Christian Scripture: The Gospel Truth
The most important text for almost all Christians is the Bible, specifically the New Testament, although the Old Testament, which is essentially the Hebrew Bible, carries equal authority, if less relevance. The word “testament” refers to the covenant between God and the people of Israel, and, in the New Testament, to the new covenant based on Christ’s teachings and death on the cross. The Bible is considered by Christians to be the revealed word of God, written down and assembled by various human agents.
Biblical scholars agree that the four canonical Gospels, although attributed to two apostles (Matthew and John) and two followers of apostles (Mark and Luke), known as the four Evangelists, were not actually written people who knew Jesus personally. Composed in Greek from 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus, they were based in part on an older written Greek source referred to by scholars as Q, from the German Quelle, “source.” This source was itself probably based on an earlier Aramaic text, perhaps written by the apostle Matthew, or on collections of sayings, miracles, and passion narratives written down by the year 50. (Even some of the so-called Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 appear to have drawn on the same Gospel Q as the Synoptic Gospels.) Those earlier sources have not been found, and may well have been destroyed in the process of standardizing the surviving gospels. Three of the four gospels are called Synoptic, because their accounts and language are similar, unlike the Gospel of John. Of these three, Mark is believed to be the earliest (c. 70), followed by Matthew (c. 80-90), Luke (c. 85), and John (early 2nd century). The authors of the Synoptic Gospels probably saw different versions of each other’s gospels as they went through various stages of revision, accounting for both their similarities and significant differences of emphasis, as each author was writing for a different constituency and had a different agenda. But the fact that the Evangelists did not actually write down the gospels attributed to them does not deny the possibility that those gospels derive from an oral or written tradition originating with the Evangelists. For Christian believers, in any event, the authoritativeness of the gospels as inspired by the Holy Spirit does not rest on the specific identity of their human authors
Scholars have pointed out that the teachings and certain miracles of Christ were threaded into a narrative that may have been fabricated as a teaching device to help early Christians remember the words. Many narrative details no longer hold up to historical scrutiny. According to Luke, for instance, Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be registered in a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus, yet historians have shown that there never was a census under Augustus, and that such a census would have required registration in the place where one lived and worked, not the place of one’s ancestry. Nor is it likely that the disciples, who fled in fear of their lives when Jesus was arrested and brought to trial, could have retained any detailed knowledge of the events of his passion and death.
As with the Hebrew scriptures, the gospels underwent considerable redaction over the years, and several versions of each probably existed before the versions that we now have, which date no earlier than 200, and as late as 350. And so, the Greek manuscripts on which all our translations are based are more than a century older than the original versions, and none of them was written in the Aramaic of Jesus — meaning that Christianity does not possess the words of its founder in something approximating his native tongue. But besides the translation issue, how much editing, scribal corruption, or just plain censorship occurred in those hundred years?
The earliest authentic New Testament works that we have are the Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans, which were written c. 50-55. Although Paul was not an immediate disciple, he claimed to have been spoken to by Jesus in a vision and in trance, and he did have contact with some of the original disciples. The two other major New Testament books are the Acts of the Apostles (c.150), written by Luke and probably intended as the second book of his Gospel, and Revelation, or Apocalypse (c.100), describing a vision of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, written by a churchman named John in exile on the Isle of Patmos. (Sometimes called John the Divine, he should not be confused with the apostle John, whose name is traditionally attached to the last of the four Gospels.)
The Christian Bible existed in Latin, the clerical and liturgical language of the Church, from the early 1st millennium until the mid-16th century, when the Protestant reformers began translating the Bible into vernacular English and German. The commonly accepted English translation, the King James (or Authorized) Version, was prepared in England under James I and published in 1611. It is noted for its literary value, and many of its phrasings have entered the language. A modernized edition called the Revised Standard Version is in common use today. The Douay or Douay-Rheims Bible remains the standard Catholic version, translated into English from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome by Roman Catholic scholars and published at Rheims, France (New Testament), in 1582 and Douay (Old Testament) in 1610. More scholarly and accurate translations have appeared recently, e.g., The Jerusalem Bible.