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What Are Good Sources about Jesus?

What Are Good Sources about Jesus?

The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus, Part 2
By:
 

This is a lengthy, heavily documented article. For a brief summary, see “What Are the Most Reliable Sources about Jesus?

The existence of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher from Galilee executed by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate, is well established as historical fact.1 But what can be known about Jesus? What are the best sources of information about what Jesus taught, where he went, what he did, and who he claimed to be? For Christians, the traditional answer has been that the best such sources are the four Gospels in the New Testament, entitled the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In modern times, however, many people have challenged the reliability of these books and have often touted other writings as superior sources of information about Jesus. If we are to know the truth about Jesus, we need to know from what sources we can most reliably learn about him.

Please note that the question we are asking the sources to answer is an historical one: What did the first-century Galilean Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth actually claim, teach, and do? This is a different sort of question than asking how Jesus makes people feel, what he means to them personally in their own spiritual quests, or what their religion teaches about Jesus. Religious texts about Jesus are valuable sources of information about the people who wrote them, regardless of what those people actually knew about Jesus of Nazareth. This is even true of the New Testament Gospels: They tell us something about the authors who wrote them and what they believed. The issue is what sources, if any, are good sources of information not only about the beliefs of their authors but also about the historical facts pertaining to Jesus himself.

Broadly speaking, we can divide the texts that various religious movements have regarded as sources of information about Jesus into the following categories, listed in generally chronological order: 

  • The four Gospels in the New Testament
  • Ancient texts about Jesus that were not included in the New Testament, especially those texts commonly described as the “Gnostic gospels”
  • Medieval Islamic texts, most notably the Gospel of Barnabas
  • Modern apocryphal texts about Jesus, such as the Book of Mormon, the Life of Saint Issa, and the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.

We will compare these books by asking the following questions about each of them: (1) What do we know about the origins and history of the text? (2) What do we know about who wrote it and when it was written? (3) What sort of book is it (its genre)? (4) How does its account of Jesus fit with what we know from external sources about Jesus and his historical context?

The Texts

An obvious question to ask about any book purporting to provide information about the past is how this book became available for us to read. Historians routinely investigate the origins and history of any text as a preliminary step in determining its value for gaining knowledge about its subject matter.

The questions that scholars ask about the text of any ancient work include the following: What are the earliest copies of the book, whether complete or incomplete? What was the original language of the book and in what languages do we have versions of the book today? How did the book come to be available to the modern world? How confident can we be, historically speaking, that the text we have today mirrors accurately the ancient text when it was first produced as a book? Keep in mind, as we give various dates for the copies that are known today, that Jesus lived in the early first century and was crucified in either 30 or 33, probably the latter.2

With regard to the New Testament Gospels, several fragments containing portions of varying lengths from the Gospels have been found that date to the second or early third century, and complete copies of all four Gospels dating from the fourth century and thereafter. Some specific examples will help make the picture clearer. The Sackler Library at Oxford University houses a papyrus fragment containing part of Matthew 21 in Greek (known as P104) and another fragment containing part of John 18-19 in Greek (known as P90), both of which date to the middle of the second century. The John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, holds another papyrus fragment containing part of John 18 in Greek (known as P52) that is dated to the first half of the second century. A nearly complete copy of John dated to about 200, known as P66, is one of the Bodmer Papyri kept at the Bodmer Library in Cologny, Switzerland. The earliest surviving papyrus containing sizable portions of all four Gospels is P45, dated to the middle of the third century, pages of which are shared by libraries in Dublin and Vienna. Our earliest complete copies of the Gospels in Greek are in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, both produced in the fourth century. The consensus among biblical scholars is that the four Gospels were all originally written in Greek, though Matthew may have drawn from an earlier source written in Hebrew or Aramaic. This means that we have complete copies of the four Gospels in their original language dating about three centuries after Jesus’ death, with multiple fragments of earlier copies dating as early as a century or so after his death.

That the surviving manuscript copies of the Gospels contain many variants or differences from one another is well known. Scholars estimate that there are perhaps 400,000 such variants for the whole New Testament. However, the vast majority of these variants are spelling differences. As Bart Ehrman, an agnostic scholar whose expertise is in the study of the New Testament text, has commented, “If scribes had had spell-check, we might have 50,000 mistakes instead of 400,000.”3 What remains are mostly minor changes that can be easily detected (such as a scribe accidentally skipping a line or deliberately improving what he thought was poor style) and an even smaller number of somewhat significant differences (usually of just a word or two) that can affect the meaning of the specific passage but do not alter the overall historical account about Jesus or the substance of his teachings. Ehrman, who is often quoted as questioning the reliability of the text, has in fact affirmed its essential reliability: “I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that scholars believe that we can never have any idea what Luke—or any of our other New Testament authors—wrote. For most passages, most sentences, most words, scholars are reasonably confident that we can know—even if there are other passages that remain in doubt.”4

The picture with the other books that purport to tell about Jesus is not nearly so bright. Let’s start with the Gnostic texts and other ancient writings about Jesus that are sometimes called apocryphal (meaning “hidden” because they aren’t in the New Testament) gospels. The most widely cited of these is the Gospel of Thomas. Our only ancient copies of this book, which most scholars think was originally written in Greek, consist of a fourth-century Coptic manuscript containing a preface and 114 “sayings,” and three Greek fragments dating from the third century that combined contain about 21 of those 114 sayings. And this is actually pretty good compared to the other ancient apocryphal gospels. The Gospel of Peter, for example, is known only from an incomplete copy in Greek in a papyrus book dated between the seventh and ninth centuries and two very small fragments in Greek that may be of the Gospel of Peter, from a copy made around the year 200.5 The Gospel of Mary survives only in a fifth-century Coptic translation that is missing more than half of the text and in two third-century Greek fragments, each containing only a fraction of material paralleling the Coptic version.6 In short, there are no complete or even mostly complete copies of any of these books in their original language of Greek, and in most cases no complete copies even in another ancient language.

