From the book:
Man, Myth, Messiah
by Rick Brooks
Breaking News: Jesus Lived!
Up until the last few years, the verdict of historians has been virtually unanimous that Jesus was a person of history. The rise of atheism in the last decade has seen the rise of prominent skeptics who simply assert their "doubts" that Jesus really existed without providing any credible evidence. I've heard prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and others, say things like, "Jesus, if He even existed, . . ." It's important to note that these men are not historians and simply assert this contention in apparent hopes that no one will challenge them because they are scientists. Dawkins has since recanted and admits Jesus existed.6
This dismissive attitude, however, has seeped into the bloodstream of pop culture as well and thrives in the blogosphere and on atheist websites. It is the equivalent of getting your news from a tabloid at the grocery store—the kind with a headline like "I Was Abducted by Aliens." One of the leading skeptical voices, Bart Erhman, noted, "Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have considered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves."7
This fact of history is settled in the minds of serious historians, regardless of their religious beliefs. Jesus' life of approximately thirty-three years is still the most important one in all of human existence. His teachings are the bedrock of civilization two thousand years later.
Even the necessity of defending the fact that Jesus was a real person demonstrates the nature of the challenge of living in an age where information quickly mutates into disinformation. Radical deniers disavow any event that does not fit their preferred narrative. To the skeptic desperately trying to shout down any suggestion of the historical credibility of the Christian faith, Jesus' actual existence is a difficult impossible concession to make.
There is a bit of irony that I am writing this chapter while in Jerusalem. It would be difficult to find anyone living here today who would deny that Jesus existed. The impact of His life on this land is undeniable. Multitudes pour into this part of the world to be given extensive tours of the places where Jesus lived, preached, and worked miracles. It's long been my sense that anyone doubting Jesus' existence should simply come to Israel and take a one-week tour. And you don't need a scholar or historian. Any tour guide can set you straight. Yet to some, especially those under thirty in the United States, this has become a point of uncertainty.
Recently I was sitting in a meeting with one of the leading youth communicators in America, Heath Adamson. He paused after hearing the discussion on my writing a book that tells that Jesus existed and said, "This is the most important question we can answer for young people struggling to find faith—did Jesus really exist?" If Jesus never lived, then this whole thing about faith in Him is a sham.
On the surface, the motivation of such blind doubt is obvious. If Jesus never existed, then you don't have to bother with all the hard work of looking at the evidence of His words or His works or all the other historical facts that demand a fair hearing.
Just like the debate surrounding the existence of God, the skeptics think that by repeating the magic phrase over and over, "there is no evidence for God . . . there is no evidence for God," all of it will simply disappear. They seem to be trying the same trick when it comes to the existence of Jesus Christ.
In the movie God's NotDead2', the debate rages over whether a teacher can even mention the name of Jesus in a classroom. If Jesus lived, why shouldn't He be referenced, especially in view of the fact that the impact of His life is still being felt today? Even His critics concede that His words changed the world and gave us an ethical standard unmatched in history. William Lecky was not a friend of Christians; he was an opponent who wrote:
Christianity following its leader has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions, has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but also the strongest incentive to its practice, and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortation of moralists.8
The real motivation for skeptics to deny that Jesus really lived is not a lack of evidence. They often desire to attack Christianity in any way possible because of the evil perpetrated by self-proclaimed Christians. Sadly, this perspective represents a tragic misunderstanding of history and Scripture. The dark actions done in Jesus' name, atrocities during the Crusades, the Inquisition, attacks against the Jewish people, have all come in direct opposition to His words. He even predicted that many would call Him "Lord, Lord," but they would not do what He said (Luke 6:46).
Furthermore, many of the followers of Jesus would eventually be put to death rather than deny that He lived, died, and rose again. What could people possibly have gained from fabricating a teaching that included "loving your enemies" and "the greatest among you will be your servant"?
The religious leaders certainly would not have fabricated a character that called them out for their hypocrisy. The Roman rulers couldn't have been the source of this story either—they wanted no challenges to their authority. No, the evidence is abundantly clear. The Jesus of history is indeed the Christ of faith recorded in Scripture. The vital first step is to know what that historical evidence is. In doing so, you will be prepared to handle the baseless assertions that circulate in our culture with the intent to undermine faith in the credibility of the Christian Story.
