Do marks of authenticity support the core Christian message? Here is a study that can deepen the understanding and convictions of those who read the Bible. For the Christian and the critic, both perceive the need to historically affirm what was the message of the first Christians. The Gospels rely upon sources. Critical and believing scholars observe sources behind biblical texts. Some practical points from academic criteria can help the casual observer to examine the Christian Bible. The critical method can authenticate and illuminate the original Gospel message from among Jesus’s first followers. The sources of the four Gospels and the biblical epistles reflect that Gospel message.
Marks of Authenticity
1. Oral Traditions: Traditions as sources in the biblical text affirm the message. The Christian Bible relied on earlier traditions and material sources including creeds and songs. Paul’s first epistle to the Christians in Corinth dated to AD 54. Paul referred to the message that he received upon his conversion within 2–3 years after Jesus’s crucifixion (1 Cor 15:1–4). Furthermore, Paul’s letter to the Galatians includes Paul’s report of the Gospel to Jesus’s Apostles including Peter and John and to James, Jesus’s brother. These sources confirm that the Gospel message that Paul preached is the same as theirs dating to the death of Christ and the beginning of the church (Gal 1:11–2:10). That Gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Paul described this Gospel as of first importance and the source of salvation to Christians. This Gospel is the earliest Christian tradition dating before the text containing them.
2. Source Material: The Gospels relied on earlier written sources as “source material.” In AD 58–59, the Gospel of Luke noted material and eyewitness reports that Luke relied upon to write his account (Luke 1:1–3). Luke also noted his oral sources as “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the world have delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2). For source material, the Gospels share many verbatim statements indicating common sources whether oral or written. Luke’s Gospel aligns with the Gospel of Mark and shares material with Matthew not in Mark that many scholars identify as “Q” or quelle, meaning “source.” However, this writer finds that Luke most probably relied on Matthew’s Gospel.
3. Dissimilarity: When a biblical text differs from its surrounding culture in beliefs and teaching, this is dissimilarity. The dissimilarity indicates that the source is most probably authentic. The Gospels present differing views Jesus in contrast first-century Jews. Therefore, Jesus’s teachings that differ from previous forms of second-temple Judaism affirm the historical authenticity of Jesus’s teachings. A study of backgrounds of early-Christianity including the Greco-Roman world and second-temple Judaism help scholars to identify teachings unique to early Christianity. Such teachings include the cleanliness of all foods, preference for Scripture over the oral tradition of the Pharisees, the Lord’s Supper, and Christian baptism.
Some of these dissimilarities consist of bridges of change. When a later period differs from its ancestry of a previous period, then this change indicates a source between those two points. The change of beliefs from second-temple Judaism (5th c. BC – 1st c. AD) to early Christianity (2nd c. AD – 4th c. AD) demonstrate that a change occurred. The New Testament provides the source material affirming that Jesus and His disciples are the origin of the change of beliefs.
4. Ambiguity: When early Christian writers attempt to clarify or expand upon the Christian Bible that appear ambiguous, this indicates authenticity for the original sources of the New Testament. Jesus’s teachings are sometimes mysterious to readers of the Gospels, yet early Christianity attempted to clarify such teaching. This authenticated the Christian Bible as the source.
5. Embarrassment: The Christian Bible includes facts that would embarrass people in the first century. Most writers would gloss over such points to prove their position true. For example, the Gospels record “uneducated” fishermen becoming disciples, one of Jesus’s disciples betraying him, Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, women witnesses of the empty tomb, and fearful disciples hiding after Jesus’s arrest. These embarrassments are most probably true and not likely invented. Embarrassing details reveal historical facts in the Christian Bible.
1. Multiple Attestations and Coherence: The agreement of among biblical writers affirm facts. For instance, the agreement of each Gospel and Paul’s epistles as independent sources affirm the actual experiences and beliefs of followers of Jesus. The most attested historical fact in history is Jesus’s crucifixion. Traditions and material sources behind the Christian Bible along with extra-biblical sources confirm Jesus’s death by crucifixion.
2. Reoccurring Forms: The common actions of people in the Bible infer that these are most probably true. Reoccurring forms and themes of language reveal details and character of specific individuals in history. The New Testament attributes a specific style and approach in Jesus’s words as demonstrated in parables, stories, accounts, arguments, proverbs, and pronouncements. The Christian Bible demonstrates a common early tradition of the nature and character of Jesus of Nazareth.