For the New Testament Gospels the ancient textual evidence is extensive, for the ancient apocryphal gospels it is meager, and for the medieval and modern apocryphal works it is non-existent.

All of the other books to be considered here lack any ancient copies at all, due to the fact (as all scholars outside the religious movements that produced them acknowledge) that they are not the ancient works they purport to be. The earliest extant manuscript of the Gospel of Barnabas dates to around 1600 and is in Italian.7 The earliest copies of the Book of Mormon are the English manuscripts produced in 1829 by Joseph Smith and his scribes as an inspired translation of text written in an unknown form of Egyptian script on gold plates that Joseph and eleven men claimed to have seen but that have been unavailable to anyone since the completion of the English version.8 Nicolas Notovitch published The Life of Saint Issa in 1894, supposedly based on a scroll he claimed to have seen in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet and that the monks there read aloud to him (since Notovitch could not read Tibetan).9 The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ was first published by its author Levi Dowling in 1907 (the same year that the Gospel of Barnabas first appeared in English). Dowling claimed to have “transcribed” the book from “the book of God’s remembrances, known as the Akashic records” (as the book’s long subtitle puts it), a kind of extradimensional source of esoteric knowledge in the pantheistic Mind of the cosmos.10

To summarize the wealth of data surveyed here, we may compare the textual evidence for the various books as authentic ancient writings as follows: for the New Testament Gospels the ancient textual evidence is extensive, for the ancient apocryphal gospels it is meager, and for the medieval and modern apocryphal works it is non-existent.

Authors and Dates

Until modern times, writers often failed to identify themselves by name and very rarely gave a specific date for their texts. This means that scholars must consider evidence that bears directly or indirectly on the question of the authorship and date of any apparently ancient work. The task can become controversial if a book claims to have been written by a particular individual but other evidence appears to rule out that claim.

The four New Testament Gospels contain no statements within the body of those writings identifying their authors by name. The author of Luke and Acts refers to himself in the first person when addressing his primary intended reader Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) and includes himself as one of Paul’s traveling companions (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16), but otherwise never refers to himself. The author of John refers to himself as a special disciple close to Jesus who was an eyewitness (John 18:15-16; 19:26-27, 35; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20-25) but never gives his name. The authors of Matthew and Mark say nothing whatsoever to identify themselves. Thus, whatever one may say about the authorship of the Gospels, they cannot be accused of being fraudulent. As Michael Patton has asked, “If the Gospel authors were fabricating, lying, just making it all up, why remain nameless? …If these were fabrications, why not claim the name of someone close to Christ to give these more credibility?”11 Patton’s question is a good one because that is exactly what a lot of other books did, as we shall see.

Whoever wrote the Gospels, scholars generally agree that they were written in the second half of the first century (ca. 50-100), within seventy years at most of Jesus’ death. Evangelical scholars typically date the first three Gospels (called the Synoptic Gospels because of their similarities) in the 60s and John in the 90s. Liberal and skeptical scholars typically date Mark in the late 60s or early 70s and the other Gospels in the 80s or 90s, with occasional arguments for dating Luke or John in the early second century.12 What can be lost in all of the debate over these dates is that they are all consistent with the Gospels’ claims and with their being based on eyewitness testimony, as Craig Blomberg explains:

Whether written thirty, forty, or fifty years after Jesus’ death, the Gospels were produced well within the lifetimes of some who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. By ancient standards this was a short period of time between the life of a famous individual and the appearance of biographies about him…. That we have four biographies of Jesus within thirty to sixty years of his death is nothing short of astonishing by ancient standards.13

The mainstream critical dates for the Gospels are all consistent with the traditional identifications of their authors. According to reports originating in the early second century, Mark was a traveling companion first of Paul and later of Peter, and wrote his Gospel based on Peter’s recollections about Jesus. It would be quite understandable if Mark had finished his Gospel in the late 60s or early 70s, shortly after Peter’s death around AD 66. The same traditions report that Matthew wrote either the Gospel of Matthew or an earlier Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) text on which the Greek Gospel was based. The Gospel might easily have been compiled and finished in the late 70s or 80s based on an earlier text, if Matthew did not the Gospel himself. Luke, who had been a companion of Paul in the late 50s, might have written his Gospel and the book of Acts at any time over the next 25 years or so. This leaves the Gospel of John, for which the matter is somewhat more complicated due to uncertainty as to whether “John” was the son of Zebedee or someone else named John. Whoever he was, he states explicitly that he was an eyewitness (John 19:35; 21:24-25), which would make his writing in the 90s possible if somewhat surprising.

