Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion




BEFORE commencing our examination of the evidence as to the date, authorship, and character of the Gospels, it may be well to make a few preliminary remarks, and clearly state certain canons of criticism. We shall make no attempt to establish any theory as to the date at which any of the Gospels was actually written, but simply examine all the testimony which is extant, with the view of ascertaining what is known of these works and their authors, certainly and distinctly, as distinguished from what is merely conjectured or inferred. Modern opinion in an Inquiry like ours must not be taken for ancient evidence. We propose, therefore, as exhaustively as possible to search all the writings of the early Church for information regarding the Gospels, and to examine even the alleged indications of their use.

It is very important, however, that the silence of early writers should receive as much attention as any supposed allusions to the Gospels. When such writers, quoting largely from the Old Testament and other sources, deal with subjects which would naturally be assisted by reference to our Gospels, and still more so by quoting such works as authoritative; and yet we find that not only they do not show any knowledge of those Gospels, but actually quote passages from unknown sources, or sayings of Jesus derived from tradition; the inference must be that our Gospels were either unknown or not recognised as works of authority at the time.

It is still more important that we should constantly bear in mind that a great number of Gospels existed in the early Church which are no longer extant, and of most of which even the names are lost. We need not here do more than refer, in corroboration of this remark, to the preliminary statement of the author of the third Gospel: "Forasmuch as many (polloi) took in hand to set forth in order a declaration of the things which have been accomplished among us," etc. (Luke 1:1) It is, therefore, evident that before our third Synoptic was written many similar works were already in circulation. Looking at the close similarity of large portions of the three Synoptics, it is almost certain that many of the writings here mentioned bore a close analogy to each other and to our Gospels, and this is known to have been the case, for instance, amongst the various forms of the "Gospel according to the Hebrews." When, therefore, in early writings we meet with quotations closely resembling, or, we may add, even identical with, passages which are found in our Gospels, the source of which, however, is not mentioned, nor is any author's name indicated, the similarity, or even identity, cannot by any means be admitted as proof that the quotation is necessarily from our Gospels, and not from some other similar work now no longer extant, and more especially not when, in the same writings, there are other quotations from sources different from our Gospels. Whether regarded as historical records or as writings embodying the mere tradition of the early Christians, our Gospels cannot be recognised as the exclusive depositories of the genuine sayings and doings of Jesus. So far from the common possession by many works in early times of sayings of Jesus in closely similar form being either strange or improbable, the really remarkable phenomenon is that such material variation in the report of the more important historical teaching should exist amongst them. But whilst similarity to our Gospels in passages quoted by early writers from unknown sources cannot prove the use of our Gospels, variation from them would suggest or prove a different origin, and, at least, it is obvious that anonymous quotations which do not agree with our Gospels cannot, in any case, necessarily indicate their existence. It may be well, before proceeding further, to illustrate and justify the canons of criticism which we have laid down by examples in our three Synoptics themselves.

Canons of Criticism
Let us for a moment suppose the "Gospel according to Luke" to have been lost like the "Gospel according to the Hebrews," and so many others. In the works of one of the Fathers we discover the following quotation from an unnamed evangelical work: "And he said unto them (elegen de pros autous): The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways: (hupagete) behold I send you forth as lambs (arnas) in the midst of wolves." Apologetic critics would probably maintain that this was a compilation from memory of passages quoted freely from our first Gospel, that is to say Matt. 9:37: "Then saith he unto his disciples (tote legei tois mathêtais autou) the harvest," etc., and Matt. 10:16: "Behold I (egô) send you forth as sheep (probata) in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore," etc., which, with the differences which we have indicated, agree. It would probably be in vain to argue that the quotation indicated a continuous order, and the variations combined to confirm the probability of a different source; and still more so to point out that, although parts of the quotation separated from their context might, to a certain extent, correspond with scattered verses in the first Gospel, such a circumstance was no proof that the quotation was taken from that and from no other Gospel. The passage, however, is a literal quotation from Luke 10:2-3, which, as we have assumed, had been lost.

