Bible Contradictions Internal Contradictions Of The Bible The Bible

Did Jesus, Mary And Joseph Go To Egypt Or To Nazareth?

In Matthew 2:14, we are told that Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt:

    Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to Egypt or to Nazareth? 1
    “When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.”

Yet in Luke 2:39, they went to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth:

    Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to Egypt or to Nazareth? 2
    “And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.”

It does not need a rocket scientist to inform us that these verses are contradictory and hence irreconcilable.

In their alleged reply to this irreconcilable error, the missionaries made the claim that:

    Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem to present the new born infant in the temple. From there, they went back to their home in Nazareth. A short time later, the holy family decided to return to Joseph’s ancestral hometown and Jesus’ birthplace, namely Bethlehem in Judea. This is where Matthew picks up. When the Magi found the child Jesus, he was already up to two years old. Being told in a dream about Herod’s desire to kill the child, Joseph left his home and took his family to Egypt until the death of Herod. Fearing that Herod’s son Archelaus would search them out if they returned to Bethlehem, the holy family once again returned to Nazareth and settled there.

We do not accept this explanation, simply because the two narratives in Matthew and Luke are vastly different in a number of details. As Brown himself notes:

…the two narratives are not only different – they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth , and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehelm, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem were seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew’s implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth…one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical.1

In other words, only one of these narratives can be accepted as factual, and not both at the same time. Do note that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14), Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18), and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23) occur only in Matthew. Therefore, the more important question is if the missionary is bothered to know the fact that Luke, Mark and John do not mention these significant events. How could they miss mentioning these if they really did happen? Since the gospels circulated independently for quite some time, that means that many of the earliest Christians never got the oppurtunity to know of these stories. Those reading Luke, Mark and John, while they were independently circulating, certainly would not know of them.

Also, commenting upon the story in Matthew, Brown noted the following:

[t]here is no remembrance in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus of such an extraordinary event in this background [the flight to Egypt and massacre at Bethlehem – ed.], and a journey to Egypt is quite irreconcilable with Luke’s account of an orderly and uneventful return from Bethehem to Nazareth shortly after the birth of the child. An attempt has been made to detect independent support for an Egyptian sojourn in the Jewish stories of the second century which have Jesus going to Egypt…However, these stories introduce Egypt as a place where Jesus or his mother sought refuge because of the scandalous (adulterous) character of his birth and as a place where he became adept in black magic which he then used to decieve people. Most likely this is a Jewish polemic against the Gospel picture of Jesus (including the Matthean infancy narrative) and can scarcely be invoked as independent support for the historicity of that picture.2

It also needs to be noted that concerning Raymond Brown, his work on the infancy is the single most authoritative book on the subject, and he himself is a believing Christian scholar of immense repute. Now, if believing Christians cannot agree among themselves if certain passages are contradictory or not, then the missionary should first attempt to convince his own Christian scholars before worrying too much about the Muslims. The fact that Christians scholars themself hotly disagree on this matter indicates the problematic nature of the two accounts.

McDonald and Porter, two believing Christian scholars, also noted the differences in the narratives:

When we compare the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, we see that Matthew focuses on royalty (birth in a house, not a stable: the special gifts of the Magi from the east), while Luke focuses on the lowliness of the birth (the poor shepherds coming to the manger scene to witness the new birth: no room for Jesus in the inn). According to Matthew, evidently Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, and only after the threat to the life of the newborn child did they consider leaving Bethlehem, going first of all to Egypt and then to Nazareth. Luke tells nothing of the threat to Jesus’ life and indicates that Joseph and Mary originally came from Nazareth and returned there only after all that was necessary regarding purification and dedication of the child in the temple had taken place. Why does Matthew have Jesus taken down to Egypt while Luke simply says that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth with their child? In Matt 2:22. Joseph was warned in a dream to go to Nazareth to avoid dealing with Herod Archelaus. Nothing of this kind of threat is found in Luke, Luke says nothing of the massacre of children in Matt 2. Why are these birth and infancy narratives so different? These questions are not easily answered, but it is probable that the construction of each of these accounts was based on a different theological agenda. Meier says that the point of these widely differing stories is that the church, not Mary or Jesus, wished to make the major theological point that “what Jesus Christ was fully revealed to be at the resurrection (Son of David, Son of God by the Power of the Holy Spirit) he really was from his conception onward.” Because of the considerable differences in these narratives and because they appear to serve early church apologetics. Many, if not most, critical scholars do not see much historical evidence for the life of Jesus in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke. But if the criterion of multiple attestation is taken seriously in light of the fact that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke appear to represent independent traditions, much more credibility should be given to various dimensions of the account. There are basic facts, such as the agreement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that Jesus’ birth took place during the reign of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:50), who died ca. 5/4 B.C. There are also more significant factors-angelic visitations, the special circumstances of conception and visitors attesting to the special qualities of this child that should not be neglected. These point to the significance of Jesus for both Matthew and Luke.3

