Come, Let Us Reason Together: A Forum about Central Issues of Faith & Skepticism
Cedar Creek Baptist Church - Tawa J. Anderson
Wednesday, March 23, 2011 – The Reliability of the Gospels
NOTE: These are the 'teaching notes' from a Q&A forum at Cedar Creek Baptist Church on March 23. It is slightly revised from an earlier blog essay with the same title posted last summer.
I. Why is New Testament Reliability a Major Apologetic Question
The Christian faith has historically embraced certain core doctrines about Jesus of Nazareth. Amongst other beliefs, Christians throughout the centuries have believed things about Jesus – His deity, His atoning death, and His bodily resurrection. The source for those beliefs are, without a doubt, the collection of books, letters, and Gospels that we have in the New Testament. Historic Christianity presumes that the documents in the New Testament are fundamentally trustworthy – that we can take them relatively at face value in terms of how they present the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But what if they are not trustworthy? What if the words that appear in my Bible as red-letter words, truly words which were uttered by Jesus of Nazareth? What would be the damage to the Christian faith? What would the implications be if Jesus did not say or do the things that the New Testament says he said and did?
In the 1980s, a group of New Testament scholars known as the Jesus Seminar began publishing their theory that the vast majority of words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels do not actually originate in Jesus. They argue that the Gospels are unreliable, theologically-colored texts. In their view, “the historical Jesus has been overlaid by Christian legend, myth, and metaphysics and thus scarcely resembled the Christ figure presented in the Gospels and worshiped by the church today.” In their professional democratic opinion, less than 20% of Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospels are understood to be actually his own words; the rest are legendary additions. The Jesus Seminar, represented by such scholars as John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Brandon Bernard Scott, Roy Hoover, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong, follow in a trend of skeptical biblical scholarship that has sought to recast the biblical documents and thereby redefine the Christian faith.
Beginning in the 18th century, the rise of critical scholarship questioned the historiticity of the New Testament documents, particularly the Gospels and Acts. In the mid-20th century, Rudolf Bultmann popularized the practice of “demythologization” – that is, stripping the Gospels of their layers of supernaturalism, miracle, and myth, and reducing them to their original ethical core. The original Gospels, according to Bultmann, were simply records of Jesus’ ethical teaching and revolutionary insubordination, upon which the Church later imposed its deification of Jesus and doctrinal assertions. The Jesus Seminar is really just a continuation of Bultmann’s program, which itself was simply a newer incarnation earlier German naturalistic theology.
Thus, when a pastor stands up and teaches that Jesus walked on water out to the disciples, the demythologizer responds – “no, he didn’t. The Gospels say he did, but that never happened.” This perspective is not as isolated or rare as you might think at first. The mythological view of the New Testament Gospels has permeated the mainline Protestant churches in Western Christianity. It is taught in a plethora of university New Testament departments, from Harvard to Claremont to Vanderbilt, where future pastors and biblical scholars are taught to interpret the New Testament through the lens of myth and legend rather than of history and fact. There are many people in our schools and neighborhoods who take this approach to the Gospels. They view the New Testament as significant; the Gospels are filled with important ethical teaching, particularly through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. But the New Testament does not preserve authentic historical accounts of the first century events in Jesus’ life. If we want demythologizers to accept the teaching of the New Testament, we need to provide good reasons to embrace the historicity of the documents.
As an aside, the predominant reason that such scholars and pastors seek to ‘demythologize’ the New Testament (particularly the Gospels) is the embrace of a naturalistic, mechanistic Enlightenment worldview. That is, biblical scholars have uncritically adopted a worldview in which miracles do not and cannot occur. Rather, the physical universe in which we live and move and have our being is a closed system of natural cause-and-effect. If there is a god (and that is an open question to many of them), then god is simply out there; he created the universe but then walked away, and does not interact with the physical universe in any way, shape, or form. Rejection of the miraculous pre-determines a need to radically reinterpret (demythologize) the New Testament Gospels. We are going to specifically talk about the possibility of miracles next Wednesday during our last session together. Tonight we are going to set aside that question and simply address the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament Gospels.
