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Combating Biblical Skepticism: Part I

The Bible is our lifeblood. Paul calls it “the sword of the spirit” (Eph. 6:17). For evangelists it is indispensable, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites it innumerable times. Its cadences ring out during the consecration then again at Communion. Twice during the Mass we are reminded that what we are hearing is “the word of the Lord.”

In the midst of so much outward display, many contemporary Catholic scholars have subjected the Bible to a drumfire of criticism. Contradictions are alleged; errors are charged. No sooner is a reading announced from the pulpit as being “from the Gospel of Matthew” than one is likely to hear that Matthew may not have been the author. At a recent Good Friday service, the homilist speculated that Christ might not have known who he was until after the Resurrection. Imagine this Jesus of ours—who was God from the moment of conception, who spoke as God throughout his public ministry, and who allowed his followers to worship him—not knowing who he was! So pervasive is the current climate of doubt that we are fortunate if we do not hear a priest say that certain scenes in Christ’s life, as recounted by the evangelists, may never have occurred.

In this discussion, I would like to address five questions:

  1. What is the proper response to allegations of contradiction?
  2. Or error?
  3. Are traditional notions of authorship, dating, and order of composition reliable?
  4. Is it likely that the Gospel writers put words in Jesus’ mouth for promotional purposes or to compensate for a loss of memory?
  5. How impressed should we be with what “scholars” have been saying?


Allegations of contradiction have been around for a long time. Tatian, a student of Justin Martyr, penned a defense of biblical inerrancy in A.D. 170. Augustine, over two centuries later, wrote hundreds of pages on the harmony of the Gospels in response to Porphyry.

But even if a charge is new, there is not a single one that cannot be dealt with handily. What we face most often is a situation in which two statements differ but are not mutually exclusive. Some have assumed, for instance, that the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) are the same discourse edited in different ways for different audiences, possibly too that they are edited collections of diverse sayings spanning Jesus’ three-year ministry.

But why resort to speculation when Jesus must have given the same basic speech hundreds of times? Undoubtedly there was a long form and a short form as well as intermediate forms. Surely he suited his words to his audience and the circumstances. How much time did he have? Was it late in the day when he spoke? Was a thunderstorm brewing?

The same may be said of the Lord’s Prayer, of which we have two different versions. Is this really a problem? Jesus must have taught many groups how to pray. Some may have been children, others adults. Whatever the case, is it fair to assume that the “official version” never varied—or even that there was an official version?

It often is assumed that biblical accounts of the length of King Saul’s reign are inconsistent. Luke gives a figure of forty years (cf. Acts 13:21) in comparison with 1 Samuel 13:1, where the figure is two. But could it not be—indeed, is it not likely—that both authors are correct? Saul was not king de jure for more than a very short interval, though he reigned de facto for the duration. From a spiritual point of view, he ceased to be king the moment Samuel announced that his reign was at an end. He had been found wanting because he was a proud man unwilling to follow God’s instructions. He clung to his throne long after Samuel’s anointing of David. But from this point on, he was no more king in God’s eyes than Adonijah was king after Nathan’s anointing of Solomon.

In the rare instance of an alleged contradiction that appears hard to crack, there are affordable, up-to-date encyclopedias of Bible difficulties. Since they are compiled mainly by Protestants, they tend to reflect Protestant theology, but they are exceedingly useful. Book by book, verse by verse, they solve thousands of ostensible problems. One begins by learning why the account of Creation in Genesis 1 is compatible with that found in Genesis 2, and by the end of the volume, one has harmonized divergent accounts of the death of Judas. (See, for example, Gleason Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties [1982]; Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask [1992]).


How do we deal with allegations of error apart from contradiction? Academic texts routinely impugn the integrity of the Bible. A text currently in use at Catholic schools (Discovering God’s Word [1995] by Marilyn Gustin) accuses Matthew of having erred in naming Herod as king of Judea in the year of Jesus’ birth. Herod, we are told, died in 4 B.C. The same book—which, by the way, bears the imprimatur of a Catholic bishop—charges Luke with a similar mistake in naming Quirinius as governor of Syria. It also faults Mark for having described Jesus as traveling north from Galilee in order to go south to Jerusalem.