Again, still supposing the third Gospel no longer extant, we might find the following quotation in a work of the Fathers: "Take heed to yourselves (eautois) of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (hêtis estin hupokrisis). For there is nothing covered up (sunkekalummenon) which shall not be revealed, and hid which shall not be known." It would, of course, be affirmed that this was evidently a combination of two verses of our first Gospel, quoted almost literally, with merely a few very immaterial slips of memory in the parts we note, and the explanatory words "which is hypocrisy" introduced by the Father, and not a part of the quotation at all. The two verses are Matt. 16:6: "Beware and (hopate kai) take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (kai Saddoukaiôn), and Matt. 10:26 … "For (gar) there is nothing covered (kekalummenon) that shall not be revealed, and hid that shall not be known." It would probably be argued that the sentence should be divided, and each part would then have its parallel in separate portions of the Gospel. That such a system is mistaken is clearly established by the fact that the quotation, instead of being such a combination, is simply taken as it stands from the Gospel according to Luke 12:1-2.

To give another example, and such might easily be multiplied, if our second Gospel had been lost and the following passage were met with in one of the Fathers without its source being indicated, what would be the argument of those who insist that quotations, though differing from our Gospels, were yet taken from them? "If any one have (ei tis echei) ears to hear, let him hear. And he said unto them: Take heed what (ti) ye hear; with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you: and more shall be given unto you. For he (hos) that hath to him shall be given, and he (kai hos) that hath not from him shall be taken even that which he hath." Upon the principle on which patristic quotations are treated, it would probably be positively affirmed that this passage was a quotation from our first and third Gospels combined and made from memory. The exigencies of the occasion might probably lead to the assertion that the words, "And he said to them," really indicated a separation of the latter part of the quotation from the preceding, and that the Father thus showed that the passage was not consecutive; and as to the phrase, "and more shall be given unto you," that it was evidently an addition of the Father. The passage would be dissected, and its different members compared with scattered sentences, and declared almost literal quotations from the Canonical Gospels. Matt. 13:9, "He that hath (ho echôn) ears to hear, let him hear." [124:1] Luke 8:18, "Take heed, therefore, how (oun pôs) ye hear." Matt. 7:2, "… with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you." [124:2] Matt. 13:12, "For whosoever (hostis) hath, to him shall be given (and he shall have abundance); but whosoever (hostis de) hath not from him shall betaken even that which he hath." [124:3] In spite of these ingenious assertions, however, the quotation in reality is literally and consecutively taken from Mark 4:23-25.

These examples may suffice to show that any argument which commences by the assumption that the order of a passage quoted may be entirely disregarded, and that it is sufficient to find parallels scattered irregularly up and down the Gospels to warrant the conclusion that the passage is compiled from them, and is not a consecutive quotation from some other source, is utterly unfounded and untenable. The supposition of a lost Gospel which has just been made to illustrate this argument is, however, not a mere supposition, but a fact; for we no longer have the Gospel according to Peter, nor that according to the Hebrews, not to mention the numerous other works in use in the early Church. The instances we have given show the importance of the order, as well as the language, of quotations, and while they prove the impossibility of demonstrating that a consecutive passage which differs not only in language, but in order, from the parallels in our Gospels must be derived from them, they likewise attest the probability that such passages are actually quoted from a different source.

If we examine further, however, in the same way, quotations which differ merely in language, we arrive at the very same conclusion. Supposing the third Gospel to be lost, what would be the source assigned to the following quotation from an unnamed Gospel in the work of one of the Fathers? "No servant (oudeis oiketês) can serve two lords, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon." Of course the passage would be claimed as a quotation from memory of Matt. 6:24, with which it perfectly corresponds, with the exception of the addition of the second word oiketês, which, it would no doubt be argued, is an evident and very natural amplification of the simple oudeis of the first Gospel. Yet this passage, only differing by the single word from Matthew, is a literal quotation from the Gospel according to Luke 16:13. Or, to take another instance, supposing the third Gospel to be lost, and the following passage quoted, from an unnamed source, by one of the Fathers: "Beware (prosechete) of the Scribes which desire to walk in long robes, and love (philountôn) greetings in the markets, and chief seats in the synagogues and uppermost places at feasts; which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation." This would, without hesitation, be declared a quotation from memory of Mark 12:38-40: "...Beware (Blepete) of the Scribes which desire to walk in long robes and greetings in the markets, and chief seats in the synagogues and uppermost places at feasts; which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive," etc. It is, however, a literal quotation of Luke 20:46-47; yet, probably, it would be in vain to submit to apologetic critics that the passage was not derived from Mark, but from a lost Gospel. To quote one more instance, let us suppose the "Gospel according to Mark" no longer extant, and that in some early work there existed the following quotation: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye (trumalias) of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God." This would, of course, be claimed as a quotation from memory of Matt. 19:24, [125:1] with which it agrees, with the exception of the substitution of trupêmatos for the trumalias. It would not the less have been an exact quotation from Mark 10:25. [125:2]

