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Are the Gospels reliable?

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“The Historicity of the Gospels” (1964), written by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the body charged with overseeing the proper interpretation of Scripture, states in the third paragraph: “The work of exegetes is all the more necessary today because many writings in circulation question the truth of the events and sayings reported in the Gospels.” The “exegetes” in view are primarily the trained interpreters of Scripture. However, biblical interpretation is undertaken practically by all Catholics: the scholar writing for an academic journal, the cleric preaching on the readings at Mass, the catechist during religious instruction and the mother reading a bedtime Bible story to her children. Each scenario may lead to the question: Are the Gospels reliable? This is a legitimate query.


The reliability of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John normally falls under the discipline of apologetics, the explanation and defense of the Catholic faith. This portion of apologetics is known as the “credibility of the Gospels.” The Latin term “credibilis” means worthy of belief. Three points address credibility of the Gospels: authenticity, or authorship; integrity, or intactness as copies; and reliability, or trustworthiness. Each area deserves a careful study. The subjects are likewise relevant to the field of biblical studies: Most commentaries address a book’s writer (authenticity), textual matters (integrity) and historicity (reliability). This column will concentrate briefly on reliability. 


Read the actual claims from the Evangelists. Here are some examples from St. Luke and St. John. The preface from Luke 1:1-4 is instructive, where this apostolic man (cf. Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phm 24) states he “followed all things closely,” composed an “orderly account,” and desired that his recipient would “know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” The Greek word translated “informed” (“katechethes”) lays behind our term “catechetics.” Moving to John, this apostle (cf. Matt 4:21-22; Mark 3:14-17; Luke 9:28) recalls in John 19:35 at Calvary that, “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.” St. John then confirms in John 21:24: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” These verses from Luke and John offer evidence that they are conveying the facts about Jesus Christ.


Looking at early ecclesiastical history, the Gospels were put into use in the very beginning of the Catholic Church. These evangelistic records were known, studied, and revered wherever the faith took root, and their reliability was taken for granted. The apostolic fathers, the earliest within the Patristic period, quoted the Gospels and assumed their trustworthiness. Gospel citations, explicit or implicit, are discovered in the nascent Christian writings from Pope Clement of Rome (died 101), St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 107) and St. Polycarp of Smyrna (died 155). The Gospels were employed also in Patristic treatises whose authorship is uncertain: “The Epistle of Barnabas,” “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The Didache.” In addition, the biblical books linked to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were essential to the emerging Christian worship, i.e. Mass. The Gospels were translated into the common tongues and spread throughout the lands. The primitive church would not have shown such esteem to questionable writings.


A final element: the followers of Jesus sometimes offered their lives for the teachings revealed in the Gospels. This heroic cost was paid by men, women and even children. Christians persuaded their loved ones to obey these apostolic writings, knowing that the adherence to its contents could bring persecution or martyrdom. Jewish converts would never have placed doubtful testimonies on equal standing with the authoritative books of the Old Testament (cf. Mt 5:17-19; Rom 3:2; 15:4; 1 Cor 10:1--11). Gentile converts, many well educated, would have quickly rejected documents whose dependability was uncertain. The Gospels made strict moral demands and intelligent pagans would have devoted little attention to literature that was suspect. The church would never have allowed dubious compositions to circulate as God’s Word — records upon which believers staked their eternal salvation. 


This article on Gospel reliability is merely an introduction. Much has been overlooked such as matters of chronology and the telling of the same events by different Gospel authors (also bypassed is the underlying doctrine of biblical inspiration). The student of sacred Scripture, which should be all of us, may learn more about this topic from a work such as “Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine,” revised by Father Peter Joseph.


Ciresi is a faculty member of the Christendom Graduate School of Theology and directs the St. Jerome Biblical Guild.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019