BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (5) – What other evidence do we have aside from manuscripts?

– Rev José Mario O Mandía

Aside from the number and dates of the manuscripts of the Sacred Scripture (let us call these “internal evidence”), we can also make use of other works to establish the authenticity of the Scriptures (let us call these “external evidence”). Here, we will only focus on the New Testament and the Gospels in particular. We want to examine the Gospels because they are the main source of our knowledge about the God-sent Witness of the New Covenant: Jesus Christ.

When we say “external evidence” we mean other records or works which were written around the time the Gospels appeared and which make reference to the Gospels.

The New Testament was written approximately between 50 and 100 AD. Can we find proofs from other literary works that it existed?

Let us start with works from around 70 to 155 AD. These works (now available online!) contain nearly a hundred direct or indirect quotations from the four Gospels. Among them we have: the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (between 70 and 100 AD); writings of St Ignatius of Antioch (+107 AD); Pope Clement’s First Epistle written from the Christian community of Rome to the Christian community of Corinth in 96 or 98 AD. (Clement was the fourth Pope, from around 92-99 AD); St Polycarp of Smyrna’s (+155 or 166 AD) letter from Asia Minor; and a work called The Shepherd of Hermas (late 1st or mid-2nd century).

From the 1st quarter of the 2nd century, Papias (Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor) mentioned two or three of the Gospels by name in his writings and wrote five books of expositions on the Gospels, which existed at least until 340 AD.

St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (circa 140 – 203) quoted the New Testament (not only the Gospel) 1,819 times.

Not to be outdone was Clement of Alexandria (Egypt, 150-211), who quoted the New Testament 2,406 times.

Tertullian (circa 160-220) quoted the New Testament 7,259 times. We can compare his quotations with that of the others and with modern texts – they are essentially the same. He also wrote Adversus Marcionem – “Refuting Marcion” (Marcion was a Gnostic who twisted and then adopted the Third Gospel). He defended the integrity of the Gospels by showing that at an early date measures were taken to make sure that the transcriptions agreed with the originals

Tatian (circa 120-180) composed a Diatesseron or Harmony of the Gospels, that is, he joined the four into one narrative (probably written in the Syrian language). His text came from St Justin the Martyr (around 140 AD) who converted him. Its Arabic translation was found and edited by Ciasca in 1888. This version is again essentially the same as the modern text.

In a future lesson, we will see that in the beginning, the Gospels were transmitted by word of mouth, but very soon, they were committed to writing. St Justin says in his First Apology that by the year 140 AD, Christians were already reading the Gospels in the celebration of the Eucharist. Such would have required manuscripts or hand-written copies of the texts.

While St Justin testifies to the existence of the Greek text, there are also proofs that the Latin translation already existed (before St Jerome, who lived 347-420, made the Vulgate translation). In the trials of the first Christian martyrs, for example, they were ordered to surrender the Scriptures written in Latin for burning. There are also proofs of the existence of texts in Syriac.