The New Testament is one of the most important documents in the history of humankind. It has shaped Western civilization as we know it, serving as the backbone of the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, which together account for the most prominent religion in the world.1 The New Testament writings also opened the doors of universality, teaching a message meant for everyone, and so helped to establish Christianity as one of the three main missionary religions of the world. The text is such a part of the human story that universities across the globe even provide doctorates in New Testament studies.
However, the stories of the New Testament are quite different from the stories of the Old Testament. God no longer appears among his people as a burning bush or a pillar of fire, but his revelations now manifest through a man called Jesus Christ. According to the gospels, Jesus was a sage-like figure, a miracle-worker, a prophet, and the “Son of Man” who was to bring about the kingdom of god. Though he was crucified and buried in a tomb, he rose again three days later, ushering in a new covenant of salvation for humanity, afterwards ascending into heaven. The other texts of the New Testament, like the Pauline and Petrine epistles, advised early Christians on what to believe, and also instructed the early church on how to conduct its business. Finally, there is the Book of Revelation, which allegedly tells of the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the age.
As with the Jewish scriptures, the Christian scriptures have historically been interpreted in a number of different ways. Most of the conflicts in early Christianity involved either the teachings of Jesus or the identity of Jesus. In my article on the Origins of the Old Testament, I mentioned that some Christians in Paul’s time believed in keeping the Hebrew Law. Docetic Christians maintained that Jesus only had the appearance of humanity, but was, in fact, divine in every sense. Ebionite Christians, on the other hand, rejected the divinity of Jesus, along with the virgin birth and physical resurrection, considering him to have been a mere human who was also the messiah. Still other Christians, like the Gnostic teacher Valentinus, claimed that spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, was the true key to salvation, which did not simply confer on one a place in heaven, but a return to the Platonic concept of the “fullness” of divinity.
Modern Christians interpret the Bible differently, too. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 30% of Americans consider the Bible to be the actual word of god, while 49% believe it to be the inspired word, and a mere 17% find it to be a book of fables and legends.2 A study conducted in 2007 by the Barna Group reveals differences of belief in a number of the Bible’s supernatural claims, showing that 18% of mainline Protestants and 17% of Catholics do not believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead on the third day.3 By comparison, a 2009 Gallup poll of European nations found that an overwhelming number of respondents in Scandinavia, France, and Britain, reported that religion has little to no importance in their lives.4
As I have noted elsewhere, biblical criticism is a phenomenon fairly recent in the history of religious studies. While ancient theologians did engage in analyzing the scriptures in the interests of doctrine and hermeneutics, it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that scholars first began to study the Bible with the same scrutiny used to study other ancient non-Christian texts. Since that time, biblical scholarship has come to converge upon several ideas about the origins of the New Testament documents. These ideas are still controversial to some theists because they challenge traditional views on the authorship and transmission of the scriptures. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the origins of the New Testament because it will tell us about the world in which it was written, and about the reliability of the Bible, both of which will help to shape our conception of its relevance for today.
I. Who Wrote the Gospels?
The first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are known as the four gospels. From the Greek word evangelion, a gospel is a “good message” or “good news.” In the case of the Christian scriptures, the good news is the story of the crucifixion of Christ and the salvation that his death and resurrection bring to the world.
Each of the four gospels is actually anonymous, because the texts do not name their authors. The titles we have become familiar with today are later additions beginning during the 2nd century C.E., which are absent from earlier manuscripts. The first mention of four gospels comes from the second century bishop Irenaeus. In his work, Against Heresies (c. 180 C.E.), he writes:
By Irenaeus’ time, Christians had begun to question which gospels were inspired. Many communities showed preference for a single gospel, and with the circulation of some non-canonical texts like the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Judas (which Irenaeus discusses in another part of Against Heresies), concerns began to arise over which gospels were authoritative. For Irenaeus, the solution was simple: there are four zones of the world and four principal winds, and so there should be four true gospels to serve as four metaphorical pillars that the Church may rest upon.
This certainly seems like a rather mystical approach, but we should also notice the context in which Irenaeus makes this declaration. As one of the defenders of orthodoxy, it would have been in his best interest to establish a set of authoritative scriptures to hold up in refutation of those considered heretical. It is also interesting that Irenaeus selects four gospels that he elsewhere states were each relied upon by his opponents. Ebionites, he explains, only used the Gospel of Matthew, Marcionites only used a heavily revised version of Luke, Valentinians read only the Gospel of John, and Mark was the sole gospel used by those who separated the divinity of Christ from the humanity of Jesus. Perhaps Irenaeus’ plan was to claim all of these gospels for orthodoxy, in an effort to over-write or stamp out the heretical readings of these texts?