Remember, we are looking for the evidence of history accepted even by those who do not trust the overall reliability of the Gospels. As we will see clearly in chapter 3, the Gospels are reliable and are excellent sources for establishing what happened historically in terms of the life of Jesus. However, to meet the skeptics on their terms and look at evidence accepted by most historians, we can still establish the following events and claims as true.
He Was Crucified
The first minimal fact is that Jesus died by crucifixion. The cross is the symbol of the Christian faith and without question the most recognizable religious emblem in the world. Almost two billion people believe that Jesus' crucifixion had something to do with their sins being absolved by God. In the next chapter, we look deeper into the reasons why He was crucified and how His death affects our relationship with God. Here, we look at the fact that His execution really happened. Not only do all four gospels report it, but virtually all early church writings are filled with references to this event.
On top of this evidence are the records by historians and writers who were not sympathetic to the Christian cause. When an enemy or opponent references an event, historians count that fact as a mark of authenticity. The most famous Jewish source is Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was employed by the Romans and wrote during the time of Christ. He would write, "When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified . . ."9
A second source is Tacitus, who is generally regarded as the greatest of the Roman historians. He was the proconsul of Asia from AD 112 to 113. His last work, The Annals, was written circa AD 116-117 and included, "Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus."10
Another Roman source was Lucian. He was a second-century playwright who wrote, "The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account."11
As a final example, the collection of Jewish teaching known as the Talmud reports that "on the eve of the Passover, Yeshua was hanged."12 Yeshua is "Joshua" in Hebrew (translated "Jesus" in Greek). Being hung on a tree was used to describe crucifixion in antiquity.
The entire saga of Jesus' trial, execution, and the scattering of His disciples left a crater in history that bears witness to the reality of these fateful events. Jesus' death by crucifixion is a historical fact supported by considerable evidence. In fact, on the continuum of historical probability, Jesus' crucifixion "under Pontius Pilate" is the most certain of all claims related to Jesus.13…………..
We Can Trust the Gospels
Why the Bible Is Reliable
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 experience
that some people are habitually accurate just as others can
be depended upon to be inaccurate. Lukes record entitles
him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy 1
—F. F. Bruce
LOTS OF SONS THINK THEIR FATHERS ARE HEROES. I definitely do. As a young man, my father, Bill Broocks, served in the navy during World War II, on a submarine called the USS Barb. Because of the bold and daring acts during numerous conflicts at sea, the admiral of the ship received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fittingly, all the crew deserved and received recognition as a result.
Dad can still recount many of the events of seventy years ago quite vividly. For him, it was a roughly three-and-a-half year period that was unforgettable. I sat and listened as he—in his late eighties—told stories of some of the exploits they participated in and the grave challenges they faced. His older brother, Ben, was a marine and was killed on the island of Saipan when a suicide bomber jumped into his bunker, killing himself and many others in the vicinity. My dad got the news while the Barb was in port at Pearl Harbor. The admiral took my dad to the island of Saipan, with a conflict still raging there, and allowed him and two friends to row a small boat to shore and then crawl through a dark cemetery for several hours to locate his brother's grave so his body could be returned to the United States for a proper burial. They only had the light of the moon, intermittently shining through the clouds to guide them. What was stunning to me about that story is that he waited so long to tell us the details. He was from a different generation, to be sure. Many have called it "the greatest generation."
When hearing these stories recounted from seventy years ago, I was reminded of the apostle John, who was part of another unforgettable three-and-a-half-year campaign. He was an eyewitness to. the heroic acts and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. He would write his accounts of these events about sixty-five to seventy years later. Listening to how clear my dad's memory was about the notable incidents of the war showed me how realistic it is to recall the past, especially events that had a dramatic impact on many people.
The writers of the other gospels, Mark, Luke, and Matthew, would write even earlier, as we will discuss shortly. Mark wrote his gospel about thirty to forty years, at the latest, after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That would be like my trying to recall the events of 1981, the year an assassination attempt was made on Ronald Reagan. Matthew and Luke would write about fifty years later, which would be like trying to remember the turbulent times of the 1960s.
