Can We Trust the Gospels?

The gospels are the first four books of the New Testament in the Bible, and claim to be the accounts of Jesus’ life on Earth. Matthew and John are said to have been written by two of Jesus’ disciples, and Mark and Luke are said to have been written by disciples of Peter and Paul respectively. So are the gospels credible accounts of history?

How do we know the gospels are not modern fictions, on par with Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings?

Historical analysis tells us that all four gospels were written in the first century, making them documents of Antiquity, (which means “documents of Ancient history”). It would therefore be unreasonable to read them as modern fiction. We should instead, analyse the gospels against the criteria historians use to assess other documents from this era.

One of the most important criteria by which historians assess the credibility of documents of Antiquity is by measuring the time between when a document was written, and when the corresponding event took place. The longer the time period, the more likely mistakes, corruptions and/or legends have crept in, rendering the document less reliable. Jesus was crucified in AD 33, and estimates by most historians place the writing of all four gospels between AD 40 and AD 70. This leaves a 7-37 year gap between event and documentation.

This may seem like a long time and a large age range. However, it is important to remember the culture in which the documents were written. First century Israel was an “oral culture”, with written literature only in its infancy as a means of communication. The early Christians, like everyone else, would have been trained to memorise and orally re-call stories with accuracies rarely seen in our age of writing and printing. This is why historians allow a very large time period between events occurring and the document being written. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 BC; and yet, almost all historians trust these documents as reliable. In fact, it is common for documents from Antiquity to have been written hundreds of years after the event, and still be deemed trust-worthy by historians. With the exception of the New Testament, is virtually unheard of for a document of Antiquity to fall within decades of the events described, never mind within a decade! In the words of the acclaimed New Testament Scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg, the gospels “historically speaking, especially compared with Alexander the Great …(are) like a news flash!” (1)

How do we know that the gospels were really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

Once we’ve established that the gospel writings fall within the lifetimes of the disciples and apostles, the question then follows: could other people, living in the 1st Century, have “forged” the gospels? However, we have both strong external and internal evidence that the gospels were indeed written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Externally, we have virtually uniform testimony from the early church that the gospels for written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, with no-one ever suggesting a name of a different author. For example, Irenaeus, a 2nd Century church leader, in AD 180 wrote:

“Matthew published his own Gospel in Rome and founded the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord… himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.” (2)

We also have significant internal evidence that the four gospel writers were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For example, the gospels contain very specific details of places, people and events, which match up with external documents and archaeological findings. These indicate that the writers and contributors to the gospels were indeed eye-witnesses to the events they describe. We also have strong indications that the writing styles match what we know about the suggested authors: for example, Matthew, being a tax collector, gives the most detailed accounts about the events and parables concerning money and taxes, whereas physician Luke gives much more time to the healings and human interactions of Jesus.

How do we know the writers weren’t lying?

Again, we can look at both the internal and external evidence to see if this is true.

Because the gospel accounts fall within the range of AD 30-70, this means that they were written within the lifetimes of most of the other eye-witnesses of the events of the gospels. This would mean, if the gospel writers were making things up, there would have been many people ready to immediately “put the record straight”. However, there is no known evidence that this occurred. In fact, we have lot of external documentation written by non-Christians, which strongly backs up the details of the events in the gospels. Corroborating external evidence is a lengthy topic, but as a short summary, we can know the following facts about Jesus going on solely non-biblical, trusted historical documents: Jesus grew up in Nazareth (3), He was a wise man (4), He went around teaching (5), He was called “the Messiah” (6), He claimed to be God (7), He had many disciples (8), He did supernatural acts (9), He was arrested and crucified under Pontius Pilate on the eve of Passover (10), and three days later, lots of people were claiming to have seen the risen Jesus (11).