We find alleged references to the four canonical gospels in some writings of the early church fathers, like Ignatius and Justin Martyr, yet the sources for these references are curiously unidentified. Justin simply uses the term “memoirs of the apostles” for the whole lot. If these authors were citing scripture to support their arguments, why would they not have named their sources for an added sense of authority? By the early to mid-2nd century, the names of Matthew and Mark finally pop up in the works of Papias, as preserved in Eusebius, but there is still no clear indication of whether or not these are the same gospels of Matthew and Mark that we know today. In fact, there is reason to believe that at least one of the documents is not the same as what we have now. Both Papias and Irenaeus report that the Gospel attributed to Matthew was composed in Hebrew, and yet scholars have found no evidence that the text we currently call by this name was ever written in a language other than Greek.6
The gospels were not named at random and selected for the canon out of thin air. There certainly were traditions about gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but the integrity of these traditions is not so evident, and their application to the documents we now find in the Christian canon is even more suspect. On top of this is a renowned oddity called the synoptic problem. The term synoptic means “seen together,” and the synoptic problem refers to the fact that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share a great many of the same stories, often told in the same sequence, and at times using the same wording. If these three authors had written their accounts independently of each other, we would not expect such uniformity.
In an attempt to resolve this problem, scholars proposed a theory known as the Two Source Hypothesis (TSH). The theory explains the synoptic problem by postulating that Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark and a lost sayings source commonly called Q (from the German word quelle, for “source”) in composing their gospels. It has been observed that 90% of Mark is shared by Matthew, while 55% of Mark is shared by Luke.7 Under the TSH, Mark is considered the earliest gospel written, and Q is estimated by comparing the similar sections of Matthew and Luke that have no parallel in Mark. The TSH has been the predominant theory for the synoptic problem for almost a century and a half, and it has the support of scholars from all continents and denominations.8
The implications of this theory seem to work against the attributed titles described by the early church fathers. Papias, for example, claims that Mark used the disciple Peter as his primary source. Yet if this were the case, why would Matthew – another disciple of Jesus – borrow his gospel from Mark, instead of creating his own independent account? As just noted, the Gospel of Matthew features nearly all of Mark’s content in its narrative. We can also find literary devices like the Messianic Secret in Mark, as well as a number of traditions that are probably based on earlier sources, such as collections of apocalyptic teachings and miracle stories. If the author of Mark had access to Peter, who was in the ‘inner circle’ with Jesus, James, and John, then these facts are somewhat puzzling.
The TSH carries some implications about the dating of the New Testament, too. If Luke used Mark as a source, then this puts Luke, and the Book of Acts, at a later date (many scholars find support for considering Acts to be a second volume to the Gospel of Luke). The date we give to Mark’s gospel will determine the dates we give to Matthew and Luke-Acts, as well as the general estimates for other New Testament writings that show familiarity with the gospels.
The Gospel of Mark is typically dated to 66-70 C.E., based in part on the ex eventu (after the event) prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13. The First Jewish-Roman War took place between 66-73 C.E., escalating over religious and political tensions, and culminating in the destruction of the Jewish temple. This event certainly shook the Jewish world, and the need to find a theological explanation for it could have been the inspiration behind Mark’s gospel. Although it is said to be a “false testimony,” one of the charges made against Jesus in Mark 13:57-58 is that, after the earthly temple is destroyed, he will build a new one in three days – one not made by human hands. It’s quite intriguing that this supposedly false claim is later put into the mouth of Jesus in John 2:19, but its use in Mark still seems to endorse the likelihood that the author saw Jesus as the establishment of a new kind of post-temple Messianic Judaism.
It is also worth pointing out that, even if this evidence for a date is dismissed as a bias against divine prophecy, we still find Irenaeus saying that, “After their departure [of Peter and Paul from earth], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter”. This supports the view that the gospel was written sometime after 64 C.E., when tradition holds that Nero would’ve executed Peter as part of his persecution of Christians following the Great Fire of Rome. Thus, whether we go with tradition or with a rational explanation, there is no good reason for dating Mark’s gospel any earlier than 64/65 C.E. Consequently, this puts the date of composition for Matthew and Luke-Acts no earlier than 70 C.E. and no later than the early second century, when church fathers like Ignatius and Justin Martyr begin quoting from the texts.
