Of course, for some kinds of literature, historical reliability is irrelevant. Who cares about the factuality of a fairy story, a piece of science fiction, or even an anecdote about some famous person? But when we read other kinds of material, including newspaper reports, biographies, and works of history, we have a right to ask, “Did this really happen?”
We certainly ought to ask this question of the four Gospels. For the Christian faith is not, in the first instance, a call to a certain way of life. It is first and foremost a proclamation of ‘good news’; an assertion that certain things ‘really happened.’ Here is how the apostle Paul put it, when writing to people in Corinth, some of whom were denying that the dead will rise:-
‘Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand…For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living…’1 Corinthians 15:1ff.
The central historical claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ rose from the grave. But how can we take seriously this most singular of claims if the rest of the story is unreliable?
What evidence is there, then, that the Gospels provide us with reliable accounts of the events they record?
1. The Gospel writers intended to tell us ‘what really happened’
It might be thought that people of New Testament times had little interest or ability in distinguishing between fact and fiction. Theirs, it might claimed, was a world full of fantastic myths and legends. If so, then the stories which grew up about Jesus were perhaps just such myths and legends, bearing little relationship to factual reality.
In fact, ancient historians had a high commitment to factual accuracy. Many Greek writers, for example, discussed the importance of giving an accurate report of what happened. Herodotus emphasises the role of eyewitnesses, adding that the historian must evaluate and verify their accounts using common sense. Reports of the miraculous were treated with suspicion. Thucydides took care to evaluate the accuracy of reports that came to him. Polybsius advocated objective examination of sources, and was critical of superstition and fascination with the miraculous. He, too, urged the questioning of reliable eyewitnesses. Roman historians, such as Lucian, Cicero and Tacitus, were quick to criticise their fellow writers if they gave inaccurate reports. To give an inaccurate report was to fail as a historian. The celebrated Jewish historian, Josephus, valued the testimony of eyewitnesses, and strongly condemned an attempt to delay the publication of a work of history until the eyewitnesses were no longer available.
Means were available in the ancient world for the accurate recording and transmission of historical facts. Rote learning and the accurate transmission of oral tradition was highly developed in ancient Israel. The almost universal method of education in antiquity, and especially in Israel, was rote memorization, which enabled people accurately to recount quantities of material far greater than all of the Gospels put together. Moreover, most of Jesus’ teaching has a poetic element which lends itself to accurate memorisation.
Luke makes it very clear that his intention had been to research and report ‘what really happened’:
‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ (Luke 1:1ff)
But is, perhaps, the Fourth Gospel an exception to this general rule about historical accuracy? It is certainly very different from the other three. But a big part of the explanation for this is that the Gospel writers had a great deal of material to choose, from, and John, having reflected long and hard about the Saviour whom he had known so intimately while he was alive, made his own selection, to complement the material found in the earlier Gospels. Look at it this way: in all, only about 50 days of Jesus’ ministry are touched upon in all the combined gospels. Jesus’ minimum term of ministry equalled three years, or 1080 days (360 days per year). That means 4:6 percent of the days that Jesus was actively ministering are actually recorded in the gospels. Imagine all of the teaching, the conversations, and the ministry that we never heard about! No wonder John wrote at the end of his Gospel,
‘Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’ (John 21:25).
The apostle Peter was very clear about the difference between fact and fiction, and was concerned for his readers to know that faith in Christ is founded on real, rather than imagined, events:
‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.’ 2 Peter 1:16
Of course, the Gospels adopt the literary conventions of their own day, not ours. These conventions included (a) summarising and condensing material; (b) putting some events in logical, rather than chronological, order; and (c) casting reported speech in the form of direct speech.
Moreover, each of Gospels reflects the theological interests of its writer (and the needs of its intended readership). Matthew’s is the most ‘Jewish’ of the Gospels, containing more references to the Old Testament and presenting Jesus (especially in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’) as a kind of ‘new Moses’. Mark’s Gospel may well have been written originally for a predominantly Roman readership. It focuses more on Jesus’ actions than his teaching. Luke was, apparently, the only Gentile of the four Evangelists. He shows particular concern for the outcasts of society. John’s Gospel was written as a result of many years of reflection on the person of Christ.