However, the gospel writers were not simply writing down events from distant memory. They had access to other leaders and members of the church who had repeated the stories again and again for decades, and they drew from other written records. Each gospel author wrote an authoritative compilation, in his own style, of Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry, which had been faithfully remembered and passed on from the very beginning.
The Gospels Under the Microscope
The four accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are arguably the most read, studied, scrutinized, and yet beloved literature in history. They have been the subject of countless cover stories, books, papers, and even revisionist books and movies. The described time frames and analogies are very important in the discussion of the reliability of these testimonies about Jesus Christ. The skeptical narrative asserts that the Gospels were written too long after the actual events to be reliable, and they were merely creative expressions of faith by the young community of believers. However, such depictions deny much of the evidence from history and archaeology.
The primary reason many dismiss the Gospels is because they reject the possibility of any supernatural events or miracles. This mind-set was rooted in nineteenth-century German liberalism and skepticism, which imbibed this kind of naturalistic philosophy. If you reject a prioi all things supernatural as myth or legend, then you will reject many occurrences of these types in the New Testament. These attacks do not represent the objective conclusions of scholars carefully examining the facts. Instead, they are often the attempts of men and women to reject the consequences of acknowledging the authority that Jesus' teaching should hold over their lives. In other words, they begin their studies assuming that the Gospels are false and then force the evidence to fit their predetermined conclusions.
Others were raised with an improper understanding of the writing styles of the time, so they fail to appreciate the flexibility first-century authors had to record events and teaching in their own words or to rearrange material. They then consider the differences between parallel accounts in the Gospels as "contradictions'' or "errors" that undermine their reliability. This chapter will demonstrate that fairly examining the evidence with a proper understanding of first-century literature leads to the conclusion that the Gospels represent reliable history.
To bolster that trust, we examine several key questions, the answers for which will, hopefully, build greater confidence in the reliability of Scripture.
What Are the Gospels?
The Gospels are now recognized by scholars as historical biographies, the same type that would have been common in the Greek and Roman world two thousand years ago. This style of writing was not a daily chronological account of someone's life but an arrangement by the writer of the details that seemed most important in making the overall moral lessons clearer. The fact that they are biographies dismisses the speculation that these writings were in the form of legends or myths. Historian Michael Licona affirms the significance of this conclusion: "The very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened."2
Skeptics desperately want to deny the Gospels are giving historical data. The reason? Because what's at stake is the authority of Jesus in our lives and culture. They attack their reliability by attempting to reduce them to statements of faith by Christians long after the events took place. A prime example is Reza Asian, who wrote, "Regardless, the gospels are not> nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus's life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus's words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man."3
These kinds of statements are simply repetitions of the same empty assertions of other skeptics before them, desperate to reduce Jesus down to the level of another man who failed in His Quixote-like quest. If you throw out the Gospels, you are free to interpret what they really meant from a quasi-historical standpoint, drawing a sketch of Jesus based on your imagination of what someone living at the time of Jesus would have been like. This is the fatal flaw in both the historiography as well as the logic of the skeptical mind. In contrast, scholars who honestly compare the Gospels to the literature of the day recognize that these writings represent biographies based on eyewitness testimony, which
faithfully document Jesus' life, ministry, and most importantly, His resurrection.
Who Wrote the Gospels and When?
The names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are probably the most famous quartet of authors in history. You know someone is famous when you don't need a last name to know who he is. The fact that they were the authentic authors of these biographies of Jesus has been accepted since the very beginning of the Christian faith. However, during the past few centuries, skeptics have questioned the traditionally assigned authorship as a strategy to dismiss the authority of their content. Skeptics instead argue that the true authors did not have access to eyewitnesses, so their accounts are unreliable. However, the evidence for the traditional authorship is still very compelling.4
Major scholarly works have been written on this topic. The goal here is to provide a brief summary of the evidence for the authorship of these critical books. The strongest evidence for the traditional view is that the testimony of early church leaders is nearly uniform on who wrote each book. For instance, a prominent second-century bishop named Irenaeus quoted several details about the gospel authors from an early-second-century source, a bishop named Papias, who studied under the apostle John:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.5
The first gospel to be written was by Mark, which is commonly dated between AD 60 and 70. Mark was universally attested by early church leaders to be the same John Mark who was a companion of Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). At one point, he also accompanied Paul (Acts 12:25). Mark is purported to have recorded the recollections of Peter near his death in Rome under Nero's persecution in the mid-60s AD. Papias was reported by the early church historian Eusebius as also saying: "Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ."6
Mark's authorship is further supported by several pieces of internal evidence. For instance, the writing style suggests the author spoke Aramaic, the common language in Israel. This gospel also mentions Peter more frequently than the others, including very near the beginning and at the end. And the perspective seems to be that of one of the twelve.7 In particular, it includes many vivid details that would only have been known to Jesus' community, such as referring to "Alexander and Rufus" (Mark 15:21) being the sons of Simon of Cyrene. Equally significant, the name Mark was attached to manuscripts dating back to the second century. Mark was not a major figure in the early church, so his name would not likely have been associated with a Gospel unless he was the actual author. These facts fit well with the traditional claim that the gospel is the recollections of Peter, recorded by Mark.