I already stated that the Gospel of Matthew is not believed to have been written in Hebrew, as Irenaeus and Papias claim. The gospel has also been expanded significantly, and yet the additions are not what we would expect from an eyewitness, if the author was a disciple of Jesus who used Mark’s gospel as his template. Another good chunk of the material Matthew incorporates appears to come from a source shared with the Gospel of Luke, and Luke was not an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. If the disciple Matthew in fact penned the gospel in his name, it looks as if he went well out of his way to borrow from other sources that would have been less credible. This makes it highly unlikely that the Gospel of Matthew is correct in its attribution.
Luke’s gospel is attributed to the apostle Luke largely on assumptions about the Book of Acts. The so-called “we documents” in passages like Acts 16:10-17 and 20:5-15 are taken as evidence that the author of the text personally knew Paul. From there, the stylistic similarities between Luke’s gospel and Acts are noted, and it is concluded that a companion of Paul must have written both. This companion is first identified as Luke in an early 3rd century manuscript (Papyrus 75), and this Luke has since been associated with the one spoken of in Philemon 1:24.
However, the arguments in favor of Lukan authorship are not conclusive, and scholars are reportedly divided on the issue.9 In Colossians 4:14, Paul refers to Luke as a doctor, or “the beloved physician,” as some translations read. Apologists have asserted that Luke-Acts does contain language typical of a first century physician, yet this claim was laid to rest long ago in Henry J. Cadbury’s seminal publication, The Style and Literary Method of Luke. Further troubling are the contradictions between the Pauline letters and the Book of Acts, particularly the discussion of the council at Jerusalem which Paul attended. The author of Luke-Acts may well have known Paul, and possibly even traveled with him on a few occasions, but there is scant evidence that this person was the Luke mentioned in Paul’s letters.
The Gospel of John is distinguished from the synoptic gospels because it does not appear to have used Mark or Q, and contains a good amount of theological and linguistic differences. It receives its name from its numerous verses that speak of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23, 20:2, 21:20), a figure who is traditionally identified as John. Modern scholars have cast serious doubt on the authenticity of John’s gospel,10 and it is interesting to note that other gospels which designate a favored disciple of Jesus, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, were excluded from canonization. The gospel also includes a strange anachronism, mentioning at several points that Jesus and his followers were put out of the synagogues in Jerusalem (9:22, 16:2). Burton Mack and other scholars have noted that the Gospel of John seems to have come from a particular community of believers, somewhat proto-Gnostic in their beliefs.11 This community had experienced persecution from other Christians and Jews, which prompted one of their members to denounce it in the gospel attributed to John.
II. Acts and the Epistles
Following the gospels, we find the Book of Acts, which purports to give an account of the deeds of the apostles and the development of the early Christian community after the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are some interesting oddities with the text that may raise doubts about its accuracy. The conversion and missionary work of a man called Paul of Tarsus is the subject of the second half of Acts, and we have several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament canon (which will be discussed momentarily). Curiously, the Book of Acts never quotes from any of these writings, and it offers a different picture of Paul from what we find in the Pauline epistles. While Acts presents Paul as a master orator who can command the attention of even governors and philosophers, Paul notes in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that his opponents criticize his presence as unimpressive and his speaking ability as amounting to nothing (2 Corinth. 10:10). Paul is said to have had his disciple Timothy circumcised, according to Acts 16:1-3, “because of the Jews who lived in that area.” Yet in Galatians 2, Paul claims that he refused to circumcise another disciple, Titus, even though his opponents had gone so far as to sneak into their camp to “spy on the freedom” they had – a subtle way of saying that the circumcision advocates were peeking in on the uncut penises in Paul’s group! As Paul puts it: “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Gal. 2:5) This certainly does not sound like the same man who would have consented to circumcise a disciple out of deference to Jewish concerns.