Such charges are dismissed easily. Jesus was most likely born in 6 B.C., a year that featured the confluence of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—something that occurs only every 800 years. So it was not Matthew who erred but rather a sixth-century scholar who fixed Jesus’ birth approximately six years after the actual event. Although Roman records locate Quirinius’s governorship in later years, Quirinius was a leading general active in the area north of Palestine, and there was a changing of governors in 6 B.C. Quirinius may have served as acting governor between terms, even if only for a few months. As for the possibility of Jesus going north in order to go south, he might have done so in order to transact business, visit friends, or take advantage of special modes of transportation to Jerusalem. Besides, Jewish authorities were plotting to take his life, and direct routes would not have been the safest to take.

The reliability of the Bible has been vindicated again and again by historians and archaeologists. Scholars questioned the probability of a number of strange-sounding patriarchal names in the Old Testament until a Sumerian tablet was found inscribed with the very names in question. In the same way, the Jews were judged wrong for having traced the Nile and Euphrates Rivers to the same source until an Arabian river was discovered with the same name as the one in Egypt.

The sudden annihilation of 185,000 Assyrians as recounted in the Bible was likewise doubted until confirmation surfaced in the works of ancient historians. Archaeologists have confirmed Lot’s testimony on the fertility of the lower Jordan Valley, long questioned, just as they have validated the biblical account of a sudden crumbling of the walls of Jericho. Noah’s flood, once the butt of scholarly ridicule, finds support in the oral and pictorial record of primitive peoples. By the same token, biblical reference to the destruction of Canaanite cities, once suspect in academia, has found acceptance.

There is more. Sodom and Gomorrah were once thought to be legendary cities, but no longer. Even the possibility of fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom is reinforced by modern geological analysis as well as by Greek and Roman writings. Old Testament details relating to the Jewish exile in Egypt have come to be regarded as accurate down to the price of an ordinary slave (twenty shekels). We have confirmation, moreover, of the existence of the Queen of Sheba along with Belshazzar’s Feast and the Pool of Bethesda’s five porticoes, all previously doubted.

Traditional attribution of certain psalms to King David, once rejected by scholars, is back in favor. At the same time, archaeological excavation points to a close association between Hebrews and Moabites as implied by the book of Ruth. Finally, Jesus and his followers invariably accepted Old Testament accounts of miracles at face value. Take, for example, Jesus’ reference to fire and brimstone destroying Sodom “on the day when Lot went out” (Luke 17:29).

Because we do not have entire original manuscript copies of any of the books of Scripture, one may encounter an occasional copyist error (e.g., 22 for 222), not to mention, here and there, a slip in translation. But the vast majority of allegations are utterly groundless, and those that have not been disproven will falter given time. Once in a great while God’s word fails to jibe with secular records. But secular record-keepers have been known to make mistakes. Why should the most thoroughly tested and rigorously authenticated book in the entire ancient world be called into question unless one can prove beyond any reasonable doubt that it is wrong?

Traditional Notions of Authenticity

Can we rely on traditional notions of Gospel authorship, dating, and order of composition? If one could establish that the Gospels were not written until the second century, as many modern scholars have attempted to do, then it would be easier to question their authorship and, by implication, their reliability. Late dating also lends itself to speculation that Jesus’ stunning prediction regarding the fall of Jerusalem may have been an interpolation that was inserted at a later date for dramatic effect or to blame Jewish leaders for rejecting the Messiah.

Regarding order of composition, it should be noted that Matthew is our only source for some of Jesus’ most important sayings and actions, including his presentation of the “keys” to Peter (signifying Petrine leadership). If one could establish that Mark preceded Matthew, as many have tried to do, Matthew would be more vulnerable to the charge that his Gospel is not original but is merely an embroidered version of Mark and hence less useful as a buttress for Catholic teaching.

Experts in manuscript dating (papyrology), using state-of-the-art, high-power microscopes, have estimated that fragments of Matthew currently at Oxford University were in circulation before A.D. 70 and most likely before 60. (Especially good on this point is Carsten Thiele and Matthew D’Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence about the Origin of the Gospel [1996]). In addition, we have the findings of language specialists. Just as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady could place strangers within a few blocks of their birthplace in London by the idioms in their accents, so too can philologists pinpoint the date of an ancient manuscript to within a decade or two of its composition on the basis of which expressions were popular with a given generation. Some of the latest philological research on the Gospels places all four somewhere between 40 and 50. (Here I would refer readers to Jean Carmignac’s pioneer volume The Birth of the Synoptics [1987]. Carmignac, a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is one of the foremost French biblical scholars of the twentieth century.)