We can also look into the gospels themselves to see if they exhibit characteristics of lies. One criterion which historians use it called “the criterion of embarrassment”. This states that the more embarrassing a text is for the writer, the more likely it is to be true, because if the writer is lying and trying to create propaganda, they would endeavor to preserve their reputation and credibility. As we read the gospels we find that they paint a highly embarrassing picture of the disciples, for example: they continually misunderstand Jesus’ teaching (12), they try and fail to exorcise a demon (13), they all desert Jesus when he is arrested (14), Peter denies Jesus thrice (15), Thomas doubts the resurrection (16), etc. etc. These embarrassing narratives are evidence that the gospel writers were accounting real events, not creating fictional propaganda.

One final reason why we can be sure that the gospels were not “made up” is because the style of writing, in which fiction is described as fact, is an invention of relatively modern literature. C. S. Lewis summarised the argument:

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this (the gospels). Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage (reporting of facts)… Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (17)

Weren’t the gospel writers biased? Could they have had hidden agendas?

The gospel writers definitely did not have hidden agendas- they had very obvious agendas! Luke’s opens his gospel with “Since I myself carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (18), while John concludes his gospel with “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (19) The agendas of the gospel writers are unambiguous- they are trying to convert people to Christianity!

It is clear the gospel writers were biased towards Christianity. However, it would be wrong to equate being “biased” with being “incorrect”.  Richard Dawkins concludes the preface of his religion-slamming book “The God Delusion” with the sentence “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”(20) Dawkins has a very clear agenda for writing his book- he’s trying to convert people to atheism. Does this make him automatically wrong? Of course it doesn’t. I believe he’s wrong because his arguments are flawed, not because he is biased.

In fact, bias doesn’t always have to hinder the reliability of an account; sometimes, it can improve its credibility. For example, throughout modern history, several people have tried to deny the tragic events of the Holocaust. However, the reasons why such claims are ludicrous and unthinkable in the public eye (not to mention illegal in several European countries), is because we have huge volumes of detailed historical accounts of the Holocaust from victims, military personnel, and others who were directly impacted by the Holocaust. For example, the following is an extract from a diary entry by the American Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was an inspector of the Nazi death camps immediately after WWII.

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from them on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda’…As soon as I returned to Patten’s headquarters that evening, I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion what would leave no room for cynical doubt.” (21)

The people who wrote the detailed accounts of the Holocaust such as D. D. Eisenhower, had a very clear motive- to ensure such atrocities never occurred again. Indeed the reasons for the Holocaust Denial Laws are similar, as Prof. Michael J. Bazyler, Professor of Law at Whittier Law School explains: “The aim of these laws is to prevent the resurrection of Nazism in Europe by stamping out at the earliest opportunity – or to use the phrase “to nip it in the bud” – any public reemergence of Nazi views, whether through speech, symbols, or public association.” (22) However these motives and biases didn’t interfere with the accuracy of their accounts- in fact, scholars conclude the exact opposite. The aim of convincing the public that the atrocities of the Holocaust must not ever happen again, led the writers to pen highly accurate and detailed accounts. This is because any embellishment or inaccuracy that were to be discovered would compromise their credibility and damage their aim

The same can be said about the gospel accounts; the writers were trying to convince people that Jesus really was the Son of God, who died and rose again. And because they were writing at a time in which most of the eye witnesses of the events they were describing were still alive, they knew that if any embellishment or inaccuracy were to be discovered, their credibility would be refuted. This led them to write the most detailed and accurate accounts as possible.

How do we know the gospels haven’t been corrupted over time?