The historian Steve Mason has drawn attention to the seeming reliance of Luke-Acts on the histories of Josephus.12 Acts mentions three rebel leaders of the first century – Judas the Galilean, Theudas, and “the Egyptian” – and it just so happens that all three are also found in Josephus’ Jewish War and Antiquities. The famine during the reign of Claudius is referenced in Acts 11:28-29, with its possible source in Antiquities 3.320, 20.51-53, and 20.101. The Book of Acts additionally associates characters in an odd and nondescript way, such as Berenice with Agrippa II (Acts 25:13,23, 26:30), or Felix and Drusilla (Acts 24:24-26). When we read about these figures in Josephus (Antiquities 20.143,145), however, we start to see the implications made by the author of Luke-Acts. By his affiliation with Berenice, the ‘noble’ King Agrippa is given an air of sarcastic comedy to his demeanor while he listens to Paul plead innocence. Josephus reported the circulation of a rumor that Agrippa and his sister Berenice were engaged in an incestuous relationship. We see a similar kind of humor in the association of Felix and Drusilla, as Josephus claims that Drusilla had been seduced by Felix into leaving her former husband. Thus, we may understand why the author of Acts depicts Felix as suddenly growing upset when Paul begins preaching to him about righteousness and self-control.
What might account for these striking comparisons? Certainly, as a Jew, Josephus would not have relied on Acts for his information, especially when he had access to Roman records and other such sources. Could these be mere coincidences, that the author of Luke-Acts happened to know the same rumors and reports later noted by Josephus? Mason provides many additional examples like the ones above, so the amount of shared material and the similar context of its use both serve to argue against mere coincidence. The dating of the Antiquities is well established too, having been completed in the last year of Domitian’s reign, around 93 or 94 C.E. Consequently, Josephan influence in Acts would imply a date for the text that is no earlier than this time-frame.
Even so, Christian apologists often claim that Acts dates to the early or mid-60s, based on the fact that it does not mention the martyrdom of Paul. However, this seems an unwarranted (and certainly convenient) assumption, because there are other plausible explanations for the apparent incompleteness of Acts. It might be that the author of the text only wished to record what took place in his presence. It could be that the author died before he could finish the work, or that he died before he could write another volume he had planned that would continue from the ending of Acts. It may even be that the author knew of Paul’s fate and hinted at it in the speech at Miletus and the final remark about Paul preaching unhindered for two more years. The author of Acts could well have chosen to end on a positive note with the gospel being preached in Rome and the ends of the earth without hindrance. As the acts of the apostles are the focus of the work, and the motivation of those acts is spreading the gospel, it is entirely possible that the Book of Acts was written after the death of Paul, even though it makes no direct mention of his death, because the ending of the text resolves the central concern about spreading the gospel message. Nonetheless, this argument for an early date is an argument from silence that is quite unconvincing next to the textual evidence linking Acts with Josephus, and thereby placing the date of composition sometime in the 90s.
After the gospels and Acts, the next books in the Christian Bible are the writings of Paul. Traditionally, it has been believed that Paul authored nearly half of the New Testament, including Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Scholars now generally think that Paul only wrote seven of the thirteen attributed to him, those being 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 & 2 Corinthians. These seven letters are accepted primarily because of uniformity in style, language, and content, as well as how they fit into a chronology of Paul’s life. Disputed writings like the pastoral epistles are rejected because they share very little common language, show a departure from the style of the authentic epistles, and sometimes discuss topics that were of more concern to 2nd century Christians and the emerging church than they would have been to Paul and the Christian communities of his time.
1 Thessalonians is not just considered the earliest of the seven letters, but also the earliest text of the New Testament canon, usually dated to about 50-52 C.E. The other six epistles are thought to have been composed within ten or so years of 1 Thessalonians. We can learn quite a few interesting things about Paul and the early Christians from these writings. The epistle to the Galatians reports on Paul’s conflict with Jewish-Christians who apparently took issue with his disregard for circumcision. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses Christians who had become overzealous in their use and understanding of “gifts of the spirit.” We find in 1 Thessalonians 4 that Paul believed he would not die before the arrival of the kingdom of god (“we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with [the dead] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”). In Galatians 1, Paul admits that his gospel comes from no human, but has been given to him by a divine vision – a vision of a man named Jesus Christ who died before Paul met him.
What are we to think of such a figure as Paul? The word “reliable” certainly should not be thrown around carelessly. Paul imbued himself with a mission to the Gentiles that seems like it was not well received among the Christians of his day, for despite his hard work establishing numerous churches, Paul had to frequently write to remind them of his teachings and correct ‘false’ doctrines that had been spread by other Christian groups. Today we find Paul’s views more palatable then they were back in the day because Pauline Christianity was fortunate enough to receive the stamp of orthodoxy that allowed it to become the dominant form of Christianity down to the modern era. In his writings, Paul is more like a propagandist and polemicist than a reasoned intellectual; it’s undeniable that he has a stake in the fight. Thus, we must be cautious in how much credit we grant to the word of Paul.
