With 1.5 to 2 billion fellow humans professing to be Christians, this subject is deserving of our special attention. President George W. Bush shocked some evangelical Christians, towards the end of his Presidency by suggesting that the Bible is not ‘literally true.’ At one time in history, majority of the Christians were literalist and took the Bible to be ‘word of God’ in a concrete and literal sense. There was the common expression ‘the gospel truth,’ implying a very high level of certainty. Christians used to constantly debate this issue with the Muslims. At one time, Reverend Jimmy Swaggart had a public debate in Louisiana with a Muslim scholar on the literal truth of the Bible, but now the priests know better.
Here is a website to read the different Gospels side by side for the sake of comparison, also called horizontal reading as opposed to vertical or devotional reading.
Prof. Bart Ehrman writes in his book, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, in the chapter titled, The Invention of Scripture: The Formation of the Proto-orthodox New Testament:
“It comes as a bit of a shock to most people to realize that the Church has not always had the New Testament. But the Christian Scriptures did not descend from heaven a few years after Jesus died. The books that eventually came to be collected into the sacred canon were written by a variety of authors over a period of sixty or seventy years, in different places for different audiences. Other books were written in the same period, some of them by the same authors. Soon thereafter the Church saw a flood of books also allegedly written by the earliest followers of Jesus, forgeries in the names of the apostles, produced for decades, centuries even, after the apostles themselves were long dead and buried. Virtually all of this other literature has been destroyed, forgotten, lost. Only a fraction of the early Christian writings came to be immortalized by inclusion in the sacred canon.”
“The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking.” Burton L. Mack, Retired Professor of New Testament
“It comes as a bit of a shock to most people to realize that the Church has not always had the New Testament. But the Christian Scriptures did not descend from heaven a few years after Jesus died. The books that eventually came to be collected into the sacred canon were written by a variety of authors over a period of sixty or seventy years, in different places for different audiences. Other books were written in the same period, some of them by the same au¬thors. Soon thereafter the Church saw a flood of books also allegedly written by the earliest followers of Jesus, forgeries in the names of the apostles, pro¬duced for decades, centuries even, after the apostles themselves were long dead and buried. Virtually all of this other literature has been destroyed, forgotten, lost. Only a fraction of the early Christian writings came to be immortalized by inclusion in the sacred canon.”
“Hard evidence about the ‘historical Jesus’ is scanty. The Bible’s gospel accounts of Jesus’s life and words-the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were written sometime between 65 and 100 CE, thirty-five to seventy years after his death. By that time, their raw material, stories then circulating about Jesus in oral or written form, had no doubt been shaped by the psychological and rhetorical needs of his followers. (The letters of Paul – New Testament books such as Philippians and Romans – were written earlier, beginning around twenty years after Jesus’s death. Unfortunately, they say almost nothing about Jesus’s life and very little about his words.)The book of Mark is generally considered the most factually reliable of the four gospels. It was written around 70 CE, roughly four decades after the Crucifixion. That’s a long lag, but it offers less time for the accrual of dubious information than the roughly five decades available for Matthew and Luke or the six or seven decades for John. What’s more, during Mark’s composition there would have been people sixty or seventy years old who as young adults had personally witnessed the doings and sayings of Jesus and knew his biographical details – and whose recollections may have constrained the author’s inventiveness. This population would shrink during the decade or more before other gospels took shape, expanding creative freedom.Certainly as we move through the gospels in the order of their composition, we can see the accumulation of more and more dubious information. Mark doesn’t give us anything like ‘the plain unvarnished truth,’ but his story is plainly less varnished than are later accounts. (The actual name and identity of the author of Mark, as with the other gospels, is unknown, but in all cases, for convenience, I’ll call the authors by the names of their books.)Consider the problem of Jesus being from a humble village, Nazareth. The Hebrew Bible had said that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David and, like David, would be born in Bethlehem. Mark never addresses the question of how ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ could have been born in Bethlehem. But by the time Matthew and Luke were written, an answer had emerged – two answers, even. Luke says Jesus’s parents went to Bethlehem for a census and returned to Nazareth after his birth. In Matthew’s version, Jesus’s parents just seem to live in Bethlehem. How then would Jesus wind up in Nazareth? Through an elaborate side story that has the family fleeing to Egypt under duress and then, upon leaving Egypt, deeming a return to Bethlehem dangerous, and settling in ‘a town called Nazareth.’ This contradiction between Luke and Matthew suggests that in this case, Mark, the earliest gospel, is the place to find the awkward truth: Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus of Nazareth. (Mathew 2:23) John (1:46-49) solves the Nazareth problem in yet another way.…Indeed, by the time of John there has been a general change in the tenor of Jesus’s miracles. In Mark, Jesus didn’t do miracles ostentatiously, and sometimes he even took pains to perform them in private. (An answer to critics who .noted that few people other than Jesus’s followers claimed witness to his miracles?) In John, Jesus turns miracles into spectacles. Before raising Lazarus from the dead-something Jesus does in no other gospel-he says Lazarus’s illness was ‘for God’s glory, so that the son of God may be glorified through it.’ Moreover, the miracles are now explicitly symbolic. When Jesus heals a blind man, he says, ‘I am the light of the world.’ (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51, John 11:4 & 9:5)A fairly immodest claim – but John’s Jesus is not a modest man. In no previous gospel does Jesus equate himself with God. But in John he says, ‘The Father and I are one.’ (John 10:30) Christian legend and theology have by this point had sixty or seventy years to evolve, and they are less obedient than ever to memories of the real, human Jesus.All of this suggests that if we are going to try to make a stab at reconstructing the ‘historical Jesus,’ even in broadest outlines, Mark, the earliest gospel, is the place to start. There, more than in any other account of Jesus’s life and sayings, the number of plainly awkward and barely varnished facts suggests at least some degree of factualness.”
A good and reliable source to understand, how the New Testament came about is one of the chapters of Dr. Maurice Bucaille’s famous book, the Bible the Quran and the Science. The chapter is titled the Four Gospels: Sources and History. It can be read online, here I am copying a page or so from the beginning:
“In the writings that come from the early stages of Christianity, the Gospels are not mentioned until long after the works of Paul. It was not until the middle of the Second century A.D., after 140 A.D. to be precise, that accounts began to appear concerning a collection of Evangelic writings, In spite of this, “from the beginning of the Second century A.D., many Christian authors clearly intimate that they knew a. great many of Paul’s letters.” These observations are set out in the Introduction to the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible, New Testament (Introduction à la Traduction oecuménique de la Bible, Nouveau Testament) edited 1972. They are worth mentioning from the outset, and it is useful to point out here that the work referred to is the result of a collective effort which brought together more than one hundred Catholic and Protestant specialists.The Gospels, later to become official, i.e. canonic, did not become known until fairly late, even though they were completed at the beginning of the Second century A.D. According to the Ecumenical Translation, stories belonging to them began to be quoted around the middle of the Second century A.D. Nevertheless, “it is nearly always difficult to decide whether the quotations come from written texts that the authors had next to them or if the latter were content to evoke the memory of fragments of the oral tradition.”“Before 140 A.D.” we read in the commentaries this translation of the Bible contains, “there was, in any case, no account by which one might have recognised a collection of evangelic writings”. This statement is the opposite of what A. Tricot writes (1960) in the commentary to his translation of the New Testament: “Very early on, from the beginning of the Second century A.D., it became a habit to say “Gospel’ meaning the books that Saint Justin around 150 A.D. had also called “The Memoirs of the Apostles’.” Unfortunately, assertions of this kind are sufficiently common for the public to have ideas on the date of the Gospels which are mistaken.The Gospels did not form a complete whole ‘very early on’; it did not happen until more than a century after the end of Jesus’s mission. The Ecumenical Translation of the Bible estimates the date the four Gospels acquired the status of canonic literature at around 170 A.D.Justin’s statement which calls the authors ‘Apostles’ is not acceptable either, as we shall see.As far as the date the Gospels were written is concerned, A. Tricot states that Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels were written before 70 A.D.: but this is not acceptable, except perhaps for Mark. Following many others, this commentator goes out of his way to present the authors of the Gospels as the apostles or the companions of Jesus. For this reason he suggests dates of writing that place them very near to the time Jesus lived. As for John, whom A. Tricot has us believe lived until roughly 100 A.D., Christians have always been used to seeing him depicted as being very near to Jesus on ceremonial occasions. It is very difficult however to assert that he is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. For A. Tricot, as for other commentators, the Apostle John (like Matthew) was the officially qualified witness of the facts he recounts, although the majority of critics do not support the hypothesis which says he wrote the fourth Gospel.If however the four Gospels in question cannot reasonably be regarded as the ‘Memoirs’ of the apostles or companions of Jesus, where do they come from? …”
