(Say:) "You are people arguing about something of which you have no knowledge. Why do you argue about something of which you have no knowledge? God knows; you do not know." (Surah Al 'Imran: 66)
The authors of the Four Gospels never met Prophet Jesus (pbuh)
People often assume that the four Gospels were written at time of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) and are entirely based on his words. Yet this is not true. In fact, Biblical scholars estimate that the Gospel of Mark was written around 70, the Gospel of Matthew around 80, the Gospel of Luke around 90, and the Gospel of John around 90-100. The other books of the New Testament were written around the same time. Moreover, the canonical Gospel as we know it today consists of writings that were selected from hundreds of selected texts and was established only at the Council of Nicaea.
The basic Christian texts to which we refer for information about the life of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) are the four Gospels, the first four books in the New Testament. These books of the New Testament began to be written down around 30 to 35 years after the ascension of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) into the sight of God.
As can be seen from historical sources and the accounts in the New Testament, the first Christians began telling people about Prophet Jesus' words and deeds in an oral form after his elevation to God's presence. According to researchers, it is very likely that under the conditions in which they found themselves, the early Christians attached new meanings to the words of Prophet Jesus (pbuh), and changed some information when they debated with the Jewish religious figures or the Romans who rejected Prophet Jesus (pbuh). According to this view, the early Christians wished to keep the belief in the Messiah alive, strengthen belief in Prophet Jesus (pbuh), bring about a rapid spread of Christianity, and eliminate the despair caused by persecution. Thus, they sought to create a new source of enthusiasm and excitement by interpreting Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) words and deeds. They could have done this just by transmitting God's words and the wise message of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to people. But that is not how it happened, and God's revelation was subsequently altered and Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) words were misinterpreted and diverted from their true essence. During this time, some Christians may have mistakenly raised their respect for him to such a high level that they began to consider him to be divine. (Surely God is beyond that!) This view is generally shared by modern-day Western researchers.17After a while, the Apostles began dying off and, in order to prevent the disappearance of Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) message, some Christians may have set about forming the texts of the New Testament by collecting and then combining his words and deeds according to their own understanding.18
Rudolf Bultmann, one of the foremost twentieth-century experts on the New Testament, offers various interpretations about the writing of the Gospels. He says that the synoptic Gospels (those of Matthew, Mark and Luke) were formed in order to set out consecutive tales regarding the life of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) by the authors of the Gospels bringing together and adding unordered anecdotes. According to Bultmann, these words, constantly repeated in different societies by the individuals who comprised those societies assumed different forms from one society to another and even within one society and the words and deeds of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) assumed various forms from being used by people for different purposes. In the early period, for instance, they were sometimes used for preaching purposes, to give people advice, and to establish the moral principles by which the members of a community had to abide. Bultmann thus reveals that as a consequence of this oral tradition, the words and deeds of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) were partially altered by the early Christians. Furthermore, he suggests that the Gospels contain words that were actually produced by early Christians and then ascribed to Prophet Jesus (pbuh).19He does not think that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) referred to himself as the son of God. In his view, that title was developed after Prophet Jesus (pbuh) under the influence of paganism's motifs of divine figures portrayed as the sons of the gods, divine offspring worshipped in secret religions and savior figures in gnostic mythology, and was then erroneously ascribed to the prophet. (Surely God is beyond that!).20
For that reason, the great majority of Western researchers today believe that the Gospels are not individual texts comprising the accurate collection of the words of Prophet Jesus (pbuh); rather, they are texts consisting of the collection, after Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) ascension, of his words and deeds under the conditions prevailing after his time.