The remaining epistles attributed to Peter, James, and John do not fare any better. For instance, the encouragement to submit to governing authorities in 1 Peter 2:13-15 makes little sense if it was in fact written by Peter during the time of persecution that took place under Nero. The depiction of Rome as Babylon (5:13) is a symbol that would have had no substantial coherence until the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., by which time the apostle Peter would have already been dead for six years. The Epistle of James is written in a Greek literary style that would have been uncharacteristic for an Aramaic-speaking Jew, and although it is purportedly penned by the brother of Jesus, the text features not a single reference to Jesus or any comment on the relationship between the two brothers. The epistles attributed to John are typically dated to some time after the fourth gospel, and though scholars debate the relationship of the texts, most seem to think that they all share the same author, whether or not this author was John the evangelist.13
III. Evidence of Change
When we look at our reputedly earliest sources in the New Testament, such as the seven Pauline epistles, we notice that they seem to be missing some familiar elements of the gospel story. Many scholars and apologists believe that 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 preserves a creed of the early Christians, and yet the text contains an intriguing oddity. After Jesus rises from the dead, according to the passage, he appears to Cephas (Peter), “then to the Twelve.” As we read elsewhere, Judas Iscariot died before the crucifixion, either by hanging himself or falling headfirst (Matthew 27:5-8, Acts 1:15-26), and his replacement was not chosen until after the postmortem appearances of Jesus. This should discount the Twelve by one, but the noted exception of Peter from the group should discount it again to ten disciples.
If the 1 Corinthians 15 passage is an early Christian creed, it may suggest that the character of Judas Iscariot was not in the earliest sources. The number twelve was of great importance in ancient Judaism, with the twelve sons of Jacob who made up the twelve tribes of Israel, as well as the twelve minor prophets. Thus, the symbol of twelve disciples could have developed early on in Christian tradition, before each disciple was given a specific identity. We find another apparent case of this in Matthew 19:28, where Jesus tells his disciples, including Judas, that they will sit with him on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Later in Matthew, it’s revealed that Jesus foresaw his betrayal (26:25), which leads us to ask why Jesus would have spoken so inaccurately, since he knew what would become of Judas. Matthew 19:28 has a parallel in Luke 22:28-30, but none in Mark, which implies that this saying may originate from the Q document. This looks to be another early source that had no awareness of Judas Iscariot, at least not in the sense of Judas being the disciple who betrayed Jesus.
Another interesting observation centers around the theological development of the Jesus story through the earliest to the latest New Testament accounts. In Paul’s writings, we see remarks that point to a belief in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus, rather than a physical one. Describing the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, he draws a distinction between the perishable physical body and the imperishable spiritual body that is raised to life after death (verses 42-44). Paul says that while Adam became a living being, Christ became “a life-giving spirit,” noting that the spiritual “did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15:45-46). Finally, in verse 50, he declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Outside of the authentic Pauline letters, we read in 1 Timothy 3:16 that Christ “appeared in the flesh, was vindicated in the spirit.” 1 Peter 3:18 teaches that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” However, later in the gospels, Jesus’ resurrection transitions from spiritual to physical, as Luke 24:39-43 depicts him having “flesh and bone,” even eating in the presence of his disciples. John 20:27 finally has Christ encouraging his followers to put their fingers into the wound in his side.
But did Paul really believe in a spiritual resurrection? What about the postmortem appearances reported in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul claims that over 500 people witnessed the resurrection? It is important to remember that Paul counts himself among these witnesses, drawing no distinction between his vision of the risen Christ and the visions of the other believers. This is problematic because Paul never did meet Jesus in the flesh, but, as he says himself in Galatians 1:12, he met Christ in a “revelation.” The Greek word used here is apokalypsis, which is the same word used for the title of the Book of Revelation, and it refers to a vision that is a spiritual manifestation. If Paul only had a spiritual encounter with Jesus, then why did he not distinguish this from the other postmortem appearances? The simple explanation seems to be that Paul did not know their visions of the risen Christ to be any different from his own.
