Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Gospels — Direct Testimonies or Late Writings?

by Marie-Christine Ceruti-Cendrier


This concise article by a noted Scripture scholar examines several reliable dating methodologies which have been used extensively to date the Gospels and contrasts these methods with the very unreliable literary analysis (form criticism) which is the preferred methodology of modern exegetes.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


46 - 52

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 2005

Let's be straightforward: I believe the Gospels to be direct testimonies that tell real and non-mythic or symbolic facts. I do not believe it by fideism — not because of my faith — but because I have rational, scientific, carefully researched reasons to do so. Indeed, we who affirm the absolute historicity of the Gospels are now only a small minority. Although this truth of the faith was strongly asserted by the Second Vatican Council and has been believed by millions of Catholics throughout the centuries of Christianity, we nowadays seem to be considered as outsiders. Let's examine here the different aspects of this situation.

Should the Supernatural in the Gospels be Simply Denied?

The resolution of differences regarding the dating, the origins, the authors, the nature of the Gospels lies in this interrogation: Should they be analyzed in the view of all hypotheses applied to them but one? Should they be treated like any ordinary text for which the authenticity of the facts it contains is usually admitted? Or should they, by exception, be systematically denied what is in them: the supernatural (even when all other explanations have failed)?

Three Reliable Ways to Establish the Authenticity of a Document

Usually, scientists studying a written document they want to date have a choice of three courses of action at their disposal. They first (A) can look for the period of time to which the paper, the parchment, the ink, the shape of the writing belong, all of which underpin the text and can be analyzed through chemistry, paleography, papyrology, etc. . . . They also can turn their inquiry towards (B) the language, the dialect, the style, the expression, i.e., philology, linguistics; and thirdly (C) they can rely on clues helping to locate the period of time when the work was written. For example, any reference to steam engines, to the way of harnessing a horse, to a well-known historic event. All these help the search. Obviously none of the three methods excludes the others.

Using these three methods, scholars followed the footprints of the Gospels and collected a rich harvest of facts that confirmed their historicity.

A Fourth Way; But is it Reliable?

But most of the exegetes preferred a fourth way, in which a work is dated through its literary content, i.e., in more simple terms according to the subject of the story. Let's not forget this has nothing to do with the style, the vocabulary or the expression, but states that the larger the quantity of supernatural the text contains the older it is; the more philosophical and intellectual it proves to be the recent it is; and the shorter and thinner it is the more archaic it is, the accumulation of time having perhaps piled up new layers to enrich the story.

The Gospels and Extra-Biblical History

It is time here to give a few important details. The oldest Gospels that reached us are written in Greek, the international language during Christ's time. In the Holy Land the commonly spoken language was Aramaic and the sacred language was Hebrew — some specialists are convinced Hebrew was also spoken, while others think it was only written, but this does not matter. In any case, these languages are very similar. In A.D. 70 an event occurred that, in both human and religious terms, has been considered most loathsome by Jews ever since that time: the fall and destruction of the Temple and the City of Jerusalem by the Romans. Most of its inhabitants were killed; the rest were deported or scattered. Had the Gospels been written in Greek, it could have been at any time. If, on the other hand, their first redaction (before being translated to Greek) had been written in a Semitic language (Hebrew or Aramaic) it should date — and this is very important — from before 70, as after this date using these languages would have been useless or dangerous. If even one of the Gospels had been written before 70, the witnesses of Christ's life, miracles, death and Resurrection being still alive would guarantee the authenticity of the account. They indeed would not have let the deception go on if the facts supposed to have happened among them (Luke 1:1) had not taken place. On the other hand, if those four Gospels originated after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, all possible oversights, mistakes, forgeries (even well intended), intended additions or omissions may be considered. That is why the exegetes' discussion on both the date and the original language of the Gospels prove so contentious. On these issues depend, indirectly but certainly, the degree of trust the Gospels can be granted.

Evidence Based on Archaeology and Papyrology

Let's go back to the results of the archaeological or philological "excavations" and the hunt for clues that have proved so fruitful to the supporters of historicity and early dating (before or well before 70).

