The origin of the Gospels has proved a Serbonian Bog


How the Four Gospels Originated

The origin of the Gospels has proved a Serbonian bog, in which many writers who have attempted an explanation have floundered without finding solid ground. Scarcely two writers agree. Why should there be any doubt in a matter of so much importance, where the evidence could so readily be obtained at the time they were written, and so safely guarded and preserved? Truth, in a historic period like that in which it is claimed the Gospels were written, need not be left in the dark. The true difficulty has grown out of the fact, that writers who have undertaken to give the origin of the Gospels have looked, as men do in most other cases, to outside sources for information; whereas the explanation of the origin is to be found within the Gospels themselves, and nowhere else. By looking for light where none is to be found, writers on this subject have had their attention withdrawn from the direction where the truth is to be discovered. If we bear in mind that men eighteen hundred years ago were much like men of to-day, that the emotion or effect a given event or occurrence produces in the minds of men of our own time would be the same as upon those who lived in the first part of the second century, we have a compass, such as it is, to guide us through this Cimmerian darkness. What would excite ridicule, or appear false and improbable to intelligent minds of our own times, would appear equally so to such minds as Pliny and Tacitus at their ages of the world.

In imagination let us take a stand at the beginning of the second century, and make ourselves citizens of the Roman empire under the reign of Adrian.

We can well imagine how the minds of thinking and intelligent people were affected on the first appearance of the present Greek version of Matthew’s Gospel. It set forth some of the most astounding events in the history of the world, and which the world heard of for the first time. When Christ was put to death, all the land, from the sixth to the ninth hour, was covered with darkness; the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; the earth did quake, and the rocks were rent asunder; the graves were opened, and many bodies of saints which slept arose and came out of their graves, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many. Suppose that some morning we should pick up our daily paper, and find under the telegraph head an announcement of like events as having occurred in London or Paris. At first we might be fearfully startled, but would soon feel satisfied that it was all a hoax, after the style of Professor Locke’s story of the Moon. If the authors of the story expected to accomplish anything by such startling announcements, they failed by attempting too much. Whether the earth was covered with darkness, or was shaken by an earthquake, or the dead got out of their graves and went down into the city, were facts easily inquired into, in that age of the world.

Matthew further states that a star went before the wise men of the East, till it came and stood over where the young child was. How could a star a million of miles off lead any one on this earth, and how could it at that distance be in a position to indicate a spot on the earth where the child was? He also states, that when Herod found he was mocked he was wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem and all the coast thereof, from two years old and under. We can readily imagine the Pagans, who composed the learned and intelligent men of their day, at work in exposing the story of Herod’s cruelty, by showing that, considering the extent of territory embraced in the order, and the population within it, the assumed destruction of life stamped the story false and ridiculous. A Governor of a Roman province who dared make such an order would be so speedily overtaken by the vengeance of the Roman people, that his head would fall from his body before the blood of his victims had time to dry. Archelaus, his son, was deposed for offences not to be spoken of when compared with this massacre of the infants.

But that part of the first Gospel which related to the dream of Joseph and the conception of Mary was what most excited the criticism and ridicule of the people of that day. The whole and sole foundation of the new religion was a dream. The simplicity of Joseph, too, provoked a smile, if nothing more. The story at the sepulchre was overdrawn, and threw discredit over all. “And behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.” (Matthew xxviii. 2, 3.) Such aerial bodies are not given to the employments assigned to the angel in this case. Rolling stones, say the wise men, by spiritual essences is ridiculous and absurd. Besides, who knows anything of the great earthquake? We find no account of it, nor is it even mentioned anywhere else.

So men reasoned eighteen hundred years ago—and so they would to-day. It is evident that the author of the first Gospel had overdone his part, and injured the cause he meant to advance. The blunders and mistakes of the first Gospel made it necessary that there should be a second. This gave rise to a second Gospel, not by the same hand, but by some other, who felt the pressure that had been brought to bear on Matthew.