3. Rejection of Heroes: The Gospels record people rejecting Jesus and the disciples. These authenticate the sections of the text as most probably historical fact. These marks of authenticity are like that of the criterion of embarrassment. People would not likely invent such opposition that may discredit their hero and possibly undermine their persuasion.
4. Traces of Local Languages: If a text is written in a language that transliterates a language of a specific locale, this indicates that the writer has an intimate knowledge of that local language, location, and culture. The Christian Bible is in Koine Greek. The text transliterates and, or explains the languages of Palestine — Aramaic and Hebrew. This reveals the author’s familiarity of living in Palestine authenticating the author and, or the writer’s access to primary sources.
5. Specificity: Documents that include specific details of persons, locations, environments, and cultures indicate an intimate knowledge of these locations and events. For instance, the Christian Bible accurately accounts for multiple places and customs. The biblical writers reveal that they lived in time and place of the records of Jesus and the original church.
Authenticity of the Gospel Message
The following are basic facts acquired from the application of the historical criteria to find the Gospel among the most ancient sources. For example, the Gospel of Luke records its reliance upon eyewitnesses and the ministers of the Word (1:1–3).
- Mark’s Gospel relied on very early traditions. Most scholars date Mark to AD 60–70. The account in Mark’s Gospel of the empty tomb is an historical bridge between the Jewish rejection of Jesus in the Gospels and the first experiences of Jesus’s resurrection. Mark’s Gospel introduces the empty tomb and a proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection bridging Jesus’s death and belief in the resurrection to the beginning of the church. Therefore, Mark’s minimum account contains an essential record. The other Gospels corroborate and expand on the early experiences of believers.
- In Mark’s Gospel, women are witnesses to the empty tomb matching the historical criterion of embarrassment. The disciples would be embarrassed that these women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb demonstrating their initial unbelief. Women witnesses are the most probable and best explanation for this event (Mark 16:1–8). This admission of embarrassment for the disciples demonstrates their authenticity as sincere sources who converted from experiencing appearances of Jesus alive after death.
- The various details between the Gospels demonstrate various oral traditions and the sharing of material sources. The evangelists who wrote each Gospel address different details, and thus each Gospel is an independent source of earlier witnesses. Each Gospel must contain sources that date earlier (cf. Luke 1:1–3). Most scholars date the Gospels between AD 60–85, yet some date the Gospels even earlier. The Gospels share exact wording in some places indicating earlier written sources, and those earlier written sources must have earlier oral sources. The sources trace to the origin of Christianity. Ambiguity in the Gospels that latter Christians explain also attest to very early traditions. Varying verbiage between the speeches and author of the Book of Acts indicate that these proclamations are very early. The New Testament sources indicate a very early Gospel message of Jesus’s life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection.
- Lastly and most importantly, scholars date Paul’s Gospel message of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 to AD 54. Furthermore, Paul recorded that the Gospel message dates to his conversion within 5 or 6 years after Jesus’s death in circum AD 35–36. The Gospel as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 dates to the original events and experiences of the apostles Peter and John and Jesus’s brother James about AD 30 (Gal 1:11–2:10). Both Paul and James were hostile opponents at first and converted via their personal experiences of seeing Jesus alive after death.
The Gospel message dates to Jesus’s death and following events. The earliest Christian message is that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead. This message represents the origin of Christianity. Experiences of Jesus’s resurrection is the best explanation for the beginning of the church. All other suggestions appeal to possibility rather than probability. Critical scholars often avoid noting minimal facts concerning the events following Jesus’s death and the beginning of the church to avoid explaining the empty tomb and experiences of Jesus risen from death.
Christians have nothing to fear from historically examining accounts of Jesus and the Gospel in the Christian Bible. The New Testament bears the marks of authenticity. Skepticism regarding the authenticity of the New Testament accounts include marginal and speculative details. The Christian does not need to explain fringe details of the New Testament as though such may have any affect on the reliability of the Bible. Believers may merely present minimal facts that demonstrate the reliability and authenticity of the earliest Gospel message.