Let's first consider (A). Which documents did survive? Some 25 years ago, Fr. Jose O'Callaghan, S.J. identified a papyrus written in Greek which was found in the cave Number 7 in Qumran, the "7Q5," as being a fragment of St. Mark's Gospel (6:52-53) and another papyrus from the same cave as being a fragment of 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 4:1b). Nobody supporting the late dating has ever credibly questioned the fact that these caves were closed in 68 A.D., dating therefore their content from earlier than this date. Beside these manuscripts lay their container: a broken jar bearing the letters RWM which, according to the well-known Hebraist J.A. Fitzmyer, represent the City of Rome and were clumsily written by a Jew at the time. It has been observed in the other Qumran caves that a name written on a jar meant its provenance and/or to whom it belonged. St. Irenaeus, disciple of St. Polycarp who was himself a disciple of Christ's Apostles, stated in his Against Heresies (III,1,1) that St. Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome. Therefore the Dead Sea Manuscripts support tradition and early dating.

The first reaction of theologians was to hide this discovery and not tell anything about it, but when, twenty years later, the German Protestant papyrologist Carsten P. Thiede brought the manuscript out and declared it to be authentic in The Earliest Gospel Manuscript, (Paternoster Press, 1992), the outcry against its authenticity was enormous.

Meanwhile a scientific symposium on 7Q5 took place in Eichstatt in Bavaria in 1991 and confirmed the coincidence of its text with Mark 6:52-53. Several eminent papyrologists like H. Hunger, S. Darius and Orsolina Montevecchi (Honorary President of the International Association of Papyrologists) agreed to date this papyrus in 50; twenty years, at most, after the Resurrection. However a great majority of the exegetes still disagree.

Let's add that Carsten P. Thiede — an internationally known papyrologist — in Jesus according to Matthew, has since studied three small fragments coming from one codex. The fragments had been donated to Oxford's Magdalen College and display various phrases from St. Matthew's Gospel. Having analyzed them he his convinced that this papyrus did not appear after 70 but probably around 50.

Philologists Affirm Early Dates of Origin of the Gospels

Concerning the philological research (B), two specialists thoroughly analyzed the language of the Gospels: Fr. Jean Carmignac, one of the greatest experts in biblical studies in the world, and recognized as foremost in the knowledge of the Qumran Hebrew (of Jesus' times), and Claude Tresmontant, lecturer for the Institut de France who taught for a long time in the Sorbonne University. Tresmontant is the author of an Old Testament Hebrew-to-Greek (Septuagint) dictionary. (The Septuagint was translated in the third — second century B.C.) They both demonstrated that the Greek language used in the Gospels (all four of them for Tresmontant, the three Synoptic ones for Carmignac who did not consider St. John's) was translated from Hebrew or Aramaic. They both consider the whole of the Gospels (excluding the Preface to St. Luke's) and not just fragments introduced into a Greek text. They both provide tens (may be hundreds) of proofs. Fr. Carmignac, in La Naissance des Evangiles Synoptiques, points out semitisms of thought, vocabulary, syntax, style, composition, transmission, translation and even multiple semitisms. For each case, he supplies many examples. As for Tresmontant's demonstration, let's just give a few samples of it: In Luke 9:51, the Greek text reads: "He fixed his face to go to Jerusalem," which makes no sense in Greek or in English but proves to be a Hebrew expression frequently used in the Old Testament meaning "He firmly decided." Tresmontant gives many such examples and idiomatic expressions.

He also points out the following passage in St. John (5:2) — St. John's text being regarded as the latest, most scholars dating it from the very end of the 1st century — "There is in Jerusalem, next to the Ewes Gate a pool called Bezatha". Why would the present tense be used if the city had not existed for a long time? And what about Matt. 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 19:41-44, etc., in which Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem? (Many "late-date" exegetes doubt that Jesus made this prediction.) How is it that the Evangelists — or at least one of the Evangelists — have not specified, if the city was already destroyed, that this so-called prophecy was in fact achieved? "A discreet and shy forger" as Tresmontant ironically puts it. Let's by the way observe J.A.T. Robinson, an Anglican exegete, who was perfectly convinced of the non-historicity of the Gospels, until he noted this complete absence of reference to the end of Jerusalem as an already accomplished historical fact. He declared therefore the impossibility of dating the Gospels later than 70.