“When students are first introduced to the historical, as opposed to a devotional, study of the Bible, one of the first things they are forced to grapple with is that the biblical text, whether Old Testament or New Testament, is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable. Some of these discrepancies are simple details where one book contradicts what another says about a minor point-the number of soldiers in an army, the year a certain king began his reign, the details of an apostle’s itinerary. In some cases seemingly trivial points of difference can actually have an enormous significance for the interpretation of a book or the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel or the life of the historical Jesus. And then there are instances that involve major issues, where one author has one point of view on an important topic (How was the world created? Why do the people of God suffer? What is the significance of Jesus’ death?), and another author has another. Sometimes these views are simply different from one another, but at other times they are directly at odds.In this chapter I will talk about some of the important and interesting discrepancies of the Bible that emerge when it is examined from a historical perspective. Since my specialty is the New Testament, I will be dealing with the kinds of problems that are found there. But you can rest assured that very much the same problems can be found in the Old Testament as well-in fact, even more so. Whereas the New Testament, consisting of twenty-seven books, was written by may be sixteen or seventeen authors over a period of seventy years, the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, consist of thirty-nine books written by dozens of authors over at least six hundred years. There is a lot of room for differing perspectives, and if you look for them, you will find them in droves.”
“And so the contradiction stands: in Mark, Jesus eats the Passover meal (Thursday night) and is crucified the following morning. In John, Jesus does not eat the Passover meal but is crucified on the day before the Passover meal was to be eaten. Moreover, in Mark, Jesus is nailed to the cross at nine in the morning; in John, he is not condemned until noon, and then he is taken out and crucified.…What is one to make of this contradiction? Again, on one level it seems like a rather minor point. I mean, who really cares if it was one day or the next? The point is that Jesus got crucified, right?Well, that is both right and wrong. Another question to ask is not ‘Was Jesus crucified?’ but also ‘What does it mean that Jesus was crucified?’ And for this, little details like the day and time actually matter. The way I explain the importance of such minutiae to my students is this: When, today, a homicide is committed, and the police detectives come in to the crime scene, they begin searching for little scraps of evidence, looking for the trace of a fingerprint or a strand of hair on the floor. Someone might reasonably look at what they are doing and say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see that there’s a dead body on the floor? Why are you snooping around for a fingerprint?’ Yet sometimes the smallest clue can lead to a solution of the case. Why, and by whom, was this person killed? So, too, with the Gospels. Sometimes the smallest piece of evidence can give important clues about what the author thought was really going on.I can’t give a full analysis here, but I will point out a significant feature of John’s Gospel-the last of our Gospels to be written, probably some twenty-five years or so after Mark’s. John is the only Gospel that indicates that Jesus is ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’ This is declared by John the Baptist at the very beginning of the narrative (John 1:29) and again six verses later (John 1:35). Why, then, did John-our latest Gospel-change the day and time when Jesus died? It may be because in John’s Gospel, Jesus is the Passover Lamb, whose sacrifice brings salvation from sins. Exactly like the Passover Lamb, Jesus has to die on the day (the Day of Preparation) and the time (sometime after noon), when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple.In other words, John has changed a historical datum in order to make a theological point: Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. And to convey this theological point, John has had to create a discrepancy between his account and the others.”
The book of Mark is generally considered the most factually reliable of the four gospels. It was written around 70 CE, roughly four decades after the Crucifixion. That’s a long lag, but it offers less time for the accrual of dubious information than the roughly five decades available for Matthew and Luke or the six or seven decades for John. What’s more, during Mark’s composition there would have been people sixty or seventy years old who as young adults had personally witnessed the doings and sayings of Jesus and knew his biographical details – and whose recollections may have constrained the author’s inventiveness. This population would shrink during the decade or more before other gospels took shape, expanding creative freedom.”This is the essence of modern scholarship about the New Testament. The above mentioned is the golden principle from which every finding and perspective sprouts forth. The contributions of these professors who have spent a life time studying the 27 books of the New Testament and discussing and debating different issues day in and day out, are not frivolous or just misstatements. The only area where they go wrong is when they are looking at the information through the wrong lenses, sometimes a Christian bias and sometimes an agnostic or atheist bias. When we look at their findings through the lens of Islam, all pieces of the puzzle fall into their natural places giving us a beautiful picture and not a shattered glass of a windscreen.
Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) is a book by Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to Rich Barlow, of the Boston Globe, the book is a critical approach to the Bible to understand its early origins. Gary Kamiya wrote that the book says ‘the man from Galilee was a radical Jewish prophet, not God.’ According to CNN, Ehrman writes in the conclusion of the book: ‘Doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus and heaven and hell are not based on anything Jesus or his earlier followers said. At least 19 of the 27 books in the New Testament are forgeries. Believing the Bible is infallible is not a condition for being a Christian.'”Now see when Ehrman refuses the divinity of Jesus Christ his arguments are likely to very well founded, as we use our discriminating lens of Ahmadiyya interpretation of Islam. But given his agnostic perspective he goes onto denying ‘heaven and hell;’ as we use our Islamic lens, with the teaching that unlike eternal ‘Christian hell,’ the ‘Islamic hell’ is not eternal, for punishment of finite crimes cannot be infinite. Just by having the right lens we are so easily able to edit a life time scholarship of Ehrman. If we read his books carefully we will be able to show that whereas his conclusions are well founded about Jesus’ divinity but he has slipped when he categorically denies heaven and hell! Incidentally, many non-Ahmadi Muslms will believe that the hell is eternal and will as a result be deprived of the insights that I am talking about. The right lens or the perspective is the key!
The historical-critical method maintains that we are in danger of misreading a book if we fail to let its author speak for himself, if we force his message to be exactly the same as another author’s message, if we insist on reading all the books of the New Testament as one book instead of as twenty-seven books. These books were written in different times and places, under different circumstances, to address different issues; they were written by different authors with different perspectives, beliefs, assumptions, traditions, and sources. And they sometimes present different points of view on major issues.…Since the nineteenth century, scholars have recognized that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, around 65-70 CE Both Matthew and Luke, writing fifteen or twenty years later, used Mark as one of their sources for much of their own accounts. That is why almost all of Mark’s stories can be found in Matthew or Luke, and it is also why sometimes all three of these Gospels agree word for word in the way they tell the stories. Sometimes just two agree and the third doesn’t, because occasionally only one of the later Gospels changed Mark. This means that if we have the same story in Mark and Luke, say, and there are differences, these differences exist precisely because Luke has actually modified the words of his source, sometimes deleting words and phrases, sometimes adding material, even entire episodes, and sometimes altering the way a sentence is worded. It is probably safe to assume that if Luke modified what Mark had to say, it was because he wanted to say it differently. Sometimes these differences are just minor changes in wording, but sometimes they affect in highly significant ways the way the entire story is told. This appears to be true for the portrayal of Jesus going to his death.
What is the way forward? This short biography makes it clear that many modern assumptions about the Bible are incorrect. The Bible did not encourage slavish conformity. In the Jewish tradition especially, as we saw with the story of R. Eliezer, not even the voice of God could force an exegete to accept another person’s interpretation. From the first, the biblical authors contradicted each other and their conflicting visions were all included by the editors in the final text. The Talmud was an interactive text that, properly taught, compelled a student to find his own answers. Hans Frei was right: the Bible has been a subversive document, suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of Amos and Hosea. The modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings is out of key with interpretive tradition. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith explained, scripture was not really a text but an activity, a spiritual process that introduced thousands of people to transcendence. The Bible may have been used to back up doctrines and beliefs but that was not its chief function. The fundamentalist emphasis on the literal reflects the modern ethos but is a breach with tradition, which usually preferred some kind of figurative or innovative interpretation. (This is an over-simplification; over the centuries, the Christian apologists have always emphasized the literal truth of the Bible at least to the masses). There is, for example, no single doctrine of creation in the Bible and the first chapter of Genesis was rarely read as a factual description of the origins of the cosmos. (Another over-simplification and re-writing of the history of time of Galileo Galilei). Many of the Christians who oppose Darwinism today are Calvinists, but Calvin insisted that the Bible was not a scientific document and that those who wanted to learn about astronomy or cosmology should look elsewhere.We have seen that different texts have