As important as science is the historical foundation undergirding Sacred Tradition. Among those who confirm authorship, early dating, and order of composition during early Christian times are heretics, Jewish writers, and pagan commentators, not to mention Orthodox writers living near the Holy Land—hardly a friendly constituency.

Bearing in mind that, until around 155 to 160, there were still some alive who had studied under one of the twelve apostles, the list is impressive. Polycarp (c. 69–155) studied under John, and Irenaeus (c. 125–203)—who was Polycarp’s student as well as the author of several scholarly volumes—vouches for Tradition on authorship, dating, and order of composition. Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, the first prominent post-apostolic Church historian, writing around A.D. 140, affirms that the first Gospel was by Matthew, just as he speaks of another Gospel by Mark. Papias is quoted by Eusebius. Almost thirty years before Papias, Hermas, in his work Shepherd, identified Luke and John as the authors of the third and fourth Gospels.

Tertullian, writing from Africa about A.D. 160, makes a telling distinction between Matthew and John, whom he calls “apostles,” as compared with Mark and Luke, whom he describes as “apostolic men.” The Anti-Marcion Prologues to the Gospels (c. 150–200) gives the order of composition as Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are additional sources for one or more of the above points, including Clement of Rome (first century); Ignatius of Antioch (early second century); the Didache (90–100); the fragment of Muratori (second century); Clement of Alexandria (140–215); Theophilus, bishop of Antioch (c. 150); Justin (c. 160); and Origen (185–253).

In manuscripts of a still earlier date, such as a letter of Polycarp and the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch (martyred about 107), we find quotations from and allusions to the Gospels. The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 120) quotes from Matthew. Even the first heretics—Cerinthus (first century), Valentinus (d. 160), Marcion (c. 110–165), Basilides (early second century), and Tatian (late second century)—all agree that the first three Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke at approximately the dates agreed on by orthodox Christian authors.

Internal evidence of authorship may be adduced as well. John is reputed to have been from a priestly family, and the author of the fourth Gospel displays knowledge of Jerusalem, along with its Temple and liturgy, that is unmistakably clerical. John claims to have been an eyewitness, and this too is confirmed by displays of firsthand knowledge. For example, he tells us that at Cana the water jars were filled “to the brim” (John 2:7) and that when Lazarus’ sister Mary used a perfumed balm to anoint Jesus’ feet, the whole room was suffused with the sweetness of its scent (12:3). Finally, John’s insistence on being a witness to the Crucifixion is borne out by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who identify one and only one apostle, John, as having stood at the foot of the cross.

Luke is said to have been a doctor, and his Gospel contains a variety of specialized medical terms that clearly identify the author as a physician. Noted Bible translator William Barclay sees medical expertise in the way Luke describes the cure of a withered hand and also in his use of a verb that suggests clinical observation and a noun that implies symptoms of insanity (cf. The Gospel of Luke[1975] 52, 72, 86, 219, 294). When Luke refers to a needle, he alone uses a term signifying a surgical needle as opposed to the kind used for sewing. And Luke alone includes Jesus’ words “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23).

For his part, Matthew is reputed to have been a tax collector (Levi), and his Gospel is uniquely concerned with matters of coinage and money. He alone refers to the precious gifts of the Magi; he alone relates the parable of the talents (as opposed to Luke’s “gold pieces”) and writes of the paying of the Temple tax with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish (cf. Matt. 17:27). Typically, instead of relating that Judas received “money” for betraying Jesus (as do Mark and Luke), Matthew specifies kind and amount: “thirty pieces of silver.”

Early dating for all four Gospels is indicated in the first instance by their lack of reference to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Matthew especially stands out in this respect because of his emphasis on the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Secondly, Luke speaks in his Acts of the Apostles (c. 63) of having written an earlier treatise (cf. Acts 1:1). Thirdly, all four Gospels contain hundreds of details relating to people, places, and events not likely to have been familiar to authors of a later period.

In part two of this article we will consider whether the evangelists put words in Jesus’ mouth and how impressed we should be with what biblical “scholars” have been saying.

This is Part I of a two-part series. Read Part II here


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