Growing up, I remember hearing from various preachers that the authority of the Gospels is so historically founded that they are more reliable than works such as the Odyssey and Caesar’s commentaries because we have so many old copies of books from the New Testament. Growing up in the Church, I did what I was supposed to and I took their word for it, but nevertheless I would ask questions such as, “So what if we have tons of copies, why does that mean the books of the NT weren’t just originally made up?” I became even more troubled when I heard accusations that the oldest manuscripts from the NT came centuries after Jesus, and that there was no evidence that the authors were who they said they were.
Apparently I was not the only one who had this question, because a few centuries ago William Paley asked the same questions and found much evidence in Nathaniel Lardner’s numerous volumes which had compiled a massive amount of historical evidence for the authenticity and authority of the historical books of the New Testament (the Gospels and Acts).
Paley begins his case by presenting early quotations of the historical books. There are a couple reasons for which this proves to be valuable. First, it helps the modern reader understand what era the original work was from. For example, if a book from last month quotes book “X”, then we know that X was written sometime before last month. Early quotations are also helpful because they let us know how the quoter views the work from which they took the quotation. For example, if I gave you a quotation from Paley’s Evidences of Christianity and proceded to say that Paley made an excellent point in that passage, you could deduce that Paley’s Evidences of Christianity were written before January 31, 2015 and that I thought William Paley wrote it. The last pertinent reason for which early quotations are valuable is that the evidence does not expire. As long as this post around, you will know that Paley’s evidences were written before the date this article was posted and that I ascribed its writing to William Paley.
With those considerations in mind, let’s get to the fun part and look at some of the early quotations of the historical books of the New Testament. For the record, all of this material comes from Paley’s Evidence of Christianity, and I cannot take credit for the arguments or material I am using.
The first notable quotation is of the Gospel of Matthew and comes from an epistle that is ascribed to Paul’s companion, Barnabus. As far as I know we nolonger have original copies of the epistle; however, we can be fairly certain of its existence because it is quoted and ascribed to Barnabus by Clement of Alexandria from around A.D. 191, Origin around A.D. 230, and is mentioned by Eusebius from around A.D. 315, and by Jerome in around A.D. 392. Even though it was not viewed as Scripture, the acceptance of this epistle within Christianity as an ancient work that had been written by Barnabus is well evidenced. The significance of this piece is that it quotes Matthew when it says, “Let us, therefore, beware lest it come upon us, as it is written, There are many called, few chosen.” Whether or not the author was acutally Barnabus, the ancient writer seems to have been Hebrew since they used the Hebrew phrase for “for it is written” that is typically reserved for writings that are revered as Scripture.
The conclusion we can draw is that there was an ancient epistle with a Hebrew author, most likely Barnabus, who quoted the book of Matthew as if it is Scripture. This means the book of Matthew can be dated well before A.D. 191 (in which it was quoted by Clement of Alexandria), and at that it was thought to be legitimate by a person who either lived in the same time as the author of the book of Matthew or very close to it.
The next useful quotation comes from Clement the Bishop of Rome. This was thought by many ancient authors to be the same Clement whom Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3. To establish the authority of Clement’s epistely we may look to Irenaeus who claimed that it was written by Clement who had associated directly with the Apostles, and Dionysus the Bishop of Corinth from around 170 claimed that “it had been wont to be read in that church (Corinth) from ancient times.”
The value of Clement’s epistle is that it quotes Matthew 8:6, and it ascribes the original words (which Matthew had recorded) to “the Lord Jesus.” This is further evidence that the book of Matthew was written at an early date, and that it was regarded early on as authentic thereby removing any doubt that the book of Matthew was written soon after the life of Christ. Clement’s epistle is also useful for refuting the idea that Jesus was not revered as God until much later when legends had set in.
The third useful book is known as “The Pastor of Hermas” which is referred to by Irenaeus as early as A.D. 178, Clement of Alexandria from A.D. 194, Tertullian from A.D. 200, and Origen in A.D. 230. Hermas makes implied referrences to the Gospels in that he does not name and list where the quotations were taken from; however, it is fairly certain that he quotes them given that he references Peter’s denying of Christ, the parable of the seeds, Christ comparing his disciples to little children, quoting nearly verbatim Christ’s teaching that to marry another man’s wife is to commit adultery, and several other passages from Matthew, Luke, and Acts. The main value that this writing serves is that it further cements the case that the gosples were written early on and widely known given how widely they were quoted.
The next source of quotations comes from Ignatius. Based on the accounts of early Christian writers, we know that Ignatius became Bishop of Antioch around 37 years after the resurrection of Jesus, which means that he most likely had the chance to rub elbows with some of the original apostles. We get the writings of Ignatius from Polycarp who was from the same era as Ignatius, and we find passages of Ignatius quoted by Irenaeus and Origen as well as Eusebius and Jerome.
From Ignatius we find references to Matthew and John, as well as Ephesians with respectful references to Paul. At this point, the case for the early date of the Gospels is nearly unshakeable, and the fact that so many early authors had no doubt about who authored the historical books of the New Testament acts as strong evidence in their favor
There are several more sources listed by Paley, but at this point I am sure you get the idea, so I’ll list a few more highlights and let you read Paley for yourself if you wish to study his historical arguments more in depth.
- Polycarp, said by Irenaeus to know John and other eyewitnesses of Jesus, gives us about fourty obvious allusions to the Gospels and Acts as well as many references to the epistles of Paul
- Papias who was a contemporary of Polycarp and Ignatius quoted Matthew and Mark in a way that suggested that these Gospels had been attributed to these authors for quite some time. In other words there was no doubt about whether Matthew and Mark authored the Gospels, it was considered common knowledge. Such affirmation early on is very valuable in that it leaves no time for spurrious claims and authors to arise without being confronted by those who knew the truth about Jesus.
- Justin Martyr makes many references but most noticeably does it without mentioning the authors which suggests that the authors of that time were common knowledge.
- Around A.D. 170 the churches in Lyons and Vienne (France) sent a message to churches in Asia and Phrygia which told of their persecution. The Bishop of these churches was a man named Pothinus was was ninety years old meaning that in his early years he was not far removed from the actual authors of the gospels, and he references Acts, Luke, and John.
These are not all of the evidences. There are several others, and all have great significance, so I challenge the reader to find a copy of Paley and study them for themselves. I do not wish to merely copy or summarize Paley’s evidence, my goal is to expose the reader to the vast information that is out there. In other words, I hope that this article is a diving board and that any reader will find a copy of Paley and dive in head first.
From what few sources of quotations I have listed, we may gather several things. The Gospels had to have been written relatively recently after Jesus’ death (and resurrection). If there were only one or two vague references to some religious writings that resemble the Gospels and Acts then the skeptic may have an angle from which they could say that any references were spurious and intended to lend credence to the fabricated accounts of Jesus. However, the vast array of sources tells the modern observer that the Gospels were widely read. The respect with which they were quoted tell us that they were viewed as the word of God. The fact that some authors referred to the authors of the Gospels acts as early confirmation that the accounts were not falsely attributed to their alleged authors later on, and the fact that some did not mention the authors of the historical books of the NT at all suggests that the authorship of the Gospels was common knowledge and not in question.
Paley’s treatment of these evidences was absolutely masterful, and I tried to stay as close to his arguments as possible to preserve their integrity without plagiarizing, so if you do happen to read both this article and Paley and find that I come dangerously close to plagiarizing in the way in which I list authors or introduce sources, I apologize and I tried to avoid merely copying Paley (even though it can be very difficult to summarize Paley’s summary of Lardner with original languange without being wordy or awkward).
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