been used to support entirely opposed programmes. Athanasius and Arius could both produce quotations to prove their personal beliefs about the divinity of Christ. Because they could find no definitive warrant in scripture to decide this matter, the fathers found theological solutions that owed little to the Bible. Slaveowners interpreted the Bible one way, the slaves in quite another. The same applies today in the Christian debate about ordaining women to the priesthood. Like nearly all premodern documents, the Bible is a patriarchal text. Opponents of feminism and women priests can find a host of biblical texts to prove their case, but some of the New Testament authors had very different views and can be cited to show that in Christ there was neither male nor female and that women worked as ‘co-workers’ and ‘co-apostles’ in the early Church. Hurling texts around polemically is a sterile pursuit. Scripture is not able to provide certainty on this type of question. This is also the case with the question of scriptural violence. There is indeed a great deal of violence in the Bible far more than there is in the Qur’ an. And it is unquestionably true that throughout history people have used the Bible to justify atrocious acts. As Cantwell Smith observed, the Bible and its interpretation must be seen in historical context. The world has always been a violent place and scripture and its exegesis has often fallen prey to contemporary aggression. Joshua was presented by the Deuteronomists fighting with all the ruthlessness of an Assyrian general. The Crusaders ignored the pacifist teachings of Jesus and signed up for an expedition to the Holy Land because they were soldiers, wanted a militant religion and applied their distinctively feudal ethos to the Bible. The same is true in our own time. The modern period has seen violence and slaughter on an unprecedented scale and it is not surprising that this has affected the way some people have read the Bible.
In general, among Christian denominations, the New Testament Canon is an agreed-upon list of 27 books, although book order can vary.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a few additional books in its canon: Jubilees, Book of Enoch, 4 Baruch along with three books of Meqabyan that are unique to their canon.The Peshitta excludes 2-3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation, but Bibles of the modern Syriac Orthodox Church include later translations of those books along with the Letter of Baruch (sometimes included as part of 2 Baruch). Still today the official lectionary followed by the Syrian Orthodox Church (with headquarters at Kottayam (Kerala), and the Chaldean Syriac Church, also known as the Church of the East (Nestorian), with headquarters at Trichur (Kerala)) presents lessons from only the twenty-two books of Peshitta, the version to which appeal is made for the settlement of doctrinal questions.The Third Epistle to the Corinthians and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were once considered part of the Armenian OrthodoxBible, but are no longer printed with modern editions.THE ROLE OF THE ORAL TRADITIONSThe four canonical gospels were written 35-65 years after the crucifixion mostly borrowing from oral traditions and possibly some written materials that we no longer possess. This is a very long time for the oral traditions to change. This is like trying to write at the turn of the century about the great depression in USA, or World War II, without haveing any written accounts or photographs. Prof. Bart Ehrman explains in a Teaching Company course:
“Even though the earliest traditions about Jesus go back to eyewitnesses who observed the things he said and did, they were circulated by word of mouth for several decades before being written down in the Gospels. The time between Jesus’ death and the first accounts of his life was 35 to 65 years. During that time, Christianity spread to major urban areas throughout the empire. People converted to this new religion when they heard about the spectacular words and deeds of Jesus. But given the rapid growth of the religion in so many areas, the people spreading most of these tales were necessarily people who had never seen these things happen or who had even known someone else who had.As a result, the traditions about Jesus were modified in the process of transmission, and some traditions were apparently made up-as Christians tried both to convince others of the importance of Jesus and to understand him in ways that seemed theologically significant. Evidence to suggest that the traditions were modified is provided by the Gospels themselves. As we will see through a careful examination of Jesus’ death, as recorded in Mark and John, and of his birth, as recorded in Matthew and Luke, discrepancies in the tradition indicate that the stories were being altered (and in some instances created) to suit the occasions for which they were told.”
- Prof. Bart Ehrman. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press, 2003. Pages 229-230.
- Robert Wright. The Evolution of God. Little Brown and Company, 2009. Pages 249-254.
- Karen Armstrong. The Bible: A Biography (Books That Changed the World). Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2007. Pages 222-224.
- Prof. Bart Ehram. The New Testament. The Teaching Company course book, 2000. Page 21.