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The gospels are books/collections of writings/scribblings on looseleaf that "document" the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. Most Christians only know of the four canonical gospels: those ascribed to Matthew, to Mark, to Luke, and to John. Of these 4, the first 3 are known as the synoptic gospels - they say basically the same thing with different territorial twists thrown in - while John and the myriad Apocryphal gospels can read quite differently.
The Modern English word "gospel" comes from the Olde Englishe gōd-spell (gōd [GOOD] + spell [MESSAGE]) - a literal translation of the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον or euangelion (eu [GOOD] + angelion [MESSAGE]). Latin-speakers transmogrified the Greek word euangelion into the Latinised evangelion, from which we get the words "evangelical" and "evangelism"; the alleged authors of the canonical gospels have therefore become known in Christian folklore and in Christian theology as "the four evangelists".
There are no agreement on what is the earliest canonical gospel or how they came into being though there are four main schools of thought
- Marcan priority (Mark first) has four main sub-theories with Two‑source Marcan priority being the most popular
- Matthaean priority (Matthew first) has two main sub-theories
- Lucan priority (Luke first) has a version that suggest that Marcion's Evangelikon (c. 145 CE) was the first written Gospel and the versions we have are derived from it.
- No Gospel has Multi‑source, Proto‑gospel, and Independence theories.
All of the canonical gospels were originally written in Greek, even though Jesus spoke Aramaic. More over, other than what are claimed to be paraphrasing, no meaningful quoting of our canonical gospels occurred until Irenaeus' Against Heresies c. 180 CE, and our first fully intact copy with a definitive (i.e. not dated palaeographically) date is the Codex Sinaiticus at 330-360 CE.
Since Paleographic dating as it currently exists is unable "to construct a 95% confidence interval for NT manuscripts without allowing a century for an assigned date"  none of the fragments of the canonical Gospels nor non canonal works like Egerton Papyrus 2 can be said definitively predate Against Heresies c. 180 CE. So the best that can be said is that the canonal Gospels existed in some form no later then 145 CE. Anything before that date is pure speculation.
Of the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke share similar stories, similar descriptions of events, and even exact phrases from time to time. John remains the odd man out, sharing little material at all with the other three.
When the three synoptic gospels are set side by side, academics are able to work out theories on the relationship between the three texts. The most generally accepted relationship is that Mark is the earliest text written, and that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of it when writing. Then there is material that is unique to Mark and Matthew, and Mark and Luke; and material that is unique to Luke and Matthew is sometimes called the Q document.
Possible audiences for the gospels
According to academic research, each of the four canonical gospels as well as extra-biblical gospels (e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and Gospel of Mary) were written for different churches and at slightly different times.
- The Gospel of Mark, generally assumed to be the earliest of the canonical gospels (c 70 CE), remains a Jewish focused text, with a largely human Jesus, though several puzzling mistakes in relation to Mark's depiction of Jewish customs and teachings may suggest either a very Hellenized Jewish origin or an author who wasn't a Jew himself.
- The Gospel of Matthew (70-100 CE), generally considered a Jewish apologetic, stressing Jewish law, correcting Mark's aforesaid errors and drawing direct parallels between Jesus and the OT prophets.
- The Gospel of Luke (80-130 CE) was traditionally attributed to Luke the Physician who was claimed to be a companion of Paul and the gospel was written, along with Acts, for Peter and Paul's church - the church which was to become the dominant player in early Christendom. Considerably less focused on the Jewishness of Jesus than Matthew.
- The Gospel of John (c 100 CE) is considered by most scholars to to have Gnostic elements. It should not be confused with the similarly named gnostic Secret Book of John.
It should be noted that there are no manuscripts going back to these dates nor any reference to actual content of a Gospel until the 130s so there is no proof of the Gospels existing before 130 CE.