So, the questions we want to look at this evening are as follows: Are the Gospels accurate biographies of Jesus’ life and ministry? Did Jesus really say what the Gospels say he said? Did Jesus really do what the Gospels say he did? Are there good reasons for accepting the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels? Do we have good reasons for believing the Gospels to be reliable? Or must we take it on “blind faith”?
I am convinced, personally speaking, that the Bible is entirely trustworthy because it is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. But it’s a funny thing – when I was an atheist, if someone quoted the Bible to me, I would simply say, “So what? Why should I believe that?” A skeptic is not going to accept the authority or inspiration of the Bible. Thus, if we want our friends to accept what the Gospels tell us about Jesus, we need to establish the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible by providing them with good reasons, good evidence, that points to the reliability of the texts which we trust and believe. So this evening I want us to look together at seven lines of evidence that support the historical reliability of the New Testament.
II. Seven Lines of Historical Support for the Reliability of the Gospels
1. Eyewitness Claims of the Gospels
First, the New Testament Gospels present themselves as either eyewitness accounts, or accounts derived from eyewitnesses.
a) Luke 1:1-4 – “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.”
Notice the emphases that the historian Luke makes. First, his account accords with that of those who were eyewitnesses. Second, Luke has carefully investigated the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, he presents his Gospel as an orderly, historical account of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, when talking about the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel, we cannot separate it from the Book of Acts, of which Luke is also the author. In several passages in the book of Acts, Luke slips into first-person plural talk, revealing that he accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. Note Acts 16:10 – “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia.” The first-person plural recurs in Acts 20:5-11, 21:1-26, and chapters 27 & 28. Luke was an eye-witness of many of the accounts recorded in Acts; furthermore, he was an associate of Paul, and therefore had access to the eyewitness accounts of the other apostles – James, John, and Peter in particular. It is reasonable to conclude that Luke’s Gospel contains considerable eye-witness testimony. Indeed, it is highly unreasonable to argue to the contrary.
b) The Gospel of John was the last Gospel to be written down, somewhere around A.D. 90, or 60 years after Christ’s crucifixion. But the Gospel-writer insists that it is a trustworthy eye-witness account of what truly happened. John 20:30-31 reads: “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.” One page later, John 21:24-25 claims: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. 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.” While this passage suggests that the words in John’s Gospel may have been written by John’s close associates rather than by John himself, they insist unapologetically and incontrovertibly that the words derive from the apostle John, an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry.
Admittedly, all this provides is a claim to be eyewitness testimony. But we do have corroborating evidence which supports the eyewitness claims of the Gospels, and that is what we are going to move on to.
2. Early date of the New Testament Gospels
A second reason to accept the reliability of the Gospels is that they were written relatively close to the time of the events which they relate. Almost all scholars agree that Mark is the earliest Gospel. Many scholars estimate it was written by A.D. 50, less than twenty years after Jesus’ death. The most liberal scholars out there, who seek to date things as late as possible, agree that Mark must have been written before A.D. 70. Matthew and Luke were written between A.D. 60 and A.D. 85 (I tend to believe they were much closer to A.D. 65); and then John around A.D. 90. This means that when the New Testament Gospels were written and began to circulate amongst the Christian Churches, there would still have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people alive and present in those churches who themselves had seen and heard Jesus during His earthly ministry. While it is not in the Gospels, the testimony of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is important. There, Paul relates that after His resurrection, Jesus appeared (verse 6) “to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” Paul asserts that his claim can be checked with people who are still alive and were the eyewitnesses of what Paul is claiming to have happened. 1 Corinthians is written in the mid-50s, quite possibly after Mark, but before the other Gospels.