Matthew was next to record a gospel included in the New Testament. It is commonly dated from the late 70s to the 80s, since its emphasis on Jesus' prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem correspond to the memories of the Christians after the city was destroyed in AD 70. This dating range also fits the facts that it uses the gospel of Mark as one of its primary sources and that Matthew became a favorite gospel throughout the Christian world by the second century. The author is universally attributed by early church fathers to be the apostle Matthew. For instance, Iranaeus reports Papias as saying, "So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able."8
The gospel of Matthew is actually written in Greek, but Matthew may have drawn on sayings of Jesus, which were passed on in Aramaic or Hebrew. Hence, Papias's reference to the Hebrew language. However, Greek was the preferred language for the final version of the Gospels since it was the common language of the region.
The authorship is further supported by internal evidence. In the story about a publican called to follow Jesus, the publican is called Levi in the gospels of Mark and Luke, but Matthew in Matthew. The author of Matthew would not likely have changed the name used in Mark unless it was his own. People at that time often used two names. In the same vein, Mark and Luke refer to "his house" (Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29); whereas, Matthew refers to "the house" (Matthew 9:10), as one would when writing of one's own house in a third-person narrative context. Matthew's writing also shows signs of Jewish religious training, and he has a strong command of Greek. These details fit well with the gospel's description of Matthew/Levi as a Levite and a tax collector.9
The author of the gospel of Luke is the physician who was one of Paul's traveling companions. Paul mentions him by name in several of his letters (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Luke explicitly mentions himself as traveling with Paul during his later journeys in the "we" passages, which start in Acts 16:10. In addition, the authorship of Luke is uniformly supported by early church leaders. For instance, Irenaeus wrote, "Luke recorded the teachings of Paul after the deaths of Peter and Paul. He wrote after the Hebrew Matthew, at around the same time as Mark, and before John."10 Irenaeus also records that Luke wrote Acts and traveled with Paul.11 Luke's authorship is further confirmed by the early church leaders Clement,12 Tertullian,13 and Origen.14 Several pieces of internal evidence help to set the date for the writing of the gospel and the book of Acts in the 70s. For instance, Acts recounts in detail certain riots, which would have been counterproductive to reproduce unless they were still in people's memories and had to be addressed. The charge that Paul started riots would need to be explained during his custody and in the wake of his execution. In addition, Luke paraphrases Mark's end-time prophecies in such a way as to clearly connect them to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Reinforcing this association would have been important if the book was written when these traumatic events were fresh in the readers' minds. However, some scholars date Luke's writings even earlier, because these works end before Paul’s death. Obviously, such a position would not weaken the argument for reliability but reinforce it even further.
The gospel of John is consistently testified by church tradition to have been written by the apostle John. For instance, Irenaeus in the second century quoted his contemporary acquaintance Polycarp, a pupil of the apostle John, as saying, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia . . . those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan.... Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.15
John also directly mentions himself as an eyewitness (John 19:35), and he implicitly refers to his presence as the disciple "whom Jesus loved" (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20). Notably, the name John does not appear even though he is depicted in the other gospels as one of the three who are closest to Jesus. If John were the author, this notable absence would be understandable. And the perspective is from someone who was in the innermost circle. These facts also fit best with the traditional designation.
