The Christian claim is that the Gospels tell the real story. But in a secular age such as ours, many argue that, whatever they are, the Gospels are certainly not historically reliable.
Does it really matter? After all, it’s not necessary for a religion to be historically true for it to be useful. In fact, even a false religion can serve to some extent as a good. Insofar as any religion tells the truth about God, man, or the world, it may serve as a bearer of light and goodness. This perhaps explains why so many good, truth-seeking people have turned to Islam, Mormonism, and other non-Christian religions. They have found in these religions something that has resounded with their minds and hearts. Thus, while Christianity offers the fullness of these three transcendental values, it is not the only religion to have at least something of them.
With these foregoing observations in mind, the Catechism of the Catholic Church references the Second Vatican Council when it teaches that “the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these [non-Christian] religions as ‘a preparation for the gospel.’”
But as long as you’re being fed with truth and goodness, does it really matter how “historical” your religion is?
Not every non-Christian holds a strong skeptical stance toward those same narratives. Some see something uniquely true and good in the Bible but remain neutral as to whether the events captured in them really happened.
But this is not what the Christian does. Nor could he. Christians read the New Testament Gospels as historically climactic—that is to say, inside the New Testament reside divinely inspired accounts of the most important events ever to have transpired in space and time. The Christian must believe that the Gospels tell the real story of what happened in the first-century life of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. As Pope Benedict XVI put it throughout his writings, when a Christian begins his profession of faith with Credo—“I believe”—he is making a rich and radical claim about history. So there can be no such thing as a Christian who is uncommitted to the historicity of the Gospels.
Christianity is essentially and irrevocably concerned with history. But the Gospels as front-to-back historically rigorous texts is hardly the default view today. Even many (if not most) New Testament scholars in recent times have argued that the Gospels should not be read as historically accurate narratives. Many have argued that the Jesus of history was quite different from the “legendary” miracle-working Jesus portrayed in the biblical texts. Some of the best-known modern theologians who propose a skeptical view of the gospels are John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, and Bart Ehrman. Although these critics would find much to argue about among themselves (their views, though skeptical, are still significantly different in nuance), they reject in unison the bodily resurrection of Christ as a real, historical event.
This gets to the crux of why the historicity of the Gospels does in fact matter. Authorship, dating, biases, apparent or real contradictions—all of these themes are important and merit rigorous scholarly inquiry. But however one answers such questions, they all boil down to one: did Jesus rise bodily from the dead or not?
St. Paul said it first, and he said it best: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). For even if we cannot be certain who wrote the Gospels, even if we do not know precisely when they were written, even if the authors did indeed write with strong biases, and even if there are apparent contradictions in the Bible, it still could well be that Jesus did rise from the dead.
Not to downplay these questions scholars ask. How such inquiries pan out will strengthen or weaken hypotheses about what really happened two thousand years ago after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. So such questions must be asked, addressed, and debated. Every person must hear both sides.
Christian New Testament scholars like Gary Habermas, Craig Blomberg, Michael Licona, Richard Burridge, N.T. Wright, and Brant Pitre have excelled in arguing—often publicly, in the arena of debate, with skeptical opponents—for the historical credibility of the New Testament accounts.
Nonetheless, the debate continues. And the debate should continue, for there is no more important question. As iron sharpens iron, these debates force believers (and non-believers) to take a long, hard look at what they believe to be true. Such exercises in open critical thinking can pay big dividends. Healthy, hearty, charitable debate is an exercise we should all undertake for ourselves out of reverence for the truth. If we do not enter into it ourselves, we should at least watch others do so. For the truth will out, as Shakespeare wrote, and this is especially the case when friends, together, actively seek it.
In the end, inquiring into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is more than a historical matter. It is a metaphysical matter, too, and this is often what prevents people from seeing the Gospels as they really are. It is often metaphysical presuppositions, perhaps assumed rather than proven, that taint how the texts are actually read. A person who does not believe that miracles are possible in principle will necessarily seek alternate explanations for why such supernatural events are in the text. He will not readily accept that they are there because that is what really happened.
At bottom, the Resurrection—and indeed, the gospel as a whole—communicates something that is both metaphysical and historical. But it is historical. And it must be, or at least we must hope it to be, if we desire the best possible news to be true news. That is why there is no more important question, no more important debate, than this question. For if the Gospels do not tell the truth—if they give us real psychology and real ethics but not the real story—then we are still in our sins, and our faith is in vain. There would be no greater tragedy for humanity than that.