Just a quick note on the reliability of the Gospels.

I’ve written before about the fact that the Evangelists did not feel free to simply make stuff up about Jesus.

One of the signs of that is the fact that, despite the fact that St. Paul’s letters were extremely influential in the early Church and though they generally predate the Gospels, we don’t find the four Evangelists lifting statements from St. Paul and attributing them to Jesus.

Neither, in fact, do we find the Jesus of the Gospels interacting with many of the controversies that characterize the period in which the epistles were written.

 

Some Examples

Evangelical scholar Michael F. Bird makes the point well when he writes:

[M]any of the debates within the early Christian movement, particularly those stemming from the Pauline circle, are entirely absent from the Gospels: justification by faith, circumcision, speaking in tongues, baptism, the status of Gentiles, criteria of apostleship, and food sacrificed to idols . All these topics are candidates for being written onto the lips of Jesus but are significantly missing from the Gospels.

N. T. Wright notes: “The synoptic tradition shows a steadfast refusal to import ‘dominical’ answers to or comments on those issues into the retelling of the stories about Jesus. This should put us firmly on our guard against ideas that the stories we do find in the synoptic tradition were invented to address current needs in the 40s, 50s, 60s or even later in the first century” [New Testament and the People of God, 422].

Wright’s judgment is confirmed by Acts, Galatians, and 1 Peter, where one observes a distinct reluctance to produce texts attributable to Jesus to resolve recurring problems. It is in a much later esoteric document such as Gospel of Thomas 53 where one finds a statement about circumcision placed
on the lips of Jesus [The Gospel of the Lord, 121-122].

 

Circumcision in the Gospel of Thomas

I particularly like the point about Thomas’s saying concerning circumcision. Bird doesn’t quote it, but here it is:

His disciples said to him [Jesus], “Is circumcision useful or not?”

He said to them, “If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect” [Gospel of Thomas 53].

You see how well this statement fits the controversies that broke out after Jesus’ ministry about whether Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to be Christians and—if they didn’t—what value there was in being Jewish at all.

 

About Borrowing from St. Paul . . .

In fact, the quotation from Thomas fits that controversy so well that it’s hard not to hear echoes of what St. Paul wrote in Romans:

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. . . . For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.  He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God [Rom. 2:25, 2:28-3:2].

Notice how both the passage from Thomas and the passage from Romans both expressly involve the question of what value/usefulness circumcision has (if any)? Notice how they both relativize the value of physical circumcision and point instead to “spiritual” circumcision or circumcision “in spirit”?

 

Which Gospels Are Trustworthy

Of course, Jesus would have agreed with St. Paul’s statement, but the point is that the controversy had not yet arisen during Our Lord’s earthly ministry, which reveals the statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas as an anachronism—something lifted from a later controversy—likely even lifted in substance from St. Paul!—and then placed on the lips of Jesus.

The fact that we don’t find this kind of thing in the four canonical Gospels shows that their authors did not feel free to make stuff up about Jesus—not even to help with the controversies of their own day. It’s thus a testimony to the historical value of the canonical Gospels.

The fact that we do find this kind of thing in non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Thomas also reveals that their authors were not so scrupulous about historical accuracy and thus that their works can’t enjoy the same confidence.

 

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