Christian gospel writing was not limited to the four Gospels we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are many known accounts of the life and times of Jesus. These include the Protevangelium of James, the Infancy Story of Thomas, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, and the Gospel of the Birth of Mary.i All of these works are about the earlier life of Jesus. The Gospel of Nicodemus, otherwise known as the acts of Pilate, and the Gospel of Bartholomew refer to Jesus’s visit to Hades. There is an unknown gospel, known as Egerton Papyrus 2, that appears to have some events of Christ written from memory. ii The theologian Jerome took an interest in the Gospel of the Hebrews, which is slightly shorter than the Gospel of Matthew.iii The gospel of the Egyptians was accepted as canonical in Egypt.iv The early church father Origen refers to the Gospel of Peter in his commentary on Matthew.v
Above are just some of the Gospels. We also have many other books including the Acts of Paul, the Acts of John, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Third Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, the Epistle to the Laodiceans, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Apocalypse of Paul.vi As we know that there were many lost books over the centuries, there were probably many more gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses written.
The reason for all of these writings is that just like today many wanted to record significant events. This is stated at the beginning of the gospel of Luke;
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus; that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.Luke 1:1-4
Examining these verses we see the writer of the book of Luke stating how the book came to be and what its purpose was. “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us” states what we have said above. There were many who chose to write an account of the events they witnessed; “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” says that these accounts, in this case, the book of Luke, is written by someone who is both an eyewitness and a Christian minister. “It seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order” says that it was the author’s choice to write his account because he had traced the events out, in other words, he had a good understanding of them. “That thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.” says that he is writing down this record so that you can know the certainty of which the things that you are told are true. What can be inferred then is that not all of the accounts are true. Not all the writings, the other gospels, acts, epistles, and so forth are accurate. So, in order that believers can know what the true accounts are, Luke decided to write his gospel.
It seems that many Christians today base their faith on the Gospels and many other books in the Bible being authored by God himself. There is a challenge to that belief as regarding the book of Acts as a basic tenet to the written word of God is that the Father works to produce these books through the gift ministries, namely, prophets and apostles, whose gift includes getting the revelation makes up what these books say.
The fact that Luke was not an apostle, or prophet challenges the tenet that the scriptures were written by men empowered to receive by revelation the words that the books contain. There is a counter-argument to that as some including the author of the Muratorian fragment specify that Luke wrote under the authority of Paul and as an assistant to him.
Now, there are many of the books of scripture that are proclaimed in the writing to be the word of the Lord. Jesus, the gospel writers, and the Apostles cite Old Testament scriptures as being the word of God with the tag “it is written”. Those declarations are made to emphasize that those quotes are from the word of God
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’” (Mat 4:3-4 WEB) (quoting Deut 8:3)
For in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:17 WEB) (quoting Hab 2:4)
For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, “Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.” (Gal 3:10 WEB) (quoting Lev 18:5)
But, as we see in the example of the book of Luke above there are books that do not make that claim.
On the other hand, and, in fact, there are writings today that people take for granted that are not authored by God that are very accurate. Consider the example of automotive manuals. When you want to know how to do something with your car you might choose to look in the owner’s manual. The owner’s manual is not written by God, nor often is it written by the man that engineered the car, or the people that actually built it. While they are probably hired by the manufacturing company the manuals are usually written by technical writers. But still, car owner’s manuals and service manuals are very trustworthy even though they may have something in them that is ambiguous or unclear. Perhaps a better example are third-party automotive service manuals. These are books written by people who buy a car, work with it, and then write a book on how to fix it. They are very good. They are so good that millions and millions of them have been sold and relied upon to help people fix their cars. But they are not perfect. Occasionally you’ll find mistakes. The mistake will probably be typographical, but occasionally there will be incorrect information. Still, automotive manuals are a very trustworthy resource. They are trustworthy even though they weren’t written by the people that designed the car, or built the car. And they certainly aren’t the word of God.
Yes, there are many examples of poor owner’s manuals of various products that are poorly written and may have incomplete or even false information. But the auto manuals that I have used by the manufacturers themselves, or publishers like Haynes or Chilton have been very reliable.
If you are a believer and start telling someone else what Jesus accomplished for us, and you are accurate in what you say you are doing what the gospels do. You may not be a prophet but when you relate that Jesus died for you and I, then you are speaking the word of God, to the degree you are accurate in what you say.
So, to be honest, Luke 1:1-4 says that the gospel at least falls into the category of trustworthiness that the reputable automotive manual and other reliable records do. Luke was written by someone who witnessed the events, as well as practiced and ministered the faith.
What the author of Luke does not say is that God told him to write the book like we see in other places. Luke said that it seemed good to him to write it, not that Yahweh told him to. There are records in scripture that document that Yahweh wants someone to write a book. Moses was told to write here.
Yahweh said to Moses, “Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under the sky.” (Exo 17:14 WEB)
Luke also doesn’t say “thus says the Lord” like many of the books of the prophets proclaim. Here is Jeremiah.
The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. Yahweh’s word came to him in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. (Jer 1:1-2 WEB)
Do you see “Yahweh’s word came to him” up there? These words are not recollections, retracing what happened like what Luke does. Yahweh revealed great truths to Jeremiah, and he wrote them down. This is a holy man of God being moved by the spirit of God and proclaiming! This is Yahweh’s authoring.
