The Gospel 'according to' … who?

Recently I got what I thought was an excellent question.  I reproduce it here.

Hi, can you clarify why there’s an according to Luke, according to John in Injil? As far as I understand the word according means an account inspired by that person based on his understanding.

Hence, I am interested in Gospel(s) according to Jesus pbuh but “not according” to Luke, John, etc. If you have a copy, I would be happy to get it from you.

I thought it was worthwhile to give an in-depth answer.  Let’s think about the question and even re-phrase it a little.

What does the word ‘Gospel’ mean?

There are four Gospel books in the New Testament of al Kitab: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  What does it mean that these are ‘according to’ these different writers?  Does it mean there are four different gospels (or injils)?  Are they different from the ‘Gospel of Jesus’?  Does it mean these are accounts ‘inspired by that person based on his understanding’?

It is so easy with questions like this to dismiss serious thinking because of our preconceived ideas. But to get a systematic answer, and one based on knowledge, we need to understand the word ‘Gospel’ (or ‘Injil’).  In the original Greek (this is the original language of the New Testament see here for details) the word for Gospel is εὐαγγελίου (pronounced euangeliou).  This word means a ‘message of good news’.  We know this by seeing how it was used in ancient history.  The Old Testament (Taurat & Zabur) were written in Hebrew (see here for details).  But about 200 BC – before the New Testament – because the world of that day was becoming very Greek-speaking, a translation of Old Testament from the Hebrew to Greek was made by Jewish scholars of that time.  This translation is called the Septuagint (see here for details on the Septuagint from my other website).  From the Septuagint we can understand how Greek words were used in that time (i.e. 200 BC).  So here is a passage from the Old Testament where εὐαγγελίου (‘good news’) was used in the Septuagint.

David answered Rekab and his brother Baanah, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As surely as the Lord lives, who has delivered me out of every trouble, when someone told me, ‘Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and put him to death in Ziklag. That was the reward I gave him for his news! (2 Samuel 4:9-10)

This is a passage when King David (Dawood) is speaking about how someone brought news of his enemy’s death thinking it would be good news to the king.  This word ‘good news’ is translated εὐαγγελίου in the 200 BC Greek Septuagint. So this means that εὐαγγελίου in the Greek means the ‘good news’.

But εὐαγγελίου also meant the historic book or document that contained the ‘good news’.  For example, Justin Martyr was an early follower of the Gospel (he would be exactly the same as a ‘successor’ to the companions of the Prophet (PBUH)) and an extensive writer. He used εὐαγγελίου in this way when he writes “… but also in the gospel it is written that He said…” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 100).  Here the word ‘good news’ is used to denote a book.

In the titles ‘The Gospel according to…’ the word εὐαγγελίου (gospel) has the first meaning of the word, while also suggesting the second meaning.  The ‘Gospel according to Matthew’ means the Good News as recorded to a written account by Matthew.

‘Gospel’ compared to ‘News’

Now the word ‘news’ today has the same double meaning.  ‘News’ in its primary sense means dramatic events that are occurring such as a famine or a war.  However, it can also refer to the agencies like BBC, Al-Jazeera or CNN that report these ‘news’ items to us.  As I write this, the civil war in Syria is making a lot of news.  And it would be normal for me to say “I am going to listen to the BBC News on Syria”.  ‘News’ in this sentence refers primarily to the events but also the agency reporting the events. But the BBC does not make up the news, nor is the news about the BBC – it is about the dramatic event. A listener who wants to be informed of a news event may listen to several news reports from several agencies to get a more complete overall perspective – all about the same news event.

In the same way the Gospel is about Isa al Masih – Jesus (PBUH).  He is the object of the news focus and there is only one Gospel.  Notice how Mark starts his book

“The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1)

There is one gospel and it is about Jesus (Isa – PBUH) and he had one message, but this message was written down by Mark in a book, and this book is also called a Gospel.