Again, the point is simply that the Gospels are early enough to contain authentic eyewitness testimony—and by correlation, they were written early enough to have aroused opposition and contradictory testimony if they were not eyewitness reports. This latter point should not be underemphasized. The Gospel materials (certainly in oral form, and possibly in written form) were already circulating widely by AD 50 – less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That means that not only friends, but also foes of Christianity were around to counter false presentations. Yet there is not even a whisper of dissenting opinion. We have record of Jewish leaders circulating the report that the disciples of Jesus stole his body from the tomb. We also have record of Jews and Romans arguing that Jesus performed miracles because he was a sorcerer (or demon-possessed, which to Jews was the same thing). But we have NO non-Christian argument in those early decades (and even centuries) that Jesus did not perform the miracles that he is reported to have performed, and NO non-Christian argument that he did not say and do the things that the Gospels report him as having said and done. This is hugely significant. In the context of living eyewitnesses, if there was doubt that Jesus had done or said the things the Gospels claim He did and said, we would expect some record of that. But there is none.
3. Genre: The Gospels as Biographical History
What type of literature are the New Testament Gospels? Those who insist that the Gospels contain primarily mythological materials must insist also that the Gospels are written in a genre which is not expected to be historical in nature. Hence, the Gospels are treated as ‘myth’ or ‘fable’.
However, in its first-century context, the New Testament Gospels most closely resemble Greco-Roman bioi, or personal biographies. I have elsewhere interacted with the insights of Richard Bauckham (see my blog posts on Bauckham’s arguments for the Gospels’ genre). Here I will merely summarize.
Greco-Roman biographies generally treated the lives of significant political or military men. The Gospels are obviously different, in that Jesus was insignificant both politically and militarily (much to the chagrin of much Jewish messianic expectation). Nonetheless, the Gospels share much else in common with Greco-Roman biographies. A focus on one predominant individual, and concern with others only insofar as they intersect with the main character. Most important, Bauckham demonstrates that ancient biographies were integrally concerned with presenting a historically-accurate depiction of the subject’s life.
Historical concern was particularly evident when the biographical subject was recent, perhaps even living. When biographies were written about men who had lived hundreds of years earlier, Lucian and Tacitus both note that expectations were lowered in the eyes of the audience. Such ‘ancient histories’ were simply not valued as highly; not treated as equally reliable. Contemporary biographies, on the other hand, were expected to adhere to higher standards.
In the case of the canonical Gospels, we clearly have biographies that were written within living memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the standard liberal or critical dating of the Gospels holds that they were all written prior to the close of the first century A.D., less than 70 years after Jesus’ death. Mark is traditionally dated before A.D. 70. Expectations for the Gospels, therefore, would have been higher.
When you combine these first three elements, you have a powerful picture that lends one to assume that the New Testament Gospels both claim and intend to present a historical record of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They (a) claim to possess eyewitness testimony; (b) were written close enough to Jesus' lifetime to both rely on eyewitnesses and to be exposed to dissenting testimony by contrary eyewitnesses; and (c) are written in the genre of biographical history, with the associated expectations of historical reliability.
4. Accepted by the Church
A fourth compelling reason to accept the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts is that the Christian Church universally has acknowledged them as such. From the first century onward, devout Christians have recognized that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are historical records of Jesus’ life. There is no debate within the church until the rise of critical scholarship during the Enlightenment (16th century and onwards). When the Gospels claim eyewitness status and the Church historically recognizes them as reliable and trustworthy, we ought to have strong reasons for rejecting such status.
What about other Gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry that are not in our New Testament? Two years ago the much-publicized “Gospel of Judas” made headlines around the world. Four years ago the blockbuster movie The DaVinci Code argued powerfully (and wrongly) that there were over 80 Gospels of Jesus’ life, and the patriarchal, misogynistic Catholic Church whittled them down to four acceptable, censored Gospels. We don’t have time to dive deeply into the issue this morning, but the simple fact is that the early Church fathers, from the 1st century through the 4th century, did not recognize extra-canonical Gospels as authentic eyewitness accounts. Early church leaders like Clement, Papias, Justin, and Tertullian quote copiously from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and cite them as authoritative accounts. But they never quote from other Gospels—Peter, Philip, Mary, Judas, etc. They never mention them as acceptable accounts. They do, however, sometimes cite them as untrustworthy accounts written later by people who had no connection with the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry. If you glance through some of the “other” accounts of Jesus’ life, you will most likely recognize quite quickly why the early Church did not accept them as valid historical accounts of Jesus’ ministry. For example, in the Gospel of Peter (a late 2nd-century invention largely copied from Matthew and John), we read this account of the scene of Jesus’ resurrection:
The stone cast before the entrance rolled away by itself and moved to one side; the tomb was open and both young men entered. . . .
