Posts Tagged ‘authors of the gospels’

We all know the Christmas story, although there are a number of elements that we commonly associate with it that we probably shouldn’t. Some of these include:

Jesus was born on December 25. Actually, nowhere in the Bible are we given the date of Jesus’ birth, and shepherds would not likely have been in the fields in late December. The truth is we can’t even be certain of the year.

The manger scene as we normally picture it is almost certainly not accurate. There were no “inns” as we know the term today. Actually the word commonly translated as “inn” is only used two other times in the New Testament in Mark 14:14 and its parallel passage, Luke 22:11. There it refers to the room where Jesus and His disciples had the Last Supper. Jesus may even have been born in a house that took Joseph and Mary in. In the ancient world animals were often kept within the house, sometimes on the first floor while the family slept on a second floor. So, if there was no room on the second floor, Joseph and Mary may have been placed with the animals on the first floor. The point is that the cute little manger scene probably does not reflect what really happened.

The wise men were not there. Luke says nothing about wise men; that account is found in Matthew. The Magi as the Greek refers to them (we get the word “magic” from the name) were probably astrologers. That’s why the star meant something to them. And the wise men find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew says nothing about them coming from Nazareth.

The visit of the wise men may have been when Jesus was two years old. Matthew has Herod killing all male children two years and under. In the tiny village of Bethlehem Herod would have killed at most a dozen children, not enough to merit a place in history. Herod was known for doing much worse.

I am not attempting to discourage our traditions. Traditions can be powerful expressions of faith and meaning. I just thought it might be interesting to consider some of the questions that can be applied to what we have come to call “the Christmas story.”

We also tend to picture Christmas in one of two ways. We may remember Christmas from our childhood—for some of us quite long ago. The other picture has been implanted in our minds by Charles Dickens. Because of his famous story, A Christmas Carol, our minds almost unconsciously bring up images of Victorian England.

Nothing is wrong with either of these images; I tend to use them as well. At the same time, we should recognize that Christmas is not exclusively American or European. The message of Christmas is for all people in all ages. Below is a page from the Codex Vaticanus, showing what we have come to label as Luke 2:4—29. This early manuscript of course has neither chapters nor verses. It dates to approximately AD 325. Actually, the earliest manuscript that contains this story is p45 and it dates from about AD 225, a hundred years earlier than the Vaticanus.

Luke 2 Vaticanus

I would suggest that as we  look at the page from the Vaticanus, we pause to remember two things. First of all, the Christmas story is not a Victorian invention. As much as we may have buried its message in commercialism, it is still a part of the Christian message that goes back to the time Luke was originally written.

Also, Christmas is not an invention of Western culture. While it is meaningful to us, it is just as much for all people in all times. The story of Christmas is after all a message of hope and redemption, and all of us need that in some way.

While the King James Version may not be the best translation of the Greek text, its message has resonated for centuries, and it still speaks to us today. I leave you with it, just as it was spelled in the 1611 version.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good wil towards men.

And don’t forget to listen to this version of the Christmas story.


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In some respects the story of the woman taken in Adultery found in John 7:53—8:11 may be the most significant textual problem in the New Testament. While this passage does not contain any doctrinal issues that should concern us, the message of forgiveness is significant

I want to avoid going into too much textual detail, recognizing that most of my readers do not have the background or probably the interest in pursuing that. At the same time, some details are necessary to understand the evidence.

Virtually all of the textual variants we will consider require examining first the most ancient Greek manuscripts to see how they read. Other versions (translations) may also be considered, but obviously Greek manuscripts are critical, because the New Testament books were originally written in Greek.

So what is the evidence for including this passage in John? The first manuscript to contain it is Codex D (5th century). After that, we do not find it in any other Greek manuscript until the 9th century, although it is included in a large number of later medieval manuscripts. It is also included in the Latin Vulgate (late 4th century).  The passage is also included in several Old Latin manuscripts which would take its origin back to at least the 2nd century.