Jesus
Died
AD 33
NT
Gospels
AD 50-100
Apocryphal
gospels
AD 125-250
Gospel of
Barnabas
1300s
B. of Mormon
Life of Issa
Aquarian G.
1828-1907

The ancient apocryphal gospels are generally dated in the second and third centuries, not in the first. For example, in his book Lost Scriptures Bart Ehrman, whom we cited previously, discusses the dates of seventeen gospels not included in the New Testament, and dates none of them to the first century.14 Ehrman’s dating of these books to the second century or later is representative of mainstream scholarship. The only apocryphal gospel for which any scholars have suggested a date in the first century is the Gospel of Thomas, but the dominant view places it in the early to middle of the second century.15 Needless to say, the consensus dating of these books to the second century rules out any notion that Thomas or Peter wrote them. In contrast to the New Testament Gospels, however, the apocryphal gospels trumpet their supposed authors16

  • “I, Thomas the Israelite, make this report to all of you, my brothers among the Gentiles…” (opening words of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
  • “But I, James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem, hid myself away in the wilderness…” (Proto-Gospel of James 25.1, in the conclusion).
  • “These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down” (opening statement in the Gospel of Thomas).
  • “But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, took our nets and went off to the sea” (Gospel of Peter 58).
  • “The secret words of revelation that Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot in the course of eight days, three days before he celebrated Passover” (opening statement in the Gospel of Judas).

Even those modern scholars who show a clear liking for these gospels admit that they were not written by these associates of Jesus. Elaine Pagels, who has built her career on the Gnostic gospels and who dates the Gospel of Thomas to the 90s, admits that “no one knows” who wrote it and thinks that it was likely the work of “a compiler—or several compilers.”17 Karen King, whose interest in the Gospel of Mary is largely due to its attribution to a woman, admits that Mary Magdalene could not be the author, “primarily because it is too difficult to imagine that Mary, a Jew, could have developed teachings so removed from any basis in Jewish theological tradition. It is far more plausible that the teachings of the Gospel of Mary developed among Christians whose thought world was shaped by popular philosophy steeped in the ideas of Platonism and Stoicism.”18 John Dominic Crossan claimed to be able to trace some of the material (which he called “the Cross Gospel”) in the Gospel of Peter to the mid-first century, but he admitted that the Gospel of Peter as it has come down to us (again, in very incomplete form) is a second-century work.19

For better or for worse, in our quest for the historical Jesus, we are largely confined to the canonical Gospels.—John P. Maier

The other alleged sources of information about Jesus are separated from his era by even far greater spans of time. For most of these books, their advocates tell very different stories about their origins than outside historians do. The religiously eclectic gospel of Dowling identifies no ancient author at all but instead is prefaced by an account of the Dowling’s spiritual experiences that led to his writing. The Gospel of Barnabas and the Book of Mormon, on the other hand, like the ancient apocryphal gospels, make a point of giving their supposed ancient authors’ names and credentials: 

  • “Barnabas, apostle of Jesus the Nazarene, called Christ, to all them that dwell upon the earth desireth peace and consolation” (opening sentence in the Gospel of Barnabas).20
  • “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days” (1 Nephi 1:1, the opening sentence in the Book of Mormon).21

As already noted, the earliest extant manuscript of the Gospel of Barnabas is an Italian manuscript from around 1600. Internal evidence, such as an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy (ca. 1320) and references to a planned century-long jubilee that began in 1300 but that was shortened in 1349, shows that Barnabas was probably written originally in Italian between about 1320 and 1348, twelve centuries after the historical Barnabas.22

Although The Life of Saint Issa purports to be translated from ancient Tibetan scrolls, three lines of evidence demonstrate that Nicolas Notovitch was its true author: the lack of any extant copy of the alleged original-language text, the investigations that uncovered convincing evidence that Notovich’s story about Tibetan monks reading their scrolls about Jesus to him was false, and the internal evidence that the philosophy of the book is a modern mixture of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist motifs reflecting Notovitch’s own modern European cultural context.23 Similar reasoning leads to the same judgment with regard to Levi Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ: there never was any physical book from which Dowling’s was derived, and the book advocates an eclectic philosophy akin to that of the modern New Thought or metaphysical movement, which Dowling had imbibed before writing his book.24

The Book of Mormon likewise is a modern book, originating in early nineteenth-century America, eighteen centuries after Jesus’ death and fifteen centuries after its ancient text was supposedly completed. This conclusion is vigorously contested by Mormons in a continuous torrent of sometimes sophisticated apologetic literature that often scores points by exposing mistakes in popular critiques of the Book of Mormon but that fails to present a cogent case for its antiquity.25 The case for its modern origin is quite similar to the case for the modern origins of such books as Notovitch’s Life of Saint Issa and Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ: the only alleged ancient copy is not available, the report of its discovery and translation involves some severe factual problems, it demonstrably depends on a modern source (the King James Version of the Bible), and its teachings fit comfortably in the early nineteenth-century American cultural context of its supposed translator and not in any known ancient context.26

The table below places all of the books discussed here (and their first known copies) in chronological perspective. 