But there is no reason for assuming that the historicity of the Gospels is compromised by the fact that they have a theological purpose. The notion that ‘if a theologian, then not a historian’, simply does not follow. Indeed, the theological interests of Evangelists, and the fact that they were followers of One who himself so valued ‘the truth’, would suggest that the took more, not less, care in recording ‘what really happened’.
2. The four Gospel writers were in a position to know ‘what really happened’
Strictly speaking, all four Gospels are anonymous. However, the traditional ascription to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is very ancient, and was not challenged for the first 300 years of the Christian era.
Matthew was a disciple of Jesus, Matthew 9:9; 10:3. A tax collector by profession before Jesus called him, Matthew was undoubtedly able to write, even though in his day writing was not a common accomplishment. Perhaps he served as official scribe of the twelve disciples and wrote down the Lord’s discourses as they were given. Since Jewish schools taught proficiency in rote learning of oral teaching, it is quite likely that Matthew first memorized Jesus’ sayings and then wrote them down later.
Mark was an associate of both Peter and Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5; 2 Tim 4:11) and Peter (1 Pet 5:13). Papias said, “When Mark became Peter’s interpreter, he wrote down accurately . . . all that he [Peter] remembered of what was said or done by the Lord”. We infer that the Gospel of Mark is based on the preaching of Peter. Mark’s mother owned a large house in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12) and his uncle, Barnabas (Col 4:10), who was a leading Christian, was evidently well-to-do (Acts 4:36-37). So it is probable that Mark came from a prosperous home, where he might have learned the skill of writing.
The reporting of an eyewitness is seen in references to:
- the gestures of the Lord, Mk 1:41; 3:5; 5:30; 7:33f; 8:12, 23.
- the time of day, Mk 1:32,35; 4:35.
- personal names, Mk 1:30; 3:16,17; 6:16.
- place names, Mk 2:13; 6:32; 11:4.
Two verses in Mark’s Gospel – Mk 14:51-52 – seem at first sight to be irrelevant. Although Matthew and Luke between them included in their Gospels almost everything that Mark had written, they do not include this little incident. This fact leads us to suppose that it was of specific interest to Mark himself. Mark is probably referring to himself. This is his way of saying, “I was there”, without mentioning himself by name.
Luke was an associate of Paul. One of many striking confirmations of Luke’s accuracy is his use of titles. He knows that:
- when pagan opponents of Christianity rioted in Ephesus, there was more than one proconsul of Asia (Acts 19:38)
- Sergius Paulus was “proconsul of Cyprus” (Acts 13:7)
- Gallio was “proconsul of Achaia” (Acts 18:12), although the province was ordinarily known as Greece
- the local authorities in Ephesus are “Asiarchs” (Acts 19:31)
- the magistrates of Philippi are “praetors” and their assistants “lictors” (Acts 16:20, 35)
- the magistrates of Thessalonica are “politarchs” (Acts 17:6)
- the chief official of Malta is protos—first man of the island (Acts 28:7)
- Herod Antipas, known to his subjects as a king, is designated a “tetrarch” (Luke 3:1)
- Lysanias is called “tetrarch of Abilene” (Luke 3:1)
All these names and titles have been verified as correct, in some instances by archaeological discoveries within the last century. Luke’s accuracy is all the more remarkable when we consider the difficulty of his task. Roman political titles were in a constant state of flux.
Luke also demonstrate acute awareness of timing. Whereas today we would date something by its year, ancient writers tended to relate things to the reigns of kings and other leaders. Accordingly, in Luke 3:1-2 no less than seven officials and five territories are named in just two verses.
Luke emerges as a top-rate historian wherever his records can be checked: this creates a very strong presumption that he is accurate where he cannot be independently checked. ‘A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where the means for testing him are not available. Accuracy is a habit of mind, and we know from happy (or unhappy) experience that some people are habitually accurate just as others can be depended upon to be inaccurate. Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.’ (F.F. Bruce)
Luke has a considerable amount of material in common with Matthew, and one of their joint sources seems to have been Mark’s Gospel. A strong case can be made that the ultimate source of the material that is unique to Luke was none other than Mary, the mother of Jesus. Evidently, she was a major contributor to the opening chapters of Luke, which tell the story of Jesus’ birth. This story is marked by a mother’s perspective. Is it unreasonable to surmise that, directly or indirectly, Mary furnished other information to Luke as well? Almost half of Luke’s Gospel is devoted to the closing days of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 9:51-18:17). It is possible that the small company who accompanied Him on His last journeys included his mother, and that the awesome importance of what was happening burdened her to commit His last teachings to memory or writing. We know that Mary always believed in her son (John 2:1-11 ), that she was with Jesus at His crucifixion (John 19:25 ), and that she spent the next few weeks with the small company of faithful disciples who waited for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14 ). A story unique to Luke directly refers to Mary:
‘A woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”’ Luke 11:27-28
Was not Mary herself the person most likely to remember and disseminate this teaching? Is this not quite probably her own signature, showing that she was the real source of much of Luke’s unique material?