As this second Gospel was written with a special purpose, we must expect a great resemblance in it to the first, except where the former makes statements which were the occasion of so much criticism on the part of the philosophers; and in such cases, the best course to pursue would be to say nothing. Naked contradiction would not answer. Mark has not a word to say about the story of Joseph and the angel. He omits the earthquake at the crucifixion, and the resurrection of the dead, for these things were susceptible of disproof; but tells of the darkness, and the rent in the temple, because the former was comparative, and may have been a dark cloud in the heavens; and as to the case of the temple, no one could disprove the story, for it was destroyed. The story of the angel and stone is entirely omitted, but the stone is removed from the mouth of the sepulchre when the women appear, and a young man is found in the inside, who is presumed to have done it. Matthew says that Joseph of Arimathea deposited the body of Christ in the sepulchre, and then rolled a great stone to the door. Afterwards the priest and Pharisees caused the entrance to be made secure, for fear that the body would be stolen, and the disciples then claim that he had risen from the dead. If so, say the philosophers, the work was not so poorly done that one young man could roll the stone from the door, as stated by Mark. It would be beyond his strength.

Luke removes the objection; when the women come to the sepulchre in the morning they found the stone removed, and the body of Christ was missing. There was no young man inside, but two men were found standing on the outside, who, no doubt, were competent to do the work. The story of the star which led the wise men, and the murder of the infants at Bethlehem, is also omitted. We are justified in saying that those who were engaged in getting up the first Gospel, or those who succeeded them, were driven to abandon some false and impossible and improbable things stated in that Gospel, by proof, in some cases, of their falsehood, and in others by the force of argument and ridicule.

Matthew had related the story of Joseph and the angel, and that admitted of no change or modification. Mark says nothing about it, but silence will not answer; for the philosophers still claim that all depends upon a dream, and the dreams of Joseph are no better than the dreams of any other man. If the story could not be modified, it might be corroborated. So, when it came to Luke’s turn to speak he adds the story of Zacharias, and the interview between Mary and the angel Gabriel. All now occurs in daylight, and dreams which had been the subject of so much ridicule are dispensed with.

When Zacharias went to the temple to burn incense, he found on the outside a great multitude of people. The crowd has no connection with the story, except as these people are wanted for witness as to what happened in the sanctuary. While Zacharias was offering incense within, there appeared to him an angel standing on the right side of the altar. The position of the angel is defined with precision, that it might not be claimed that what appeared to him was a phantom. Zacharias saw him and was afraid.

As further evidence that the angel was not some optical illusion, Gabriel spoke, and gave Zacharias such information about the future birth of a son to him that he was disposed to doubt the truth of it. As a punishment for his reasonable doubts, he is struck dumb. The interview continued so long that the crowd on the outside began to be uneasy, and when Zacharias did come out he had lost the power of speech. This convinced the multitude (but how, is not stated) that he had seen a vision in the temple. After this, Gabriel made a visit to Mary in open day, and held a conversation, in which he announced to her the birth of a son through the overshadowing influence of the Holy Ghost, who would reign over the house of Jacob forever. Then follows the scene between Mary and her cousin Elisabeth.

In Luke’s account of the announcement of the birth of Christ by divine agency, the story of Joseph is entirely omitted, and new witnesses are introduced. His story was well studied; every precaution was taken to silence cavil and make such a case as would remove doubts. The blunders of Matthew were not to be repeated. The birth of Christ and John, who was afterwards called the Baptist, are ingeniously associated in the announcement of the angel, to give color to what is said of them in the Gospels afterwards.

What objections were made by the philosophers to the story of Luke at the time, we have no means of knowing; but if any were made, there is no subsequent effort to improve it, and so it remains to this day.

The question interests us to know when and from whom did Luke get his information. If he had it from any one who had the means of knowing what he tells us, it must have been from Paul, for we have no knowledge that he had any acquaintance, or relations of any kind, with either of the disciples. He was Paul’s companion: we find him with Paul at Troas, A.D. 50; thence he attended him to Jerusalem, continued with him during his troubles in Judea, and sailed in the same ship with him when he was sent a prisoner to Rome, where he stayed with him during his two years’ confinement. He was with him during his second imprisonment, and, as we will show in the proper place, he died with Paul in Rome, and was one of the victims of Nero’s reign. If Paul knew what Luke states as to the divine emanation of Christ, why does he not make some allusion to it in his numerous epistles?—and how can we understand that he could, with such knowledge, deny this divine creation, and preach to the last that Christ was born according to natural law?

Luke, too, made mistakes, which John afterwards corrected in the fourth Gospel.