Again we note that Christians scholars have admitted the fact that there are significant and considerable differences in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. McDonald and Porter argue that the points where Matthew and Luke agree are historical, yet they do not deny that their stories nonetheless have many differences. If Matthew and Luke were using independent traditions, and if the reports and stories were true and historical, then how do we explain the presence of significant differences in their story of the birth of Jesus? As Raymond Brown mentions, Matthew and Luke had their theological agenda and views to sell, and so they coloured/tainted the reports and traditions to “prove” their theology. Obviously both reports cannot be true, one of them is fiction, or both are fictitious containing an element of historical truth in them.

In light of these evidence, we thus conclude that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are undoubtedly contradictory to one another, and this is hence a irreconcilable error. And only God knows best. Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to Egypt or to Nazareth? 3

Addendum: Responding To A Missionary Obfuscation

Naturally, the missionaries, as per their tradition of welling hatred towards the noble Qur’an, attempt to erect this straw-man in order to avoid the embarrassment of the irreconcilable error in the birth narratives of Jesus. Our answer to the provocative Christian missionary questioning follows.

    How do you explain that in the Quran the person of Mary’s husband Joseph as well as the towns of Nazareth, Bethlehem and the journey to Egypt all disappeared?

According to the various scholars of the Bible, the above are fiction invented by the anonymous author of the Gospel according to Matthew. Therefore there is no point blaming the Qur’an for rightfully excluding these fiction. Therefore, what the Qur’an is “lacking” is fictitious stories concocted by the authors of the Gospels.

So the question that should be asked now is that did the journey ever take place or was it an invention of the anonymous gospel author to “prove” and make his theological point? It is important to note how the author of Matthew made use of the Jewish Bible and molded some of its contents to “prove” his theology. A male child is born to Jewish parents, a tyrant ruler (Herod) learns of this and sets out to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm and is taken to Egypt. He then leaves Egypt to pass through the waters (of baptism) and goes into wilderness to be tested for a long time. Later he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s law to those who have been following him. We see that Matthew shaped the stories pertaining to Jesus(P) to “show” that Jesus'(P) life was a fulfillment of the stories of Moses(P) (cf. Exodus 1-20). Matthew’s target market were the Jewish readers. No one can ignore these parellels. Herod is made into a Pharoah-like ruler, Jesus’ baptism is like Moses crossing the Red Sea, the forty days of temptation are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the sermon on the mount is like the law of Moses delievered on Mount Sinai. Jesus(P) is therefore portrayed by Matthew as the “new” Moses, come to set his people free from their bondage and give them new law and teachings. In order to present this picture of Jesus(P), the author of Matthew had to colour the traditions he used. Therefore not everything within his gospel is historical.

    but has it ever bothered him that the Quran is lacking so much information?

No, it has never bothered us to know that the Qur’an lacks the fictitious information of the gospels. We hope that this answer satisfies the missionary.

A more important question is if it has ever bothered the missionary that Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is not mentioned in Luke? How could something so significant escaped the notice of Luke, who is supposed to be a “reliable” historian, and even Mark? What about the visit of the Magi, why is that only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other gospels? Why did the other gospels fail to mention such an important story in their writings if it did take place? Matthew even states that the King and all Jerusalem was upset over the birth of the Messiah in Jerusalem! If this is historical, then why has it not left any traces in Jewish records and elsewhere in the New Testament?

    This is all the more striking in this case, since the vast majority of all verses in the Quran speaking about Jesus deal with his miraculous birth.

The verses of the Qur’an dealing with the birth of the Messiah, Jesus(P) are collected here. The Qur’an mentions the miraculous birth of Jesus(P), that he was born to a virgin, and mentions that he was not the divine son of God or God, that he asked people to worship God whom he worshipped and accept him as His messenger. The Qur’an stays to the point, does not mention the fictions within the gospels, states who Jesus(P) was and rejects the lies attributed to him by the Christians, unlike the gospels whose anonymous authors had to distort traditions to “prove” and “support” their theology.