The gospel of John was written near the end of the first century. The date could not be later, since one of the oldest manuscript fragments discovered is a partial piece of the gospel of John. It is referred to as the John Ryland fragment, and it dates to the early second century.16 The fragment was discovered in Egypt, so the gospel must have been written decades earlier to allow the needed time for a copy to migrate so far away from its original composition.
Why Are There Only Four Gospels?
The Gospels of the New Testament are the only ones accepted by early church leaders as part of the official collection of writings known as the New Testament canon. These canonical writings were chosen based on a very stringent set of criteria. First, the writers had to be eyewitnesses of Jesus or close associates of those who were. The writings also had to be recognized very early as authoritative in all regions of the Christian world. And they had to conform to the teaching that went directly back to the apostles. The Gospels meet these criteria. By the second century, the Gospels were recognized throughout the early church as uniquely authoritative. The church fathers quoted extensively from them. In fact, the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from their writings.
Other gospels also existed, such as the Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Mary, and Gospel of Peter. However, none of these non-canonical ones meet any of the previously mentioned criteria. They were typically composed more than a century after the New Testament was completed. They were not written by anyone even closely associated with the apostles, and they were not widely known. Their teaching also dramatically differed from that of the apostles. As such, their reliability and significance pale in comparison to the authentic four.
Despite these facts, one particular writing known as the Gospel of Thomas has gained greater popularity thanks to the extremely- skeptical collection of New Testament scholars mentioned early in the book, known as the Jesus Seminar. They promoted Thomas alongside the canonical ones. Although their opinion did not represent the scholarly consensus, they did have the attention of the media. One of many of the members' main goals was to undermine trust of the New Testament, and they were successful in sowing the seeds of doubts in Christians who were not familiar with the actual evidence.
In truth, Thomas is simply a collection of sayings that were partially derived from the canonical gospels. None of its other content can be verified historically or archaeologically, and it was likely written in the mid second century. Most striking is that much of its teaching is completely at odds with everything we know about the historical Jesus. Despite the seminar's accolades, comparing the authentic Gospels to the Gospel of Thomas is much like comparing biographies of Abraham Lincoln written by distinguished Ivy League Lincoln scholars to the hook Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Is What We Have Now, What They Wrote Then?
One of the stumbling blocks some skeptics face is that the Gospels were not copied from the original documents penned by the authors but from later copies (manuscripts). This concern is completely baseless, since virtually no other discovered historical documents are originals, unless they were chiseled in stone. The Gospels, like many ancient sources, were written on papyrus, which typically perished within a few hundred years. However, the extraordinary number of manuscripts, many of which are extremely early, ensure that we know the substance of what was originally written for the vast majority of gospel texts.
The Gospels are actually some of the highest-quality historical records from the ancient world. Leading scholar Dr. Dan Wallace describes the enormous amount of data for the New Testament as "an embarrassment of riches."17 Most ancient biographies and histories were written well after the events they recorded. For instance, the earliest biography of Alexander the Great was written more than three centuries after the recorded events, and the information often came from third-hand accounts.18 As such, we have better sources for the details of Jesus' life than for the details of Alexander's conquest of the known world. As a second example, all but one of the most valued written records for the emperor Tiberius Caesar, a contemporary of Jesus, were written eighty years, or later, after the described events.19 In contrast, the four gospels were written between thirty and seventy years of Jesus' ministry. As such, we have more numerous and better sources for Jesus than for most famous ancient figures.
In addition, the number of copies of the original books of New Testament scriptures is vastly greater than for any other piece of ancient literature, totaling almost 5,800 Greek manuscripts. The next best example is the ‘Iliad’ by Homer, which currently has roughly 1,800 discovered manuscripts. In addition, the earliest copies of New Testament scriptures are far closer to the originals. The time difference between the original copy of the Iliad and the first discovered copy is 350 to 400 years. Typically, the earliest copies of other ancient texts are more than 1,000 years later. In contrast, numerous copies of New Testament scriptures have been found dating within 300 years of their composition, and the earliest fragment is less than 50 years later.
