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Are the Gospels Historical?

Tim Staples

Ugh, the false dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. No, they are not two different people, and yes, the Gospels are an accurate history of the Rabbi from Nazareth.


Cy: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, joined in studio today by Tim Staples, our Director of Apologetics and Evangelization, and the man who produced The Great Disappointment: Understanding the False Doctrines and Failed Prophecies of the Seventh-Day Adventists, that’s out now. A CD set, or you can get it as an MP3 download. Tim, welcome again.

Tim: It is great to be with you.

Cy: Well, I got to let you know that Jesus rose from the dead.

Tim: Amen.

Cy: That is an important matter of faith. It doesn’t really matter if it’s actual history. That, see, it’s a faith thing. Well, now why do you laugh at me? That’s, that’s advanced theology I’m doing right there. Jesus of faith, not the Jesus of history.

Tim: There you go. Unfortunately,

Cy: Or fortunately.

Tim: What Cy Kellett just said is being taught in universities and such, and has been, even in some seminaries, and that’s unfortunate. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the definitive answer in paragraph 643 when it says that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical fact and, in fact, the Catechism says it is impossible not to acknowledge the resurrection as an historical fact. It’s a beautiful section of the Catechism. I recommend you guys read it. I think it begins right around 639 and goes down to about 644. It’s very succinct, maybe 646, right in there. Very succinct, but it gives an awesome amount of information as to why Christ’s resurrection is an historical fact. And the fact is, the evidence is overwhelming.

Cy: Okay, so the evidence that this is a historical fact is overwhelming.

Tim: Overwhelming. In fact, what you want to do, and of course we have limited time here, is you begin with the Christ event, in that we know that Jesus Christ really did live, really did die and is resurrected from the dead because we have incredible, an incredible amount of evidence for all of it. The Resurrection, in particular, has particular evidences that are off the charts. But, for example, if you look at the documents of the New Testament, if you were to examine them–and by the way, some great minds have in fact done this. The great archeologist Sir William Ramsey, for example, who was a skeptic, he looked into Luke-Acts as a skeptic, in the late 19th century, and he said, “I’m going to write a book just showing how this thing is ridiculous from a historical perspective.” And he ended up becoming a Christian in the process, and he wrote an entirely different book which showed how Luke-Acts was the most accurate document he had ever seen in all of his time as professional archeologist who did this stuff for a living. It’s off the charts. So when you examine the New Testament as just a book, we’ll throw faith out the window here and just look at it as a historical document–

Cy: You mean the people, and places, and events that it names.

Tim: Exactly.

Cy: They’re all where they should be, and they’re all related to one another, how they should be and…

Tim: They are, and the evidence for the existence of all the characters in there. It’s, I mean, every time we turn a spade over in the Middle East, we discover something else. Oh my gosh. Just as Saint Paul said, “There it is.” You know, it’s that sort of evidence that’s off the charts when it comes to, and then… you know, just real briefly, you look at the manuscript evidence, for example, for the New Testament, we have over 5,000 manuscripts. By the way, definition of manuscript is something written by hand. Manu, right, in Latin is “hand.” By hand, before the printing press was invented. That’s what a manuscript is. We have over 5,000 documents, manuscripts of the New Testament, which is off the charts. If you compare that to, say, Homer or Plato or any works of antiquity, there’s nothing even close. You’re talking about seven manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a couple, 20 here, 30 here. Five thousand! But not only do you have this many manuscripts written in different languages from different continents and such, all saying essentially the same thing, but you also have the closeness to the original autograph that’s off the charts, because most of the works of antiquity, the oldest manuscript we have is about a thousand years or more removed from the original document.

Cy: Yeah.

Tim: We have manuscripts, or fragments of manuscripts, Cy, that date back, for example, the Bodmer Papyri or the John Ryland’s Papryi, it’s called P52, which is a portion of John’s gospel, dates to within 20, roughly, years of the original autograph.

Cy: This is unheard of. Unheard of, nothing like that in the ancient world.

Tim: The Bodmer Papyri, that has almost the entirety of John’s gospel, has the first 14 chapters and then good portions of the last seven chapters, and it dates, as well, within a few decades of, maybe 40, 50 years, of the original autograph. I mean it’s things like this, when you look at the manuscript evidence, it’s off the charts. When you look at the antiquity, off the charts, and then when you look at corroborating evidence, it is off the charts to the point that even the skeptics of the New Testament have to acknowledge its antiquity and authenticity.

Cy: Yeah.

Tim: And so when you get into even the skeptical accounts, who attack the new Testament, everyone takes, as a given, “Okay, we’re dealing with historical events here,” because those who attempt to argue that they were not, they, you know-

Cy: That’s flakey.