Arguing against the authenticity of the passage, we find that it is not included in virtually any of the earliest manuscripts, including p66 and p75 (@ AD 200) or codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (4th century). At the same time, we should recognize that p66, p75, as well as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus all have what are referred to as diacritical marks at this location, which may well be an indication that the scribes were aware of this passage. Codices A and C (5th century) are missing at this point, but apparently scholars have measured the amount of space and determined that there would not have been enough room to have included the passage in these manuscripts.

This passage has another serious problem. While most manuscripts that include it place it in its traditional location after John 7, some manuscripts have it elsewhere. Different manuscripts place this passage after: Luke 21:38; Luke 24:53; John 7:36; or at the end of John. This indicates that while the passage was recognized, scribes were uncertain as to where it should go.

All of this makes it difficult to see this passage as original. At the same time, possible references to it in other writings tend to take the passage back at least to the second century.

It is not my place to tell you what to do with this story, but I would like to close with what amounts to nothing more than my opinion. While the story of the woman taken in adultery almost certainly was not originally part of the gospel of John, it does go back to ancient times. It also has the ring of truth to it. By that I mean that Jesus’ response is in keeping with how He is described throughout the gospels, especially taking up for the underdog in most situations. Is it possible that this passage reflects what was originally a part of oral tradition that was later written down? If so, it may well constitute an example of an authentic story of Jesus preserved outside of the New Testament. I certainly cannot say that this is what happened. At the same time, I see nothing in the story that contradicts what we know Jesus taught, and over the centuries millions have been inspired by its message of forgiveness. I will not say it was originally part of John’s gospel, but I agree with its message. This is where I leave it to my readers to judge for yourselves what to do with the passage.

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The ending of Mark is perhaps the most significant textual question in the New Testament. It is important for two reasons. First, there is real doubt as to how the gospel originally ended. Also, it is a significant message. This is the type of issue that troubles people. Let’s look at it.

Most modern translations raise some kind of question about Mark 16:9-20. They may also include what is referred to as the shorter ending, which reads in the NAS Revised Edition, “And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

So, there are four possibilities:

  1. Mark originally ended with the shorter ending.
  2. Mark originally ended with the longer ending (vv. 9-20).
  3. Mark originally contained another ending which was lost before it could be copied.
  4. Mark originally ended after verse 8.

Let’s eliminate the first possibility immediately. It isn’t natural. It even sounds like something tacked on, because a scribe did not find the ending satisfactory. Greek manuscripts that contain it date from the 7th to the 9th centuries or later, although an Old Latin and other less significant versions (translations) include it. But, overall, this shorter ending has very little to support it.

Could the gospel have ended as we have it with verses 9-20? Yes, that is a possibility, although I have to admit I don’t think it likely, even though there are a very large number of manuscripts and versions that support it.  Several 5th century manuscripts include it, along with virtually all the later manuscripts, as well as the earliest manuscript of the Old Latin, Latin Vulgate, one Old Syriac Version, the Syriac Peshitta, and a number of other versions. Irenaeus, one of the church Fathers, refers to the longer ending, which shows that it existed in the 2nd century and that Mark was believed to be the author. That sounds impressive, so what’s the problem?

In an earlier post, we talked about the three most significant manuscripts we have of the New Testament. Two of these, the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus date from AD 325-350). Whenever these manuscripts agree scholars consider that to be significant. And neither of these manuscripts includes verses 9-20. These verses are also absent from the earliest Old Latin manuscripts, about 100 Armenian manuscripts, the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, as well as other versions.

Among the church fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome acknowledge that it was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. Finally, many of the manuscripts that do contain verses 9-20 are marked with notations indicating that it was questionable as to whether the passage should be included.

Finally, we must consider the possibility that the original ending of Mark was lost before it could be copied. While that is a real possibility, it is somewhat unlikely. The original was probably written on a scroll, rather than a codex. While the last leaf of a codex could be torn off, the ending of a scroll is harder to lose.