The Gospel's authors
Although they are today known by the names of the authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Gospels were actually penned anonymously. It is not known whether the individuals behind these names actually wrote the Gospels or not. The Gospels only began to be known by their present names in the second half of the second century. Matthew and John are accepted as true disciples of Prophet Jesus (pbuh), Mark as a follower of Paul, and Luke as one of Paul's students. In other words, the authors actually existed, but there is no evidence that the Gospels are really their work.21In his The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders, a noted Biblical researcher, describes the writing of the Gospels in these terms:
Present evidence indicates that the gospels remained untitled until the second half of the second century… The gospels as we have them were quoted in the first half of the second century, but always anonymously. Names suddenly appear about the year 180. By then there were a lot of gospels, not just our four, and the Christians had to decide which ones were authoritative. This was a major issue, on which there were very substantial differences of opinion. We know who won: those Christians who thought that four gospels, no more and no fewer, were the authoritative record of Jesus.22
In another article, he describes the process of the naming of the anonymously penned Gospels:
In the first half of the second century there were a lot of gospels, and the Christians had to decide which ones were authoritative. So they named them, and thus the four gospels considered today by the Church as authoritative were named Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.23
Paula Fredriksen, author of From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament, Images of Jesus, summarizes the position thus:
Eventually, some of Jesus' sayings, now in Greek, were collected and written down in a document, now lost, which scholars designate Q (from the German Quelle, "source"). Meanwhile, other oral traditions – miracle stories, parables, legends, and so on – grew, circulated, and were collected in different forms by various Christian communities. In the period around… 70 C.E., an anonymous Gentile Christian wrote some of these down. This person was not an author – he did not compose de novo… He organized these stories into a sequence and shaped his inherited material into something resembling a historical narrative. The result was the Gospel of Mark.24
She also notes the language used in the Gospels:
Jesus spoke Aramaic; his original early first-century audience was, for the most part, Jewish, Palestinian, and rural. The evangelists' language was Greek… Traditions from and about Jesus spanning this temporal, cultural, and linguistic circulated orally; and the reliability of oral traditions, in the absence of independent or convergent lines of evidence, is nearly impossible to assess. Further, as psychological and anthropological studies of oral materials show, even reports going back to eyewitnesses are far from historically secure. Interpretation or distortion between an event and the report of an event occurs almost inevitably, first of all because the observer is human. If the report is communicated through different people over a period of time before it achieves written form, revision can occur at every human link in the chain of transmission. In brief, though the oral transmission of traditions about Jesus allows us to assume some relation between what the gospels report and what might actually have happened, it also requires that we acknowledge an inevitable – often incalculable – degree of distortion in those traditions as well.25
In his important work The Birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus, another Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, quotes Marcus J. Borg and Barry Henaut about the authors of the Gospels:
How are the Gospels to be used as sources for constructing an image of the historical Jesus? ... The Gospels are literally the voices of their authors. Behind them are the anonymous voices of the community talking about Jesus. And embedded within their voices is the voice of Jesus, as well as the deeds of Jesus. Constructing an image of Jesus—which is what the quest for the historical Jesus is about—involves two crucial steps. The first step is discerning what is likely to go back to Jesus. The second step is setting this material in the historical context of the first-century Jewish homeland.26
The Oral phase of the Jesus tradition is now forever lost. The spoken word is transitory by nature and exists for but a moment. It lives on only in the memory of the audience and its recovery is entirely dependent upon the accuracy of that memory to bring it back into being … Even the written tradition continues to be edited and improved. This warns us against assuming that the Gospels offer a directly transcribed orality: the tradition may have been thoroughly textualized and altered in the transmission process, a process that did not end with the synoptic evangelists!27
Neither the authors of the Gospels nor those of the New Testament's other books were actual eye witnesses to the events they describe. They were people who made texts out of the oral and written traditions transmitted from generation to generation for a few decades after Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) ascension. For that reason, various experts who have researched the texts over the centuries have stressed that various factors played a role in the texts of the Gospels assuming their present forms. In one article, this influence is described as follows:
The original first-hand memories of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) were preserved by various means, edited, developed, elevated, and partially destroyed 1) by the early Christians' efforts to gain a universal religious identity for their own religion by elevating its leaders; 2) by allowing the pagan deity motifs of the time to enter their texts; 3) by the first Church established by Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians opposing the Judaism from which it had broken away; 4) by the debates that led to serious disputes within the Christian community itself; and 5) by portraying the promises of events given by the Old Testament prophets as being fulfilled in the life of Prophet Jesus (pbuh), thereby claiming that he was the final component of Old Testament prophethood… In addition, since the Gospels were written by the early Church that was struggling to survive Jewish pressure and Roman persecution, and because of the prevailing circumstances, they are not an account of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) and his life, but the early Church's interpretation of Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) words and deeds in connection with its struggle against its opponents. Based on that fact, it can be seen that the Gospels do not provide enough information to write the biography of Prophet Jesus (pbuh). Therefore, in examining his position and status in the interpretation of the four Gospels, we have to take into account the lives of the first Christian communities, the beliefs, ideas, opinions, preconceptions, and debates of which are reflected both in the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament … Again in examining his position, we must not forget that the Gospels, our essential source, were written 40-60 years after Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) ascension, in a rather different climate to that of the original events that took place in his life. Moreover, they were not written in Aramaic, his mother tongue, but in Greek … In short, the Gospels are books collected not by the Disciples who personally witnessed the words and deeds of Prophet Jesus (pbuh), but by people who became Christians at a later date, in a manner appropriate to the new circumstances that gradually emerged. In other words, the Gospels are not first-hand accounts of Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) words and deeds, but are based on second- and third-hand accounts.28
These historical facts are extremely important. Independent researchers who have compared the Gospel texts stress that the four Gospels are very different from one another.