Tim: -they get blown out of the water right from the start. But then when you start examining the characters themselves, that’s when you start to get to–and I wish we had more time to talk about all the other events of the New Testament–but when it gets to the Resurrection, which as you said at the opening, this is the most important thing from an apologetics perspective because, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, “If Christ be not raised from the dead, we are of all men, most pitiable.”

Tim: “And if Christ is not raised, you are still in your sins.” And in fact he puts his own, and the apostles’, reputations on the line because he says, in essence, that we’re a bunch of liars who are misrepresenting God. And so Paul really lays it out there that the Resurrection is an historical event. Everything, you know-

Cy: Hinges on.

Tim: Hinge, that’s a good word. Everything hinges on this. And so when you look, then, at the evidence, this is when it becomes really exciting, because what we have are over 500 eyewitnesses documented in the New Testament, the apostles themselves and over 500 others who were eyewitnesses of the resurrection. And if we just consider the apostles, Cy, these are guys–we could throw in the holy women, as well–these were men, and this is something I think a lot of the modern skeptics don’t even consider when they’re investigating this, these men were devastated by the Crucifixion and death of our Lord. Because if you look at, for example, the apostles, each and every one of them were raised in a culture where the Messiah who was to come was going to be a King who would conquer the world, and Israel would be at the helm with the Messiah ruling over the whole world. This was their vision of the Messiah. They accentuated texts like Isaiah chapter two, “the wolf will lie down with the lamb,” and all of those texts that talk about ruling and reigning and all–they kind of put to the side Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Wisdom chapter two, all of the suffering servant texts. “Well, we’ll just kind of leave those aside,” as human nature is wont to do, we don’t like considering the pain and death stuff.

Tim: And so when Jesus starts saying, if you look in the gospels, when Jesus, as Matthew 16 says, especially after he promised the keys to Peter, I find that to be fascinating, it says from that time forward, he began to emphasize his death and resurrection. Not that he didn’t say it before. He said it all the way back to John 2, after his first miracle. “Destroy this temple, in three days I’ll raise it up again.” But he begins to really emphasize it. And when he does, what is the response of the apostles, Cy? Peter? The first one who really gets this strong message. He says, “Not so, Lord. You’re not going to die. Are you kidding me?” And Jesus has to rebuke him. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” In fact, these guys were so inundated, inculcated into this idea, that even after the 40 days, at the very end in Matthew 28:17, you see this also in Acts 1:6, right before the Ascension, they say, “Lord, are you going to establish the kingdom now,” right? I mean they’re still, I mean, this is why it’s important to note that these guys were absolutely devastated.

Tim: And so when people look at the Resurrection, and they say, “Okay, look, they’re all claiming Jesus raised from the dead. I’m not buying this.” When they start to come up with–look, if you’re going to say Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, well then you got to explain the facts as they’re laid out here. The fact is, we know Jesus was crucified. He was seen crucified by the Romans, by the Jews, eyewitnesses. He was laid in a tomb. We have all these eyewitnesses. What happened at the–because something happened in those three days, between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, something happened. These apostles, who were absolutely devastated–I used to think, Cy, that they were cowards. They all ran, and the scripture does say, I mean obviously, they all fled. Peter denied him three times, and they all fled. But I’ve revised my thinking there. I do not believe that they were cowards. In fact, Peter took a sword up. He was ready to fight. It was Jesus who told him, “Put away the sword. I have to die.” And I think that devastated Peter. He’s like, “What? He’s…” And they-

Cy: That makes no sense, right.

Tim: -they were ready to die for Jesus and take up arms, but they were so devastated. They fled. They were hiding for fear of the Jews. They were con–to say confused is an understatement. When you read things by some of the skeptics who say, “Oh, they probably came and they stole the body.” And by the way, this is the first skeptic’s argument against the Resurrection. It was the one put out by the Jews themselves. And we see it in Matthew’s Gospel recorded in Matthew 28, right? The guards themselves were told by the Jews, “and they paid them off to say that they fell asleep, and the apostles came and stole the body.”

Tim: Now, can I just say, Cy, that this has to be, in all the annals of human history, the dumbest account, ever, for a coverup. I mean, these guys, these guys made Nixon look like a genius. All right? Because think about it, okay, this is going to be our answer, “We were all asleep.” Okay, if you were asleep, how do you know who stole the body? Can you help me? All right? “We were all asleep and they came and stole the body.” This is absurd, but when you can just look on his face and see that that’s ridiculous.

