidence for Jesus(1986). London: Hodder and Stoughton. p. 122

[18] G.A. Wells. Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record(1989). Illinois, La Salle: Open Court. p. 1

[19] Raymond E. Brown. Op. Cit. p. 60

[20] Edwin D. Freed. The New Testament, A Critical Introduction(2001). Wadsworth. p. 123

[21] Bart D. Ehrman. Misquoting Jesus(2007). New York: HarperSanFrancisco. p. 35

[22] Keith F. Nickle. Op. Cit. p. 169