Are the Gospels Reliable?
Farhan Iqbal, Missionary Canada
The Promised Messiahas has explained that Muslims cannot accept the divinity of Jesusas because it is not mentioned in the books of God. Both the Torah and the Quran do not mention anything about the divinity of Jesusas.
Christians would respond to this by pointing to verses in the Gospels (i.e. the first four books of the New Testament) that they believe clearly expound their belief in the divinity of Jesusas. Such references can be studied one by one to assess whether they truly expound the divinity of Jesusas.
However, it is first worthwhile to look into the reliability of the Gospels. Are they a trustworthy source on Jesusas? This article takes a deeper look at this crucial question.
Understanding the Gospels
First and foremost, it is important to note that the four Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are the most important books of the New Testament because they are specifically about Jesusas, his life, teachings and experiences up to the crucifixion. They were written anonymously and the names attached to the books were assigned to them by Church tradition.
Each Gospel was purportedly written independently of the others. In other words, whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark supposedly intended it to contain a true account of the life of Jesusas without the need of the other Gospels to verify anything in it. Similarly, Luke, Matthew, and John, were each written with the intention to be seen independently and not as an appendix or an addition to any other Gospel.
Upon a closer examination, scholars have determined that the first three Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke) are so similar to each other that they have been designated as the “Synoptic Gospels” (from the Greek term synoptikos meaning “viewed together”). This means that large sections in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, use identical words when mentioning some of the sayings of Jesusas or writing stories about him. This means that copying was going on.
Since Mark was written first according to scholars, it can be concluded that Matthew and Luke used it as a source and took some material verbatim from Mark.
Matthew and Luke both use another source that Mark did not have. This source mostly contains sayings of Jesusas and both Matthew and Luke quote these sayings in the same words, suggesting that this was another possibly written source of a collection of sayings of Jesusas. This source is commonly called “Q”, which is an abbreviation for Quelle (a German word for “source”). However, no document has yet been discovered which can be called “Q” and so this remains a hypothesis.
In addition to these two sources, Matthew and Luke each have additional material that is unique to each of these Gospels. Such material that is only found in Matthew is commonly called “M” and such material that is unique to Luke is commonly called “L”.
The discussion of the sources of these three Gospels is what is known as the “Four Source Hypothesis” as shown by the diagram below:
Interestingly, the Gospel of John is very different when compared with the Synoptics as it uses independent sources. This Gospel strongly portrays Jesusas as divine which is why scholars say that this Gospel has a high Christology while the Synoptics have a low Christology.
A Problem in Gospel Study
A problem with the reliability of the Gospels is that they are not completely harmonious with each other. One example that illustrates this is the way each of the Gospels begins its narrative.
Whereas the Gospel of Mark (65-70 CE) begins the narrative about Jesusas with his baptism, the Gospels of Matthew (80-85 CE) and Luke (85-90 CE) each begin their narrative with the virgin birth of Jesusas. On the other hand, the Gospel of John (90-110 CE) begins its narrative with the logos – a term used in Stoic philosophy to refer to “reason” that pervades the universe and is identified with God. The Gospel of John calls this logos the Word of God, which eternally existed with God and became flesh in Jesusas 2018 years ago.
The question is, if Jesusas is truly the eternal being or logos that existed before his birth on earth, why did the Synoptic Gospels fail to mention it? Similarly, if Jesus’as virgin birth is an important detail about him which proves his divinity, why did the Gospel of Mark not mention this crucial detail to make the case for a divine Jesusas?
Moreover, the Gospel of Mark portrays Jesusas as one who commands his followers to be secretive about him, while the Gospel of Johnas portrays him as one who speaks quite openly about himself in a very assertive manner, often referring to himself by means of an emphatic Greek phrase ego eimi (“I am”).
This leads to many Christian apologists using the Gospel of John to provide evidence for the divinity of Jesusas. However, from an academic point of view, this is not a convincing form of argumentation. If Jesusas was indeed God and our eternal salvation depends on accepting him as such, did the other Gospels, including earlier sources such as Q, M, and L, simply miss this most fundamental claim of Jesusas?
One way to note how the Gospels are similar or dissimilar to each other is to read the incidents they cite or quotations of Jesusas they narrate side-by-side. An excellent test case for this exercise is the Baptism of Jesusas. It is mentioned in each of the Gospels as follows: Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34.
While the Gospel of Mark has the earliest, raw story of Jesusas being baptized by John, the Gospel of Matthew revises the story by adding that John the Baptist was hesitant to baptize Jesusas.
The Gospel of Luke on the other hand does not indicate whether it was John the Baptist indeed who baptized Jesusas or someone else. In fact, if the passage is seen in context, Luke seems to suggest that John was arrested before the baptism of Jesusas. The Gospel of John even goes a step further by not mentioning the baptism at all. Instead it attributes a long speech to John where he speaks of the greatness of Jesusas.
In this test case regarding the baptism of Jesusas, and in the overall portrayal of Jesusas by each Gospel, we can notice differences some of which are quite significant. The Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, has noted that the authors of the Gospels were not Prophets (Kitab-ul-Bariyyah, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 13, p. 85).
This explains the differences, as they were made by humans who were trying to write down events that took place many decades prior to their writing.
Biblical scholars who study the texts in depth know the differences that are mentioned in this article and many others. Those among them who are Christian argue that the Bible has truth and that is what is important, not the “minor” differences.
We do not completely disagree with those scholars, as we also say that the Bible has truth. However, that truth should be obtained from the Word of God or the statements of the Prophets of God historically recorded in the Bible. Such truths which are also affirmed in the Quran become absolute truths for Muslims.
When it comes to God, that truth is the same: God is One and One Alone. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, see Deuteronomy 6:4; in the Gospels, see Jesus’as statement in Mark 12:29, and in the Quran, see Surah Al-Ikhlas, Ch.112: V.1-5.