The Gospels – like haddiths

You can also think of this like in terms of haddiths.  There are haddiths of the same event that come through different isnads or chain of narrators. The event is one thing but the chain of reporters can be different.  The event or saying of the haddith is not about the narrators – it is about something that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said or did.  The Gospels are exactly the same except that the isnad chain is only one link longIf you accept in principle that an isnad (after doing the proper checking that scholars like Bhukari and Muslim did) can accurately report the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), even if there can be different isnads through different narrators going back to the same event, why is it difficult to accept the one link or one narrator long ‘isnad’ of the gospel writers?  It is exactly the same principle but the isnad chain is much shorter and much more clearly established since it was written down very soon after the event, not a few generations years later like the scholars Bukhari and Muslim did when they reduced the oral isnads of their day to writing.

Gospel Writers were not inspired by themselves

And the writers of these gospels were promised by Isa al Masih (PBUH) that what they wrote would be inspired by Allah – the writing is not from their human inspiration.  It says so both in the gospels and the Qur’an

“All this I have spoken while still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:25-26)

And behold I inspired the Disciples to have faith in me and mine messenger (Isa): they said, “We have faith, and you bear witness that we bow to Allah as Muslims (Surat 5:111 – Table Spread)

So the written documents they produced – the gospels we have today – were not inspired by them.  They were inspired by Allah and thus deserve serious consideration.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have always been (since they were written down in the first century) the gospel of Jesus – they were the reporters of it.  Read their writings to read the message of Jesus (Isa – PBUH) and understand the ‘Good News’ he was teaching.

The science of Textual Criticism to see if the Bible is corrupted or not

“Why should I even consider the books of the Bible? It was written so long ago, and has had so many translations and revisions done to it – I have heard that its original message was changed over time.”  I have heard questions and statements like this many times about the books of the Taurat, Zabur and Injil that make up al Kitab or the Bible.

This question is very important and is based on what we have heard about al Kitab/the Bible. After all, it was written two thousand plus years ago. For most of this time there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires crumbled and new ones were born. Since the original manuscripts are no longer in existence how do we know that what we read today in al Kitab (the Bible) is what the original prophets actually wrote long ago? Apart from religion, are there any scientific or rational reasons to know whether what we read today is corrupted or not?

Basic Principles in Textual Criticism

Many who ask this do not realize there is a scientific discipline, known as textual criticism, by which we can answer these questions.  And because it is a scientific discipline it applies to any ancient writing.  This article will give the two main principles used in textual criticism and then apply them to the Bible.  To do so we start with this figure which illustrates the process by which any ancient writing is preserved over time so that we can still read it today.

A timeline showing how all ancient books come to us today
A timeline showing how all ancient books come to us today

This diagram shows an example of a  book written 500 BC. This original however does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved so that it is in existence (extant) today (3rd copy). In our example diagram this extant copy was made in 500 AD. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the book is only from 500 AD onwards. Therefore the period from 500 BC to 500 AD (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot make any copy checks since all manuscripts from this period have disappeared. For example, if corruptions occurred when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them as neither of these documents are available to compare against each other. This time period before the existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty – where corruption could have happened.  Therefore, the first principle of textual criticism is that the shorter this interval x is the more confidence we can place in the correct preservation of the document to our time, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Of course, usually more that one manuscript copy of a document exists today. Suppose we have two manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them is the following phrase (Of course it would not be in English, but I use English to explain the principle):

With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small
With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small

This shows a variant reading (one says ‘Joan’ and the other says ‘John’) but with only a few manuscripts it is difficult to determine which is the one in error.

The original author had either been writing about Joan or about John, and the other of these manuscripts has an error. The question is – Which one has the error? From the available evidence it is very difficult to decide.

Now suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:

with more manuscript copies it is easier to determine the variant reading
Now we have four manuscripts and it is easier to see which one has the error

Now it is easier to decide which manuscript has the error. It is more likely that the error occurs once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that MSS #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John. ‘John’ is the corruption.

