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The Reliability of the Gospels

How to answer critics who say the Gospels don't qualify as historical records.

The historical reliability of the Gospels is essential to Christianity. If the historical records of Jesus’ life are not trustworthy as accounts of things that actually happened, there would be little reason to believe that Christianity is true. Sure, there would be the testimony of oral tradition. But skeptics aren’t privy to such testimony. So, promotion of the Christian faith in our secular world rises or falls with its historical validity. 

Skeptics want to view the historical records of Jesus’ life as untrustworthy. The late Christopher Hitchens, for example, opined, “The New Testament is itself a highly dubious source” (God Is Not Great, 142). H.L. Mencken, the late American journalist, referred to the New Testament as “a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents” (Treatise on the Gods, 175).  

This view, widely held today, constitutes a major obstacle to encountering the truth of Jesus. It’s imperative that we remove this obstacle to prepare a way for inquiry into who Jesus is. The strategies below can be summarized in the acronym AID (attributable to bible scholar Craig Blomberg): 

  • Able: the Gospel writers were able to write reliable history.  
  • Intention: the Gospel writers intended to write reliable history. 
  • Did: the Gospel writers did write reliable history. 

Strategy 1:

Show that the Gospel writers were able to write reliable history. 

 There are three reasons to believe that the Gospel writers were able to write reliable history. 

First, they were either eyewitnesses, as in the case of Matthew and John, or close associates of eyewitnesses. Mark was a disciple of Peter (see Eusebius, Church History 3:39:15) and Luke was a companion of Paul (Phil. 23-24; Col. 4:10-11, 14; 2 Tim. 4:11), each having close collaboration with the apostles. Eyewitness testimony is gold for historiographical research. 

If someone doubts the traditional authorship of the Gospels (that Matthew, John, etc., actually wrote the Gospels attributed to them), Bible scholar Dr. Brant Pitre has shown that all of the ancient manuscripts have the traditional names ascribed to them (The Case for Jesus, 16). Furthermore, it would have made no sense to have misrepresented the authorship of at least three of those Gospels, since Matthew was a despised tax collector, and Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses. 

Second, the Gospels were written shortly after the events recorded. All historians agree that the closer the written records of an event are to the event, the more accurate they likely are. Such proximity puts the writer in a better position to remember what happened. Also, it decreases the chance of legendary influences altering the core facts.  

So how close in time was Gospel authorship to the events the Gospels record? We can start with Matthew and Mark, which could not have been written any later than A.D. 68. The early Christian writer Irenaeus makes clear that Matthew wrote his Gospel while Peter and Paul were still alive (Against Heresies 3.1.1), and Peter and Paul died during Nero’s persecution, which lasted from 64 to 68. Most scholars agree that Mark wrote his Gospel before Matthew, placing it prior to A.D. 68 as well.  

Evidence suggests that Matthew and Mark may have written their Gospels even earlier—before A.D. 62. Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles after he wrote his Gospel, and he wrote his Gospel after Matthew and Mark’s Gospels (see Luke 1:1-4). In Acts 28:16-31, Luke describes how he was with Paul while Paul was under his two-year house arrest in Rome, which many scholars date to around A.D. 60, putting the composition of Acts at A.D. 62 (Craig Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” in Jesus Under Fire, 29).  

Some scholars even push Paul’s imprisonment back two years, thus dating Acts to the year 60 (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology). Upon finishing the chapter, and consequently the book, we notice an abrupt ending. 

Luke doesn’t give any information as to what happened after Paul’s appeal to Caesar—nothing on Caesar’s response, or Paul’s death, which took place a few years later. Wouldn’t Luke, who saw it fit to record the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7) and James the Greater (Acts 12:2), have written about Paul’s martyrdom, especially after devoting ten chapters to the events leading up to and including his arrest and trials?  

The likely conclusion we can draw from the omission of the remaining events of Paul’s life is that Luke was writing at the time of Paul’s house arrest and didn’t continue afterward. If this is true, we must date the Acts of Apostles no later than A.D. 62, which dates Luke’s Gospel to earlier than 62 and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark earlier still.  