DATE BOOK (MAINSTREAM DATES) EVENTS, MANUSCRIPTS
33   Jesus’ death and resurrection
50-100 G. of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John Fall of Jerusalem (AD 70)
100-150 Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary Earliest fragments of the NT Gospels
150-200   First Gospel harmony; full copy of John
     
     
300-350   Earliest complete copies of the NT Gospels
350-400   Only full copy of G. of Thomas, in Coptic
400-500   Supposed date the Book of Mormon completedOnly sizable fragment of G. of Mary, in Coptic
500-600   25+ major manuscripts of the Gospels from this century or earlier, plus many more fragments
600-800   Qur’an, book containing Muhammad’s wordsOnly sizable copy of G. of Peter, in Greek
     
     
     
     
1054   Split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy
     
     
     
     
1271   Marco Polo begins travels to the East
1320-1348 Gospel of Barnabas (Italian)  
1384   Wycliffe’s English Bible translation
     
1455   Gutenberg publishes first printed Bible
1517   Beginning of the Protestant Reformation
     
ca. 1600   Earliest copy of Barnabas; King James Version
     
1730s   First Great Awakening; rise of Methodism
1776   U.S. Declaration of Independence written
1829-30 Book of Mormon (English)  
1894 Life of Saint Issa (French, English) 1870s Hindu and Buddhist influence in West
1907 Aquarian Gospel (English)  
1950-1975   Texts found at Nag Hammadi translated

We may now sum up our findings with regards to the dates of these various books. The New Testament Gospels were all written within about 25 to 65 years after Jesus’ death, while at least some eyewitnesses to his life would still be alive. The ancient apocryphal gospels were all written roughly one or two centuries after Jesus died, though a minority of scholars date the Gospel of Thomas around the end of the first century (and thus perhaps around the time the Gospel of John was likely written). The Gospel of Barnabas was written in the 1300s, more than a millennium later than the New Testament Gospels. The other books, such as the Book of Mormon, Life of Saint Issa, and Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, were written and published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In short, the New Testament Gospels were written very close to the time of Jesus, the apocryphal gospels were ancient but later writings, and the rest of the books were written many centuries too late to serve as primary sources for the life and teachings of Jesus.

Genres

The term genre refers to a text’s literary type—what kind of writing it is. Familiar genres in the Bible include historical narratives, legal texts, songs, proverbs, oracles, and letters, among others. If we want reliable historical information about Jesus, it makes sense to look especially for books that are historical narratives of some kind, especially biographies.

It was academically fashionable throughout much of the twentieth century to deny that the New Testament Gospels were biographies of Jesus. The Gospels don’t provide what modern readers expect of biographies: detailed accounts of the individual’s childhood and education, explorations of his family life, scrupulously chronological accounts, and back stories explaining his rise to prominence or importance. Instead, the Gospels devote what seems to be disproportionate space to the last week of Jesus’ life. Liberal scholars inferred from these peculiarities that the Gospels were not really interested in the life of Jesus but instead used stories about Jesus to advance their authors’ theologies.27 However, in 1992 Richard Burridge thoroughly refuted this line of reasoning. Burridge compared the Gospels to such ancient biographies as Philo’s On the Life of Moses, Tacitus’s On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola, Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, all of which were written within about sixty years of the Gospels (before or after). These Greco-Roman biographies were prose, loosely chronological narratives focusing on one person and demonstrating his admirable character through recounting his deeds and words. They sometimes began with the subject’s birth or youth (as Matthew and Luke do), though in many instances they began with the commencement of his career or public service (as Mark and John do), and usually ended with his death. Unlike modern biographies, little attention was usually given to the subject’s childhood, and the authors made no attempt to probe the psychological makeup of the subject. Furthermore, disproportionate attention might be given to a short period of the subject’s life, as when Plutarch devotes over a third of his life of Agesilaus to the Persian campaign. This means that the sizable portions of the Gospels focusing on the last week of Jesus’ life are consistent with the conventions of ancient Greco-Roman biographies. Such works were meant to preserve factual memories about the subject, to inform and educate readers about the subject’s contributions, to draw lessons about moral character, and to defend a revered teacher’s movement and legacy. In all these ways, the New Testament Gospels exhibit standard conventional features of ancient biographies.28

The ancient apocryphal gospels, by contrast, do not qualify as biographies in any sense. Generally speaking they don’t even claim to present historical information about Jesus. Most of these works contain little or no narrative and are not in any sense biographies of Jesus.29 The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 largely unrelated sayings of Jesus, with barely any narrative framing at all. Karen King, among other scholars, classifies the Gospel of Mary as “a post-resurrection dialogue” moving from dialogues among the disciples to a dialogue between the Savior and Mary before concluding with “dialogues between the soul and the Powers.”30

Our most reliable sources for reconstructing what we can know about Jesus are the New Testament gospels themselves.—James Tabor

The “gospels” from more recent centuries generally present themselves as historical narratives or even biographies, but there are reasons to doubt that they are ancient histories or biographies. The Gospel of Barnabas is best understood as a late medieval “harmony” of the New Testament Gospels: it is a very lengthy work of 226 chapters, presenting a single continuous narrative with content from all four New2 Testament Gospels, along with material from the ancient apocryphal literature and some Islamic elements.31 The Book of Mormon, consisting of fifteen “books,” is in the main a continuous narrative about the “Nephite” civilization, established by Jews in the Americas in the sixth century BC, ending with its destruction in the early fifth century AD. It thus purports to be essentially historical narrative (with other genres imbedded within the narrative). The climactic section comes in the book called Third Nephi in which Jesus, following his resurrection, appears to the Nephites, preaches the Sermon on the Mount, quotes the Old Testament at some length, and establishes a Nephite church. In a way, Third Nephi (or at least 3 Nephi 9-30) could be classified as a post-resurrection dialogue text, akin in its genre characteristics to the Gospel of Mary. It certainly is not a biography of Jesus, since it provides essentially no narrative about the life of Jesus prior to his supposed appearances to the Nephites.32

The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ presents itself as a biography, but in this case a decidedly modern one, correcting the implicitly supposed deficiencies of the New Testament Gospels. Thus, much of the book is taken up with extrabiblical material about Jesus’ infancy and childhood (chaps. 7-12, 16-20) and his young adult years in India, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt (chaps. 21-60). The Aquarian Gospel then narrates Jesus’ ministry in Palestine (chaps. 65-158), his death and resurrection (chaps. 159-80), and the beginning of the “Christine Church” (chaps. 181-82). Jesus’ resurrection appearances include several of the ones found in the New Testament Gospels as well as appearances to religious and political leaders in Jerusalem, India, Persia, Greece, Rome, and Egypt.