Cite this article as: Bismika Allahuma Team, "Did Jesus, Mary And Joseph Go To Egypt Or To Nazareth?," in Bismika Allahuma, October 15, 2005, last accessed December 4, 2021,
  1. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth Of The Messiah (Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1997), p. 36 []
  2. ibid., pp. 225-226 []
  3. Lee Martin Mc Donald & Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature (Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2000), p. 122 []
Bible Contradictions External Contradictions Of The Bible The Bible

Geographical Errors Within The New Testament

It is well known that the Gospel of Mark contains numerous geographical errors. This is summed up in Kummel’s classic, Introduction to the New Testament:

[T]he considerations against this assumption [that John Mark, companion of Peter, wrote the gospel of Mark] carry weight. The author obviously has no personal knowledge of Palestinian geography, as the numerous geographical errors show. He writes for Gentile Christians, with sharp polemic against the unbelieving Jews. He does not know the account of the death of the Baptist (6:17 ff) contradicts Palestinian customs. Could a Jewish Christian from Jerusalem miss the fact that 6:35 ff and 8:1 ff are two variants of the same feeding story? The tradition that Mk was written by John Mark is therefore scarcely reliable. The reference to I Pet 5:13 (“The elect of Babylon and my son Mark also greets you”) does not account for the tradition, but only the subsequent linking up of the author of Mk with the preaching of Peter. Accordingly, the author of Mk is unknown to us.1

In fact, one of the reasons why many scholars doubt that the anonymous author of Mark was a Jewish individual and a native of Palestine is precisely due to the presence of a number of geographical errors, mistakes and confusions in this gospel. If the author was a native of Palestine and a Jew, then how was he so ignorant regarding the region’s geography?

Essentially, the arguments against John Mark, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem and later the companion of Paul and also of Peter, writing this Gospel are that he does not appear to be familiar with the geography of Palestine in the first century (Mark 7:31; 11:1) or with Jewish customs, overgeneralizes about the Jews (7:3-4), from whom he seems to distance himself, and does not reflect the theology of either Paul or Peter as a companion might (Phlm 23; cf. Col. 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11).2

To give an example, we read in the gospel according to Mark the following account:

“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt there which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you,’Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The lord needs it and will send it back shortly.'” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered that Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had out in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:1-11)

In Mark 10:46 however, we read that Jesus was in Jericho. The sentence above shows that Jesus and his group were travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem via Bethphage and then Bethany. This, however, is quite impossible. Bethany is further away from Jerusalem than Bethphage is. The Biblical theologian, D.E. Nineham, comments:

The geographical details make an impression of awkwardness, especially as Bethphage and Bethany are given in reverse order to that in which travellers from Jericho would reach them…and we must therefore assume that St Mark did not know the relative positions of the two villages on the Jericho road…3

The missionaries would obviously deny the above glaring error in Mark with their multiferous explanations. However the author of Matthew fully realised that Mark, who was supposedly “inspired”, had made a gross factual error. Matthew, who copied Mark changed this passage to remove the error:

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives…” (Matthew 21:1)

Note that Matthew had removed the reference to Bethany completely from Mark’s account. Again the most likely explanation is that Matthew noticed Mark’s error and tried to correct it. As Randel Helms informs us:

Mark writes on the basis of a vague knowledge of Judaean geography, not knowing that one approaching Jerusalem from the east on the road from Jericho would reach first Bethany and then Bethphage, not the reverse order he indicates. However, the important location is the Mount of Olives; typology, not history, is at work here. The typological fiction continues on the basis of Zech. 9:9 LXX:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; proclaim it aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, the king is coming to thee, just and a Saviour [sozon, “saving”]; he is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal [polon neon, a “new (unridden) foal”].’

It is only with this passage that we can understand why Mark has Jesus specify that his diciples obtain a “colt [polon] which no one has yet ridden” (Mark 11:2). Mark ignores the danger and unlikelihood of riding on an unbroken, untrained animal, assuming its miraculous tractability; typology rather than history is operative here.4

Who is correct, Matthew or Mark? Was Mark “inspired” or was Matthew “inspired” as far as the above passage is concerned?