There are well over 20 gospels of Jesus Christ. However, the Catholic Church found it necessary to leave certain ones out. The gospel of Mary Magdalene, possibly the most famous Apocrypha for example, depicts her being second to Jesus rather than Peter. It also insinuates that Mary and Jesus were lovers, and forms the basis of alternative interpretations and conspiracies such as in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus asserts that the idea of hell is not for an eternity, rather a time that meets the severity of the punishment. A gospel according to Judas (dating to around the 3rd/4th Century AD) was discovered in the 1970s but has only really been studied since the late 90s. This alters the narrative slightly to portray Judas' actions towards the end of Jesus' story not as a betrayal, but as following the instructions of Jesus himself. Considering that it is canonical Christian belief that it was God's plan to have Jesus brutally murdered, this does make some sick and twisted sense.
Some of these non-canonical gospels have been reconstructed in Robert M. Price's The Pre-Nicene New Testament: Fifty-four Formative Texts, Bart Ehrman's Lost Scriptures, and Robert J. Miller's The Complete Gospels.
Gospels as history
As with most religious texts, scholars assume some basic level of reliability on topics like "Who were the players?", "What were the major events?" and "What was the attitude of the community the texts intend to represent?"
Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well—no.
The first reference to the Gospels in a manner we can cross check didn't appear until c180 CE, nearly 150 years after the supposed events and some 50 to 110 years after the Gospels are thought to have been written down. And these are the Gospels that were formally canonized by the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE out of the literally dozens of other Gospels around.
For these reasons, as a primary historical record, the Christian gospels are dubious at best. For one, the gospels themselves are admittedly propagandist: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have through his name." (John 20:30-31) The writers peppered the gospels with Old Testament references — most details of Jesus' life are Old Testament references.
Conflicts with known history
A major problem with the Gospels and Acts as history is that when they are compared with known historical events or people, they fail spectacularly.
Richard Carrier wrote about some of these issues:
If you want a more historically plausible account of how the Jewish elite would have actually handled the Jesus problem, look at how we’re told they planned to handle the Paul problem (Acts 23:12-21). More likely, they would have killed him immediately upon his vandalism of the temple square, which was guarded by six hundred armed soldiers (with thousands more to summon just a javelin’s throw away in Fort Antonia, which housed a whole Roman legion, adjacent to the Temple: Josephus, Jewish War 2.12.1, 4.5.1, 5.238-248; Jewish Antiquities 20.8.6, 20.8.11), who were not afraid to beat down any rebellious public who got in their way (most especially trouble-makers in the Temple). Certainly in the temple they could have arrested him easily, with ample armed support (note that Gentiles were permitted in the Temple area that Jesus vandalized, so Roman legions could police it, as well as the Jewish guards authorized to kill any Gentiles who entered the forbidden areas).
Thus, as Acts would have it, Claudius Lysias had no difficulty dispatching hundreds of soldiers and cavalry from within Jerusalem to escort Paul outside the city (Acts 23:22-24), and Paul was able to be arrested even in the middle of a riot. As Josephus relates in Antiquities 20.1, the Romans regularly killed political undesirables surrounded by hundreds of fanatical supporters, without wasting time on an arrest or trial. And even Mark seems to imagine the Jews could assemble a large armed force, and indeed arrest Jesus with one (Mk. 14:43, Mt. 26:47; according to John 18:3, they even came with six hundred Roman legionairies, a full cohort).
Some other issues that come up are:
- Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) is not recorded in any other history (or Gospel) — not even by Josephus, who really didn't like Herod and meticulously catalogued his other misdeeds.
- Luke 2:1-4 claims Jesus was born in the year of a universal tax census, but the first such census did not occur until 74 CE - and it is not in the other gospels. 
- Luke 2:2 KJV specifically states "And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." Cyrenius is the Greek name for Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who came to this position in 6 CE.
- Luke 3:1 KJV references a "Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene" but the only Lysanias ruling Abilene that can clearly be identified in secular sources was killed by Mark Antony in 36 BCE.
- Luke 3:2 KJV talks about "Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests" but there is a major problem with that: according to Josephus, Annas and Caiaphas were NEVER high priests together. Annas was high priest c 6 CE - c 15 CE while Caiaphas was high priest c 18 - c 36 CE with a priest called Eleazar the son of Ananus between them.
- The throwing out of the moneychangers in the Court of the Gentiles area (10 acres or over 7.5 American football fields) would have prompted a response as there were guards, both Jewish and Roman, there to prevent just such an action.
- Jesus preaches in the open so there is no need for Judas' betrayal. A real Roman official would have sent a modest group of soldiers and got the guy as what happened with John the Baptist. In fact, based on what Josephus writes, even this would have been subtle by Pilate's standards which can be summed up as being on par with the Silver Age Incredible Hulk i.e. 'puny people annoy Pilate, Pilate smash'.
- The Sanhedrin trial account is totally at odds with the records on how that court actually operated in the 1st century. In fact, a little quirk of the Sanhedrin court was that a unanimous verdict for conviction resulted in acquittal.
- Pontius Pilate is totally out of character based on other accounts. Josephus relates two accounts where Pilate's solution to mobs causing a disturbance was brutally simple—have Roman soldiers go out and kill them until they dispersed. Moreover, it is never really explained in the Bible why, if Jesus' only crime was blasphemy, Pilate would need to be involved. If Jesus' crime has been sedition, then there would be no reason for Pilate to involve Herod Antipas--or for the Sanhedrin to be involved for that matter.
- The crucified were left to rot as a warning to others unless there was intervention on the behalf of an important person per The Life of Flavius Josephus (75)
- Given Jesus' short time on the cross and reports of him being out and about afterwards, certainly the Romans might have wondered if they had been tricked. Never mind that theft of a body was a capital crime. Yet there is nothing in the reports about the Romans acting on either possibility. Carrier describes how the Romans would have handled the situation and it is totally at odds with the account in Acts. 
- Jesus is depicted as hugely popular in the gospels, yet he is unrecorded by non-Biblical historians.
Even some of the surrounding events are at odds with history from other sources to where a form of time shifting and condensing seems to have occurred.
- Acts has Theudas' death before Judas the Galilean which would put his death before 6 CE; Josephus clearly puts Theudas' death during the time of Fadus or 44 to 46 CE
- The Gospels talk of robbers but Josephus only talks of them for two time periods: 63 BCE to 6 CE and 48-70 CE.
- Mark 15:7 KJV states "And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection." But Josephus gives no account of an actual insurrection in the time of Pilate. Instead we are told of two non-violent protests and Pilate's reaction to the Samaritan prophet of 36 CE. In fact, in what little of Tacitus that covers this time period that was preserved we are told “Under Tiberius all was quiet.”
- Outside of the questionable Testimonium Flavianum Josephus makes no note of crucifixions of Jews between 4 BCE. and 46 CE
- The Gospels indicate friction between the Jews and Samaritansin the time of Pilate; Josephus records no such friction until well after Pilate, finally resulting in the Galilean-Samaritan War (48-52 CE).
- Acts 6:5–8:2 tells of an attack against a man called Stephanos, a very uncommon name in the area. This is identified as Saint Stephen who was killed 34 CE. The only Stephanos Josephus mentions in his entire work is c. 48 CE and that Stephanos was simply robbed.
- Josephus does record co-reigning high priests but these are Jonathan, son of Annas, and Ananias, son of Nebedaios at 48-52 CE.
Matthew vs Luke problem
A major issue with using the Gospels is that in terms of time Matthew and Luke do not agree as to when Jesus was born. Matthew specifically puts it 6 to 4 BCE while Luke, with his reference to Quirinius establishes it as being no earlier then 6 CE.
Apologists try to handwave this conflict away with various claims that are not supported by history. Here is the historical reality of the period 6 BC to 6 CE:
- Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was fighting some two provinces to the east a minimum of 6-3 BCE with him being Duumvir of the area 6-1 BCE. and some say the war goes back as far as to 12 BCE.
- Publius Quinctilius Varus oversaw the area covered by Herod the Great's kingdom from c. 8 BCE to 4 BCE as documented by Josephus and Sentius Saturninus preceded him 10 BCE - c. 8 BCE.
- In Antiquities 17:27 Josephus expressly stated "the Judaean kingdom was immune from Roman taxation for as long as Herod lived ... this immunity seems to have remained in force even after Herod's death during the rule of his son Archelaus (4BC - AD6)"  Therefore, Luke's taxation census must have occurred after Herod's death, while Matthew requires it to have happened before.
- While Herod Archelaus' removal as Ethnarch of Judea (where Bethlehem of Judea is) made it subject to Roman taxation, Herod Antipas remained Tetrarch of Galilee (where Nazareth is) clear until 41 CE, making its subjects exempt from the Judean census, so the reason given by Luke for the trip makes no sense.
- Because ΙΟΥΔΑΙΑΣ could refer to all Palestine or the southern portion of Palestine lying on this side of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, to distinguish it from Samaria, Galilee, Peraea, and Idumaea Luke 1:5's ΗΡΩΔΟΥ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΤΗΣ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΑΣ could refer to either Herod the Great or Herod Archelaus with Luke 2:2 indicating the later Herod.
- A little-known fact is that in the time period Jesus supposedly lived there was a Bethlehem of Zebulun (around 10 kilometres north-west of Nazareth and 30 kilometres east of Haifa, i.e. in Galilee) and it has been suggested that this is the Bethlehem Jesus really came from.
- Moreover, a census would not and has never meant ordering a return to the town people were born in, but rather taking records of them where they live at the time. The alternative would be a logistical nightmare in which the roads would be clogged with travelers returning to their home towns throughout all of Judea, making a census-taking far more difficult. This part of the story likely was added so that Joseph (who is said to come from the House of David—i.e. the royal line) would return to Bethlehem so Jesus could be born there, thus fulfilling a supposed old prophecy regarding the Jewish Messiah. However, some translations of Micah 5:2 make it clear that the supposed "Bethlehem" prophecy is in reference to a group of people in Judea, not a town, so there is no prophecy regarding the Jewish Messiah being born in the town of Bethlehem but rather coming from the Bethlehem clan who could have been anywhere in the land that had once been called Judea.
- Finally Matthew implies that nearly two years had passed since Jesus' family had fled to Egypt when Herod starting killing the children in and around Bethlehem while Luke expressly states they went to temple every year.
Picking other timelines from the Gospels
The Irenaeus example Price provides is actually far worse than Price presents it. The actual passage in Demonstration (74) is
"For Herod the king of the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Claudius Caesar, came together and condemned Him to be crucified."
and this one sentence is so full of historical inaccuracies that it is unbelievable that few have pointed them out.
The key issue is the title "King of the Jews" (ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ in Greek). At best only three Herods held this formal title: Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I, and Herod Agrippa II When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was broken up between this three sons: Herod Archelaus (Ethnarch of Judaea 4 BCE – 6 CE), Herod Antipas (Tetrarch of Galilee 4 BCE - 41 CE), and "Herod" Philip II (Tetrarch of Batanea 4 BCE – 34 CE). Archelaus was removed 6 CE with Judea governed by Roman prefects until Herod Agrippa I came to power in 41 CE. Furthermore, while some later books have called Herod Agrippa II "king of the Jews", he in truth never ruled over the Judea province.
In any case only one of these Herods ruled Judea during the reign of Claudius Caesar: Herod Agrippa I. Moreover, we know exactly when he had the title "King of the Jews": 42-44 CE. But this is long after Paul's vision, so why did Irenaeus make such a statement? Against Heresies 2:22 shows that Luke 3:23 locked him at Jesus being [about] 30 around 28/29 CE and John 8:56-57 as he states "such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period." Even you push Jesus's supposed birth date in Matthew to c6 BCE (Herod the Great killing children two years old and younger), putting Jesus at 34 in c29 CE (there is no year zero), you don't get to the required minimum 46 years of age until 41 CE, which requires the Caesar to be Claudius (41-54 CE) and the Herod "king of the Jews" to be Agrippa I (42-44 CE). The Gospel material Irenaeus was using effectively locked in the time period and he was forced throw in Pontius Pilate (who if there was a Herod "king of the Jews" in charge would not have been needed) to make everything fit.
Furthermore the old out of claiming Irenaeus was, for some insane reason, referring to Tiberius Claudius Nero (whose name had changed to Tiberius Julius Caesar when he was adopted by Julius Caeser in 44 BCE) takes a dirt nap thanks to this passage:
But Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judæa in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Cæsar - Against Heresies 1:27:2
Irenaeus then provides this piece of temporal insanity:
"for our Lord was born about the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus" (i.e. 14 CE) - Against Heresies 2:21:3
But a Jesus who had been born in 14 CE been 30 in 44 CE requires ignoring Luke 3:1 which clearly states "It was in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius’ reign" (28/29 CE) was when Jesus was about 30 years old. Irenaeus is clearly making theological arguments with history and logic going out the window. The efforts to make statements like this fit history require insane disregard of history to even work. Augustus was originally called Octavian and didn't get the title name Augustus until 27 BCE.
- Salvation - "The Gospel" is often used as a synonym for a salvation message in particular, rather than the four Gospels in general.
- Compare for example: Espín, Orlando O.; Nickoloff, James B., eds (2007). An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies. Michael Glazier Books. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. p. 501. ISBN 9780814658567. https://books.google.com/books?id=k85JKr1OXcQC. Retrieved 2017-08-26. "For Christians, the four Gospels are not only the most important books in the New Testament, they are the most important books in the Bible."
- See the Wikipedia article on calque.
- Griffin, Bruce W. (1996), "The Paleographical Dating of P-46"
- It probably goes without saying that some Christians believe these 4 accounts were written by the disciples of Jesus, immediately after his death.
- Raymond E. Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament.
- Raymond E. Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament.
- Some scholars think the existing versions of Luke came about as a rebuttal of Marcion's Evangelicon making "our" versions no younger than c 120 CE)
- Harris, Stephen L. (2006). Understanding the Bible (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-296548-3.
- Richard Carrier The Formation of the New Testament Canon
- e.g. JD Crossan, Historical Jesus, Life of a Jewish Peasant; A Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus; W. Blanton, Shadow of the Galilean.
- Richard Carrier. "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story." (6th ed., 2006)
- R.G. Price, 2007-01-03. "Jesus Myth - The Case Against Historical Christ".
- Richard Carrier. (June 14, 2013)"Brown Out: A Christian Reviews Proving History"
- Carrier, Richard (2011) The Date of the Nativity in Luke (6th ed., 2011) Secular Web
- Reverend Kenny Nailimup THE TRIAL THAT NEVER TOOK PLACE
- "12 Reasons Jesus’ Trial Was Illegal" part 1, part 2 The Restored Church of God
- Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin, 9:1
- Did Jesus Even Exist? (Carrier's Missouri State University lecture) YouTube
- Lena Einhorn, PhD (Nov.17-20, 2012) 'Jesus and the "Egyptian Prophet"' Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting
- A.J. 20.113-114; B.J. 2.228-229
- Carrier, Richard (2011) "The Date of the Nativity in Luke (6th ed., 2011)"
- Vermes, Geza (2010) Jesus: Nativity - Passion - Resurrection
- David Goodblatt's "Dating Documents in Herodian Judaea" in Herod and Augustus: Papers Presented at the IJS Conference, 21st-23rd June 2005
- see Aviram Oshri's "Where was Jesus Born?" in Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005 of Archaeology for more details on the Bethlehem of Zebulun idea.
- Irenaeus (c180 CE)Demonstration (74)
- See Robert M Price. "Jesus at the Vanishing Point," in James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy (eds.) The Historical Jesus: Five Views. InterVarsity, 2009, p. 80-81.
- Crossan, John Dominic (1996) Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story pg 94
- Gelb, Norman (2010) Kings of the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Nation pg 205
- "Augustus Caesar, emperor and princeps of the Roman people, died in the forty-first year of his reign, at the age of seventy-six. In that same year, 14 CE,..." - Coogan, Michael D. (2001) The Oxford History of the Biblical World Oxford University Press pg 389