The wealth and quality of the data has allowed New Testament scholars to accurately reconstruct the originals with an accuracy of 99 percent. Moreover, most of the remaining 1 percent of texts represent only spelling or other insignificant differences. The uncertainties that affect the actual meaning of passages amount to around 0.1 percent of the total. And none of these bring into question any major Christian doctrine or practice. Therefore, we can feel completely secure in knowing that the scriptures in our Bibles today are, for all practical purposes, the same as those penned by the original authors.20
The First Few Decades
As we discussed in the last chapter, historians agree that the gospel was proclaimed early, mere days after the tomb was found empty. The apostles' message centered on the belief that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Tanakh (the Old Testament Scriptures). The earliest New Testament books were written nineteen years after the resurrection. During the time before their writing, early Christians would have had the Old Testament Scriptures, their testimony of the resurrection, and the words of Jesus that the disciples remembered and orally passed on. I see a similar pattern in my own family. My kids can repeat the lines of our favorite movie, Nacho Libre, or my favorite, It's a Wonderful Life, They can also sing the words to scores of songs they have heard. Fortunately, the disciples lived in an oral culture, so they were much more skilled at remembering and accurately conveying information by word of mouth.21 For instance, rabbis compiled and passed on the oral Torah to their disciples, who accurately transmitted the message from generation to generation. Jesus' disciples undoubtedly followed the same practice.
The reliability of the transmission of Jesus' life and teaching has been bolstered by studies in oral tradition in comparison to gospel texts. Most people in the first century could not read, so communities had developed effective tools to pass on stories orally. The teaching of Jesus matches these patterns. As New Testament scholar Mark D. Roberts comments:
The oral forms of the Jesus tradition also ensured the truthful passing down of stories about him. Consider the example of the miracle stories in the Gospels. They almost always include the following elements: a statement of the problem; the brief description of the miracle; a statement of the response. This makes logical sense, of course, but it also conditions the mind to remember and relate miracle stories faithfully. It's rather like how jokes can take on a familiar form, thus helping us to remember them: "A priest, a minister, and a rabbi . . ." or "Knock, knock …” 22
Jesus and His disciples structured their teaching in such a way as to ensure it was properly remembered and retaught. This type of oral tradition would not have become corrupted in the short interval between the events and the writing of the Gospels. So one does not even have to accept the traditional views of authorship to trust the Gospels' accuracy.
The Text Game
However, even stronger evidence supports our trust in the Gospels. I am sure you realize that your cell phone texts can still live on in the Cloud. In a court of law, they could be summoned and retrieved to compare what you say you said with what you actually wrote down in that text that you thought no one else would ever read. This example is a great way to see how the "text" of the Bible can be retrieved and compared as well.
Just as with texts, we can check the accuracy of the gospel writers by comparing them to each other and to Paul's writings. The Gospels clearly tell the same basic story since all of them overlap in numerous features, including the supernatural nature of Jesus' ministry; His basic teachings; the opposition He faced from the religious leaders; and His death, burial, and resurrection. The book of Acts also has numerous details in common with Paul's writings, including his visits to several cities, his floggings, and his discussions with the leaders in Jerusalem. In addition, Luke and Matthew both used Mark as a primary source, and they used a second common source often called Q. The significant similarities between parallel passages in Matthew and Luke (e.g., Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9) and among the three gospels (Matthew 14:3-4; Mark 6:17-18; Luke 3:19-20) indicate that Luke and Matthew used their sources very accurately. The differences between the gospel accounts is no greater than the literary freedom that first-century biographers and historians typically employed.
Equally significant, the author of the gospel of Luke and of Acts explicitly states that his information came from eyewitnesses and other reliable records:
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. With this in mind, since I myself have 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. (Luke 1:1-4)
This introduction was typical for a first-century historical work that attempted to accurately describe the events. The author mentions that many other written records were in existence, which he could likely access. In addition, he used sources "by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." In other words, he had access to the very eyewitnesses of the actual events who became official leaders in the church. These leaders undoubtedly ensured that Jesus' teachings and ministry were accurately transmitted to the next generation. As mentioned earlier, Luke even had access to Peter and James.
