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by Catherine Frakas 14 Feb 2002

the Gospels QUESTION from sean September 20, 2000 around what years were the four gospels written?
how historically accurate are the gospel accounts?
can the spiritual acts (miracles, ressurection) of the ressurection be relied upon to be historically accurate, or were they just a developed myth added to the historical Jesus by 1st century Christians?
are the writters of the Gospels who they say they are?
-i am currently taking a class in which the proffesor claims that the Gospels were more culturally affected than Divinely, that the Gospels cannot be looked at as hisorical but as a myth developed by a believing people. is he right?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on September 23, 2000 Dear Sean,
To answer your first question: the issue of when the Gospels were written is still debatable. We do know for certain that they were all completed by the end of the first century.
According to Fr. William Saunders, the Gospels were written around the following dates:
Mark: 70 AD Matthew: about 70-80 AD Luke 70-80 AD John 80-90AD
The issue of the Gospels’ accuracy is strongly linked to the reader’s values.
The conclusions he draws from them depends largely on what he believes beforehand. If he rejects that God exists, or that people can perform miracles, the Gospel will not convince him otherwise. He will merely interpret the text to fit his own worldview.
People who have a “scientific†mindset like to think that you should be able to produce history without the interference of your personal values. This is impossible. History is meaningless if you cannot draw conclusions on human behaviour or morals; and in order to make those conclusions, you have to rely on what you believe. Interestingly enough, postmodernists, that is, those who are on the extreme fringe of the politically correct crowd, will also affirm that it is impossible to invoke values when interpreting a text. But because there is so much subjectivity, there is very little you can be certain about. Unless, of course, it upholds a politically correct idea. J We Catholics believe that since all Truth is related, the better your knowledge of it, the more accurate the conclusions you will draw about any kind of history.
When you eliminate all prejudice from politically correct and secular ideas, then there is no doubt that the Gospels relate a historically accurate portrait of Jesus Christ and his times. First, because many of the details of the Gospels are corroborated by each other, and by the epistles. This in itself should convince any individual that Jesus lived, preached salvation and a new covenant, performed miracles and rose from the dead.
However, if you take into consideration that the Gospel authors are worthy of being trusted, then the argument in favour of accuracy is boosted. Trust is a relatively weak argument to use in history. Corroboration is a much stronger proof. But, we can trust in the authors when they relate events that are not corroborated, such as the journey of the Magi, because they have no credible motives for misreporting the facts. They did not seek fame, fortune or power, and the moral ideals they preach exclude the possibility that they willfully lied or “embellished†the events. Their martyrdom and hatred of hypocrisy show that they were sincere. Since so many other facts they report are corroborated, we are led to believe that they did not lie. I don’t think scholars who claim that the miracles were “added on†have any historical proof. All they have are their own prejudices. They would have to show that in fact Jesus did not perform miracles, or that the first reports of Jesus did not contain stories of his wonders. And even if these miracles were subsequently added, they would have to show that these miracles had not occurred. The earliest writings relating to Jesus, written by St. Paul, proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead. If St. Paul had lied about Jesus, wouldn’t Peter, John and James have been outraged? Why would they associate themselves with a person who lied about their teacher?
Regarding the authorship of the Gospels, there is only one author of whom we can be fairly certain from a historical standpoint, as the Evangelists did not sign their works. We think that John did write the fourth Gospel, as he identifies himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. St. Irenaeus, a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of St. John, corroborates that information. The text itself also indicates that the author was an eyewitness.
The other three are less certain, but we are relatively confident that the names of the Gospels are those of its authors. For instance, Papias, a bishop of Hierapolis and disciple of St. John, wrote that Mark became Peter’s interpreter in recounting the events of the Gospel. Does that mean that Papias is referring to the Gospel of Mark? From a historical point of view, we would need more evidence to make that conclusion. However, Tradition supports that claim. Same thing with the Gospel of Matthew— Papias says he wrote a Gospel, but we can’t make the connection in a historical way. But Tradition supports that claim, as well as the claim that St. Luke authored the third Gospel. People who are not religious will tend to discredit the Gospels as history simply because it is a Gospel genre. There’s no doubt that the Gospel is a genre in itself where the author writes of the events of Jesus’ life in order to edify and prove that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. It is not a history textbook, nor a biography as we understand that term today. It is the incredulous who tend to think that people who are religious are either deluded and can’t report events accurately, or that they are out to deceive their readers. It must also be remembered that when studying the Gospels, Jewish literary conventions should be taken into consideration. You cannot expect the Evangelists to have written with a 21st century mindset. Too often, the uninitiated forget this point, thinking that there’s only one way to read a book and one way to write.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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