This means that eyewitnesses surely would have still been alive at the time the synoptic Gospels were composed, thus giving the Gospel writers reliable sources to consult with and restricting legendary developments. So it’s reasonable to conclude that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written no more than thirty-five years after the events they record, and likely even within thirty years.  

These documents stand out as far more reliable than other ancient texts that are considered reliable. For example, the biographies of Alexander the Great and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) are roughly 400 years removed from the events they record. The six sources for the life of Caesar Augustus range from ninety to 200 years after the events they record.  

Comparatively, shouldn’t we trust the synoptic Gospels more, which are no more than thirty-five years removed from events, and John’s Gospel, which is roughly sixty years removed? I think the answer is clear: a thirty-five or sixty-year gap is far preferable to 400 years when evaluating the historical reliability of ancient documents. 

Third, lest a skeptic think that even thirty-five years is too long to accurately remember Jesus’ words and actions, we can appeal to the following points: 

  • The apostles were students of Jesus who lived with him for three years and received daily instruction. 
  • The apostles would have frequently rehearsed Jesus’ teaching in their own teaching and preaching before writing them down (see Matt. 10:1-23) and thus would have solidified them in their memory. 
  • The apostles lived in a culture in which the ability to memorize and retain large amounts of information was a highly prized and practiced skill. Ancient Greeks memorized epics from Homer (Craig Keener, “Gospel Truth: The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” in Come Let Us Reason, ch. 7), Seneca the Elder could repeat 2,000 names in exactly the sequence in which he had just heard them (Seneca, Controversia, 1. Pref. 2, 19), and the Jews memorized large portions of the Old Testament (Keener, ibid.).  
  • The Gospel writers had oral sources that predate their final written form (Stephenson H. Brooks, Matthew’s Community: The Evidence of His Special Sayings Material). 
  • It is likely the apostles would have made written notes while traveling with Jesus (see Blomberg, Jesus Under Fire, ch.1). 
  • There was leadership present to ensure faithful transmission.  

 At this point, a skeptic may concede that the Gospel writers were able to record events accurately. But was it their intention to write history? They could have been intending to write folklore. This brings us to strategy two. 

Strategy 2:

Show that the Gospel writers intended to write reliable history. 

There are three reasons to think the Gospel writers intended to write reliable history. The first is that the Gospel writers record details that are not commonly found in myths and legends. 

Why would the Gospels include actual historical events (e.g., the Passover, the festival of tabernacles), and historical individuals with high-ranking positions (e.g., Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the high priest, Caesar Augustus, Tiberius Caesar) if they were writing mythology? 

Legends or myths usually are not concerned with real-life details. In this case, the events and names in the Gospels would have been easily subject to verification during the first century. These facts suggest that the Gospel authors meant to root their narratives in history. 

A second reason is that at least two Gospel writers explicitly express their intention to write history. For example, John says, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe” (John 19:35). 

Luke also makes his historical intention clear in the prologue to his Gospel: 

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed (1:1-4).

Pitre notes that Luke’s prologue is similar to historical prologues written by Greco-Roman authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Josephus (The Case for Jesus, 79).  

Three clues suggest Luke’s historical intent. The first is Luke’s usage of diēgēsis, the Greek word for “narrative.” Greco-Roman authors used this word to specify “the writing of history” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, 1.288). 

A second clue is Luke’s emphasis on eyewitnesses. Luke knows that by basing his narrative on eyewitnesses, he makes it possible for his readers to corroborate his testimony about Jesus. 

Finally, Luke identifies the purpose of his Gospel as to give “the truth” about what has been taught. Luke uses the Greek word asphaleia, which is a word he uses elsewhere for “the facts” (Acts 21:34). 

It doesn’t make sense for Luke to use a word that means “writing history,” emphasize “eyewitnesses,” and identify his purpose in presenting “the facts” if he intended to write folklore. The only reasonable conclusion is that Luke’s intention was to write a factual narrative, not a mythical one. 