We can best illustrate the claim that the three last Gospels were written in the order they appeared, as a necessity to meet the objections and cavils of the philosophers, by taking some leading subject which is mentioned by all. Take the case of the resurrection. Matthew says: “And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.” (Matt, xxviii. 17.) To leave the question where Matthew leaves it would be fatal. In such a case there must be no doubt. Mark makes Christ appear three times under such circumstances as to render a mistake next to impossible, and to silence the most obstinate skepticism. He first appears to Mary Magdalene, who was convinced that it was Christ, because she went and told the disciples that he had risen, and that she had seen him. They disbelieved, nor could they be convinced until he appeared to them. They in turn told it to the other disciples, who were also skeptical; and, that they might be convinced, Christ also appeared to them as they sat at meat, when he upbraided them for their unbelief.

This story is much improved in the hands of Mark, but, in the anxiety to make a clear case, it is overdone, as often happens when the object is to remedy or correct an oversight or mistake previously made. There was a large amount of skepticism to be overcome, but the proof offered was sufficient to do it, and remove all doubts from the minds of the disciples. Considering Christ had told the disciples he would rise, why did they doubt at all? Owing to some strange oversight, neither Matthew nor Mark says in what way Christ made his appearance—whether it was in the body or only in the spirit. If in the latter, it would be fatal to the whole theory of the resurrection. We conclude from what followed, that the philosophers of that day, who would concede nothing to the claims of Christianity, took advantage of this oversight, and denied the resurrection of Christ in the body. It was the business of Luke to put this disputed question in its true light, and silence the objection. He says that when Christ appeared and spoke to the disciples they were afraid. “But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.” (Luke xxiv. 37.) Christ then showed the wounds in his hands and feet. “And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of a honeycomb: And he took it, and did eat before them.” (Luke xxiv. 42, 43.) Now who dare doubt? Why some doubted, as Matthew says they did, is hard to explain. The account of Luke should have satisfied the philosophers that it was a body and not a spirit that appeared to the disciples. But we can believe they were not, from what is afterwards said on this subject. The story of the fish and honeycomb was incredible and absurd. It was a fish-story. If true, why did Matthew and Mark fail to mention it?

Luke had overdone the matter, and instead of convincing the Pagans, he only excited their ridicule.

Now comes John’s turn. He does not omit entirely the story of Christ eating fish, for that would not do, after there had been so much said about it. He might leave it to be inferred that Luke made a mistake, so he modifies the story and omits the ridiculous part of it. The scene is laid on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias. Under the direction of Christ, Peter drew his net to land full of fish. “Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish like wise.” (John xxi. 12, 13.) It does not appear from this account that Christ ate of the fish at all. He took the fish and gave to the disciples; the inference is, that they were the ones that ate. In Luke the statement is reversed:—the disciples gave the fish to Christ, and he ate. John has taken out of the story that which was absurd, but he leaves us to infer that Luke was nearsighted or careless in his account of what took place. If you leave out of Luke’s account the part that relates to the fish and honeycomb, he fails to prove what it really was which appeared to the disciples.

Christ, he says, said, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.” (Ch. xxiv. 39.) “And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?” (Ch. xxiv. 41.) It seems from this that the disciples could not be convinced until Christ had actually eaten something. Now if you strike out the eating part, which John does, and which no doubt the ridicule cast upon it drove him to do, Luke leaves the question open just where he found it. It was the business of John to leave it clean, and put an end to all cavil.

Jesus appeared to the disciples when they assembled at Jerusalem. “And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side.” (John xx. 20.) They were satisfied, and no doubts were expressed. But Thomas was not present, and when he was told that Jesus had appeared to the disciples, he refused to believe, nor would he, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John xx. 25.) Now if Thomas can be convinced with all his doubts, it would be foolish after that to deny that Christ was not in the body when he appeared to his disciples.

After eight days Christ again appears, without any object that we can discover but to convince Thomas. Then said he to Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing.” (John xx. 27.) It is not stated whether he did as he was directed; but he was convinced, and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

What fault the Pagans found with this account we have not the means of knowing; but if they still disbelieved, they were more skeptical than Thomas himself. We should be at a loss to understand why the writers of the first three Gospels entirely omitted the story of Thomas, if we were not aware that when John wrote the state of the public mind was such, that proof of the most unquestionable character was demanded that Christ had risen in the body. John selected a person who claimed he was hard to convince, and if the evidence was such as to satisfy him, it ought to satisfy the balance of the world.