They saw three men emerge from the tomb, two of them supporting the other, with a cross following behind them. The heads of the two reached up to the sky, but the head of the one they were leading went up above the skies. And they heard a voice from the skies, ‘Have you preached to those who are asleep?’ And a reply came from the cross, ‘Yes.’
Early Christians were not stupid. They were not foolish. They were not naïve. They did not just accept any and every account of Jesus' life that was written. Like the Gospel-writer Luke, they sought to establish what they believed on solid historical and evidential grounds. They did not credulously swallow ever tale or myth about Jesus—only what was well-grounded and well-attested by eyewitness testimony. That is why the four canonical Gospels were accepted, and the others were not.
5. Internal evidence of the Gospels
A fifth reason to accept the historical reliability of the Gospels is the Gospels themselves. That is, the internal evidence of events and details contained within each Gospel strongly support their status as reliable eyewitness documents. When the police seek an eyewitness account of what happened at a crime scene, they often look for incidental details that witnesses are able to provide. Simply put, the Gospels contain a plethora of incidental details which are best explained by eyewitness testimony.
John 5:1-5 – “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” As the narrative proceeds, Jesus heals the man, on the Sabbath Day, creating a ruckus amongst the Pharisees. But notice the details contained within John’s account. How long has the man been an invalid? Precisely 38 years – an incidental detail which adds nothing to the story, but supports eyewitness knowledge of the event. Where is the man healed? Notice that John provides the exact name of the Gate and pool, and even the number of surrounding covered colonnades.
My wife and I are very different. We both enjoy fiction, particularly good mysteries. But she doesn’t really care for lengthy descriptive passages contained in many longer novels. She’s interested in the story itself. I, however, love the descriptive passages which draw a verbal picture. Skilled authors can bring you to the place of their writing, bringing to life in your imagination the view, the smell, the sights and sounds of the story. That is precisely what John is doing here – he is bringing the story to life, giving us the details which allow us to picture it in our own minds. Now, the picture admittedly doesn’t carry as much power with us as it would have for John’s original audience, who would have been familiar with the places that John writes about. But what John effectively does here is demonstrate his familiarity with exactly what happened, and exactly where.
I should also mention, in passing, that for skeptics and critics, it sometimes doesn’t matter. In situations like these, a critical scholar can happily claim, “John wasn’t really there. He just adds all of these details, some of them (like the name of the pool and gate) recalled from his memory of Jerusalem, others (like the length of his injury) purely imagined by John, in order to make us think that John was actually there.” For such scholars, the level of detail is not confirmation of eyewitness standing, but rather evidence of deliberate deception.
In other situations, however, the same scholars will point to the absence of details as evidence that the Gospel-writer was not an eyewitness at all. In fact, in this very passage, scholars will point to verse 1, and say, “Why didn’t John identify which feast it was? Obviously, because John wasn’t there, this didn’t really happen, and so he can’t say when the feast was.” So the lack of one detail is evidence that John wasn’t there, and the presence of other details is evidence of John’s deliberate deception. John just can’t win! If incidental details are there, it “proves” that John is making them up and putting them in to make the reader think he was actually there. If the details are not there, it “proves” that John wasn’t an eyewitness to what he relates. What is really going on is that such scholars are unwilling to admit the eyewitness standing of the Gospel-writers no matter what, because admitting the Gospels as eye-witness testimony has grave implications that they are absolutely unwilling to accept.
Another example is found in Mark 14:1-3. “Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’ While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.” Again, notice the details that Mark shares, which indicate his personal familiarity with the event. He tells us the exact day on which it occurs (two days before the Passover), the personal name of Jesus’ host (Simon the Leper), the precise type of perfume (made of pure nard), and even the method by which the woman pours the perfume on Jesus’ head (breaking the jar rather than pouring out from the top).
We have looked at just two of hundreds of passages in the Gospels which have such incidental details which support the eyewitness status of the accounts. Richard Bauckham, in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” includes much more. Suffice to say that the New Testament Gospels provide sufficient support for their eyewitness claims.