The third clue is similar: there are clear formal similarities between the Gospels and ancient historical biographies of the era, such as the Life of Josephus (A.D. 100) and Lives of the Caesars written by Roman historian Suetonius (A.D. 120). For example, as Pitre points out, the Gospels’ tripartite focus on Jesus’ birth, public life, and death is also an essential part of ancient biographies (The Case for Jesus 70-72). 

Another parallel can be seen in Matthew and Luke, who include in their biographies Jesus’ ancestry (Matt. 1:1-16, Luke 3:23-38). Just as the phrase “Once upon a time” signifies a fairytale, and “Paul, to the church in Rome” signifies a letter, so genealogy signifies an ancient biography. For example, Josephus’s autobiography and Lucian’s biography of Demonax both begin by listing the subject’s ancestry (Josephus, Life, 336; Lucian, How to Write History, 55). 

Scholars point to yet another parallel between the Gospels and ancient biographies: the flexibility authors take with arranging material topically or thematically. For example, Suetonius writes about Caesar August “not in chronological order but by categories” (Life of the Deified Augustus, 9). This is similar to what the early Christian writer Papias says of Mark: “[He] wrote down everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ” (Quoted in Eusebius, Church History, 3.39.15).  

Finally, the Gospels parallel ancient biographies in that they do not intend to tell the reader everything about the person. Consider what John the apostle says: 

But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25).

This is very similar to what the Greek historian Plutarch says in his biography of Alexander the Great: 

Multitude of deeds is so great that I shall make no other preface than to entreat my readers, in case I do not tell of all the famous actions of these men, nor even speak exhaustively at all in each particular case (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 1.1). 

Lucian is another example. He writes in the Life of Demonax, “These are a very few things out of many which I might have mentioned, but they will suffice to give my readers a notion of the sort of man he [Demonax] was” (Life of Demonax, 67).  

When the Gospel writers’ intention to write history is coupled with the fact that they were able to write history, one has good reason to approach the Gospels with a sense of trust. 

Strategy 3:

Show that the Gospel writers did write reliable history. 

There are three ways we can show that the Gospel writers actually wrote reliable history. First, the critical sayings and events in Jesus’ life meet the criteria that historians use to determine the historicity of a saying or event. There are many, but the most popular are multiple attestation (more than one independent source), embarrassment (details that might seem to contradict the writer’s purpose), and coherence (details fit with other known historical details). 

Take, for example, Jesus’ death. The four Gospels, Paul’s epistles, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3), and the first-century Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15.44) attest to it, thus satisfying the criterion of multiple attestation. 

Furthermore, Jesus’ crucifixion coheres with other details we know about Jesus’ life. As we will see later, Jesus claims to be God. In the eyes of first-century Jews, such a claim was punishable by death. Therefore, Jesus’ death coheres with his claims to be divine, and it is most likely his death is a historical fact. 

The criterion of embarrassment is found in multiple incidents, but the most clear is the Gospel writers’ account of women witnessing the Resurrection. As we shall see in a later chapter, the testimony of women in first-century Judaism was not taken seriously. Given such a cultural prejudice, why would the Gospel writers make women the first witnesses of the Resurrection unless it was true? 

These are just a few, but there are many more details that meet the historiographical criteria and thus indicate the historical accuracy of the Gospel writers (see John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the History Jesus, vol. II). 