In short, the New Testament Gospels are genuine ancient biographies of Jesus. The other books either make no pretense of being biographies, are medieval or modern imitations of the Gospels, or are fictions that present themselves as biographies but in a fashion that betray their modern origin.

Historical Fit

It is neither realistic nor necessary to demand proof that everything recorded in an historical source actually occurred. Such an expectation would be especially unrealistic with regard to ancient historical events in the life of a particular individual, whether that person was Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ. What we can ask is how well the narrative reflects the historical context of the individual in those matters that can be checked from external sources. Does the narrative refer accurately but without affectation to real physical locations and real people known from outside the text? Does it reflect what we know of the cultural, religious, philosophical, and technological contexts of that place and time?

In these aspects the New Testament Gospels shine far brighter than any other alleged sources of information about Jesus of Nazareth.33 The geographical environment of Jesus’ life is richly yet unobtrusively highlighted throughout the Gospels in its references to cities (Jerusalem, Capernaum), political regions (Judea, Galilee), waters (Jordan River, Sea of Galilee), and even specific structures in Jerusalem (Praetorium, Pool of Siloam). The Gospels refer to several historical personages known from non-Christian sources, such as John the Baptist, Herod the Great and his sons—most notably Herod Antipas, who had John beheaded—and Pontius Pilate. Luke even dates in classic Greek historiographic style the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist by identifying the year of Tiberius Caesar and who the various other rulers were at the time (Luke 3:1-2). The Gospels feature such religious groups as the Pharisees and Sadducees, known especially from the late first-century Jewish writer Josephus, and such institutions as the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the synagogues, which were local assemblies in various towns and villages.

The Gospels effortlessly set the cultural scene of Jesus’ ministry accurately as taking place among Jews chafing under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. In that setting, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God had pointed relevance. While Jesus engaged other Jews in controversy, the Gospels report his basic theology to be traditional Jewish theology especially close to that of the Pharisees: the Lord was the one God who created and ruled the heavens and the earth, who had made Israel his people in fulfillment of his promises to the patriarchs, and who would raise the dead at the end of the age for them to face eternal judgment. Within this shared, traditional Jewish worldview, Jesus commented on the same sorts of issues being discussed by Pharisees and other Jewish teachers in the first century.34 These issues included the keeping of the Torah (“Law”); moral expectations concerning marriage, adultery, and divorce; how to handle conflicts with the Gentiles and other enemies in their midst; the standards of genuine piety in such areas as almsgiving, tithing, prayer, oaths, and fasting; matters pertaining to ritual purity and impurity, food laws, and the Sabbath; and the paying of taxes, especially to support the Roman authorities. While many or most of these issues might come up in other cultures, the constellation of these issues as a whole and the ways in which they are addressed in Jesus’ teaching are quite specific to that first-century Jewish society in Galilee and Judea.

When students ask me why certain Gospels were omitted from the canon of the New Testament and whether some of them ought to be included, I tell them to read these Gospels. They do, and that answers their questions.—Craig A. Evans

The situation is rather different with the other books we have been considering. The further forward in time from the first century these books originated, the less likely they are to be historically or culturally credible accounts of Jesus, and the evidence bears out this premise. We have already noted Karen King’s observation that the intellectual milieu of the Gospel of Mary was more that of Greek philosophy (Platonism and Stoicism) than of Judaism. This assessment is broadly true of all of the “Gnostic” gospels, although the point should be somewhat qualified: Gnostic-type thinking was syncretistic (drawing elements from different religious and philosophical sources) and as such also drew on Jewish texts and ideas.35 The physical environment of Jesus’ life is virtually nonexistent in the ancient apocryphal gospels: in the four gospels named for Thomas, Peter, Mary, and Judas combined there are references to only three specific places (Jerusalem, Judea, and Joseph’s Garden), compared to the dozens of locations named in the New Testament Gospels. To be fair, this is because, as pointed out earlier, the apocryphal gospels were not really intended to provide biographical information about Jesus. These texts feature verbal exchanges between Jesus and a few of his disciples and little else, giving them relatively little grounding in the larger historical and cultural context.

The Gospel of Barnabas, as an elaborate harmony of the Gospels, retains much of their geographically, historically, and culturally appropriate references. However, its anachronistic Muslim perspective is evident in its denials that Jesus was the Son of God, its blaming the apostle Paul for propagating the distorted view of Jesus taught in Christianity, its quotations of Jesus prophesying about Muhammad, and its claim that Judas was crucified rather than Jesus. These claims were all standard Islamic polemical arguments against Christianity developed in the medieval era. On the other hand, the Gospel of Barnabas varies from both Christian doctrine and standard Muslim doctrine by identifying Muhammad, rather than Jesus, as the Messiah.36 Such a “mixed” result is actually rather common in apocryphal literature, which are intentionally innovative.

