In the spirit of reconciliation.
The following appeared in The Monitor Newspaper.
Just in case you missed it…
The Gospel truth about Jesus Christ
By: BISHOP RAYMUNDO J. PEÑA
Dan Brown, in his novel, The Da Vinci Code, claims that many gospels were written in the early centuries after Christ, and that from among these, the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were chosen for inclusion in the New Testament by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. We are told that the first claims of Jesus’ divinity emerged at this time, and that the sinister purpose was to solidify a male power structure in the Church. Before this, no one supposedly thought Jesus was divine, but only a great human teacher.
Brown wants us to see the four New Testament Gospels as presenting only one version of Jesus and Christianity, among many. He would have us believe we really can’t be certain which of the many gospel texts from early centuries we consider as being most authoritative. He suggests that we should each choose the version of Jesus and Christianity that seems most appealing to us.
This is nonsense! The past is not completely inaccessible. The crucial issue is the reliability of the four New Testament Gospels as accurate accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. Either there are well-founded reasons to trust them, or there are not. In such important matters, the truth should be diligently pursued. We should not assume that we are doomed to inescapable doubt.
The other gospels to which Brown refers are not found in the New Testament; they can be generally lumped together as “Gnostic gospels.” “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, meaning “knowledge”. The Gnostic gospels are purported to contain secret information about Jesus not found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They also portrayed Jesus as basically a cryptic teacher who just talked, and so gave little or no attention to his passion, death, and resurrection. For Gnostics, it was not Jesus’ death and resurrection that saved us, but the secret knowledge he imparted. Brown never gives us reasons why we should put more faith in the Gnostic gospels than in the four New Testament Gospels. He seems to imply that since no one pays any attention to the Gnostic gospels today, it must be because they’ve been suppressed. This is “conspiracy theory” thinking in spades! The fact is, there are good reasons why we should not put more trust in the Gnostic gospels. While the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written in the first century and indicate eyewitnesses either as authors or as primary sources, the Gnostic gospels were not written for at least another hundred years, long after the original eyewitnesses were dead and could no longer verify or disprove the claims made about Jesus.
When it comes to the reliability of the New Testament, consider, in comparison, that there are eight copies of Herodotus, written 488-428 B. C. The earliest copies date from 900 A.D., 1,300 years after their composition. There are eight copies of Thucydides, written about 460-400 B.C. The earliest copies date from about 900 A.D., 1,300 years later. There are 20 copies of Tacitus, written about 100 A. D. The earliest copies are from 1100 A.D., 1,000 years later. There are 9 or 10 copies of Caesar’s Gallic War, written 58-50 B.C.. The earliest copies date from 900 A.D., 950 years later. There are 20 copies of Livy’s Roman History, written from 59 B.C. to 17 A.D. The earliest copies date from 900 A.D., 900 years later.
Classical scholars don’t question the authenticity or reliability of these manuscripts, in spite of the fact that they are so few in number, and in spite of the fact that such a large time gap exists between the date of the original composition and the date of the earliest surviving copies.
When it comes to the New Testament texts, in sharp contrast, there are 5,000 Greek copies, 10,000 Latin copies, and 9,300 other copies, written between 40 and 100 A.D. Regarding the four Gospels, St. Irenaeus wrote around 180 A.D. that “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are,” for Christ “has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.” Thus, the claim that the four Gospels of the New Testament were chosen in the early fourth century is definitively refuted. In regard to the reliability of New Testament texts to give us an accurate picture of Jesus, and of the faith and preaching of the early Church, the number of available copies gives us certainty beyond doubt that what we read in the New Testament has not been altered over time.
Frederick Kenyon, a leading scholar on the authenticity of ancient manuscripts, said in The Bible and Archaeology, “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
The Christ we meet in the Gospels is the historical Jesus, not a fiction. Who could possibly have concocted such a story as the Gospels tell, if they do not tell the truth? No one. The Gospels are reliable witnesses of Jesus’ words and deeds, and the claim that his divinity is a fiction of his followers of the fourth century onward is indefensible.
In contrast, again, the Gnostic writings date back only as far as the late second century. The time span of almost two hundred years between the original events and their composition is alone sufficient to eliminate them from the realm of serious consideration as reliable sources. We must also ask why, unlike the New Testament texts, many copies of them were not made and faithfully transmitted. The simple answer is that they were never taken seriously by significant numbers of people, nor deemed to be of lasting value. When one examines the Jesus presented in them, it is no wonder. He is a barely human figure who just talks, whereas the Jesus portrayed in the four New Testament Gospels is indeed human. He does not just speak. He eats, weeps, works, groans, celebrates, becomes weary , thirsts, prays, heals, shows compassion, struggles against fear, impatience and anger, suffers, bleeds and finally, he dies on the cross. The Jesus of the four Gospels is just like us in every way except in sin. He is really human!
Because he is also divine, he rises from the tomb. In my next column I will take up the issue of Jesus’ divinity, for the claim of The Da Vinci Code that he wasn’t divine is its most serious error.
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