This simple example illustrates the second principle in textual criticism: The more manuscripts that exist today the easier it is to detect & correct errors and know what the original said.

Textual Criticism of Historical books

So now we have two principles that of scientific textual criticism that are used to decide the textual reliability of any old book: 1) measuring the time between original writing and earliest existing manuscript copies, and 2) counting the number of existing manuscript copies. Since these principles apply to all ancient writing we can apply them to both the Bible as well as other ancient books, as done in the tables below (Taken from McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 42-48).

AuthorWhen WrittenEarliest CopyTime Span#
Caesar

50 BC

900 AD

950

10

Plato

350 BC

900 AD

1250

7

Aristotle*

300 BC

1100 AD

1400

5

Thucydides

400 BC

900 AD

1300

8

Herodotus

400 BC

900 AD

1300

8

Sophocles

400 BC

1000 AD

1400

100

Tacitus

100 AD

1100 AD

1000

20

Pliny

100 AD

850 AD

750

7

* from any one work

These writers represent the major classical writers of ancient times – the writings that have shaped the development of modern civilization. On average, they are passed down to us by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting only about 1000 years after the original was written.

Textual Criticism of Bible/al Kitab

The following table compares the Biblical (Injil in particular) writings along these same points (Taken from Comfort, P.W. The Origin of  the Bible, 1992. p. 193).

MSS

When Written

Date of MSS

Time Span

John Rylan

90 AD

130 AD

40 yrs

Bodmer Papyrus

90 AD

150-200 AD

110 yrs

Chester Beatty

60 AD

200 AD

140 yrs

Codex Vaticanus

60-90 AD

325 AD

265 yrs

Codex Sinaiticus

60-90 AD

350 AD

290 yrs

 Summary of Textual Criticism of Bible/al Kitab

The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table. As one scholar who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive” (McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 40)

A leading scholar at the British Museum agrees with this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the New Testament are counted by … thousands”  Kenyon, F.G. (former director of British Museum) Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. 1941 p.23

I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents. It starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text”  (P. Comfort, “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. Preface p. 17. 2001)

In other words, many of these existing manuscripts are very early, merely a hundred years or so after the original writings of the New Testament.  These manuscripts come earlier than the rise to power of Constantine and the Roman church.  And they are spread across the Mediterranean world.  If some from one region were corrupted we would see the difference by comparing it with manuscripts from other regions.  But they are the same.

So what can we conclude from this? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure (number of extant MSSs and time spans between original and earliest extant MSS) the New Testament (Injil) is supported much more than any of the other classical writings.  The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following quote:

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”  Montgomery, History and Christianity. 1971, p.29

What he is saying is that to be consistent, if we question the reliability of al kitab (the Bible) we may as well discard all that we know about classical history in general – and this no historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone since the earliest existing MSSs come before these events. For example, we know that no pope or the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the Bible since we have manuscripts that are earlier than Constantine and the popes and all these earliest manuscripts contain the same accounts.   The manuscripts used to translate Bibles today come before the time of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH, and the fact that he confirmed the Bible as he found it in his day is significant since we know just from the manuscripts used that it has not changed from his day.

This is shown in the following timeline where the manuscript sources that are used in translating modern Bibles are shown to come very early.

Modern Bibles are translated from the earliest existing manuscripts, many from 100-300 AD. These source manuscripts come long before Constantine or other religious-political powers, and before time of Prophet Mohamed PBUH
Modern Bibles are translated from the earliest existing manuscripts, many from 100-300 AD. These source manuscripts come long before Constantine or other religious-political powers, and before time of Prophet Mohamed PBUH

To summarize, neither time nor Christian leaders have corrupted the original ideas and messages that were first placed into the original writings of al kitab or the Bible. We can know that it today accurately reads what the authors actually wrote from the many thousands of early manuscripts that we have today.  The science of Textual criticism supports the reliability of al Kitab (the Bible).