The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ also has some features of a harmony of the Gospels, but in expanding on the Gospels with new material the author made a number of factual mistakes. For example, the first verse states that before Mary was born, “Augustus Caesar reigned and Herod Antipas was ruler of Jerusalem,” when in fact Herod the Great ruled in Jerusalem at the time and his son Herod Antipas later became tetrarch of Galilee. New Testament scholar Edgar Goodspeed, in his brief but incisive critique, made the droll comment, “This opening sentence of the new gospel does not encourage very high hopes as to its historical value.”37 More broadly, the book reflects thought characteristic of modern Western culture, specifically Dowling’s immersion in the metaphysical or New Thought movement. Jesus is transformed into a great teacher has traveled the world, mastered the philosophies of the great ancient cultures, and showed humanity the enlightened way.

The Book of Mormon contains a large number of geographical descriptions of the land in which it says Jesus appeared to the Nephites, but these descriptions cannot be anchored to any known locations unless one accepts the traditional view that the hill where Joseph claimed to find the gold plates was the hill called Cumorah, the location of the final battle in which the Nephite people were exterminated. However, this identification implies that much of the Book of Mormon story takes place in North America, a view now almost universally rejected by Mormon scholars. Instead, LDS scholars locate Cumorah, and all of the Nephite land, in Central America (ancient Mesoamerica, specifically southern Mexico and Guatemala). Even within this general framework, Mormons differ among themselves as to how to orient the Book of Mormon geographical descriptions within Mesoamerica.38 Moreover, the plethora of geographical descriptions, some of them long and elaborate, are awkward, implausible (unlike, for example, the incidental, passing references to locations and geographical features in the Bible), and inconsistent with the numerous comments in the Book of Mormon about the need for brevity due to the scarcity of the metallic writing materials.39

As with the older apocryphal writings, the Book of Mormon contains anachronistic material reflecting its modern origins. Its narratives present various prophets living before the time of Jesus referring to him by the name “Jesus Christ,” speaking in very explicit terms about him being crucified and raised from the dead, and preaching sermons that are in both style and substance characteristic of the Great Awakening revivalist preaching of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, the first-century BC prophet Alma gives a conversion testimony in which he confesses his antagonism toward God growing up in the church, describes his coming under conviction of sin and the fear of hell, recalls appealing to Jesus for mercy and finding sweet joy, and having his life changed dramatically (Alma 36:5-27). This story is culturally absurd: Mesoamerica in the first century BC was neither Jewish nor Christian, but a thoroughly pagan, polytheistic culture practicing bloodletting, human sacrifice, and even cannibalism.40

The Book of Mormon also creates another sort of cultural discrepancy by its account of Jesus going outside of Galilee and Judea and appearing to the Nephites somewhere in the Americas. Shortly after arriving, Jesus is quoted as preaching the Sermon on the Mount, closely following the version in Matthew 5-7, and specifically following the wording of the King James Version (3 Nephi 12-14). This is a literary anachronism since Matthew gives just one version of the speech that Jesus had given in Galilee; another version of the same speech appears in Luke 6:20-49. The whole passage is also culturally anachronistic because the Sermon reflects the specific context of first-century Galilee under Roman rule and strongly influenced by Greek culture. In 3 Nephi 12, based on Matthew 5, despite heavy editing the Book of Mormon presents Jesus engaging controversial issues in the interpretation of the Torah current in that Old World context, particularly among the Pharisees, that were unlikely to have been issues, or to have been framed in the same way, in the supposed Nephite context. The six-fold pattern of sayings, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you” (Matt. 5:21-48), arise in the context of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees’ handling of the Mosaic Law.

The problems are even more severe in 3 Nephi 13-14, which repeat Matthew 6-7 virtually unchanged from the KJV. The Book of Mormon quotes Jesus making statements that reflect Old World institutions the Nephites could not have known, such as Greek theatres and Jewish synagogues. He is quoted using culturally distinctive idioms and other speech elements such as the expressions “jot or tittle” and “take up your cross.” Jesus criticizes the Nephites for swearing by substitutes for God’s name such as swearing by heaven and earth, a practice that originated among the Jews not long before the time of Jesus. The Book of Mormon account of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount to the Nephites reflects features of the material culture of the Mediterranean world that would not have existed or been known in the New World context of the Nephites, such as knocking on doors, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and roads leading to gates of walled cities. The best explanation for this systemically anachronistic character of the sermon in its Book of Mormon setting is that the book’s modern author, Joseph Smith, simply adapted the sermon from the Gospel of Matthew in the KJV.41

Conclusion: The New Testament Gospels Stand Alone

We have examined the New Testament Gospels and the other purported “gospels” to determine their likely value as sources of information about Jesus. We tested all of these works in four “subjects”: text, author and date, genre, and historical fit. To illustrate the results, we can give the texts a letter grade based on how well they did in each “subject.” We can then determine an average grade for each text. Because we have applied these “tests” to the New Testament Gospels in the same way as to the other books, we are not giving them a perfect score but one based on the evidence that we discussed. Our “report cards” are shown below. For the sake of simplicity we have graded the four Gospels as a group, since their individual grades would differ very little from one another; for example, someone might conclude that Mark should get an A while John should get a B. We then compare the New Testament Gospels to the most influential ancient, medieval, and modern apocryphal books. Across the board, the four New Testament Gospels qualify as good sources of historical information about Jesus, something that cannot be said about any primary source outside the New Testament.42 