John belonged to the ‘inner circle’ of Jesus’ disciples. As noted above, his Gospel is very different from the other three. C.S. Lewis once complained that the Fourth Gospel has been compared to ‘a spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not history’, to be read in a similar way to Nathan’s parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost, ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress’. Lewis mocks the comparison with Bunyan’s great work (‘a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name is uses’) and concludes, ‘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. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…pretty close up to the facts…Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without know predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.’ (Christian Reflections, 152ff).
John demonstrates an intimate knowledge of Palestine and Jerusalem. He knows:
- how long it took to build the Temple (John 2:20);
- that the Jews and the Samaritans had a permanent quarrel (John 4:9);
- the low Jewish view of women (John 4:9);
- the way in which the Jews regard the Sabbath (Jn 5:10; Jn 7:21-23 ; Jn 9:14).
His geographical knowledge is detailed and accurate. He knows:
- of two Bethanys, one of which is beyond Jordan (Jn 1:28 ; Jn 12:1);
- that Bethsaida was the home of some of the disciples (Jn 1:44 ; Jn 12:21);
- that Cana is in Galilee (Jn 2:1; Jn 4:46; Jn 21:2);
- that Sychar is near Shechem (Jn 4:5).
Even though Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, John knows it like the back of his hand, writing with confidence about:
- the sheep-gate and the pool near it (Jn 5:2); (only in 1888 did the site of the pool of Bethesda become know, and excavations demonstrated that it contained five porticoes as described by John);
- the pool of Siloam (Jn 9:7);
- Solomon’s Porch (Jn 10:23);
- the brook Kidron (Jn 18:1);
- the pavement which is called Gabbatha (Jn 19:13);
- Golgotha, which is like a skull (Jn 19:17).
Equally impressive are the many incidental details in John’s Gospel, arguing that the author was using eyewitness accounts:
- the loaves which the lad brought to Jesus were barley loaves (Jn 6:9);
- when Jesus came to the disciples as they crossed the lake in the storm they had rowed between three and four miles (Jn 6:19);
- there were six stone waterpots at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:6);
- it is only John who tells of the four soldiers gambling for the seamless robe as Jesus died (Jn 19:23);
- he knows the exact weight of the myrrh and aloes which were used to anoint the dead body of Jesus (Jn 19:39);
- he remembers how the perfume of the ointment filled the house at the anointing at Bethany (Jn 12:3).
3. The Gospels contain traces of the language that Jesus actually spoke – Aramaic
The Gospels as they have come down to us were written in Greek. However, peeking above that surface from time to time are traces of the underlying Aramaic that was the daily language of Jesus and his contemporaries. John Drane (Introducing the New Testament) summarises:-
- Aramaic expressions are sometimes retained, such as the words from the cross (Matthew 27:46), the call to Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:41), and the name of ‘the Pavement’ in Jerusalem (John 19:13).
- When sayings of Jesus – especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) – are translated back into Aramaic, they display literary features that would only have made sense in that langauge.
- Much of Jesus’ teaching is cast in the form of Aramaic poetry, with features such as alliteration that would only have made sense in that language.
4. The Gospels were written a relatively short time after the events that ‘really happened’
It takes many years for myths and legends to develop. In the case of the Gospels, however, the time span between the events and their recording was certainly not much more than two generations, possibly less than one. Most scholars date the Gospels prior to AD 80. Mark may be as early as AD 65. The Gospels texts were set down within a generation or so of the events they record. There were plenty of people around who could challenge what had been recorded, if they wished to.