Tim: But when you understand these men were devastated, their whole world has collapsed. They are in fear, they’re in hiding. Are these the guys that are going to get together–and mind you, not only do you have to get the 12, or the 11 because Judas had committed suicide, not only do you have to get the 11 on track here, but the holy women, the women who also saw the resurrected Lord and 500 other eyewitnesses. Dude, if you’re going to do a crime, the key is: keep it to two or three guys. When you start getting up over 500, it’s really hard to keep your story straight. And the fact is, these men, including the 500, there is not a single recorded account of one of them ever denying the truth of the Resurrection. In fact, these men, the apostles themselves, each and every one of them would go to their deaths. If this was a lie, if they somehow cobbled themselves together and got enough people together to go and overpower the Roman guards–which, oh my gosh, come on.

Tim: Now the idea of the guards falling asleep of course is ridiculous, but let’s say they did. Do you understand that those guards would’ve been put to death immediately? Remember, in Acts chapter 16, we have the account of Paul and Silas praising God, and an earthquake hits and the prison walls fall down and they’re ready to go free. And what did the guards do? The guards were ready to kill themselves because they knew the punishment was death for allowing a prisoner to escape. These Roman guards that were put there, they had a massive stone put over the entrance. It was sealed with a Roman seal. And you’ve got crack troops there. This is what they do. If you are going to try to come and overpower them, you better be ready. And in fact, I think the Bar-Kokhba revolt of 135, and other revolts, you quickly discover whether the revolt that led to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, or the Bar-Kokhba in 135, the Romans didn’t play games.

Cy: No, they just kill everybody, crucify everybody, piles of bodies.

Tim: The whole idea of the apostles somehow overpowering the Romans is absurd. The Romans falling asleep, it’s absurd. The fact is, these guys would’ve had to have, if they were asleep, okay, we got to sneak up and roll a massive stone that we know requires many people because remember, when the women came to finish the job of preparing Jesus’ body, cause they had to leave in haste because the Sabbath was approaching, they said, “Who is going to help us to roll away the stone?” Because all those women together could not roll that massive stone. So you gotta do that while the guards are snoozing there, we’re going to roll that massive stone back, and they’re not going to wake up, of course. And then we got to steal Jesus’ body. And then you’ve got to explain, okay, what do you do then with this corpse? Right? So what do you, I mean, because all you got to do is produce a corpse, right? And the jig is up. And then, again, you would have to have all these men willing to die for what they know is a lie. This is absurd. And in fact, this is what, we’re only scratching the surface, Cy, but this is what has led even skeptics like the rabbi Joseph Klausner, for example, the famous skeptic who acknowledged in the early 20th century that there is no way that these men, when you look at the history of the apostles, and their subsequent lives, it would be absurd to say that these men were lying. These men, their integrity. And this is a Jewish rabbi and scholar who says, “o,” he came up with the theory, “they just, it was a misunderstanding.”

Cy: Oh, okay.

Tim: They actually went to the wrong tomb, and they thought Jesus was gone because they went to the wrong tomb.

Cy: And that Jews didn’t point this out to them, or the Romans later, like, “Excuse me.”

Tim: Or how about Joseph of Arimathea. Yeah, the Roman guards that were there. Everybody was there. How about his mother, you think? Go ahead. I forgot. And the women who, as a matter of record, they had to leave because of the Sabbath oncoming. They knew exactly where to go. Three days later, they went to the tomb. I mean, again, Cy, that’s just another example. Along with, you know, the famous “swoon” theory that actually, what happened is, Jesus, he had lost a lot of blood. He was, when he was hanging on the cross, he didn’t really die, he passed out. And when they took him down, they put him in the tomb, the cool night air, kind of revived him. And then, “Hey, I’m alive.” I mean, wow. And so then he would’ve had to push the stone away all by himself, get by the Roman guards and all, being in a state, beaten half to death. And then he would have to appear to people over 40 days. He would have to be a fraud, or maybe concoct the fraud, with the apostles. I mean, once again, the answers of the skeptics, or the alleged answers of the skeptics, require more faith than the actual Resurrection. The bottom line is, Cy, for lack of time here, when you examine the historical record, and this is the Catechism’s point in paragraph 639 and following: when you examine all of the historical record, the only thing that makes sense is the Resurrection. This is what we mean by “it is an historical fact,” because the evidence, my friends, is overwhelming. To use a legal phrase, that we’re all aware of in the United States of America, it is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And any other alleged answer ends up falling into tomfoolery.

Cy: Tim Staples, thank you very, very much.

Tim: I just wish we had more time. It felt like we just got started.

Cy: I know, because you right. It is just scratching the surface. There’s so much. But thank God, He is risen.

Tim: Amen.

Cy: Because all the rest of it falls into place once you know that. Thanks for watching us here, for listening here at Catholic Answers Focus. If you like us, will you give us a “like” wherever you get your download, your podcast, give us a like, maybe share it with someone else, maybe leave a comment. All those things help to grow this podcast, and you can go over to CatholicAnswersLive.com and put your email address in there, and we’ll start sending you free stuff. We’ll see you next time, god willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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