Are Today’s Gospels the Same as the Originals?


Gospel manuscript evidence dates back to the lifetimes of the Disciples with a fragment of Matthew dating as early as 50 AD, just 10 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Earliest of the nearly complete Gospel manuscripts are dated about 300 years later.[1] How can there be confidence today’s Gospels bare the same content as the originals?

Patristics is the science of comparing early Christian writings to Gospel manuscripts in an effort to bridge the gap of the “dark period” – the 300 year gap from the originals to the first complete manuscripts.

Writings or letters called “Epistles” were a common means of written communication by second and third generation disciples known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers.[2] Within these Epistles are quoted phrases and verses that also appear in today’s Gospels.

As a basis of fact, these phrases and verses had to come from older, preexisting Gospel sources. As such, they serve as “witnesses” that attest or testify to the content of older, now non-existent Gospel manuscripts, in some cases quite possibly the originals.[3]

Expert Bible textual critics, Westcott and Hort, viewed patristics to be of “the highest degree exceptional” in their comparisons.[4] Four Epistle author sources – Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias – personally knew some of the Apostles, the original Disciples of Jesus.[5]

Clement of Rome authored The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians written in Rome to the church in Corinth, Greece, around 96 AD. It is named for Clement who studied under the Apostle Paul and knew Luke, the presumed author of the Gospel bearing his name.[6]

Another is The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians written in Smyrna, Turkey, to the church in Philippi, Greece. Named for its author, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, one of the original Disciples of Jesus and the presumed author of that Gospel.

Polycarp received teaching from the Apostle John as well as other Apostles and met others who had witnessed the ministry of Jesus. Date of authorship is unknown although it had to be written before Polycarp’s martyrdom in the arena of Smyrna about 155 AD. At his execution, Polycarp professed to have served his King (Jesus) for 86 years, was burned alive by Rome in 156 AD.[7]

An example of how patristics work can be seen using the three verses of Luke 6:36-38 which are quoted in both the Epistles of Clement, Corinthians, and Polycarp, Philippians, two authors who were separated by time and hundreds of miles. Their quotes are compared with two current-day Bible translations:[8] 

The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians [9]

“forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you;

as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you;

with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you.”

Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians [10]

“Judge not, that ye be not judged;

forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you;

be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy;

with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again…”

King James Version, Luke 6:36-38:

Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful, v36

Judge not and ye shall not be judged…v 37

…forgive and ye shall be forgiven.v37

For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.v38

New American Standard Bible:  Luke 6:36-38:

Be merciful just as your Father is merciful…v36

Do not judge, and you will not be judged…v37

…pardon and you will be pardoned. v37

…For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.v38

Attestations from Corinthians and Philippians Epistles are not word perfect matches, but neither are the more modern KJV and NASB translations. Both Epistles referenced Luke to support the message of their letters that match very closely even though the quotes were not intended to be a transcription of Luke’s Gospel.[11]

A treasure trove of patristic attestation appears in Adversus Haereses  (Against Heresies) written about 180 AD by Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp. The writing quotes from over 600 verses in all four Gospels and over 300 verses from other New Testament books.[12] To be able to quote these verses, Irenaeus had to be referencing existing sources.[13]

Patristics has a secondary consequence – producing evidence that challenges a theory alleging the Gospels and Christianity evolved from legend over a long period of time.[14] Lack of historical sources to validate the aspects of a potentially legendary story and the time span required to develop a “legend” are both refuted by the science of patristics.

Do the Gospel verses quoted in the Epistles written by early church leaders provide strong evidence that today’s Gospel content is consistent with the original manuscripts?


Updated May 6, 2024.

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[1]“The Magdalen Papyrus P64: possibly the earliest known fragments of the New Testament (or of a book!)” University of Oxford | Magdalen College.  30 October 2013. <>  “The Magdalen P64 Papyrus Fragments of the Gospel of Matthew (Year ~ 50 A.D.).”  Archaeology. <>  Smith, Ben C. “Gospel manuscripts – The manuscripts extant for the four canonical gospels.”  13 Jan. 2014. <>
[2] Richardson, Cyril C. “Early Christian Fathers.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <>
[3] “Patristics.”  Merriam-Webster. 2017 <>   Gloag, Paton J.  Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  <>  Foster. “Quotations in the Apostolic Fathers.”
[4] Westcott, Brooke F. & Hort, John A. The New Testament in the Original Greek. “Introduction.” CR page 112.>
[5] Foster, Lewis. “Quotations in the Apostolic Fathers.” The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary. 1969. Volume XV —  Number  4.  <>
[6] Richardson. “Early Christian Fathers.”  Schaff, Philip. “Introductory Note to the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 13 July 2005.  <>   Schaff.  “Introductory Note to the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.  2005.  <>
[7] Schaff, Philip. “Introduction Note to the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.”  Kirby, Peter. “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” Early Christian Writings. 2017. <>
[8] Kirby, Peter.  “Gospel of Luke.” <>  Kirby, Peter. “Gospel of Mark.” <
[9] Clement of Rome (aka Clement I). “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” Classics Ethereal Library. 2005.  <
[10] Polycarp. “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippian.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <>   Davis, Glen. “Polycarp of Smyrna.” 2008. <>  Lake, Kirsopp. “Polycarp to the Philippians.”  <>
[11] Polycarp. “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippian.”
[12] Davis, Glen. “Irenaeus of Lyons.”  25 July 2008.  <ædia Britannica. 2021. <>
[13] Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies.   Schaff, Philip. “Introductory Note to Irenæus Against Heresies.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.   <> Schaff, Philip. “Introduction Note to the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.” Goodspeed, Edgar J., “Irenaeus.  Proof of The Apostolic Preaching.” Ante Nice Fathers.  2014. <>  Davis, Glen. “Irenaeus of Lyons.”  Westcott & Hort.  The New Testament in the Original GreekIntroduction; pages 113, 194-195.  Gloag. Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  “General Introduction.”
[14] Rochford, James M. Evidence Unseen. Legend Theory: “The resurrection was a legend that grew over time.” n.d. <>   Billingsley, Greg. “Alternate Theories To The Resurrection – The Legend Theory.”  2012.  <>

The Gospels – Just Recycled Material?


Similarities between certain passages of one Gospel found in another, sometimes word for word, are eyebrow-raising characteristics. These characteristics fuel conspiracy theories saying this is evidence of Christian collaborators making up a Messiah story.

Matthew, Mark and Luke – called the Synoptic Gospels – contain “parallel passages” where content similarities typically appear.[1] On full display in the synoptic Gospels is the distinctive Jewish literary practice of grouping content by topic instead of chronologically.[2]

In literary circles of Antiquity, written materials were considered communal property available to be freely used by other literati with or without citations.[3] The Synoptics use of a common source or sources is actually a reflection of legitimate writing protocol of the times.[4] An excellent point of comparison are the major Jewish works written during the same era – Josephus, the Talmud Mishnah, and other New Testament books.[5]

Most authorities agree the Gospel of John is an authentic eyewitness account written independently of the Synoptic Gospels and as such serves as a calibration source.[6] Writing he did not intend to cover all the things Jesus had done, still some critics use John’s omission of events found in the other three Gospels to challenge its credibility.[7]

Luke’s author openly acknowledged using “handed down” information, a practice common to Jewish and other cultures. Rabbi sages “handed down” oral interpretations of the Law over many generations until committed to writing in the Talmud.[8] Josephus wrote that he used expert sources “for the proof of what I say” in support of his writings.[9]

Jewish literary works used quotations as a means to cite sources in a time before footnotes or end notes came into existence.[10] Throughout the New Testament quotations of the Jewish Scripture Septuagint translation can be seen preceded by the phrase “it is written.” Quoting was also a practice also used in the Talmud and by Josephus.[11]

Literary authenticity and integrity, Josephus wrote, could be achieved by following the role model of Moses who took unexciting legal topics and made them meaningful and understandable while not adding or taking anything away.[12] Moses took the source material of God’s Law handed down to him at Mt. Sinai and committed it to writing while interweaving it with factual, interesting Hebrew stories thereby producing a distinct literary work.[13]

Unique qualities found through simple literary analysis are obvious at the beginning of each Gospel.[14] Matthew, written for a Jewish audience, starts the genealogy of Jesus with Abraham. Luke, written to a Gentile audience, worked the genealogy of Jesus backward to Adam.[15]

Mark begins by immediately declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then ties a prophecy to his introduction of John the Baptist. John’s well-known opening says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[16]

Quantifying the differences through deeper literary analysis, over 35% of the content of Matthew is unique to the Synoptics – not found in Mark or Luke.[17] Nearly 50% of the verses in Luke are not common to either Matthew or Mark.[18] Slightly less than 40% of the content of Mark is not shared by Matthew and Luke while nearly 8% of Mark is completely unique content.[19]

A fascinating characteristic of authenticity is demonstrated through miracles and parables. Contrary to popular perceptions, they have less in common among the Gospels than they have in common.

Of the 35 miracles recorded in the Gospels, only one is common to all four – the feeding of the 5000. One of the most, if not the most, famous miracle is Jesus walking on water and it does not appear in Luke![20]

Only 10 miracles, less than a third, are common to all three Synoptics. Almost half, 16 in all, are uniquely reported by a given author – 3 by Matthew, 2 by Mark, 5 by Luke and 6 by John.

Parables can be tricky to quantify (was it an illustration or a parable?) so the lists vary somewhere in the range of 30.[21] Only 5-7 of the parables are common to all three Synoptics.[22] Instead, about 70% of the parables are unique to either Matthew or Luke alone, Matthew having 10-12 and Luke with 15-17. One parable is exclusive to Mark while John does not recount any.[23]

Gospel authors produced literary works about Jesus of Nazareth that are distinctive yet corroborating. Are the Gospels no more than recycled information or do they meet the standard of literary authenticity?


Updated December 15, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


[1] Smith, Ben C. “Gospel manuscripts.” <> Gloag, Paton J.  Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Page 5. < “Synoptic Gospels.” < “The Book of Matthew.” Quartz Hill School of Theology. Mareghni, Pamela. “Different Approaches to Literary Criticism.” < >
[2] Reed, Annette Yoshiko.  Pseudepigraphy, Authorship, and ‘The Bible’ in Late Antiquity. Pages 478 – 489. <>  Last accessed 9 May 2014.  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  Pages 9, 23-38. <>
[3] Josephus, Flavius.  Against Apion.  Book I. <>   “Custom Cheating and Plagiarism essay paper writing service.” <>  Cummings, Michael J. “Did Shakespeare Plagiarize?” <>
[4] Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Pages 50-51.
[5] “Josephus, Flavius.”  <>  Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah. “Introduction to Mishneh Torah.”  <>   A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud.  Glossary:  “Mishnah.:  Ed. A. W. Streane.  <>  Segal, Eliezer.  A Page from the Babylonian Talmud.  “The Mishnah” and “The Gemara (Talmud).” <>  Spiro, Ken.  “History Crash Course #39: The Talmud.” 4 Aug. 2001.<>   Valentine, Carol A. “The Structure of the Talmud Files.” <>  Chase, Jeffrey S. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” <>
[6] “Gospel of John.”  <>  “The Book of John.” Quartz Hill School of Theology.> Smith, Barry D. “The Gospel of John.”  <>
[7] John 20:30.
[8] Maimonides, Moses.  Mishneh Torah.  <>   Chase. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.”  Josephus.  Against Apion. Book I, #6-7.
[9] Josephus. Against Apion. Book I.
[10] Pearse, Roger, ed. “Tacitus and his manuscripts.”  <>  “Septuagint.”  Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. <>
[11] Josephus.  Against Apion. Book I.  Reed.  Pseudepigraphy, Authorship, and ‘The Bible’ in Late Antiquity.  Chase. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” Fausset, Andrew R.  “New Testament.”  Fausset Bible Dictionary. <>  Irenaeus of Lyons.  Against Heresies. Book III. Chapter XXI.3, also XXI.2.  <>  “Septuagint.” 2014.  <>  Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.1-6, 13-1.  < Babylonian Talmud. Rodkinson translation. Book 4, Tracts Megilla Chapter I. <>  Benner, Jeff A. “The Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text.” <>  Lundberg, Marilyn J. “The Leningrad Codex. <>   “Septuagint.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. <>
[12] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jew. “Preface” #3
[13] Carr, A. The Gospel According to Matthew, Volume I.  Page XIX.  <,%20The%20Gospel%20According%20to%20St.%20Matthew&f=false>
[14] “The Four Gospels.” <>
[15] Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Book III.  Chapters I, IX, XXI.   “New Testament.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  <>  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Pages ix, 39.
[17] “Matthew.”  Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary.  <>  “Gospel of Matthew.”  <>  Carr. The Gospel Accouding to Matthew, Volume I.  Pages XVIII – XIX.  Gloag, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.  Pages 32-33.
[18] “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <>
[19] “Mark, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <>  Swete, Henry Barclay.  The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices.  Pages XIX, LXXIV.<>
[20] “Luke.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.   Ryrie. Charles C., ed.  Ryrie Study Bible.  “The Miracles of Jesus.” 1978. Aune, Eilif Osten. “Synoptic Gospels.” < >
[21] Sween, Don and Nancy.  “Parable.”  n.d. <>
[22] “Parables” Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  <> “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  “Parables.”  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. <> Ryrie. “The Miracles of Jesus.”  Aune.  “Synoptic Gospels.”
[23] Smith, B. D. “The Gospel of John”, F. 5.3.3.  Sween.  “Parable.” Swete. The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices. Pages LXXIV, 83.  “Luke, Gospel according to.”  Easton’s Bible Dictionary. “Parable.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.  Ryrie. “The Parables of Jesus.”