Bruce M. Metzger makes mention of several internal and geographical errors within the New Testament in which later scribes attempted to clear away:

A few scribes attempted to harmonize the Johannine account of the chronology of the Passion with that in Mark by changing ‘sixth hour’ of John xix. 14 to ‘third hour’ (which appears in Mark xv. 25). At John i. 28 Origen 1 altered in order to remove what he regarded as a geographical difficulty, and this reading is extant today in MSS. 33 69 and many others, including those which lie behind the King James version. The statement in Mark viii. 31, that ‘the Son of man must suffer many things…and be killed and aftee: three days rise again’, seems to involve a chronological difficulty, and some copyists changed the phrase to the more familiar expression, ‘on the third day’ . The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews places the golden altar of incense in the Holy of Holies (Heb. ix. 4), which is contrary to the Old Testament description of the Tabernacle (Exod. xxx. 1-6). The scribe of codex Vaticanus and the translator of the Ethiopic version correct the account by transferring the words to ix. 2, where the furniture of the Holy Place is itemized.5

Another Christian scholar, Raymond E. Brown, notes the inability of the author of Mark to identify the geographical places in ancient Palestine. He says:

That the author of this Greek Gospel was John Mark, a (presumably Aramaic-speaking) Jew of Jerusalem who had early become a Christian, is hard to reconcile with the impression that it does not seem to be a translation from Aramaic,82 that it seems to depend on traditions (and perhaps already shaped sources) receieved in Greek, and that it seems confused about Palestinian geography83 (The attempt to claim that Mark used geography theologically and therefore did not bother about accuracy seems strained).6

In footnote 83, Brown had in fact revealed another instance of the gospel author’s unfamiliarity with ancient Palestine geography. He states that:

83 Mark 5:1, 13 betrays confusion about the distance of Gerasa from the sea of Galilee (n. 17 above). Mark 7:31 describes a journey from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapolis. In fact one goes SE from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee; Sidon is N for Tyre, and the description of the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the Decapolis is awkward. That a boat headed for Bethsaida (NE side of the Sea of Galilee) arrives at Gennesaret (NW side: 6:45,53) may also signal confusion. No one has been able to locate the Dalmanutha of 8:10, and it may be a corruption of Magdala.7

Though Brown attempts to explain away these geographical errors by stating that “one must admit that sometimes even natives of a place are not very clear about geography”8, he does not deny their presence in the text. In another footnote, he states that:

Many other examples of improbable reconciliations could be offered. Since Matt has a Sermon on the Mount and Luke has a similar Sermon on the Plain (Matt 5:1; Luke 6:7), there must have been a plain on the side of the mountain. Since Matt has the Lord’s Prayer taught in that sermon and Luke has it later on the road to Jerusalem (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4), the disciples must have forgotten it, causing Jesus to repeat it. Mark 10:46 places the healing of the blind man after Jesus left Jericho, while Luke 18:35; 19:1 places it before Jesus entered Jericho. Perhaps Jesus was leaving the site of the OT Jericho and entering the site of the NT Jericho!9

Furthermore, the Gospel according to Luke, another anonymous gospel, also contains a number of geographical errors that have led scholars to the conclusion that its author was not from Palestine. Brown comments:

What happens when Jesus goes to a deserted place (Luke 4:24-44) exhibits typical Lucan universalizing, since the people rather than Simon and his companions come to seek out Jesus. Compared to Mark 1:39, which has Jesus going through the synagogues of all Galilee, Luke 4:44 localizes the synagogues in Judea. That may illustrate the vagueness of Luke’s ideas of Palestinian geography, since in the next verse (5:1) Jesus is still in Galilee, at the Lake. Or does Luke’s Judea simply mean “the country of the Jews”?10

Brown presents another example of Luke’s confusion with Palestinian geography:

3. Last Stage of Journey till Arrival in Jerusalem (17:11-19:27). This begins with the uniquely Lucan cleansing of the ten lepers, including the thankful Samaritan (17:11-19). Jesus has been travelling toward Jerusalem since 9:51, and in 9:52 his messengers entered a Samaritan village. That at this point in the story he is still passing between Samaria and Galilee tells us that the journey is an artificual framework (and also that Luke may not have had a precise idea of Palestinian geography).11

G. A. Wells in his The Historical Evidence for Jesus makes mentions a number of geographical errors within the gospel according to Mark together with quoting other Biblical scholars admiting the presence of these errors and confusions in this gospel:

Mark makes serious mistakes in his geographical references to Palestine. He knows the Galilean place names and the general relative positions of the localities, but not specific details. Hence he “represents Jesus as travelling back and forth in Galilee and adjacent territories in a puzzling fashion” (Kee, 117, pp 102 – 3). To go (as Jesus is said to in Mk. 7:31) from the territory of Tyre by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee “is like travelling from Cornwall to London via Manchester” (Anderson, 2, p 192). Again, Mark’s “references to movements across the Sea of Galilee are impossible to trace sequentially. Mention of specific location near the sea are either unknown sites, such as Dalmanutha (8:10), or are patently inaccurate, as in the designation of the eastern shore of the lake as the country of the Gerasenes (5:1)” (Kee, loc cit). Gerasa is more than thirty miles souteast of the lake, too far away for the setting of the story which demands a city in its vincinity, with a precipitous slope down to the water. Probably all that concerned Mark, collecting and adapting pre-existing stories about Jesus, was that the lake and its surrounding territories, some Jewish and some mainly Gentile, was an ideal setting for journey’s of Jesus and his disciples, showing how both Jews and Gentiles responded to him with faith. That place names in Mark caused perplexity among early readers is shown by the wide range of variants in the textual tradition where names occur in the gospel. Perplexity is also evidenced by Matthew, who changed Mark’s Gerasenes to Gadarenes (Mt. 8:28), Gadara being a well-known spa only eight miles from the lake.12

Michael T. Griffith makes note of this confusion between Gerasenes and Gadarenes, and says that:

According to most modern versions of the Bible, Mark 5:1 refers to the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore as the country of the Gerasene:

“They [Christ and the disciples] came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (RSV; so also the NIV and the New American Bible).

This translation is based on the fact that the best and oldest manuscripts for this verse all read “the country of the Gerasenes.” However, the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore cannot qualify as the land of the Gerasenes because Gerasa (modern Jerash) is more than thirty miles to the southeast. In addition, the account which follows verse 1 requires a nearby city with a steep slope leading down to the Sea of Galilee. This could not possibly be Gerasa. Gerasa is simply too far away, and there is no slope running all the way from that site to the Sea of Galilee.

In the KJV, Mark 5:1 reads, “the country of the Gadarenes,” but this is based on inferior readings from the Greek texts. As mentioned above, the best and oldest manuscripts read “the country of the Gerasenes.” In any event, Gadara, though closer than Gerasa, is still too far away to fit, since it is located about six miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee.

According to the KJV rendering of Matthew 8:28, the region in question is named “the country of the Gergesenes.” This reading is based on inferior manuscript evidence and represents a scribal addition by later copyists (Metzger 1971:23-24). The best textual evidence for Matthew 8:28 reads “the country of the Gadarenes,” which is how it appears in the better modern translations of Matthew. Again, though, Gadara is too far away from the Sea of Galilee. To add to the confusion, Luke 8:26 follows the geography attributed to Mark. Although the KJV reads “the country of the Gadarenes,” this is another case of this version’s reliance on inferior textual evidence. The better modern translations read “Gerasenes.”

Lindsey Pherigo sums up the situation with regard to Mark 5:1:

The general location [of the events spoken of in Mark 5] is reported [in vs. 1] to be the E shore of the Sea of Galilee but the exact location is reported in different ways. The oldest and best manuscripts have Gerasa, but this is too far from the Sea of Galilee to fit well. Matt. changes this to Gadara (“the country of the Gadarenes,” 8:28), but this, though nearer, is still too far from the water. Later copyists change both to “Gergesa,” which may correspond to some ruins on the E side of the sea. It remains a problem.13


We have thus shown that the scribes of the New Testament were certainly aware of the presence of errors, in this case geographical errors, within the New Testament text. That is why they had proceeded to clear up whatever obvious errors that recur within their texts. Many of such errors were thus “corrected” over the passage of time whereas others that escape “correction” are vehemently defended by current-day missionaries with the preference to use a number of highly-imaginative mental gymnastics.