The differences among the four Gospels
The generally accepted view is that the four Gospels were written between 65 and 100. (Some researchers propose later dates, such as 75-115.29) This means that the earliest Gospel was written some 30 years after Prophet Jesus (pbuh) was raised to God's presence. Researchers also believe that the texts do not fully reflect his life and message, but rather concentrate on the authors' imagination of how he was.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke largely parallel each other, and thus are known as the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic means from the same eye, and thus expresses their common perspective. Of these, the earliest one is Mark, despite its being in second place in the New Testament. It is accepted that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels based upon Mark's as a source, making a few additions.
The Gospel of John, is very different from the Synoptic Gospels. Furthermore, one incident described in John may be described very differently in the other Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels also contradict one another from time to time.
New Testament scholars note that the four Gospels concentrate on rather different subjects, that the texts were written in different styles, that they contain historical inconsistencies, and emphasize that every passage cannot be considered a direct quotations from Prophet Jesus (pbuh). According to this claim, the four Gospels were written for different purposes and for different communities. Therefore, Christian scholars define the Gospels according to their style, as follows:
Matthew was aimed at the Jews, for which reason it generally refers to Prophet Jesus (pbuh) as the King, Messiah, son of Abraham and David.
Mark was written for the Greeks and therefore concentrates mainly on power, rule, and service. Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is referred to in terms of the servant of God who performs great deeds.
Luke was written for everyone else and so concentrates on Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) moral values and human aspects. The prophet is referred to as the son of Adam, the friend of man.
John was written much later and as a response to the reactions and questions arising during that period. Therefore, it concentrates on the miraculous aspect of his life. Expressions along the lines of the son of God (Surely God is beyond that!) appear more frequently in this gospel. Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is referred to as coming from the skies.30
Historically speaking, Mark is the earliest of the gospels and John is the latest, and there are considerable differences between them. If the accounts in Mark and John are to be regarded as historical records, these differences can be easily explained by saying that they are two separate depictions of the same event written by two different people. One of these was written 40-45 years later, and the other up to 60-65 years later.
Faced with such differences, some Christians say things like despite the minor differences, at the end of the day they all describe the same event. Yet these differences actually matter, because they reveal that the New Testament authors wrote their texts by normal, human means. They heard various oral accounts regarding Prophet Jesus (pbuh) and then penned the Gospels under the influence of their own cultures, beliefs, knowledge, or preconceptions. For that reason, these texts are human, not divine. That means they need to be regarded as historical sources likely to contain divine elements.
