A gracEmail reader asks, “How do we know that the words ascribed to Jesus were actually his words? I have read that they were written down a century or more after his death? Was Mark even one of the original 12 disciples?”
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The earliest Gospel was probably Mark’s, which scholars generally agree was written within 30 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Within a generation after Jesus’ resurrection, the eleven Apostles (Judas had killed himself after he betrayed Jesus) and the special Apostle, Paul, carried the message about Jesus throughout the inhabited world. Eleven of these twelve reinforced their testimony by martyrdom for Jesus’ sake. That is pretty good evidence that they believed what they said was true, and that it was of utmost importance.
Of the Gospel writers, Matthew and John were Apostles — whom Jesus personally recruited, mentored for three years, then commissioned and empowered with the Holy Spirit for their worldwide mission. Gospel-writers Mark and Luke were not Apostles. However, reliable tradition from the second century says that Mark recorded what Peter preached (see also 2 Pet. 1:12-15), and Luke tells us that he did careful research from first-hand sources (Lk. 1:1-4).
The teachings of Jesus circulated widely in the earliest church by word of mouth, for they were revered as the very words of the Lord himself. Paul quotes one such saying of Jesus not contained in any Gospel — “It is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Historically, reasonably and spiritually, the evidence encourages us to accept as authentic the words and reported deeds of Jesus contained in the Four Gospels — despite the blatant unbelief of apostate churchmen whose sensationalist books and pronouncements seem always to make the public news.