John’s services are again required to repair the blunders and oversights of the writers of the first three Gospels in relation to the body of Christ after the crucifixion. Matthew states that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went on the first day of the week to see the sepulchre. No other purpose is expressed. Mark says that early in the morning of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome brought spices to anoint the body. According to Luke, after the women who had followed Christ from Galilee had seen the body deposited in the tomb, they returned and prepared spices and ointments, and rested the Sabbath day. The body was deposited in the tomb some time on Friday, and remained until Sunday morning, on the first day of the Jewish week. Doubtless, in the climate of Syria, the body in the mean time must have undergone such a change as to make it difficult to either embalm or even anoint it. The Pagans at that day could hardly fail to take advantage of this mistake or blunder. But John again comes to the rescue and sets the matter right. According to him, Joseph of Arimathea had permission to take the body, which he did, and carried it away. “And there came also Nicodemus (which at the first came to Jesus by night) and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” (John xix. 39, 40.)

John now fully silenced the cavils of the enemy and taken the proper steps to preserve the body until the morning of the third day.

The subject might be further pursued, but enough has been said to furnish a key to the origin of the Gospels. Christians in their contests with the Pagans resemble the course of a retreating army, which falls back to take a stronger position. Each time the position is improved, until one at last is found which is impregnable. We can readily see how it is that the first three Gospels so closely resemble each other, the exact language for whole passages being alike in all. Mark copies Matthew, and Luke uses the words of both. It is only when the last undertakes to improve or modify something written by those who wrote previously, that the difference becomes obvious. That the Christians in the beginning of the second century had books of some kind before the three first Gospels appeared in the present shape is beyond all dispute. The sacred writings of the Therapeutæ, as we have shown, were full of the most sound morality, and contained all the essential principles of Christianity. These writings were ancient—had been regarded as sacred for generations among them, and were so much like the present Gospels that Eusebius claimed them to be the same, and that the Therapeutæ were Christians. No doubt the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew was extant, and if it was rejected by the Christians of that day, because it did not contain the two first chapters of the Greek version, there was no reason why they should reject the Sermon on the Mount, and all the sublime and pure religion taught by Christ. The sacred writings of the Therapeutæ—the Hebrew version of Matthew, the Epistle of James and the first of Peter—furnished the principles and doctrines which now form the life of Christianity; and the great want of the day—that is, some proof of the actual existence of the person of Christ, by those who had seen him and were familiar with him before his death—was supplied in the first three Gospels, by the testimony of those who claimed to be his disciples, or by those who, it is said, wrote at their dictation.

In what quarter of the globe were the Synoptics written, and by whom?

All that can be said on this subject with certainty is, that the Greek version of Matthew, the source of all, was not written in Judea, or by one who knew anything of the geography of the country, or the history of the Jews. He was ignorant of both. What excuse was there but ignorance for making the order for the massacre of the infants to include Bethlehem, and all the coast thereof, which would take in at least the one-half of all Judea, and involve in one common slaughter, according to the calculations of learned men, several thousand innocent children?

The Greek writer of Matthew evidently believed that Bethlehem was an insignificant hamlet, situated on the coast of the Mediterranean, whereas it is as far in the interior as Jerusalem; and not far from the centre of Judea. The writer’s ignorance of Jewish history will appear still more conspicuous, when we speak of the application which he makes of prophecy to the person of Jesus. Whoever the writer may have been, it is evident that he received his education at the college at Alexandria, where Medicine and Divinity were taught, and regarded as inseparable. From the union of the two, recovery from diseases was ascribed to supernatural powers. A fever was a demon, which was not to be expelled by virtue of any material remedy, but by incantations, spells, and magic. It was by such power Christ cleansed the leper—healed the centurion’s servant—touched the hand of Peter’s wife’s mother and drove away the fever—expelled the devils from two men into swine, and performed many other cures.

The whole of the first Gospel has an Alexandrian look not easily to be mistaken—if we except the miracle of the loaves and fishes, walk of Christ on the water, and other wonders of a like nature, which is the work of some one later in the century. The deserts in the neighborhood of Alexandria abounded with monasteries from the earliest accounts of the Therapeutæ to the conquest of Egypt by the Mahometan power, which were filled with monks who were celebrated for their piety, their miracles, their power to expel devils and heal diseases. The pages of Sozomen and Socrates abound with the names of monks who cured the palsy, expelled demons, and cured the sick. (Sozomen, Ecc. Hist., lib. vi., ch. 28.)



By George Reber


The origin of the Gospels

Four Gospels and Acts of Jesus of Nazareth

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