Actually, the fact that we have four Gospels lies at the very heart of our problem. Because as we read particular parables or sayings or stories in several different versions, we can't miss the disagreements between them. At first we are tempted to say, "Well, witnesses simply remember the same things differently." But it is clear that, when Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, they had copies of Mark (the earliest of the New Testament gospels) in front of them. That means that for much of their story of Jesus, Matthew and Luke are not independent sources, but variations of Mark. It also means that the variations reflect the theologies of the individual gospel writers. In other words, each gospel is a deliberate interpretation of Jesus—rather than a biography… With all of the differences between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and with numerous other gospels exiting, we have an obvious problem. Each gospel has a particular way of seeing Jesus. How close to the historical facts are they?31
Another important fact is how the four Gospels were selected from a large number of copies of the Gospels. Different Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Childhood Gospels of James and Thomas, the Secret Gospel of James, the Eagerton Gospel, and the Oxyrhyncus Gospel all contain different information and interpretations about Prophet Jesus (pbuh). Scholars think that all of these Gospels come from a common, but lost, original Q Gospel (from the German word quelle or source). As they collected the words of Prophet Jesus (pbuh), the first Christian community and the first compilers of the Gospel produced new interpretations based on their own situations, political pressures, and the conditions prevailing at the time, and gradually moved away from the true message. Present-day historians researching the Gospels agree on this. Fredriksen summarizes the period in which the New Testament authors wrote thus:
From oral to written; from Aramaic to Greek; from the end of time to the middle of time; from Jewish to Gentile; from the Galilee and Judea to the Empire.32
A great deal of research has been done on how the Gospel texts developed. The vast majority of the researchers share the ideas given above. In other words, they agree that the actual authors of the Gospels are unknown, that the Gospels may or may not contain Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) actual words, and that the authors were not his contemporaries. For example, Elaine Pagels of Princeton University's theology faculty, states that "the gospels of the New Testament – no one knows who actually wrote any of them."33Randel McGraw Helms, author of Who Wrote the Gospels?, says: "Mark himself clearly did not know any eyewitnesses of Jesus."34 söyler.
A research file called "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Jeffery L. Sheler, was published in the 10 December 1990 edition of U.S. News & World Report magazine. According to Sheler, who interviewed many Biblical scholars: "Other scholars have concluded that the Bible is the product of a purely human endeavor, that the identity of the authors is forever lost and that their work has been largely obliterated by centuries of translation and editing"35and:
Yet today, there are few Biblical scholars — from liberal skeptics to conservative evangelicals — who believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually wrote the Gospels. Nowhere do the writers of the texts identify themselves by name or claim unambiguously to have known or traveled with Jesus… Some scholars say so many revisions occurred in the 100 years following Jesus' death that no one can be absolutely sure of the accuracy or authenticity of the Gospels, especially of the words the authors attributed to Jesus himself.36
Many other scholars share this view. Jerome Neyrey of the Weston School of Theology's faculty, for instance, says: "The bottom line is we really don't know for sure who wrote the Gospels."37This subject was given wide coverage in the 8 April 1996 edition of Time magazine. David Van Biema, author of the book The Gospel Truth, aired his views, as follows:
There are, after all, four Gospels, whose actual writing, most scholars have come to acknowledge, was done not by the Apostles but by their anonymous followers (or their followers' followers). Each presented a somewhat different picture of Jesus' life. The earliest appeared to have been written some 40 years after his Crucifixion.38
E. P. Sanders summarizes why he believes that the Gospels departed from their original forms:
(3) The Gospels were written anonymously.39
The Fourth Gospel
The fourth Gospel is a very important piece of evidence for researchers of the Greek influence on Christian beliefs. Most academics prefer to call the Gospel of John as the Fourth Gospel, for they reject John's authorship of it.
We must, however, entertain another possibility altogether: perhaps none of the authors knew what took place when. Possibly they had scattered bits of information, from which they constructed believable narratives that contain a fair amount of guesswork.40
In his important study The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology, Maurice Casey offers the following interpretations:
In John, Jesus uses terms of this kind [the son of God] no less than 23 times, in public debate as well as in private teaching. Mark however attributes such a term to Jesus no more than once … If the historical Jesus had used this key term extensively as John says he did, the faithful Christians who transmitted the synoptic tradition would have transmitted it extensively… If "the Son" had been the main term which the historical Jesus used to express his divinity, the earliest apostles were bound to have used it too, and it would have been transmitted to Luke who would not have had reason to leave it out.41
Casey examines why some of the expressions in John, and which form the basis of trinitarian belief, are not found in the Synoptic Gospels. He concludes that if the claim that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is the son of God, and the belief in the trinity based on that, actually represents the basis of true Christianity, then there should be far more evidence of this in Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) words and message. Yet it is impossible to find the bases of trinitarian belief in the Synoptic Gospels. On the contrary, the term the son of Man is used so often in both John and the Synoptic Gospels that it seems that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) may well have employed it himself. (God knows best.) Biblical scholars who state that the son of God was never used by Prophet Jesus (pbuh) think the exact opposite about the son of Man.