Another category of evidence that supports the Gospels' reliability is the inclusion of embarrassing testimony. Writers would not make up events that intentionally made themselves look bad. The Gospels are filled with this kind of evidence. For instance, the disciples who would eventually become the leaders of the church are described in all of the gospel accounts as abandoning or denying Jesus after He was arrested (e.g., Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56; Luke 22:57; John 18:17). I have said in countless settings on university campuses around the world, if men were the sole authors of the Gospels, they would have made themselves look a whole lot better. Mark Roberts concludes the same thing in his book Can We Trust the Gospels: "If you read through the four biblical Gospels, you'll find that the disciples are almost never pictured as paragons of faith or wisdom. Time and again they re portrayed negatively. This fact, all by itself, seems to me to disprove the power-grab thesis. If writers, editors, and collectors of the Gospels had been motivated by a desire for power, surely they would have cleaned up the Gospel record” 23
Has Archaeology Confirmed the Narrative?
The reliability of the Gospels and Acts is further supported by archaeological evidence. Skeptical scholars had long claimed that many of the people, places, and other details mentioned in the Gospels were made up by the authors. However, a wealth of archaeological discoveries has overturned this belief. For instance, the remains were discovered for the cities of Bethlehem and Nazareth. And archaeologists discovered the remains of the synagogue in the city of Capernaum. Discoveries were also made of the coin with Caesar's image mentioned in Matthew 22:19 and the alabaster jar used to hold the perfume that anointed Jesus' feet (Mark 14:3). In addition, the pools of Siloam and Bethesda were also discovered to match the Gospels' descriptions.
Several other discoveries have confirmed the Gospels' descriptions of locations, topography, and people. Roberts comments:
The geography of the Gospels is clearly that of first-century Palestine, not some first-century Narnia. Once again, the evangelists put the major landmarks in the right places. When they place Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, for example, this is correct. And when they refer to Jesus as going "up" to Jerusalem, even though he's traveling south, they get the elevation right, since a trip to Jerusalem involved going up, literally. The vast majority of geographical references in the Gospels fit with what we know from other sources about the region in which Jesus ministered.24
The book of Acts has equally abundant details that have been verified, including names of leaders and their titles, local customs, and historical events. Such evidence has convinced many historical experts that Luke was one of the greatest historians of his time. The twentieth century's most renowned historian of Greco-Roman antiquity, Eduard Meyer, opined that Luke was a great historian and that Acts, "in spite of its more restricted content, bears the same character as those of the greatest historians, of a Polybius, a Livy, and many others."25
Any objective historian would conclude that the Gospels provide reliable accounts of Jesus' life and teaching. Those who challenge this view do not do so because of the evidence but in spite of it. They allow their biases against Christianity to blind them from the most sensible conclusion.
Despite all the compelling evidence, skeptics still attack the Gospels based on tensions between them. The next sections address their most common challenges. Their arguments, which at first seem formidable, will be shown to be little more than smoke and mirrors.
Contradictions or Variant Account?
When you listen to skeptics, they all have their favorite rants or sayings, much as you hear in political campaigns. They serve as rhetorical devices more than knockdown arguments against the faith. Bart Ehrman's favorite is when he reads a list of what he calls discrepancies in the Gospels and then consistently adds the phrase, It depends on which gospel you read. After reading off a dozen or so comparisons between similar incidents recorded in different gospels and highlighting the supposed conflict between the two accounts, he goes a long way in his own mind to convince his listeners that the evidence is overwhelming that the accounts are irreconcilable. He concludes that the testimony must, therefore, be dismissed in its entirety.26 It is simply unreasonable to dismiss an event as historical because the eyewitness accounts appear to differ. A classic example is the sinking of the Titanic. Some eyewitnesses said the ship broke into two pieces before it sank, other eyewitnesses said it sunk in one piece. While the accounts may have differed, no one concludes that the Titanic didn't sink.27
When you look closer at the Gospels, many of these so-called discrepancies can be resolved when the distinction is made between a real contradiction and a variant account. For instance, when events are reported by journalists, there are a variety of ways the moment can be recounted without claiming these various stories are contradictory. If one report mentions only a specific person and the other refers to several, it simply means that the writers had different reasons for why they mentioned them. The same holds true for the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 20:30 versus Luke 18:35).