One quick message of reassurance. If we eliminate verses 9-20, we have not lost what is commonly referred to as “the Great Commission.” It is contained in virtually the same words in Matthew 28, and there are no textual issues relating to Matthew’s version at all.

I tend toward believing that Mark ended his gospel with verse 8. While that may seem to be an unusual ending, it has literary value. The rest of the story would likely have been known by most of Mark’s readers, but by ending it abruptly at verse 8, Mark forces us to ask ourselves the question, “How will I write the ending for myself? How will I respond to the events as described? Will I respond with faith or with doubt and confusion? I can’t say whether Mark deliberately set out to pose these questions, but they are there, nonetheless, and I must admit that I am intrigued by the literary value of this ending. Mark leaves us with an empty tomb, but with the disciples afraid and not sure what to do. I can identify with that. Can’t you?

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Before beginning a series of posts dealing with some of the more significant textual variations, I felt it would be profitable to step back and indulge in a little humor. Yes, the subject of textual variations can be serious, but I believe we should be able to have a little fun at our own expense. I have seen the story below in a variety of forms, and I have no idea where it originated. But for those who have been following my posts about the text of the Bible, I hope this will provide a good laugh. It is all intended in good fun, and I hope no one is offended, because that is certainly not my intention. The story takes place in the Middle Ages.

A new monk arrived at the monastery. He was assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He noticed, however, that they were copying copies, not the original books. The new monk went to the head monk to ask him about this. He pointed out that if there were an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies.

The head monk said, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.” The head monk went down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.

Hours later, nobody had seen him, so one of the monks went downstairs to look for him. He heard a sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and found the old monk leaning over one of the original books, crying.

He asked what was wrong.

“The word is ‘celebrate,’ not ‘celibate’!” sobbed the head monk.

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You can hardly escape watching programs or seeing in books (such as The DaVinci Code) which imply that certain books were banned from being included in the New Testament. The whole question of the formation of the canon of the New Testament is very complex and needs to be addressed carefully and methodically. With that warning I am sharing a link below to an article that discusses this question.


Actually, I found the main value in the article not in what it said about the canon, but in how it described what books churches from the second century on might have had available to them. This is found in the first half of the article, and I would encourage you to read it. It provides some good information about what early Christians may have read at a time when the canon was still being decided upon. Christians today often have difficulty understanding how different churches were in the first three centuries before Christianity became a legal religion. This article paints a word picture that simplifies that understanding.

At some point, I wish to add my own thoughts on the canon of both the Old and New Testaments, but for now I would encourage you to read this article. It has some good information.

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It should come as no surprise that we have far fewer older manuscripts of the New Testament than we have more recent ones. This is true for at least three reasons.

The earliest manuscripts were written at a time when church organization was still somewhat fluid and Christianity was a suspect and, in some locations, an illegal religion. At this early period, copies would have been commissioned by either individual congregations or wealthy individuals, not a more universal church.

Also, the earliest manuscripts we have are written on papyrus, a cheaper and more readily available material than vellum or parchment. Unfortunately, papyrus is not as durable, so it is less likely to survive.

Finally, at the time these early papyrus manuscripts were written, there was no final canon, or authoritative listing of what books should or should not be included in what we have come to call the New Testament. Different  localities would have had access to different books, but few churches would have had them all.

In order to present this information as simply as possible, I am listing below some of the earliest manuscripts we have of the New Testament books. Scholars have given them the designation “p” and a number. The “p” indicates that the manuscript is written on papyrus. Please understand that much more could be said; however, I recognize that most people would have no interest in a more detailed discussion, at least at this time. Here then are some of the most ancient existing manuscripts of the New Testament.