The idea of a spiritual resurrection might also imply the absence of an empty tomb story from the earliest sources. If Jesus was not raised bodily, but spiritually, then the empty tomb seems a superfluous part of the tale, and, in fact, Paul does not specifically mention it anywhere in his writings. Yet according to apologists like William Lane Craig, the reference to burial and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:4 presupposes an empty tomb. The assumption is that being raised after one is buried means the burial site is no longer occupied. However, if Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection, then all this might mean is that the spirit of Jesus was “raised on the third day,” out of his body, which remained in the ground. If, on the other hand, Paul believed in a bodily resurrection, then his silence on the empty tomb is even more troubling. As one of the boldest and most enthusiastic Christians of his time (2 Corinthians 10:5), Paul would have seen an empty tomb story as very useful to his ministry, and one could expect that he would have sought to visit the tomb of his savior, even for the experience alone. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul does state that he went to Jerusalem twice, and that he was in contact with James, the brother of Jesus, and yet there is no mention of even the desire to visit the tomb, just as there is no mention of an empty tomb at all in the Pauline epistles.
Other examples of changes to the gospel story are well known and noted in some conservative Bible translations like the New International Version. Mark 16 begins with the women going to visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find the stone rolled away from the entrance, and a young man in a white robe seated inside. The young man instructs the women to inform Peter and the disciples that Jesus has risen and will meet them in the city of Galilee. Verse eight describes the women fleeing in terror, saying “nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Next, in Mark 16:9-20, we find a sudden shift in focus to postmortem appearances, and then some discussion of the abilities of the followers of Jesus to exorcise demons, to speak in tongues, and to pick up snakes and drink deadly poisons without harm. As the NIV and other translations point out, these final eleven verses of Mark 16 are not found in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel. Most scholars either believe the text originally ended with verse eight, or they think that the original ending to the Gospel of Mark has been lost.
The renowned tale of Jesus and the adulterous woman, known as the Pericope Adulterae and found in John 7:53-8:11, is another instance of a late addition to the New Testament. In the famous passage, a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus, who is asked to pass judgment on her. Taking a stick and drawing in the dirt, Jesus then calls to the crowd to “cast the first stone” if any among them are free from sin. Realizing their guilt, the mob recedes as Jesus tells the thankful adulteress to go and “sin no more.” Once again, the NIV and many other translations acknowledge the absence of this story from the earliest manuscripts, and a good number of scholars reject authenticity of the passage as a part of John’s gospel.14
Thus, we find that there is evidence that the New Testament has indeed changed, not only after its texts were composed, but even as they were composed. Of this evidence, I have only selected a very small sample for discussion here. For those who are interested in pursuing the subject further, there is a large body of literature available, among which are authors like Raymond Brown, Helmut Koester, Burton Mack, and John Kloppenborg, who come highly recommended for their in-depth critical analyses of scripture.
IV. Old Testament Influence
It may seem like stating the obvious to suggest that the New Testament bears influence of the Old Testament. After all, the writers of the gospels do not attempt to hide this fact at all, sometimes quoting extensively from the Hebrew scriptures. For Christianity to be the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations that it claims to be, it is only reasonable that there should be a degree of Jewish influence. However, I use the phrase ‘Old Testament influence’ in a way more similar to the Sumerian influence on the Torah, as I elaborated in my article on the Origins of the Old Testament. A number of New Testament stories appear to be rewrites of older stories straight out of the Hebrew scriptures.
In biblical exegesis, this interesting oddity is referred to as “typology.” For an example, let’s look at some of the similarities between Jesus and the Jewish prophet Elisha.
The chart to the left provides but a small sample of some of the parallels between these characters in the Old and New Testaments. According to Christian theologians, the significance of these parallels is that Elisha is a “type” of Christ. Thus, under the traditional view, these portions of the gospel stories are not rewrites, but are the fruition of a kind of foreshadowing. In other words, Elisha resembles Christ because god wanted to communicate the importance of Jesus early on, so that his people might know that Christ was who he claimed to be.
This interpretation of typology makes some rather bold assumptions. The most common explanation for a later story mimicking an earlier story is that the author of the later story intentionally modeled his tale on the earlier one. In defiance of this, Christian theologians reverse the order of influence and presume that god mysteriously and divinely foreshadowed the coming messiah in the story of Elisha. Within this explanation are the assumptions that god exists, that the Bible (including both Jewish and Christian texts) is the word of god, and that god hid a prophetic revelation of sorts in the tale of Elisha as found in II Kings. Although experience and reason argue against this view, we may also erode its foundation by taking a closer look at some of these typological stories.