Ironically, the differences in the Gospels' accounts actually support their historical reliability. For they highlight the fact that the same story is being told by separate witnesses, so the overlapping details are almost certainly authentic. In fact, a detective named J. Warner Wallace carefully examined the gospel accounts as if he were examining the testimonies of witnesses in an investigation of a crime that had taken place decades in the past. He determined that the number of similarities and differences perfectly matched what would be expected if the basic story were true. In addition, the facts made no sense if the stories were fabricated. He started his investigation as an agnostic, but the evidence convinced him to become a Christian.28
As an example of one type of evidence, events in one gospel "interlock" with parallel descriptions in other gospels. For instance, Jesus asked Philip where they could buy food in Johns account of a miraculous feeding (6:5), but no explanation is given as to why Philip was asked. In Luke we learn that this miracle occurred near Bethsaida (9:10), which was Philip's hometown (John 12:21). Jesus asking Philip, as described in John, makes sense with the additional information from Luke. These connections and other similar examples show that the gospel stories were based on actual historical events.29
Some details in the Gospels have not been fully reconciled with one another or with other historical sources. A classic example is specifics related to the census mentioned by Luke (2:1-3). However, no competent historian would ever reject the overall reliability of an ancient author based on a few tensions with other ancient documents, particularly when the author had been proven accurate in so many other details, such as with Luke. Moreover, apparent errors or inconsistencies in the Bible have consistently been vindicated upon further archaeological discoveries. Even with Luke’s census, New Testament scholars have proposed plausible explanations of how every detail in the birth narrative is historically correct.30 In summary, no tensions exist in the Gospels that in any relevant way undermine their trustworthiness.
Lost in Translation?
A second challenge is that many skeptics, and even Christians, expect the gospel authors to have written to their audiences as if they were writing to modern Westerners. However, it is an error to assume that the writing styles of the gospel writers are the same as those today. In other words, just as fashion is certainly different today than it was two thousand years ago, writing styles are also different. Can you imagine comparing clothing styles today to those of one hundred years ago? What about two thousand years ago? Judging the Gospels by the same standards as modern authors is like judging someone's style of dress one thousand years ago to today. This unrealistic rigidity in how students perceive the Bible has caused many to question their faith.
For instance, ancient historians were not necessarily concerned with chronology, and they would often paraphrase and summarize. This pattern explains many of the differences between parallel gospel accounts in exact wording, ordering of events, or other details. For instance, Mark mentions James and John asking Jesus to place them into a position of authority in His coming kingdom (Mark 10:35-37), while Matthew records their mother making the request (Matthew 20:20-21). This difference becomes easily understood in terms of the different original audiences. Matthew was writing to a Jewish community, so his audience would have understood that James and John were using their mother as an intermediary to make their request. The two authors wrote the event differently to their different audiences to best communicate the main point Jesus was making.
Some have seen such differences as serious challenges to the inspiration of the Bible, but this view is unfounded. God inspired the biblical authors to perfectly communicate His truth, but He did so using their own writing patterns and cultural contexts. In the same way that Jesus represents the incarnation of God in human form, the different books of the Bible represent God's divine truth incarnated into specific cultural and literary settings.
Another challenge relates to the issue of translation. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but most of the gospel writers' audiences spoke Greek, which was like English today in terms of a global language. So Jesus' words had to be translated. When you translate statements from one language to another, it is important to convey the meaning of the sentence, not just the exact words. For instance, if I said in English, "The loss of the game really tore me up" and someone was translating that expression into Korean or Chinese, it might be conveyed in such a way that expresses my voice, not my exact words. It's always funny to me to say something in English that takes about fifteen seconds, and the translator talks about one minute in attempting to communicate my thought. I've heard lots of stories where something gets lost in translation or is paraphrased by the translator to get the point across.
In the same way, the New Testament writers had to translate Jesus' Aramaic teaching into Koine Greek, the common language of the time. Therefore, the Gospels record the Greek terms the Holy Spirit inspired the writers to choose that correspond to the Aramaic words Jesus spoke. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).
The weight of historical evidence demonstrates that the Gospels are very reliable. Many historians have come to recognize this fact, even if they did not originally accept that they were inspired and infallible. In fact, the Gospels stand head and shoulders above the vast majority of ancient literature in terms of manuscript evidence and support for historical accuracy.
When you are equipped with this knowledge, you can study Jesus' life and teachings with great confidence in their truth. Unlike the skeptics who think they can cobble together a picture of Jesus from unconnected historical events, you can see the clear vision of the Jesus of history and His mission to save the world. In the next few chapters we will see why the Gospels are more than reliable; they are the very word of God.