Textual Criticism in university lecture

I had the privilege to give a public lecture on this topic at the University of Western Ontario in Canada not too long ago.  Below is a 17 minute video of the part of the lecture that covers this question.

Thus far we have really only looked at the textual criticism of the New Testament – the Injil.  But what about the Taurat and Zabur – the books that make up the Old Testament?  In the following 7 minute video I summarize the textual criticism principles of the Old Testament.

Did Paul or other Bible writers corrupt the Injil?

This is a great question. The danger for all of us is that we can either ask it with a superficial answer already in our minds. “Of course Paul or one of the others corrupted it”, we can quickly answer without thinking too much about it, mostly because this is simply what we have heard. Or, we can think, “Of course not! What a silly idea”, again without really knowing why but mostly because we have been taught that way. This is the danger for all people who ask questions of sacred Books.  We either dismiss it out-of-hand (because how we have been taught to think it not sacred) or we dismiss the question out-of-hand (again because of how we have been taught differently).

New Testament Writes other than Paul

With these considerations in mind I want to share my thinking and reasons on this question. Let us start with the writers aside from Paul. These writers were the disciples of Isa (PBUH) – his companions. They were the ones who followed him, listened to him, discussed with him, about the things that he did and said, both privately and in public. Some of them, such as John, Matthew and Peter were part of the inner circle of Isa’s 12 closest followers. They wrote eight of the books in the New Testament. Others, such as Mark, were among his wider circle of followers. The remaining authors (outside of Paul) were his brothers James and Jude. They grew up with Isa (PBUH) and James became the leader of the disciples in Jerusalem after the passing of Isa (PBUH) from this world. James, in fact, is mentioned in the Jewish historical writings of the 1st century AD. In that century there was a great Jewish military historian, Josephus, who wrote several books of history to the Roman Emperors of his day. In one of his books, writing of events in Jerusalem in the year 62 AD (32 years after the passing of Isa) he writes of how James, Isa’s brother, was martyred by his fellow Jews. Here is how he puts it:

“Ananus [the high priest] was rash and followed the Sadducees, who are heartless when they sit in judgment. Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have the opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin [the Jewish ruling council] he brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death” Josephus. 93 AD. Antiquities xx 197

Josephus is explaining that in 62 AD Ananus had just been made high priest in Jerusalem and there was a political confusion. Ananus used the opportunity to condemn James to death. His father (also called Ananus) had sentenced Isa (PBUH) to death about 30 years before and Ananus the son quickly took the opportunity to do the same with James. Thus James was a target for his years of leadership in Jerusalem with the followers of Isa al Masih (PBUH) his brother in Jerusalem.

What does the Qur’an say about these disciples of Isa (PBUH)?

So it is these men who wrote the books in the New Testament other than Paul’s books. To judge whether they corrupted the Injil we can first turn to the perspective given in the Qur’an. When I do that I find the following ayat:

When Jesus found Unbelief on their part He said: “Who will be My helpers to (the work of) God?” Said the disciples: “We are God’s helpers: We believe in God, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims. Our Lord! we believe in what Thou hast revealed, and we follow the Apostle; then write us down among those who bear witness.” (Surat 3:52-53 – Al-Imran)

And behold I inspired the Disciples to have faith in me and mine messenger (Isa): they said, “We have faith, and you bear witness that we bow to Allah as Muslims (Surat 5:111 – Table Spread)

These ayat tell us quite plainly that the disciples of Isa (Jesus – PBUH) were a) Isa’s helpers, b) Allah’s helpers, c) and inspired by Allah to have faith in Isa. These disciples spoken of here in the Qur’an include none other than Matthew, Peter and John who wrote eight of the books in the New Testament, two of which are gospel books (Gospels of Matthew and John).  And Mark, the disciple in the wider circle, wrote a third gospel. It would seem that if one believes in the Qur’an that one would also then have to accept the writings of these disciples. These writers certainly could not have corrupted the Injil.  When we study the written gospels we are reading the writings of the disciples which are confirmed by the Qur’an.  Paul did not write any Gospel account, rather he wrote sacred letters.

