Have a scriptural question? Write to our columnist at witheringtonb@staff.beliefnet.com.

In this column, Ben Witherington answers Beliefnet members' questions about:

  • When were the Gospels written?
  • What are Gnostic gospels?
  • Catholic vs. Protestant canon
  • Many Marys
  • "Today you will be with me in Paradise"
  • Jesus descending to hell
  • The meaning of the word "Yeshua"
  • Blaspheming the Holy Spirit
  • The mark of the Beast
  • Levels of hell?
  • How did Cain and Abel procreate?
  • Is the Bible complete for all?
  • Baptizing in the name of the Trinity
  • "Thou shalt not kill" hypocrisy
  • Holding seances

    Why did the disciples wait so long to write down the Gospels?

    Actually, the canonical Gospels were written down during the lifetime of one or more of the eyewitnesses. It was precisely the dying off of various of the original apostles and eyewitnesses that prompted the writing of the Gospels, beginning about 35 or so years after Jesus' death. We need to remember that very few people were literate in antiquity, and the oral or living word was considered the chief proper means of conveying some important truth. Writing things down was seen as a support for the oral testimony. This also explains why things weren't written down for a while.

    Why are some Gospels accepted as truth, while others--such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mathias--are considered Gnostic heresy? -- Randy R.

    First of all, the historical study of the Gospels requires that we apply critical judgment to all such documents with regard to their historical authenticity. The church, which already existed in the first century A.D., began to critically evaluate such sources early on; Luke 1.1-4 makes this perfectly evident.

    The church evaluated all such documents carefully, and by the second century A.D. there was a collection of the four canonical Gospels circulating as holy writ. The Gospel of Thomas has a very different character compared to the canonical Gospels. It is basically a collection of sayings, and it has a Gnostic flavor that really is different from what we find in the canonical Gospels. There is also no good historical evidence that this gospel was written by Thomas, the member of the Twelve.

    Most scholars believe it arose during the 2nd-century Gnostic crisis in the church. The church was quite concerned that the Gospels included in the canon be either written by an apostle, or be written by those who, like Luke, had close ties with eyewitnesses and the apostles. Obviously gospels produced in the second or third centuries A.D. would fail to meet these criteria.

    Being a Catholic Christian I've often wondered why the various versions of Holy Writ are different from the Catholic Bible. If the Bible is an inspired document, then how could Martin Luther re-edit it without violating that sanctity? --Ray C.

    The Catholic Bible does not differ from the Protestant Bible with regard to the New Testament, nor does it disagree about which books should be included as part of the Old Testament. There are, however, several books that are considered deuterocanonical in the Catholic tradition which are included between the Old Testament and New Testament. About the inspiration and authority of these books there has been debate, not merely since the Protestant Reformation, but long before it. For example, the Orthodox churches also have some issues regarding which deuterocanonical books should be included in the canon.


    How many 'Marys' were there in the Bible?

    Properly speaking, there are no Marys in the Bible. By this I mean that the name 'Mary' is a modern form of the Jewish name 'Miriam.' There are, however, plenty of Miriams in the Bible, such as the sister of Moses who was a judge and a prophetess. The mother of Jesus, Miriam from Magdala, and other Miriams in the New Testament era were named after this Old Testament Miriam.