  NTGospels Gospel of Thomas Gospel of Barnabas Book of Mormon Life of Saint Issa
Text A B D F F
Author, Date B C F F F
Genre A D C C D
Historical Fit A D D F F
FINAL GRADE A- C- D F+ F

For those who remain unconvinced, simply reading these books with the question of their historical credibility in mind should prove highly instructive. For example, anyone reading the ancient apocryphal gospels without an axe to grind can also see that they are crude and quite obviously fictional in nature. The (Coptic) Gospel of Thomaspresents Jesus stating that women who make themselves male will enter the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel of Peter has a fanciful account of Jesus and the two angels coming out of his tomb with the Cross following them. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas reports Jesus as a little boy striking playmates dead or turning them into goats. Conservative New Testament scholar Craig Evans has made the following wry comment: “When students ask me why certain Gospels were omitted from the canon of the New Testament and whether some of them ought to be included, I tell them to read these Gospels. They do, and that answers their questions.”43

Scholars from a wide spectrum of beliefs agree that the New Testament Gospels are our best sources of historical information about Jesus. For example, James Tabor, a skeptical historian, admits that “our most reliable sources for reconstructing what we can know about Jesus are the New Testament gospels themselves.”44 Craig Blomberg, an evangelical scholar, after a careful and judicious assessment of the ancient apocryphal literature, concludes: “Responsible scholarship does not find outside the New Testament enough reliable historical material to shed any substantially different light on the Jesus of history and his first followers.”45 John Meier, a moderately critical Catholic scholar, reached the same conclusion:

It is only natural for scholars—to say nothing of popularizers—to want more, to want other access roads to the historical Jesus. This understandable but not always critical desire is, I think, what has recently led to the high evaluation, in some quarters, of the apocryphal gospels and the Nag Hammadi codices as sources for the quest. It is a case of the wish being father to the thought, but the wish is a pipe dream. For better or for worse, in our quest for the historical Jesus, we are largely confined to the canonical Gospels.46

This judgment applies with even greater force when considering medieval and modern fictional “gospels” such as the Gospel of Barnabas, Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon, or the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. These are valuable sources of information about the people who wrote them and the communities that embrace them, but they are not valid sources of historical information about Jesus. If we want to know the facts about Jesus, then, we need to go to the New Testament Gospels. 

NOTES


1. See Part 1 of this series: Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Did Jesus Exist?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017), for an up-to-date survey of the evidence and answers to common objections.

2. Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, “Astronomy and the Date of the Crucifixion,” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos, ed. Jerry Vardaman and Edwin M. Yamauchi (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989), 165–81; Harold W. Hoehner, “The Chronology of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 3:2315–60.

3. Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace, “The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: A Dialogue,” in The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, edited by Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 21.

4. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 26. Ehrman removed this statement from the 6th edition without any explanation.

5. John Dominic Crossan, The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 3–9. For the argument that the Greek fragments are not of the Gospel of Peter, see Paul Foster, “Are There Any Early Fragments of the So-Called Gospel of Peter?” New Testament Studies 52 (2006): 1–28; “The Disputed Early Fragments of the So-Called Gospel of Peter—Once Again,” Novum Testamentum 49 (2007): 402–406.

6. Christopher M. Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5–9, 79–85; Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003), 8.

7. The Gospel of Barnabas: Edited and Translated From The Italian Ms. In The Imperial Library At Vienna: With A Facsimile, by Lonsdale and Laura Ragg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907); Jan Joosten, “The Date and Provenance of the Gospel of Barnabas,” Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 200–215; Gerard A. Wiegers, “Gospel of Barnabas,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson, 3rd ed. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Online, 2014).

8. See the telling title of the scholarly Mormon edition produced by Royal Skousen, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). For a response to one Mormon scholar’s attempt to argue that the existence of only a modern English translation does not invalidate the Book of Mormon as authentic, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Book of Mormon and Other Translated Documents” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

9. H. Louis Fader, The Issa Tale that Will Not Die: Nicholas Notovich and His Fraudulent Gospel (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003), 1–82. An alternate spelling of the writer’s Russian name is Nicolai Notovich.

10. Levi H. Dowling, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ: The philosophic and practical basis of the religion of the Aquarian age of the world and of the church universal: Transcribed from the book of God’s remembrances, known as the Akashic records, with introduction by Eva S. Dowling (Los Angeles: Leo W. Dowling; London: L. N. Fowler, 1911 [copyright 1907]).

11. Michael Patton, “The Problem of the Nameless Gospels,” Credo House (blog), Feb. 10, 2016.

12. See, for example, the entries on each of the four Gospels in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, editor-in-chief, 6 Vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992); The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible, Michael D. Coogan, editor-in-chief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013). The first of these reference works is fairly mainstream, the second heavily tilted toward the liberal side, and the third clearly evangelical though not arguing for extremely early dates. The agnostic Ehrman, in what is now the standard secular introduction to the New Testament, likewise dates Mark around AD 70, Matthew and Luke in the early 80s, and John in the early 90s: Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 100.

13. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs, B&H Studies in Christian Apologetics (Nashville: Baker Academic, 2016), 17, 18.

14. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7–89.