And only God knows best! Geographical Errors Within The New Testament 5

Cite this article as: Bismika Allahuma Team, "Geographical Errors Within The New Testament," in Bismika Allahuma, October 15, 2005, last accessed December 4, 2021,
  1. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, p. 97 []
  2. Lee Martin Mc Donald and Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature, (Nov 2000, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), p. 286 []
  3. Nineham, Saint Mark (Westminster John Knox Press, 1978), pp. 294-295 []
  4. Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, p. 103 []
  5. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Third Enlarged Edition, 1992, Oxford University Press), pp. 199-200 []
  6. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., An Introduction To The New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (Doubleday, 1997) pp. 159-160 []
  7. ibid., p. 160 []
  8. ibid. []
  9. ibid., pp. 109-110 []
  10. ibid., pp. 238 []
  11. ibid., p. 251 []
  12. G. A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Prometheus Books, 1982), p. 230 []
  13. Michael T. Griffith, Is The Bible Inerrant And Complete? (1994) [Online Document] []
Bible Textual Integrity

The Influence Of The Pauline Epistles Upon The Gospels Of The New Testament

Christians believe that Paul of Tarsus was the “Apostle” of Jesus(P), whom he met in a vision on his journey to Damascus. Paul is also claimed to be the author of the Epistles to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Hebrews. It is therefore strange that this self-confessed ‘Apostle’ of Jesus Christ fails to pay more attention to the words of Jesus(P) himself in his epistles:

All the evidence indicates that the words of Jesus were authoritative in the Church from the first, and this makes it the more remarkable that such scanty attention is paid to the words or works of Jesus in the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s letters, the later Epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, and even Acts have little to report about them….Papias (ca. AD 130), the first person to actually name a written gospel, illustrates the point. Even though he defends Mark’s gospel (Euseb. Hist. III.xxxix.15-16), and had himself appended a collection of Jesus tradition to his “Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord” (Euseb. Hist. III.xxxix.2-3), his own clear preference was for the oral tradition concerning Jesus, and the glimpses that Eusebius provides of Papias’ Jesus tradition give no hint of his dependence on Mark. Neither do the more frequent citations of Jesus in the apostolic fathers, largely “synoptic” in character, show much dependence on our written gospels.1

To what extent has the Pauline letters shaped the selection of the gospels of the New Testament as canon today? This article would examine the evidence and present its conclusions on the matter, insha’allah.

The Pauline Epistles and Their Influence Over the Selection of Gospels

It is acknowledged that the current gospels of the New Testament, which contain the words of Jesus, were written after the Pauline epistles. This statement is confirmed by Prof. Brandon, when he informs us that

The earliest Christian writings that have been preserved for us are the letters of the apostle Paul.2

All but the gospels acceptable to the Pauline faith were systematically destroyed or re-written. In fact, the gospels were not even in existence prior to the Pauline writings. Rev. Charles Anderson Scott tells us that:

It is highly probable that not one of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) was in existence in the form which we have it, prior to the death of Paul. And were the documents to be taken in strict order of chronology, the Pauline Epistles would come before the synoptic Gospels.3

Hyam Maccoby makes an interesting observation regarding the influence of Paul as follows:

We should remember that the New Testament, as we have it, is much more dominated by Paul than appears at first sight. As we read it, we come across the Four Gospels, of which Jesus is the hero, and do not encounter Paul as a character until we embark on the post-Jesus narrative of Acts. Then we finally come into contact with Paul himself, in his letters. But this impression is misleading, for the earliest writings in the New Testament are actually Paul’s letters, which were written about AD 50-60, while the Gospels were not written until the period AD 70-110. This means that the theories of Paul were already before the writers of the Gospels and colored their interpretations of Jesus’ activities. Paul is, in a sense, present from the very first word of the New Testament. This is of course, not the whole story, for the Gospels are based on traditions and even written sources which go back to a time before the impact of Paul, and these early traditions and sources are not entirely obliterated in the final version and give valuable indications of what the story was like before Paulinist editors pulled it into final shape. However, the dominant outlook and shaping perspective of the Gospels is that of Paul, for the simple reason that it was the Paulinist view of what Jesus’ sojourn on Earth had been about that was triumphant in the Church as it developed in history. Rival interpretations, which at one time had been orthodox, opposed to Paul’s very individual views, now became heretical and were crowded out of the final version of the writings adopted by the Pauline Church as the inspired canon of the New Testament.4

There is no doubt that the influence of Paul is much more dominant than the influence of Jesus (P) himself in the New Testament. Scholars have known and recognized the influence Paul exerts over the New Testament, to the extent that Paul even declares that he has a different gospel than Jesus.5

