A few years ago, I read a fascinating science article on a predicted earthquake in the Pacific Northwest that seismologists are calling the Really Big One. For many years, scientists had puzzled over why the region never appeared to have suffered any significant earthquake activity, even though it is part of the geological region known as the Ring of Fire, which encircles nearly the entire Pacific basin and is famous for its earthquakes and volcanos. In recent decades, though, researchers discovered that there was indeed a major Pacific Northwest earthquake in 1700—and that we are now at least seventy-five years overdue for another.
Once the eighteenth-century Cascadia earthquake was scientifically proven, anthropologists and ethnographers started giving credence to oral histories of such an event from the indigenous peoples of the region, who had preserved stories of a massive quake and subsequent flooding from a time before European explorers reached the area. Prior to scientific corroboration, those stories had been treated with skepticism.
It is not only oral stories passed down through generations that can be discounted as evidence for historical events. Sometimes written testimonies get the same skeptical eye. Deniers of the reality of Christ’s resurrection will sometimes claim that there is no historical evidence for it. When Christians point to the Gospels, the deniers discount their reliability because they were written down and preserved by Christians. Even Jesus’ very existence as a historical figure can be dismissed by skeptics for “lack of evidence” because Christians wrote the primary histories of his life.
Entire libraries of books have been written by Catholics and Protestants defending the historical reliability of the Gospels. These authors often dig down deep into the available manuscripts, reporting on their age, the materials used in their creation, the scholarship done to date on ancient literary styles, and other scientific indicators of the Gospels’ credibility. This work is valuable, but it can also be inaccessible for many modern people, who often prefer quick answers to complicated questions.
Is there a way to approach questions on the historical reliability of the Gospels for people who don’t want to read a book or watch a video on the topic? One possible approach is to remind them of the importance of storytelling in human history.
Long before written language existed, humans passed on knowledge through story. Sometimes ancient peoples created myth as a means of explaining natural phenomena that were otherwise inexplicable for them. Through story these myths established important truths—such as that there are reasons why light and dark exist, or why the seasons change. They didn't describe historical events, but they served a necessary purpose in a pre-scientific age by helping people to understand something vital about their world.
Other times, testimony to actual historical events gets preserved in story form. The indigenous people of the North American continent remembered their ancestors who died in a catastrophic event by telling stories of the time the earth shook and salt water flooded the forests, killing all the trees. For generations, historians assumed all of these stories were creation myths, similar to the biblical narrative of a great flood. We now know many of them describe something that really happened in the not-too-distant past.
And then there are the stories that preserve the record of God’s interaction with man. Skeptics often try to sort these stories as either comforting myths or origin tales of uncertain provenance. But, as G. K. Chesterton observed:
If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favor of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism—the abstract impossibility of miracle.
The Second Vatican Council affirmed that there are many different literary forms in Scripture and that scholars may use modern historical-critical methods to “investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture” (Dei Verbum 12). The Gospels, however, come to us from the apostles and preserve the first Christians’ actual experience with the Son of God:
The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (DV 18).
Did the authors of the New Testament intend for us to understand them to be passing on reliable histories of Jesus Christ? St. Luke explicitly said that preserving a record of historical events was his reason for writing his Gospel and the book of Acts (Luke 1:1-4). In fact, he said he was doing so precisely to reassure Theophilus, his first reader, that the stories Theophilus had heard from others were true (vv. 3-4). St. John told his readers three times in the last chapters of his Gospel that the stories he was telling them were true, firsthand experiences of what Jesus said and did (John 19:35, 20:30-31, 21:24-25).
The Gospels are stories of Jesus Christ, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gathered and preserved by the Church that Christ founded to teach in his name. Together with the Church’s Sacred Tradition—our oral history—these stories both preserve historical events and serve to “reveal to all men the knowledge of God and of man and the ways in which God, just and merciful, deals with men” (DV 15). Or, as St. Paul put it:
How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? . . . So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ (Rom. 10:14-17).