The actual agreement of any saying of Jesus, quoted by one of the early Fathers from an unnamed source, with a passage in our Gospels is by no means conclusive evidence that the quotation was actually derived from that Gospel. It must be apparent that literal agreement in reporting short and important sayings is not in itself so surprising as to constitute proof that, occurring in two histories, the one must have copied from the other. The only thing which is surprising is that such frequent inaccuracy should exist. When we add, however, the fact that most of the larger early evangelical works, including our Synoptic Gospels, must have been compiled out of the same original sources, and have been largely indebted to each other, the common possession of such sayings becomes a matter of natural occurrence. Moreover, it must be admitted even by apologetic critics that, in a case of such vast importance as the report of sayings of Jesus, upon the verbal accuracy of which the most essential doctrines of Christianity depend, it cannot be a wonder, to the extent of proving plagiarism so to say, if various Gospels report the same saying of Jesus in the same words. Practically the Synoptic Gospels differ in their reports a great deal more than is right or desirable; but we may take them as an illustration of the fact that identity of passages, where the source is unnamed, by no means proves that such passages in a work of the early Fathers were derived from one Gospel, and not from any other. Let us suppose our first Gospel to have been lost, and the following quotation from an unnamed source to be found in an early work: "Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." This, being in literal agreement with Luke 3:9, would certainly be declared by modern apologists conclusive proof that the Father was acquainted with that Gospel; and although the context in the work of the Father might, for instance, be: "Ye shall know them from their works, and every tree," etc., and yet, in the third Gospel, the context is: "And now also, the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: and every tree," etc., that would by no means give them pause. The explanation of combination of texts, and quotation from memory, is sufficiently elastic for every emergency. Now, the words in question might in reality be a quotation from the lost Gospel according to Matthew, in which they twice occur; so that here is a passage which is literally repeated three times -- Matt. 3:10, 7:19, and Luke 3:9. In Matt. 3:10, and in the third Gospel, the words are part of a saying of John the Baptist; whilst in Matt. 7:19 they are given as part of the Sermon on the Mount, with a different context.

Another illustration of this may be given, by supposing the Gospel of Luke to be no longer extant, and the following sentence in one of the Fathers: "And ye shall be hated by all men, for my name's sake." These very words occur both in Matt. 10:22 and Mark 13:13, in both of which places there follow the words: "but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved." There might here have been a doubt as to whether the Father derived the words from the first or second Gospel, but they would have been ascribed either to the one or to the other, whilst in reality they were taken from a different work altogether -- Luke 21:17. Here again we have the same words in three Gospels. In how many more of them may not the same passage have been found? One more instance to conclude. The following passage might be quoted from an unnamed source by one of the Fathers: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." If the Gospel according to Mark were no longer extant, this would be claimed as a quotation either from Matt. 24:35 or Luke 21:33, in both of which it occurs; but, notwithstanding, the Father might not have been acquainted with either of them, and simply have quoted from Mark 13:31. [127:1] And here again the three Gospels contain the same passage without variation.

Now, in all these cases not only is the selection of the Gospel from which the quotation was actually taken completely an open question, since they all have it, but still more is the point uncertain, when it is considered that many other works may also have contained it, historical sayings being naturally common property. Does the agreement of the quotation with a passage which is equally found in the three Gospels prove the existence of all of them? and if not, how is the Gospel from which it was actually taken to be distinguished? If it be difficult to do so, how much more when the possibility and probability, demonstrated by the agreement of the three extant, that it might have formed part of a dozen other works is taken into account.

It is unnecessary to add that, in proportion as we remove from apostolic times without positive evidence of the existence and authenticity of our Gospels, so does the value of their testimony dwindle away. Indeed, requiring as we do clear, direct, and irrefragable evidence of the integrity, authenticity, and historical character of these Gospels, doubt or obscurity on these points must inevitably be fatal to them as sufficient testimony -- if they could, under any circumstances, be considered sufficient testimony -- for miracles and a direct Divine revelation like ecclesiastical Christianity.

We propose to examine, first, the evidence for the three Synoptics, and then, separately, the testimony regarding the fourth Gospel.

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