Contrary to Jeremiah, Luke doesn’t say that Yahweh authored the book. While he acknowledges the topic to be the events around the life of the Messiah, the son of Yahweh and the son of man, who is the living word of God he also says he, the writer, chose to write it and it says that he, in fact, wrote it. It doesn’t say that it is perfect in the sense of being divine. It says that it is accurate. The things that he says happened did actually happen. We should take these verses at their face value. We don’t need to throw the book away because someone who wasn’t an apostle or prophet wrote it. We could even understand that because it is humanly authored there may be some minor mistakes. Nevertheless, it is a trustworthy document. It appears that this is what original Christianity understood about these writings. The documents that they trusted were written by men that could be trusted. They are very accurate, but they are of human origin describing events in the kingdom of God accurately.
So, it is crucial to understand that because Luke chose to write his gospel does not mean that it cannot contain the word of God. Luke repeatedly documents that what he is reporting is the fulfillment of OT prophecy and part of the movement of the word of God with “it is written” statements like the following.
(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), (Luk 2:23 WEB)
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. (Luk 3:4 WEB)
Jesus answered him, “Get behind me Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.’” (Luk 4:8 WEB)
He took the twelve aside, and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all the things that are written through the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be completed. (Luk 18:31 WEB)
Luke accurately reports these events that show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and show how Jesus spoke the word of God with “it is written” statements to fulfill his ministry.
This is what happened in original Christianity: The writings of a disciple in recollecting events were called memoirs. Luke and the other gospel writers accurately reported how Jesus fulfilled his mission. (Now Matthew and John were apostles. And Mark was the agent of the apostle Peter, probably writing on his behalf.) Especially when they were written they were not called the word of God or treated as such like they became to be recognized down the road.
Contrast the Gospels with the church epistles. The writings of Paul and the other Apostles and disciples are divinely inspired and the best explanations for understanding our faith. They expressly make the claim that what they teach they received by revelation from Yahweh and that what they write are the commandments of the Lord. In fact, Paul tells us to follow the traditions established by the apostles:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2Th 2:15 ESV)
Paul writes what he has put in his letters he received by revelation.
how that by revelation the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words, (Eph 3:3 WEB)
And he says similar things here:
But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12 WEB)
In fact, Paul challenges us readers with this:
If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord. (1Co 14:37 WEB)
If you think that you are spiritual or a prophet then acknowledge that the things he writes to us are the commandments of the Lord, the word of God! The fact that Paul writes this establishes the availability that there are people spiritually empowered to recognize whether a writing is or is not the commandment of the Lord, i.e., the word of God.
The gospels don’t claim being received by revelation, rather Luke claims that his record is the accurate retracing of what happened around the ministry of our Lord while he was on earth. That is what is presented in the gospels. The Gospels are not presented as the “word of God” like the prophets receiving the word of the Lord like the following.
But Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, ‘You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. (1Ch 22:8 WEB)
Inside 1 Chronicle David states that he received the word of Yahweh who told him something that related to him personally, but also to the nation of Israel, that because he shed so much blood he wasn’t going to be the one building the temple.
Or look at this section. Look at how the words pronounce that what is written there is the word of God:
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear, heavens, and listen, earth; for Yahweh has spoken: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib; but Israel doesn’t know, my people don’t consider.” Ah sinful nation, a people loaded with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken Yahweh. They have despised the Holy One of Israel. They are estranged and backward… (Isa 1:1-4 WEB)
Yahweh has spoken! These are God’s words here delivered in a vision that Isaiah received. This isn’t something that Isaiah figured out or remembered seeing someone else do. He is recounting a vision and God’s message in that vision.
On the other hand, part of the Gospels are manifestations of the holy spirit in the form of healings and miracles as well as prophecies spoken by prophets including Jesus, and spirit-filled men speaking words received from God like John the Baptist. Those quotations are recognized as the word of God like Isaiah’s vision and word from Yahweh that is in the book of Isaiah.
So, look at this gospel quote from our Lord. For example:
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. (Mat 17:22-23 ESV)
This is a prophecy of our Lord. These are the words of the Son of God, and they are prophecies. As much as they are reliably recorded, these are the word of God because besides being the son of God, Lord of our lives, Jesus was a prophet, a spokesman for God. That makes these words the word of God. The prophecies of God are the word of God.
There are also many teachings by Jesus that explain the Law and the Prophets. Here is an example:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Mat 19:3-12 ESV)
Here Jesus is explaining the Law which is part of the word of God. He is asked about the allowance for divorce given by Moses. He cites the setup of marriage established in Genesis. Then he explains that Moses allowed the writing of a bill of divorce because of the hardness of Israel’s heart. (Are Christians any better today when their divorce rate is the same as non-Christians? I think not!) The one exception Jesus allowed for is sexual immorality. Once someone sleeps around the marriage covenant is broken and the allowance for the other party to be released is granted.
Jesus is then asked if it was better not to marry. Then he states the standard that some people can function without a need for sexual intercourse and they can live without marriage. But the implication is that some can’t live without sexual intercourse so they should marry. And once they marry they need to stay married.
Furthermore, once someone is married, and divorce and marry another, unless they divorce for infidelity they commit adultery to marry another.
All of this is the word of God as this is the instruction of the Son of God. Yet these words of Jesus are contained in the memoir of Matthew which was treated as a memoir! That is the standard of Original Christianity.
It does say in Timothy that all scripture is God-breathed but it does not define anywhere which writings constitute all scripture. Thus the doctrine that every one of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible is God-breathed is extrabiblical.
i. THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M. Metzger, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-826954-4, p. 167
ii. ibid p. 168
iii. ibid p.169
iv. ibid p.171
v. ibid p.171
vi. ibid p.174-189
last revised 7/18/22
(c) 2009-2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. last revised 11/15/23