Carmignac also explains a few "nonsenses" found in the Gospels: in Mark 5:13 the reference to a herd of about two thousand pigs has been generally regarded as a mythical construction (gathering two thousand pigs being virtually impossible). But Fr. Carmignac explains that in Hebrew only consonants are written and the same word differently pronounced acquires a different meaning. The written Hebrew word for "about two thousand," if read with other vowels, means "by packs." So "The herd jumped from the cliff into the sea by packs." The Hebrew underpinning the text makes it clear and probable while proving its own presence. Fr. Carmignac gives many more such examples and even explains some of the apparent discrepancies in some Gospels compared to others. As he translated the Synoptic Gospels from Greek to Qumran Hebrew, he stated quite firmly that they had first been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, then in Greek, so easily had he accomplished this translation. Many other philologists also uncovered the way the Semitic language underpins the Greek language used in the Gospels. Fr. Carmignac noted many of them in the past. Since I published my book, several people wrote to me indicating contemporary philologists who had made similar discoveries. However, I have been unable to find their writings. They have not been published in books or journals. It has been said that publishers do not even reply to these authors. They are not mentioned on television or radio programs or in the print media. It seems that few philologists have heard of them and that those who have remain silent about them.

Other Indications of Sound, Early-Date Biblical Historicity

Let's come to (C). Nearly every day new clues are found indicating that the Gospels were originally written close to the time of Jesus. As noted above, based largely on speculation, many exegetes continue to assert that the Gospels were written after A.D. 70 by authors who never knew Jesus, any of the Apostles or any other eyewitnesses to Jesus. However, it seems impossible that any such late-date author could write without making mistakes on the location, the animals, the plants, the sharing of powers, the various sects and other minute details by which archaeological excavation confirm that the Evangelists were stating the truth. The absence of such errors strongly indicates that the Gospels were written close to the time of Jesus.

Vittorio Messori, in his books Hypotheses sur Jesus and Il a souffert sous Ponce Pilate, gives many examples confirming this matter. Here are just a few: (a) In 1968, archaeologists commissioned by the Israeli Government excavated in Giv'at ha Mitvar, north of Jerusalem, the remains of a young man, five and one-half feet tall, dating from the 1st century, who had been crucified and whose tibiae had been broken. (b ) A stone found a few years ago, notifying non-Jews that they were not allowed inside the temple reserved to the Jews, is written in the same three languages as the placard hung to the cross: Hebrew, Latin and Greek. And (c) A family grave dating back to Jesus' time was uncovered in a graveyard where leading citizens were buried. It contained the remains of a certain Simon of Cyrene's parents. Could this be mere coincidence?

Madame Genot-Bismuth, a non-Christian Professor of Ancient and Medieval Judaism in the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University (Paris), is positive that the person who wrote St. John's Gospel was a direct witness of his account as the details he gives fit so exactly with the results of her own archaeological excavations in Jerusalem.

There are also all sorts of comforting hints. Fr. Pierre Courouble revealed that Pilate speaks Greek in St. John's Gospel (18:29 and 19:22) as a foreigner, making mistakes and Latinisms, whereas the remainder of the Gospel is grammatically perfect. Who would have remembered this long after the facts? (It is equally possible that Pilate's original sentences in bad Greek appeared as such in an original Semitic text.)

On another matter, why does St. Mark tell us that Jesus, during the storm he is about to calm, was inside the stern, sleeping on the cushion" and not "at the stern" (where he would have interfered with the maneuvering of the boat)? The answer was found when the wreck of a boat of Jesus' time was discovered in the Genesareth Lake in 1986 showing on its rear deck a covered shelter in which a man could lie (Bonnet-Eymard).

Gino Zaninotto, a teacher and specialist of ancient languages, provided a list of codices indicating that St. Matthew's Gospel was written eight years after the Ascension of the Lord; St. Mark's, eleven years; St. Luke's, fifteen years; and St. John's, thirty-two years after the same event. The oldest of these codices dates from the 9th century and, according to Michel van Esbroeck from Munich University, the source of this information might be still older. From where do these precious dates come? Why were they disclosed in 836 during the Synod of Jerusalem attended by the three Melchite Patriarchs from Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem? Why has this research field been so far ignored?