First, we will examine the multiplying of the loaves in II Kings 4 and John 6. The feeding of the five thousand is one of the best known miracles of Jesus from the gospels. According to the text, five loaves and two fish are miraculously multiplied to feed a crowd of five thousand people and still have some left-overs. In II Kings, we find Elisha multiplying twenty loaves of bread to feed a hundred people, also with some left-overs. The only noticeable disparity between these stories seems to be the amount of food and the size of the crowd. But don’t miss the relevance of the inequity: Jesus is able to feed more people with less food. In a sense, his miracle demonstrates a greater power than Elisha’s miracle.
In another article, I noted that the Greek Septuagint version of the Jewish scriptures is likely the version that was used by the New Testament authors, as their quotations of the Old Testament often resemble the Greek rather than the Hebrew (Masoretic) text. This also makes sense in light of the fact that the authors of the Christian gospels wrote in Greek themselves. When we compare the Septuagint translation of the loaves story of II Kings with the loaves story in John 6, a couple interesting things stand out. In the other gospel versions of this tale, the bread provided to Jesus is generic bread (i.e. Mark 6:30-44), yet John’s version specifically identifies the bread as “barley loaves.” The Greek for barley loaves, artous krithinous, appears both in John 6 and in the Septuagint reading of II Kings 4. The absence of this specification of barley loaves from Mark’s gospel is quite interesting when we remember that John does not share most of the sources used by the synoptic gospels. Why would John’s author have had this exact phrase in his mind unless he had read it in the Greek text of II Kings 4:42? The Greek word for barley [krithinous] is found nowhere else in John.
Another interesting linguistic relationship of the two stories hinges around the boy who brings the bread to Jesus. The Greek word paidarion is used for “boy” in John’s gospel, although it makes no other appearances in the text, nor does it appear in the rest of the New Testament, for that matter. Pais and paidion are more commonly used for boy or servant in the New Testament. The significance of this word in John 6:9 becomes clear when we look to II Kings 4, where Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, is described in verse 41 with the same word: paidarion. In John 9:6, a servant boy delivers barley loaves to Jesus, whereas in II Kings 4:43, Elisha’s servant boy is instructed to distribute the barley loaves to the people. Not only does Jesus feed more mouths with less food, but a personal touch is also added to the act by having Jesus distribute the food himself.
For a second example, let’s take the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5:22-42 contrasted to Elisha’s resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s son in II Kings 4:25-35. In the passage in Mark, Jesus is approached by a man named Jairus who asks that he heal his sick daughter. Jesus agrees and goes with the man, even after a messenger comes to inform them of the daughter’s death. When Jesus enters the home, he clears out the crowd that has gathered, in order to have privacy, then he takes the girl by the hand, commands her to rise up, and she returns to life. In the II Kings passage, Elisha is approached by a woman who asks that he heal her son. Elisha agrees and goes with the woman, even after a messenger comes to inform them that the son has “not awakened.” When Elisha arrives, he closes the door for privacy and lays on the boy, performing an odd sort of ritual that raises him back to life.
Just on the surface level, we have quite a number of similarities. In both stories, a grieving parent comes and falls at the feet of a ‘man of god,’ imploring him to heal a sick child. Jesus sets off with Jairus, only to be informed along the way that the child has died. Elisha sends his servant to place his staff across the boy’s face, yet the servant returns with no news of improvement (and in verse 32, we are told the boy is dead at the time of Elisha’s arrival). When each man of god gets to the house, he seeks some privacy before performing the miracle, and then, of course, he raises the child from the dead. It is also worth noting that this tale in II Kings directly precedes the multiplying the loaves miracle that I covered above.
Once again, there are linguistic elements that show this influence more clearly. The name Jairus in Greek is Iairos, which probably comes from the Hebrew word yair, meaning “enlighten” or “awaken.” In Mark 5:41, Jesus tells the young girl, “egeire!” This word can mean “arise,” but it can also mean “awake,” as in Ephesians 5:14. The author’s choice of the name Jairus reflects the point of the story: Jairus is enlightened to the power of Jesus, his daughter is awakened, or possibly even both. Giving characters such poetic names was quite common in the ancient world. In the Norse myth of Ragnarok, the two human beings who climb into the world-tree for shelter during the final battle are known as Lif (“life”) and Lifthrasir (“the one striving after life”). The theme of awakening in the Mark passage ties in to the Septuagint translation of II Kings 4:31 too, where Elisha is told that the boy has “not awakened,” and the Greek word used for awakened is egerthe, the past tense form of egeire.