Most Recent Discovery—In an earlier post, I talked about Daniel Wallace’s claim that additional manuscripts have been discovered, dating from the second century and even a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that actually goes back to the first century. I am excited about that and want to learn more about it. At the same time, all we have now is the claim itself. According to Dr. Wallace, the manuscripts are being evaluated, and more information will be revealed when available. Since these manuscripts have not yet been authenticated, we cannot at this time consider them. I will be thrilled if the claims prove to be true, but we must be honest and admit that, for the present, they cannot enter into our discussion.

P52—I wrote an earlier post, dealing specifically with this manuscript, because it is the earliest one we have. It is a small scrap that includes portions of John 18.31-33 on the front and John 18.37-38 on the reverse. It is generally dated to no later than AD 150, although some aspects of the writing would indicate that it may date from AD 117-138.

P64—This has turned out to be a quite controversial manuscript. Again, it is only a small fragment, containing Matthew 26.23 and Matthew 26.31. It is known as the Magdalen Papyrus because it is housed at Magdalen College (Nothing to do with Mary Magdalene. Sorry DaVinci Code fans). The controversy came because an expert in papyrology (someone who examines papyri), named Carsten Peter Thiede claimed that the manuscript dates from AD 70. I have read the book he wrote. While his arguments are intriguing, I have to admit I was not convinced. Unless some other evidence arises, I am sticking with the traditional date of AD 150-200 which still makes it an extremely early manuscript.

P46—This is the earliest manuscript we have of the letters of Paul and dates from @ AD 200. The order of the letters in the manuscript is interesting. They appear to have been written from the longest letter to the shortest, and the manuscript includes Hebrews which follows Romans. Part of the manuscript is missing, but it apparently did not include the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), which perhaps is significant when dealing with the authorship of those books.

P66—Also dating from @ AD 200, this manuscript contains the Gospel of John.

P75—This is the earliest manuscript we have of the Gospel of Luke, and it also contains portions of the Gospel of John. It dates from the early 200s AD. There are those who claim that the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus only comes from after the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The fictional scholar Leigh Teabing makes much of this in The DaVinci Code. This manuscript written at least 100 years before the Council of Nicaea refutes that view, because it begins “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1.1 NAS Updated Edition), just as our bibles read today. I am showing below the top portion of that very page from this manuscript. If you can read the ancient Greek uncial letters, you will see that the Greek reads exactly the same as our current bibles.

p75 @ AD 200

In the next post, I want to talk about the earliest essentially complete copies of the New Testament we possess. There is something very intriguing about that, and it relates to this manuscript. I am simply going to tease you with that, hoping it will make you want to read my next post.

Obviously, these few manuscripts cannot be used to prove that the original text has been preserved, because they are fragmentary and do not contain the entire New Testament. What they do reveal is that as far back as we can go the text is pretty much what we have today. Some scholars assert that over the centuries the text has been so corrupted that we have no way of knowing what the originals said. Based on these few manuscripts that are preserved, that viewpoint contains more assumption than fact. Yes, there are many variations in the text, and I want to discuss them in some detail at a later time; however, the evidence of the earliest manuscripts is that there have been no drastic changes to the text of the books of the New Testament from what was originally written. The burden of proof is I believe on the skeptics, because the manuscript evidence does not back up the view that the text has been dramatically altered.

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I have delayed writing another post regarding the authorship of John, because I wished to do further research. Is it appropriate to admit from the beginning that I find no solution that totally satisfies all the questions I have? I hope this does not disturb you; it is simply the way real things are, and in my mind it reinforces the authenticity of the Gospel. If someone wanted to write a gospel in the name of John (although the gospel never does that), we should expect all the elements to fit together and difficulties either ignored or smoothed out. The very fact that there are questions tells me we are dealing with a legitimate work. Rather quickly, I want to suggest some of the possible answers to the question of who wrote the Gospel of John.

One writer wrote a comment on my last post with a link to an e-book in which he defends the position that Lazarus wrote the gospel attributed to John. I can think of a number of reasons why that might be an attractive choice, but rather than trying to defend that view, I would suggest you download his e-book yourself (it is free).