Here we reach the biggest mystery of today's Christian exegesis — with the exception of Orthodox exegesis: All these discoveries testify that our faith is not in vain, that it rests upon real historic facts and should be welcomed with a relevant enthusiasm; instead, they are met with silence or worse. Giulio Firpo, professor at Chieti University (Italy), undertook an exceptional investigation of the Gospels of Christ's childhood. He studied hundreds of documents such as writings from Antiquity and from modern times, inscriptions, coins and various papyruses. Based on Firpo's findings, we can be quite confident that the Gospel accounts of Christ's childhood are authentic. For instance, who knows nowadays that there were numerous censuses at the end of the 1st century B.C.? But who has heard of this extraordinary scholar's book Il problema cronologico della nascita di Gesu. [The chronological problem of Jesus' birth]? Why has it not been published in English and other languages?

A Catholic University Denies Scholars Access to Early-Date Evidence

Fr. Carmignac left all his writings to the Institut Catholique de Paris by will, comprising sixteen boxes full of manuscripts and documents together with their inventory and classification. After his death they were brought to this university by his secretary, Mlle. Demanche. Nobody asking for it has been allowed to consult these archives and Fr. Carmignac's publisher, M. de Guibert, has not been allowed to publish his posthumous works.

The successful Italian weekly magazine Il Sabato made this story public with Thiede's discoveries and the ensuing polemics. Strangely enough, it closed down a little later. The direction and philosophical orientation of the international monthly magazine Thirty Days, that was publishing the same articles, changed at the same time.

The exhibition "Dalla Terra alle Genti" ("From earth to People") very successfully opened in Rimini in 1996 and displayed to a large public some of the objects described in these pages. However, its presentation in France met very strong opposition even under the form of commentated photographs. As an exhibit of commentated photographs it is currently having a successful world tour.

Speculation as a Substitute for Evidence?

Let's now raise the issue of the methods and convictions of this majority of exegetes and theologians who unfortunately do not accept the evidence that the Jesus of our faith is the Jesus of history. For them, history cannot include the supernatural. And so they speculate in various ways to explain its presence in the holy books and consider certain that the Evangelists did not have first-hand historical information. The source "Q," of which no trace has ever been found, should have existed. The Gospels must have been written and "lovingly embellished" by some communities (inventive and somewhat uplifted) near the end of the first century. The "stories" of Jesus' actions must have been taken from the Old Testament to make them seem prophetic. The "communities" must have been inspired by certain rabbinical writings — however, these have been proven by analysis to have been written centuries after the Gospels — or even by pagan narratives, which has been proven false by authoritative specialists such as Festugiere. In the same way, the empty tomb of the Resurrection should be separated from the later apparition "stories." Indeed the former without the latter makes no sense. Another way to deny the historical truth about Jesus is to claim that the word "historic" has several meanings and the Gospels can be perfectly "historic" but not relate to historic facts; or to declare that the passages in question were added later. As for the "Formgeschichte" (the "history of forms") and the "literary styles" which should clarify everything, the texts that attempt to explain this fail to do so. In my book, Les Evangiles sont des reportages, n'en deplaise a certains (The Gospels are true reports; too bad if that offends some people), I analyze in depth and demonstrate all these and other points which I can only outline here.1

End Notes

1 The book has not yet been published in English.


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Marie-Christine Ceruti-Cendrier is a professor in the Department of Theology of the European Humanities University, Minsk, Belarus. This article originally appeared in Les Dossiers d'Archeologie, No. 249 (special issue on Jesus). It was translated into English by Agnes Souto and Moura-Ausser and edited by Jerome D. Gilmartin. Professor Ceruti-Cendrier is Administrator of the Paris-based Association Jean Carmignac (for the safeguarding of the historicity of the Gospels) and head of the editorial staff of its bulletin. She and her husband Gianni, an Italian diplomat, reside in Rome. This is her first article in HPR.

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