When did the Gospels originate?

Ks. Florian

The dispute concerning the origin of the four Gospels has continued for over 170 years. It was evoked by some anti-Christian rationalistic critics of the Bible that questioned the statements of the Catholic theologians that the Gospels had originated as early as the first century. Those critics claimed that the Gospels came into being in the middle of the 2nd c. or even at the beginning of the 3rd century. They quoted many arguments to support their theses. Numerous publications undermined the value of the Gospel accounts, defining them as a collection of myths, stories embellished with wonders, products of enraptured faith and not testimonies on the basis of which one could reconstruct and define the life and the content of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. They even questioned his existence and they regarded the Evangelists' narratives as texts that did not let us reconstruct historical facts but only describe the condition and content of Christian faith in the firsts centuries. Those critics were first of all the authors whose background was the Enlightenment and then the followers of Marxism. On the other hand, the Catholic biblical scholars defended their early Christians' conviction that the first Gospel (according to St Mark) was to originate ca. 30 years after the events of the death and resurrection of Christ, i.e. about the year 60 A.D., and the last Gospel (according to St John) 40 years after the first one, and that only those four Gospels (since there were other gospels in the 2nd century) contained reliable witnesses to the life and teaching of Jesus as well as the content of the faith of the early Christian communities. They maintained that two Gospels had been written by Jesus' disciples (Matthew and John) themselves whereas the other two had been written by the eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke) of the teaching of the other apostles.

The manuscript purchased in Luxor

It was already in the middle of the 20th century that many of the rationalist theses concerning the Bible were rejected or corrected. It was possible due to the development of the biblical sciences and religious studies as well as due to numerous discoveries of ancient biblical manuscripts, to which some scholars include three scraps of papyri, purchased at the bazaar in Luxor (Egypt) in 1901. The contemporary scholars regarded them as the fourth century fragments of the Greek manuscript of the Gospel according to St Matthew. In the year 1953 these codex leaves were re-examined and they occurred to be at least 100 years older, i.e. the beginning of the third century. However, 13 years ago, in the year 1994, the London 'Times' published an article by the German scholar Carsten Peter Thiede who claimed that those three scraps of the Luxor codex were to be taken as the oldest fragment of the New Testament. In his opinion the fragments originated in the 60s of the first century. That thesis seemed unlikely and ignored. However, Thiede, highly regarded Qumran scholar, did not give up and in his book published in 1997 he focused on the similarity of letters used in the Luxor fragments and the Qumran texts. The similarly bent letters, their rounded forms, decorated dots and hooks pointed to the fact that they must have come from the same period - thus they were the oldest writings of the Gospel according to St Matthew. Thiede thought that one of the copy of that version reached the distant Luxor with the followers of Christ who fled from the persecutions, which the high priests had begun in Palestine in the year 62 (the martyrdom of James the Apostle and other Christians) or the Nero's persecutions in Rome in the year 64. The book was translated into many languages. Most biblical scholars do not agree with Thiede's theses.
One argument against his theses was to be the form of a codex and not the form of a scroll. But Thiede refuted the argument claiming that codices, i.e. books consisting of leaves, had been known as early as the middle of the first century. The more handy and cheaper form (than the scrolls) was used to spread the text of the Gospel of Matthew about the year 70. Its old fragments, found in Luxor, allow scholars to conclude that the Gospel originated, in accordance with the tradition, on the basis of the narrative of the eyewitness to the life and death of Jesus, witness that heard his parables and moral instructions and was charmed by Jesus' theological and anthropological visions.

Reliability of the Gospels

The stand of the German scholar can be included into the discussions concerning the time of the origin of the four Gospels and the value of the New Testament texts to reconstruct the actual story of Jesus' life. In his publication 'Das Leben Jesu' [The Life of Jesus] printed in 1835, David Friedrich Strauss claimed that the story depicted in the Gospels had been written, and in fact invented, in the 2nd century. In the 19th and 20th centuries numerous anti-Christian writers supported his theses. The Gospel texts (especially the narratives about Jesus' miracles) were extremely critically analysed and regarded as not written by eyewitnesses and not being historical documents, but the expression of faith born in the 2nd century Christian communities. Regardless of whether Thiede's dating of the Luxor papyrus was correct (ca. 60 AD), it was good that the German scholar reminded us that the Gospels were valuable and the most important accounts of Jesus' life and teaching. Moreover, the information about Jesus' resurrection and his taking the seat at the right hand of the Father, the truth about his Divinity and mystical presence among his brothers lead us into the world of great and dazzling God's visions and man's destiny - into the world of faith. The four Gospels are the key to this world. If we desire to immerse ourselves into this world and last in it we must often return to the Gospel narratives. In order to admire these visions we should understand what the first disciples of Jesus wanted to transmit in their narratives, proper to their times and mentality. Comparing these theological and anthropological visions with the visions of other religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) we appreciate the Gospel message more and more. The knowledge about God and our destiny, depicted in the Gospels and the remaining New Testament books, open an extremely interesting picture of God's reality and his intentions for people, for each of us. That's why, it is worth reading these pictures frequently in order to feast our hearts on them.

"Niedziela" 20/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl