Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I was recently on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and our tour guide, Abdul ibn Turghaid, showed us the stone for lack of which Jesus had no place to lay his head and then he showed us the inn where the parable of the Good Samaritan didn’t happen, but would have had it not been a parable. Then we saw two tombs where Jesus rose from the dead. Abdul insisted that Jesus had risen at both tombs. He explained that apparently there was a matinee performance for those who had missed the early morning resurrection. Eventually we made our way past many check points and frowning bureaucrats to a dingy old church in Bethlehem where we stood in line to go down some steps into what seemed to be a basement that was in fact a cave when you looked behind all the tapestries and wall hangings. Come on, now. I have been to enough Christmas pageants to know that Jesus was born in a stable, not a cave. Isn’t that what the Bible says? How do they know what was what after two thousand years? Isn’t most of this stuff made up? The Bible stories don’t agree with each other. I heard one theologian say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then another one said the whole story was made up. How do we know what happened
You don’t know if you’re not a Catholic, or at least in an apostolic church. An apostolic church is one that can trace its origins back to the founding of the Church by Christ through the ministry of the Apostles. We have an early Christian writer, a Greek who was the bishop of a Roman city in what is now France. His Name was Irenaeus of Lyon. He was born around 130 AD. That’s only 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s not a very long time. I know stories that my mother told about her father that go back to 1880. I am an American and we Americans have the memory span of distracted goldfish. If I can remember trivial details that go back 130 years, certainly an ancient Greek or Jewish Christian who was paying attention to the stories for which he eventually would give his life as martyr probably got the story down pretty well from the people who told it. The martyr-bishop Irenaeus was the student of St. Polycarp, born 69AD who was also a martyr. St. Polycarp was a disciple of St John the Apostle. This is what Irenaeus had this to say about apostolic tradition:
....It would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches.... [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul... which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with the Church (of Rome).... inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by them... (Adversus, Book III, Chapter 3)
I quote this text not for my usual smug “Hurray for our team!” purpose for which I usually quote sources, but to point out that 100 years after Christ, remembering and passing on these traditions was very important to Christians. This may be hard to believe for us moderns who can barely remember who won Dancing with the Stars last year, but ancient people valued their history and did their best to preserve it, though their sense of history was different than ours.
You have two questions, “Is Scripture reliable and is Tradition reliable?” The Scriptures, especially the Gospels can be spotty, and even seem to be contradictory at times. The four Gospels leave out details like what color veil did the Blessed Mother wear? (Everyone knows it was blue, because the picture in my grandmother’s bedroom has her wearing a blue robe, the exact color of her blue eyes, framed by her flaxen blond hair.) There are things that just weren’t important to the ancients that we think crucial, like the exact time and date of birth of a poor boy, born in a barn. The great and mighty noted the time and date and place so that they could have their horoscopes prepared. Mary and Joseph apparently weren’t worried about Jesus’ horoscope. They were worried about Herod, who was very interested in the time and place of Jesus birth. I imagine a more important date for the Holy Family was the day they arrived safely in Egypt. The Gospels can be very disappointing if one is looking for gossipy details. Far more disturbing are the apparent contradictions. How many angels were at the resurrection? Did Jesus ascend to heaven from the Mount of Olives or from a hill in Galilee? Was he born in Bethlehem or Nazareth? Why can’t the Bible seem to get it straight if it’s an inspired text? The answer is simple. The first Christians as we have seen from the text of St. Irenaeus handed down exactly what they received.
There are four Gospels that the early Church most respected, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John is distinct from the others and seems to have been addressed to a very specific audience. My theory is that it was aimed at those who thought John the Baptist was the Messiah. It is probably the last Gospel to be written. The other three are called the synoptic Gospels. The word synoptic is a Greek word that means “look alike”. The look alike Gospels are pretty similar but, of the three, only the Gospel of Matthew has ever been thought of as eyewitness testimony. Luke and Mark were not among the twelve apostles. The long-standing tradition is that Mark had been an administrative assistant to St. Peter and that Luke had been a friend and assistant to St. Paul. Have you ever seen a car wreck? I hope not. But if you have, you know that two people describing the same wreck describe it differently. One notices the dent in the back of the car, the other the dent in the front, but not always both and so on. So it was with these very different and very human accounts of the events of the life and ministry of Christ. The three Synoptic Gospels weren’t written, at least in my opinion, as evangelistic tools. The Gospel was an oral phenomenon. St Paul says “if someone teaches another Gospel than the one I preached...” (Galatians 1:9)
The Gospel was shared by word of mouth. The texts we have were taken from a common fund of knowledge about the life of Christ. My theory is that Matthew was aimed at Pharisees to point out that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophesy and was the Messiah. Matthew was written to show that Jesus was the Son of God and Luke was written as a sort of “friend of the court brief” to convince the former High Priest, “your Excellency Theophilus”, a son of Annas and High Priest from AD 37 to AD 41. The theory is that Theophilus was the high priest who delegated Paul’s trip to Damascus to clear up this Christian mess and, to Theophilus’ horror, Paul came back as one of them. Theophilus may have lodged the accusation against Paul with the Roman authorities and Luke, the only non-Hebrew author in the New Testament, wrote Luke/Acts of the Apostles as a two-part defense of Paul requesting that Theophilus withdraw his accusation. Just a theory.
If you think of the Gospels as modern style histories of the life of Jesus, you are going to be disappointed. They are, I believe, documents that were written by their human authors to make certain points about the life of Christ: that He fulfilled the prophetic expectations about the Messiah (Matthew); that He was the Son of God (Mark); that He and His disciple Paul were innocent of the charges (Luke/Acts); and that He, not John the Baptist, was the Messiah, the true Lamb of sacrifice of the true Passover (John). However the Holy Spirit meant, I believe, to show us the aspects of the life of Christ that are necessary for our salvation and redemption. What color Mary’s veil was is not essential to the work of our salvation.
All this doesn’t exactly answer the question, “Are they reliable?” The fact that they seem to be at variance with one another is the proof that they are reliable. That’s the nature of Sacred Tradition. If someone a couple centuries after Christ had tried to polish up the accounts of Christ’s ministry that would be suspicious. They said, “No, this is what we have received, this is what we hand on to you, whole and entire.” The small apparent discrepancies are not very important and are probably quite reconcilable. The four canonical Gospels are unedited because they are eyewitness accounts made by human beings, though inspired and used by the Holy Spirit. Two of them are quite probably eye witness accounts (Matthew and John) and two are probably second hand accounts (Mark and Luke). The Church has, from the very first, been scrupulous to hand down nothing less and nothing more than it received from Christ through the ministry of the apostles, even though that handing down has some questions attached to it. You can trust the Gospels.
As for your question about the places associated with the life of Jesus, that will have to wait until next week!