Dating for The Authorship of The New Testament

The popularly accepted dates for the authorship of the current books of the Bible are approximately as follows:

    Approx. AD Event / Document
    30 Crucifixion (Ascension) of Jesus
    50 First Epistle of Paul
    62 Last Epistle of Paul
    65-70 Mark’s Gospel
    70 Epistle to Hebrews (The Epistle to the Hebrews is not listed in the 6th century list of the manuscripts called Codex Claromon. This leads to the suspicion that it could have been written at a later date)
    80 Luke’s Gospel
    85-90 Matthew’s Gospel
    90 Acts
    90-100 John’s Gospel and First Epistle
    95-100 Revelation
    100 I & II Timothy and Titus6

Uncertainty about James I & II, Peter, John and Jude does not allow historians to estimate their origin dates7. Note that the Epistles are dated earlier than even the earliest gospel, “Mark”. Thus we begin to see the degree to which the current religion of “Christianity” is based more on the teachings and writings of Paul than anything else. The gospels which are popularly believed to have been written first were in actuality written long after the writings of Paul. The more Christian scholars study the text of the Bible, the more it becomes painfully apparent that what is popularly referred to today as “Christianity” should more appropriately be called “St. Paulism”.

Were The Epistles Attributed to Paul Really Authored By Him?

Even the attribution of authorship of the epistles to Paul himself is doubtful. For example, let us take a look at the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle, once attributed to Paul, is now generally accepted to have not been written by him. We read that

The Letter to the Hebrews, at one time ascribed to Paul, is now generally accepted to be by some unknown Christian of the 1st century. More like a sermon than a letter, it is one of the best and most carefully constructed compositions in the New Testament. Addressed originally to Christians out of Jewish backgrounds, the book makes extensive use of Old Testament material to demonstrate that the ministry of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.8

The editors of the KJV, in their Introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews, wrote that:

The author of the Book of Hebrews is unknown. Martin Luther suggested that Apollos was the author…Tertullian said that Hebrews was a letter of Barnabas…Adolf Harnack and J. Rendel Harris speculated that it was written by Priscilla (or Prisca). William Ramsey suggested that it was done by Philip. However, the traditional position is that the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews…Eusebius believed that Paul wrote it, but Origen was not positive of Pauline authorship.9

Even the books of Acts was written to fulfill a certain purpose. As Hyam Maccoby observes:

As we have seen, the purposes of the book of Acts is to minimize the conflict between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, James and Peter. Peter and Paul, in later Christian tradition, became twin saints, brothers in faith, and the idea that they were historically bitter opponents standing for irreconcilable religious standpoints would have been repudiated with horror. The work of the author of Acts was well done; he rescued Christianity from the imputation of being the individual creation of Paul, and instead gave it a respectable pedigree, as a doctrine with the authority of the so-called Jerusalem Church, conceived as continuous in spirit with the Pauline Gentile Church of Rome. Yet, for all his efforts, the truth of the matter is not hard to recover, if we examine the New Testament evidence with an eye to tell-tale inconsistencies and confusions, rather than with the determination to gloss over and harmonize all difficulties in the interests of an orthodox interpretation.10


We have seen that the Pauline Epistles were written before the gospels of the New Testament and therefore exerts an influence over the selection of the gospels of the New Testament in our hands today. Jesus(P) himself had no idea of what Paul had done to his teachings and would have been amazed and shocked at the role assigned him by Paul as a suffering deity. Moreover, not all the epistles attributed to Paul were really written by him, and some were even written to fulfill a certain purpose. It is this reason which makes the epistles unacceptable to be divinely ‘inspired’, as it is clear they are the product of men. The Influence of the Pauline Epistles Upon The Gospels of The New Testament 7

  1. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, p. 137 []
  2. S. G. F. Brandon, Religions in Ancient History, p. 228 []
  3. Rev. Charles Anderson Scott, History of Christianity in the Light of Modern Knowledge, p. 338 []
  4. Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1986), p. 4 []
  5. cf. Romans 2:16 []
  6. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume []
  7. Irene Allen, The Early Church And The New Testament, 1953 []
  8. Excerpted from Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, copyright — 1994, 1995 Compton’s NewMedia, Inc. []
  9. KJV, New Revised and Updated 6th, the Hebrew/Greek Key Study, Red Letter Edition []
  10. Hyam Maccoby, op. cit., p. 139 []