I recently read a book by a fairly conservative scholar who believes that this gospel was written by the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom he identifies with “John the Elder,” a close disciple of Jesus, but one who was not one of the twelve apostles. There is considerable evidence that someone referred to as “John the Elder” was perhaps a disciple of Jesus and that some of the books of the New Testament may have been written by him. I would especially consider 2 and 3 John as likely. Some would also include Revelation; however, I have not studied this enough to comment.

Then we come to the traditional view that  the author of the fourth gospel was John the apostle, one of the sons of Zebedee. If one accepts ancient tradition as having any value, this view has almost universal support. Actually, except for some “heretical” writings referred to by Irenaeus, virtually no one questioned the apostle John’s authorship until the eighteenth century and the rise of modern criticism.

Further support can be traced back even further. Eusebius quotes Irenaeus as saying that Polycarp (AD 69-155)  knew John, and apparently it was from Polycarp that Irenaeus got his understanding that John, the apostle, wrote the fourth gospel. This view is also supported by Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) and the Muratorian Canon (AD 170-200).

It is generally recognized that the Gospel of John has a number of Semitic elements and was written by someone for whom Greek was probably not his native language. I make no pretense at being qualified to address the Semitic elements except to note that the author sometimes transliterates Aramaic words into Greek letters, especially the word “Messiah” (4.25) and proper names (1.42). I only list two examples of several in the gospel. I can attest from my fairly elementary knowledge of Koine Greek that the gospel of John employs relatively simple vocabulary and grammar. It was the only Greek readings course I took beyond the basic grammar course, because it is perhaps the simplest book in the Greek New Testament to read.

Could the apostle John have written the fourth gospel? This is where we get into some difficulties. I regret that I cannot examine all the issues involved because of space limitations. The issues are huge and highly complex. Instead I wish to address a few of the more prominent questions.

John, along with his brother James, is addressed as one of the “Sons of Thunder,” and in one instance they want to call down the wrath of God on a village. The gospel of John does not appear to have been written by someone with that kind of temperament. I can only think of one possible resolution to that question. If tradition is correct, the gospel was written late in the first century. Is it possible that over perhaps 50 years or more the transforming power of the gospel actually changed John’s temperament and personality so that the “Son of Thunder” was transformed into the apostle of love? As a Christian, I certainly believe in the transforming power of the gospel. I would love for this to be one example of that happening.

Finally, I want to repeat something I mentioned in my last post. If John the apostle is not the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” then that very prominent apostle does not even appear in the fourth gospel which very ancient tradition ascribed to him. I cannot conceive a gospel written in the late first century that makes no reference at all to such a prominent apostle. If not the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” just where is the apostle John in the fourth gospel?

It has been argued that the description of Jesus as a preexistent deity could not have come from a direct follower of Jesus, because this was a later doctrine of the church; however, I believe this supposition involves a logical fallacy (Remember when people studied logic?). To presuppose what Jesus did or did not claim about Himself and then reject anything that contradicts that presupposition is circular reasoning. I cannot prove that Jesus on earth claimed to be incarnate deity. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone else can prove He did not.

At the same time, I acknowledge that this understanding of Jesus may have developed over time, especially with the influence of Paul’s writings. So, it is very possible that John would not have understood this clearly at the beginning, but came to accept it over the years. And this could explain why the fourth gospel is so different from the Synoptics. John is not writing to give the life of Jesus or to prove His miracles and healings. The Synoptics cover that quite well. Indeed, he may have written late in the first century, especially to present Jesus as God Incarnate, a picture that is not as clearly taught in the Synoptics. I must admit I am puzzled as to why John would not include the Transfiguration which would certainly support that view. Honesty compels me to admit I do not have the answer to that.

So I am back where we started. I tend to accept the traditional authorship of John, but must acknowledge that unanswered questions remain. I must leave the issue with that. It will not be the last time I will admit I don’t know the answer. If you choose to follow my blog, I you will have to get used to the limitations of my knowledge.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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