A second way we can show the Gospel writers did write history is by listing archaeological evidence that confirms Gospel details: 

  • The nineteenth-century discovery of the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5 
  • The 1961 discovery in Caesarea of an inscription with Pontius Pilate’s name 
  • The 1961 discovery in Caesarea Maritima of a third-century mosaic that had the name “Nazareth” in it, the first known ancient nonbiblical reference 
  • Coins bearing the names of the Herodian dynasty: Herod the king, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee (who had John the Baptist murdered), Herod Agrippa I (who killed James Zebedee), and Herod Agrippa II (before whom Paul testified) 
  • The 1990 discovery of an ossuary that had the Aramaic words “Joseph son of Caiaphas” inscribed on it  
  • The ossuary discovered near Jerusalem in 1968 that contained the bones of a first-century man who had been crucified, details of which confirm the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion 

Finally, we know the Gospel writers wrote history because many Gospel details are confirmed by ancient non-Christian sources. For example, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus mentions in his writings Caiaphas the high priest (Antiquities 18.2), Annas the high priest (ibid.), Pontius Pilate (ibid.), King Herod and his descendants (18.5.2), John the Baptist being killed by Herod (ibid.), James the “brother of Jesus” (20.9), and even refers to Jesus as a “wise man,” a “doer of startling deeds,” and a figure who was condemned to death by “Pontius Pilate” (18.3.3).  

In his work the Annals, the first-century Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus refers to a group of people called “Christians” and describes their leader as “Christus, the founder of the name, [who] was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius” (Annals 15.44).  

In light of the historiographical criteria, the archeological evidence, and the corroboration of Gospel details in ancient non-Christian sources, it is reasonable to conclude that the Gospel writers were not only able to write reliable history, and indeed meant to do so, but that they in fact did write a trustworthy record of the life of Jesus. 

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes, “Historical rigor does not consist in fundamental skepticism toward historical testimony but in fundamental trust along with testing by critical questioning” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 486). Such critical questioning has been applied to the Gospels, and the answers at which we’ve arrived allow us to conclude that we can trust them.  

SIDE BAR:

No Resolutions to Contemporary Controversies

Another line of argumentation that we can offer for establishing the general trustworthiness of the Gospels is that the Gospel writers omit material that we’d expect to find if they were making this stuff up. We know historically there were several controversies that surfaced in the early Church after Jesus’ ascension. These controversies were crucial; they threatened to rip the New Testament church apart. For example, Luke tells us the controversy about whether circumcision was necessary for salvation was “no small dissension” (Acts 15:2) and there was much “debate” (v.2).  

The Gospel writers could have easily solved this first-century controversy by inventing teachings of Jesus that stipulated the resolutions to these problems. For example, when John records Jesus saying his disciples must believe in him to have eternal life (John 3:16), he could have easily included, “and not by circumcision.”  

But that’s not what we find. The Gospels don’t portray Jesus as providing resolutions to this controversy. This gives us good reason to conclude the Gospel writers, and even the earlier Jesus traditions they drew from, didn’t fenagle a portrait of Jesus simply to push their respective agendas.  

SIDE BAR:

More Reasons to Believe the Gospels

Something else we don’t find coming from the lips of Jesus are resolutions to the various controversies that Paul had to deal with in the church at Corinth. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians reveals there were problems concerning the pursuit of the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy (1 Cor. 14). He instructs the Corinthians to strive more for prophecy than tongues, given that prophecy is the greater gift (vv. 1, 5). And when the community does speak in tongues, they should have an interpreter less an unbeliever is not edified (v. 19).  

Another problem within the first-century Corinth Christian community concerned women speaking during their liturgical assemblies. Paul writes: 

Women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:34-36).

Remember, Paul’s letters were among the earliest New Testament documents, many of which were written before the synoptic Gospels. So, if the Gospel writers were fabricating their stories about Jesus, we’d expect them to put some of Paul’s instructions on the lips of Jesus in order to justify what Paul had to say about the above controversies.  

For example, when Jesus gives the apostles instruction to bind and loose within the context of dealing with an unruly believer (Matt. 18:15-18), it would have been easy for Matthew to include, “And when women act unruly in the churches, or when Christians act unruly when speaking in tongues, you can exercise your authority to bind and loose by instructing them to keep silent.”  

Since in the Gospels we don’t find Jesus providing resolutions to these controversies in the Corinthian church, again we have good reason to conclude that the Gospel writers and the earlier Jesus traditions they drew from didn’t invent sayings of Jesus simply to push their respective agendas. 

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