Elisha is not the only Old Testament character to have a typological relationship to Jesus. The prophet Elijah may be compared to Christ in a number of ways, particularly the resurrection story in I Kings 17:8-23 that finds a very close parallel in Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son in Luke 7:11-15. There has been a lot of commentary on the typology involving Jesus and Moses as well. As infants, both were hidden from the murderous intentions of a wicked ruler, both saved women at a well (Exodus 2:15-19, John 4), and they both performed signs and miracles, among other similarities. Additional parallels have been drawn between Jesus and Abraham, Jesus and Isaac, and Jesus and Joseph (the son of Jacob, not the father of Jesus).
Neither theologians nor scholars deny that these relationships exist. The presence of typology is practically inarguable. However, the traditional explanation offered for this curious phenomenon is unsatisfactory. We know that the New Testament authors were very familiar with the Septuagint, and this alone makes it more probable that they have modeled their narratives on the stories of ancient Israelite figures rather than those ancient stories being ‘modeled’ on a man several centuries into the future. Elisha is not a type of Christ, but Christ is a type of Elisha. The gospel writers knew their source material well, and they also knew that modeling their narratives on the stories of Jewish heroes like Elijah, Moses, and Isaac, would lend an air of credibility to the story of Jesus. Here is a man who works the same wonders as the prophets, whose life resembles the patriarchs, and yet he seems to stand a degree above them, too. Readers would understand this Jesus as a powerful man of god, a messianic leader, and perhaps a divine being.
But what reason do we have to believe these characterizations are accurate? The gospel authors certainly thought very highly of Jesus, yet there is no real grounds for thinking they would have used these techniques to tell a story that was already factually accurate. The linguistic commonalities and the overall amount of shared material serve to support the notion that typology simply involves rewrites of earlier stories created with the purpose of emphasizing a particular view of Jesus.
V. Considering the Evidence
With a more informed perspective, we stand in a better position to consider the intent and interpretation of the New Testament writings. Are these documents the unchanging word of god? Have they come to us from reliable sources? As with the Torah, several texts of the Christian canon are anonymous and appear to have relied upon a number of other sources. Change has more than likely occurred, since well known elements of the gospel story are inexplicably missing from, or contradicted by, the earliest accounts. Then there is also the typological evidence just discussed, which indicates that portions of the gospel narratives come from ancient Hebrew literature. The picture we get of the authorship and transmission of the New Testament texts is not one that corroborates Christian tradition.
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament proves to be no different from other ancient documents in the details of its origins. It is the product of numerous writers, many anonymous, and various additions, redactions, and revisions have shaped the scriptures over time into the form that we have them now. Even if one were to still argue that a god had protected and guided such a haphazard and inefficient method of composition, it has all the characteristics of non-divinely inspired human composition that are found in antiquity, and none of the characteristics we might expect from a miraculously preserved collection of writings.
But once again, this conclusion is not all that controversial in the eyes of many Christians today. The notion that the New Testament is the work of human authors who used fallible human methods in its composition is not a revolutionary thought. Even so, the evidence is certainly worth citing for those who are unaware, and the first step in deciphering a text and ascertaining its value always involves a look at its origins. What we learn about the people who produced the New Testament is that – much like the ancient Israelites – they were trying to understand the world they lived in, and trying to find their own place within it. What may have started as just another messianic movement in first century Judea would blossom into a whole new religion that found its voice with its own texts, its own ‘prophets,’ and its own doctrines and teachings.
1. Major Religions Ranked by Size, Adherents.com (2007),
2. Jeffrey M. Jones, In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally, Gallup.com (2011).
3. Most Americans Take Well Known Bible Stories at Face Value, Barna Group (2007).
4. Steve Crabtree, Religiosity Highest in World’s Poorest Nations, Gallup.com (2010).
5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.8.
6. Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), p. 43.
7. Peter Kirby, The Priority of Mark, Early Christian Writings.
8. Stephen C. Carlson, Two-Source Hypothesis, Synoptic Problem Website (2004).
9. Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (1997), p. 267-268.
10. Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the Bible (1985), p. 355.
11. Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? (1995), p. 176-183.
12. Steve Mason, “Josephus and Luke-Acts,” Josephus and the New Testament (1992), p. 185-229.
13. Amos Wilder, “Introduction to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Epistles of John,” Interpreter’s Bible (1957).
14. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2001), p. 187-189.