Now where I live in Canada few people readily believe that there are any books by Allah. Just because something is written in Qur’an or Bible (al kitab) does not mean that they would accept it. In fact they prefer secular historical sources because, in their eyes, they are less biased. But even from that point-of-view we have seen, from the writings of the historian Josephus quoted above, that there is a solid basis to accept the writings of James, and by extension, his other brother Jude.

So we find, whether from secular sources or from the Qur’an, logical reasons to accept the books of the New Testament that are not Paul’s.

The Witness of Isa (PBUH): the Taurat and Zabur are the first standards

But what about Isa himself? What did he give as the testimony we should accept?  Notice where he appeals for a correct and uncorrupted witness to himself and his message.

Here we see that Isa PBUH (who is speaking) is using the Taurat (Book of Moses) to correct error among the experts in Jewish Law (Sharia)

“Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” Mark 12:26-27

And here we see that Isa (PBUH) starts with Taurat and then continues with Zabur (‘Prophets and Psalms’) to teach about his role as the Masih.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)…

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”  Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

And here we see that Isa again starts with Taurat (Moses’ writings) as the basis to judge the role of the Masih.

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.  But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5: 46-47)

So we can see that Isa (PBUH) himself first appeals to Moses (which is the Taurat), then the Prophets and Psalms (which is the Zabur) to explain the role and purpose of the Masih. This is the reason I decided, both in my search, and now in this website, to start with the Taurat. If you look at the articles on the Signs of Adam, Cain&Abel, Noah, Lut, Ibrahim 1, 2, and 3 etc. you will see that the passages that support these articles all come from Taurat (and the Qur’an).

We are on safe ground if we start with the Taurat – Isa (PBUH) himself told us to. Here we are learning Signs that will help to unlock the mystery of the Injil. Then we will take what we have learned and compare it with the writings of the brothers and disciples of Isa – again staying on safe ground.

Considering Paul

And what about Paul’s writings? What are we to make of them? Once we have studied the Taurat and Zabur and learned the Signs that Allah has definitely sent us, and then when we have studied the books of the disciples and brothers of Isa (PBUH) we knowledgeable  enough so that if we turn to Paul we will notice if what he writes is different from what we have already studied. Without this background knowledge of the ‘safe books’ to inform us, it is impossible for us to really know if what Paul wrote is corrupted or not. But to keep our search on safe ground we will not start with Paul because his credentials are not unquestionable.

When I lived in Algeria I was surrounded by Arabic speakers and heard Arabic all the time. But because I did not know any Arabic I was not capable of deciding if what I heard was ‘correct’ Arabic or ‘corrupted’ Arabic. The limitation to make this judgment was in me – not the speakers around me.  I did not have enough knowledge to be a good judge. A few years ago I took a course in Arabic. All people from all sorts of positions told me that the person giving this course spoke ‘correct’ Arabic. His reputation told me I could trust him as a ‘correct’ teacher. Starting from this course – that I knew was correct – I began to learn a bit of Arabic. Unfortunately I was not able to continue, but if I had, I could see that one day I could be in a position to decide if other people spoke ‘correct’ Arabic or ‘corrupted’ Arabic – because I would now have an informed basis from which to judge.

We are using exactly the same safe process to develop a solid understanding of the Signs of Allah, starting from which everybody says is ‘correct’ (Taurat), and then the disciples, to develop the basis to better judge if something else (like Paul) is corrupt or not. The danger for all seekers of the Straight Way is that we either accept too easily as revelation that which should be rejected, or that we discard too quickly the books that Allah intends that we learn from. Proceeding in this way, in humility and prayer before Allah, asking for His guidance, will make sure that we fall into neither error and thus stay on the Straight Path.