John was written for the Greek Christian of the beginning of the second century. These recent converts were more educated, wealthy, and despised the Diaspora Jews who resided in their cities and who enjoyed the respect of Rome. John removes the offensive references to Jesus as a Jewish Messiah that are particular to the earlier gospels ... In so doing, John creates a simulacrum that is barely human. The earlier Synoptic traditions are emphatic in presenting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, descendent of David, and eschatological messenger of the end of the world… John removes the unpleasantness of Jewish genealogy as well as all references to Palestinian and Davidic descent.42
Others of his interpretations are as follows:
In John we find the culmination of Greek philosophy that has created the Jesus that we are the most familiar with today. A fully-formed Hellenized Jesus has emerged to become an equal with God. The Gospel of John (ca. 120 CE) is complex and mystical. Its purpose is to propagandize the message that Jesus is God Himself.43(Surely God is beyond that!)
THE USE OF “FATHER” AND “SON”
Before considering the use of these two terms, we ask our Lord's forgiveness for using the description, incompatible with any form of respect, used by those who defend the belief in the trinity, which we use here to define the belief in question.
When one looks at Mark, the earliest gospel, one sees that the concepts of Father and son are used but not emphasized: Father is used only four times to refer to God. Three of these are actually uttered by other Jews, and not by Prophet Jesus (pbuh). It is therefore impossible to use this Gospel to support belief in the trinity. Furthermore, again in Mark, Prophet Jesus (pbuh) opposes any expression that might lead to his being awarded divine status:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. (Mark, 10:17-18)
The number of references rises significantly in Matthew, written 10-15 years after Mark, with God being described as Father (Surely God is beyond that!) 50 times. Twenty-eight of these are directed toward the Jews in general terms, such as Pray to your Father, or Love your Father. The remaining 22 are spoken by Prophet Jesus (pbuh) in the form My Father. The emphasis laid upon this concept has been elevated to a most surprising extent.
A similar emphasis is found in Luke, regarded as having been written around the same time as Matthew. Father is used 18 times in this gospel. Twelve of these have to do with Prophet Jesus (pbuh) himself and are prayers beginning Father…, or statements opening with My Father…
In the Fourth Gospel, however, the belief in the son of God in the sense that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is divine is expressed very clearly and unmistakably. Father is used 122 times to describe God, and all of these, apart from 3, belong to Prophet Jesus (pbuh). On the other hand, son is used in reference to Prophet Jesus (pbuh) 17 times. Furthermore, he is described as the one son of God on four occasions. (Surely God is beyond that!)
The greater the distance between the writing of the Gospels and the elevation of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to God's presence, the greater the tendency to depict him as someone who addresses God as Father. To put it another way, the belief that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is the Son of God secured a greater foundation with every new Gospel. This tendency gains greater strength in John. This is an indication of an ever-increasing corruption. Surely God is beyond all these comparisons!
Those passages in the Synoptic Gospels that ascribe divine status to Prophet Jesus (pbuh) are both very few in number and questionable. However, as Still points out, this erroneous belief prevails throughout John. In the same paper, he says the following about how this Gospel sought to deify Prophet Jesus (pbuh):
Notably, the birth narrative of Jesus is missing, we are told in the prologue only that "in the beginning" Jesus coexisted with God and that he is "full of grace and truth." John feels that to inform us of the particularly human trait of birth, even if virginal …, would not be fitting of a God who is the Word. Human characteristics that Mark informs us of… are conspicuously absent from John… By the time John was first written at the end of the first century, the tales of Jesus grew to such an extent that Jesus was now fully transformed into a Hellenized god.44[Surely God is beyond that!]
17. Mahmut Aydın, Yahudi Bir Peygamberden Gentile Tanrıya: İsa'nın Tanrısallaştırılma Süreci, İslamiyat III (2000), sayı 4, s. 51