Even if the original gospels were accurate accounts of Ancient history, we need to find out if the gospels in our modern-day bibles are faithful to the original documents. The possibility that the gospels have been corrupted since their original writing is a common belief, especially within other religions (namely Islam) and cults (eg. Jehovah’s Witnesses). Dr. Nabeel Qureshi is a renowned Christian apologist and former devout Muslim and in a lecture at Biola University, he described, as a Muslim, how he tried to dismantle a Christian’s faith:

I said “You do realise that the book you’re reading is horribly corrupt?…First off, we can’t even trust what it says because we know that Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the early church spoke Hebrew… But when the New Testament was actually written, it was written in Greek. And so by the time you have Jesus’ words written down in the New Testament, you have a translation of a translation of a translation. At that point the manuscripts spread and you had the Roman Empire take the religion over, and now you had the Vulgate which was a Latin version of the bible, and that’s the one that really lasted for a long period of time, so you’ve now got a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation. Then it goes to German before it comes to English! And that’s why you have the KJV, the NIV, the NASV, the “who-knows-what”-V. You’ve so many versions of the bible, how am I supposed to know which one is the Word of God?” (23)

Although it is true to say the bibles we read today are copies of copies of copies, one essential fact is often over-looked by sceptics- the extensive manuscript record.

As with all historical documents, the more copies we have from the original era of writing, (especially if they emerge from different geographical areas), the more historians can cross-compare them, to find out what the original was like. Below is a table (24) of the major documents of Antiquity and their statistics, as well as those for the New Testament written in the original Greek.

Author Date Written Earliest Copy Approx. Time Span between original & copy Number of Copies
Pliny A.D. 61-113 A.D. 850 750 yrs 7
Plato 427-347 B.C. A.D. 900 1200 yrs 7
Suetonius A.D. 75-160 A.D. 950 800 yrs 8
Thucydides 460-400 B.C. A.D. 900 1300 yrs 8
Caesar 100-44 B.C. A.D. 900 1000 yrs 10
Tacitus A.D. 100 A.D. 1100 1000 yrs 20
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. A.D. 1100 1400 yrs 49
Sophocles 496-406 B.C. A.D. 1000 1400 yrs 193
Homer (Iliad) 900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 yrs 643
New Testament 1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100) 2nd Cent. A.D. (c. A.D. 130) less than 100 years 5600

The numbers are emphatic; the New Testament far out-plays any document of Antiquity with respect to manuscript record- and this is only the Greek manuscripts. If we add in the other 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages, the total supporting manuscript base for the New Testament reaches over 24,000!

The New Testament also has another bow to its quiver in terms of manuscript evidence- early church quotations. We have around 86,000 quotations of New Testament from the early church fathers (25) such that, if no copies of New Testament manuscripts existed, we’d still be able to reconstruct the entire New Testament from quotations, minus roughly 20 verses.  (26)

Can We Trust the Gospel?

Prof. Benjamin Warfield, Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary summarised it like this:

“If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we…must declare it to be marvellously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied- which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words… The New Testament (is) unrivalled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as an actually transmitted and kept in use.” (27)

References:

  1. Lee Strobel, interview in The Case for Christ,42
  2. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3.4.
  3. The Babylonian Talmud, vol III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281
  4. Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, 33
  5. Lucian of Samosata, THe Death of Peregrine, 11-13
  6. Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, 33
  7. Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10.96
  8. Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, 33
  9. ibid. and The Babylonian Talmud, vol III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281
  10. ibid. (Joesphus and Talmud)
  11. ibid. (Josephus)
  12. e.g. Mark 4:40-41, Mark 10:35-45, Luke 9:28-33
  13. Matthew 17:14-20
  14. Matthew 26:31
  15. Luke 22: 54-62
  16. John 20:24-28
  17. S. Lewis, Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Christian Reflections
  18. Luke 1:3-4 (NIV)
  19. John 20:30-31 (NIV)
  20. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 28
  21. D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (New York Doubleday, 1948), p. 409
  22. Bazyler, Michael J. (December 25, 2006). Holocaust Denial Laws and Other Legislation Criminalizing Promotion of Nazism. Yad Vashem.
  23. Nabeel Queshi, Islam Through the Eyes of Muslims – Apologetics to Islam, Lecture at Biola University, April 2012
  24. Matt Slick, Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (carm.org/manuscript-evidence)
  25. Justin Martyr, Schaff, Philip, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Originally printed in 1885)
  26. Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible?, p.45
  27. Benjamin B. Warfield, Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p.12-13

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