Critics sometimes allege that the Gospels as they now appear cannot be trusted because the text has been greatly corrupted. This allegation has virtually no evidence to support it. There are 2,328 manuscripts and manuscript fragments surviving from the earliest centuries of the Christian church and representing all portions of the Gospels. The earliest fragment of any portion of the NT currently in existence is the John Rylands papyrus fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38, which probably dates to c. A.D. 125 or within about thirty years of the original composition of the Fourth Gospel. Twenty-one papyri containing major sections of one or more Gospels can be dated to the third and fourth centuries, while five virtually complete NTs survive from the fourth and fifth centuries. Compared with the numbers and ages of manuscripts which have survived for most other ancient documents, including many believed to contain reliable accounts of historical events, this evidence is overwhelming.
5. The Gospel writers demonstrate honesty and integrity in telling us ‘what really happened’
There are many characteristics within the Gospel texts which mark them as honest factual accounts and neither legend nor fictional propaganda.
For one thing, the Gospels include hard words by Jesus, which in fact repelled many hearers (Matthew 21:28f, Luke 9:23f, John 8:39f). One distinction of the four Gospels is that their famed treasure of good news lies not nakedly on the surface, but hidden behind both challenge (Mark 8:34f, John 12:25f) and threat (Matthew 25:31f). Such an approach would hardly have been used by propagandists. The Evangelists demonstrate a willingness to tell the truth, even when the truth is inconvenient or offensive.
For another thing, the Gospel writers do not attempt to cover up the weaknesses of the leading disciples:
- the disciples squabbling about which of them was the greatest, Mk 9:33-34
- Peter’s fear, Mt 14:30
- Peter’s denial of Jesus, Lk 22:54-55
- Thomas’ doubts, John 20:24-25
Given that these men were, at the time that the Gospels were written, were the leaders of the Church, there would have been a natural tendency to gloss over these shortcomings. But the Gospels do not do this.
Again, the Gospel writers were willing to use testimony from unfashionable sources. Women were basically considered as property in first century Israel. They were not even allowed to testify in the law courts of the day, their testimony was not considered valid. Yet the Gospels record that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, Luke 24:1ff; John 20:1ff. Now, if we were going to make up a document to try and convince someone that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, would our “star” witnesses be people whose testimony was not considered valid?
Again, the lack of teachings ascribed to Jesus about later church controversies (e.g., circumcision, speaking in tongues) suggests that the disciples did not freely invent material and read it back onto the lips of Jesus.
Once more: who would die for a lie? According to strong and consistent traditions, most of the Apostles, and many of the other early Christians, died violent deaths for the sake of the gospel. Their enemies would gladly have publicised any recantation, but none exists. There is no record of any of these early Christians being led away to be crucified or stoned to death, and saying, “Stop! We made it all up! Is isn’t true, after all!” It makes no sense for a sane man to die willingly for something he knows not to be true.
6. The Gospels provide a distinctive witness to Jesus
If the Gospels do not faithfully record what Jesus said and did, then the most reasonable alternative approach is to assume that they reflect the issues and concerns of the early Christian communities.
But in fact, the Gospels show remarkable independence from those issues and concerns. For example, they contain very little teaching on the church itself, or on baptism, or on Jewish/Gentile relationships. On the other hand, they do emphasise things (for example, Jesus as ‘the Son of Man’, the kingdom of God) that are scarcely mentioned in the rest of the New Testament.
7. The big questions: Who is Jesus? and Did he rise from the dead?
The argument of the Christian apologist must be: ‘Because we have ample evidence that the Gospels provide us with trustworthy records of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, we can take seriously the claims they make for who he was and what he achieved – including his resurrection from the dead.’
In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy has entered another world, Narnia, through a wardrobe, and told her siblings about it. They disbelieve her, of course. The wise old professor adjudicates the argument by asking Peter, Lucy’s older brother, whether Lucy is a liar. Peter is sure she is not; he knows her too well. Well, then, is she insane? It is obvious from her behaviour that she is not. Then there is only one possibility left, concludes the professor: Lucy must be telling the truth.
For the Gospels have a grander aim than merely to provide accurate records of past deeds. They invite us to put our faith in Christ, the Son of God:
‘Jesus did many other miraculous 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 Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:30f;)
Blomberg, C. (1992) ‘Gospels (Reliability)’ in Green, J.B., McKnight, S. & Marshall, I.H. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. IVP.
Bruce, F.F. (1996) The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? IVP.
Drane, J. (1999) Introducing the New Testament. Lion.
France, R.T. The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity. http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth21.html
McDowell, J. (1990) Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Vols I & II. Scripture Press Foundation.