15. E.g., Howard Clark Kee, in The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, Bruce Chilton, general editor, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 653–54. Nicholas Perrin, Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron, Academia Biblica 5 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature; Leiden: Brill, 2002); Thomas: The Other Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), argued for a date for the Gospel of Thomas in the last quarter of the second century, but his case has garnered little support except from some conservative evangelicals, e.g., Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 63–77.

16. For these quotations see The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations, by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 11, 71, 311, 387, 395.

17. Elaine H. Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 79. Pagels thinks no one knows who wrote the Gospel of John, either.

18. Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003), 184.

19. Crossan, The Cross that Spoke, 3–9.

20. Gospel of Barnabas, ed. and trans. by Ragg and Ragg, 3.

21. Citing the most recent (2013) edition.

22. Per Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus: A Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 12; Joosten, “Date and Provenance of the Gospel of Barnabas,” 209–10.

23. Fader, The Issa Tale that Will Not Die; see also the helpful overview in Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996), 122–46.

24. Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus, 75–80.

25. For a literate introduction from a Mormon perspective that includes some discussion about LDS defenses of the Book of Mormon, see Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Essays representative of Book of Mormon apologetics appear in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies—Brigham Young University, 2002). For a Christian survey of the subject, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Book of Mormon Apologetics: How Mormons Defend the Book of Mormon,” An Introduction to the Book of Mormon, Part 6 (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

26. These points are developed at great length in Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Sermon at the Temple in the Book of Mormon: A Critical Examination of Its Authenticity through a Comparison with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew,” Ph.D. diss. (South African Theological Seminary, 2014). For a brief overview of the matter with links to recent articles on these issues, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “A Biblical Scholar Looks at the Book of Mormon” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016). See also Ronald V. Huggins, “The Book of Mormon: Another Bible or Another Bible Forgery? Part 1,” Salt Lake City Messenger 127 (Nov. 2016): 1–19.

27. The rest of this paragraph is adapted from Bowman, “Sermon at the Temple,” 176–77.

28. Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Dearborn, MI: Dove Booksellers, 2004). Ehrman, New Testament: A Historical Introduction, 97–101, acknowledges that the Gospels are ancient biographies but suggests that such literature was not particularly concerned with giving factual accounts, citing Plutarch’s Lives as an example. For an interesting counterpoint, see Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, Foreword by Craig A. Evans (Oxford University Press, 2017). Licona identifies several “compositional devices” that the Gospels appear to have in common with such ancient biographers as Plutarch. According to Licona, these devices introduced some artistry into the accounts but not in a way that made them historically unreliable.

29. Certainty about the genre of the Gospel of Peter is elusive because so much of the book is missing. See Justin Marc Smith, Why βίος? On the Relationship between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience, Library of New Testament Studies 518 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 123. As Burridge points out, some of the Jewish-Christian “gospels” probably were biographical in genre, but unfortunately no substantial copies of these works are extant; Burridge, What Are the Gospels, 242.

30. King, Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 30.

31. Oddbjørn Leirvik, “History as a Literary Weapon: The Gospel of Barnabas in Muslim-Christian Polemics.” Studia Theologica—Nordic Journal of Theology 56 (2002): 5 (4-26).

32. An objective (not critical) overview is given in Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Contents of the Book of Mormon,” An Introduction to the Book of Mormon, Part 2 (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

33. Contemporary academic commentaries on the Gospels discuss these contextual aspects in fine detail. See also the numerous relevant entries in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and others (cited earlier), and NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture, edited by John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

34. The rest of this paragraph is adapted from Bowman, “Sermon at the Temple,” 166.

35. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Who Were the Ebionites and the Gnostics?” Areopagus Journal (Winter 2012).

36. Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus, 13-14; Leirvik, “History as a Literary Weapon,” 6-9.

37. Edgar J. Goodspeed, Famous Biblical Hoaxes or, Modern Apocrypha (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), 17.

38. The two dominant approaches to a Mesoamerican setting are represented by John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo: FARMS, 1990); Mormon’s Map (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), and Joseph L. Allen and Blake J. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, rev. ed. (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2011). Sorenson’s has far more support among LDS scholars.

39. There are some forty or more such statements in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 1:16; 6:1, 3, 5; 8:30; 9:1; 10:15; 14:30; 17:6; 19:3, 6; 2 Ne. 4:14; 5:4; 11:1; 31:1; 33:1, 3; Jacob 1:2; 3:13; 4:1-2; 7:27; Jarom 1:1-2, 14; Omni 1:4, 9; Words of Mormon 1:5-6; Mosiah 1:8; 8:1; Alma 8:1, 3; 9:34; 11:46; 13:31; Helaman 3:14; 5:13; 14:1; 3 Ne. 5:8, 18; 7:17; 26:6; Mormon 8:5, 23; 9:33; Ether 1:3-5; 3:17; 12:24-25, 40; 15:33).

40. See the entries on “Autosacrifice and Bloodletting” and “Cannibalism” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Davíd Carrasco, editor-in-chief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1:64–66, 137–39. On Alma 36, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalist Testimony?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

41. See Bowman, “Sermon at the Temple,” 479-656.

42. Obviously, historical studies of Jesus based on the Gospels could be very good, but these would be secondary sources, not primary sources.

43. Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 98–99.

44. James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 43.

45. Blomberg, Historical Reliability of the New Testament, 604.

46. John P. Meier, Jesus: A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Anchor Reference Bible Library (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 140–41.