6. External Evidence for the Gospels’ Historical Accuracy
A sixth reason is the evidential support of the Gospels historical accuracy. If police are presented with a professed eyewitness of a crime, they like to find empirical, objective confirmation that the individual was, in fact, at the scene. This is not always possible, but sometimes it is. The same is true with the New Testament Gospels. It is sometimes possible to confirm, through objective evidence, that the Gospel-writers had first-hand knowledge of what they wrote about. This is where the discipline of archaeology comes into play. Not everything can be verified from archaeological discoveries and extra-biblical records, but much has been.
One fascinating example has to do with a passage already discussed – the healing of a disabled man in John 5. For years, critical scholars rejected the eyewitness standing of John’s account on the basis that the name of the gate was not empirically verified, and the identification of five surrounding colonnades was structurally unlikely and, again, not verified through archaeological discoveries. There is a methodological problem with their argument. Archaeology can confirm biblical data, but it is honestly impossible for archaeology to disprove biblical claims. All that the absence of archaeological evidence for the Sheep Gate and five colonnades demonstrated was that so far as our limited archaeological evidence demonstrated, we could not confirm these historical details. That does not prove that John was making things up, or wrong, or lying – just that we cannot confirm that John is right! But some scholars, in their rush to denigrate the reliability of the Gospels, jump to such unsupported conclusions anyways. “We can’t find any inscriptions of a Sheep Gate by the pools of Bethsaida; therefore there was no such thing.” Come on!
Well, sadly for critics and happily for Christians, archaeological discoveries have verified the identity and name of the Sheep Gate by the Pool of Bethesda, as well as the presence of five porticos, or colonnades, there. What used to lack empirical, archaeological verification now has such it. Again, this demonstrates the futility of trying to draw conclusions of biblical inaccuracy from the limited and incomplete archaeological record. What currently lacks verification may well receive verification from future archaeological discoveries. Anyway, John 5 is simply one of dozens of details in the New Testament Gospels that have been confirmed through inscriptions and structures uncovered in archaeological digs.
7. Experiential verification of the Gospels
So far we have covered five compelling reasons to acknowledge the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels – the Gospels’ claim to transmit accurate records of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death; the early church’s recognition of their eyewitness status; the internal evidence of the Gospels; and the empirical verification provided by archaeology. The seventh reason we have for accepting the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels is on a different level. It is not so much an intellectual or academic reason as it is an experiential reason.
Let me draw an analogy, which may or may not be helpful. I find it helpful – if you don’t, then scrap it accordingly. I could provide someone with objective, rational reasons to ‘save sex for marriage.’ I could talk about (1) the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases, and encourage youth to avoid STDs by employing the safest sex on the planet—abstinence. I could go on to share (2) the pain of separation at the end of sexual relationships amongst youth. I could share testimonies from various young men and women who talk about the physical pleasure they derived from sex with their boy/girlfriend; but the unanticipated brokenness brought about by the end of that relationship. I could warn youth of (3) the inevitable regret that adults feel for youthful sexual indiscretions, especially when their own children approach the teenage years and have questions about sexuality. I could note that such adults almost always desire to protect their own children from the terrible sexual mistakes that they themselves made. I could also share (4) the ever-present possibility of unwanted pregnancies, sharing examples of friends and family members who had to face unanticipated teenaged pregnancies despite employing one, sometimes two, methods of birth control. Taking a different tack, I could (5) exegete Scripture in support of a biblical sexual ethic which holds sexual intercourse to be a sacred gift granted by God to be enjoyed within the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage.
I could present all of those rational, relatively objective reasons to save sex for marriage. But I absolutely would, at the end of such a discussion, share a personal testimony of how God richly blesses the one who does, in fact, save sex for marriage. I would share the unimaginable joys of sexuality encountered within the context of a God-honoring, Christ-centered marriage between husband and wife. I would share that regardless of the persuasive power of the previous five arguments, that the final argument can only be appreciated and appropriated personally.
The seventh and final argument for the reliability of the New Testament Gospels is similar – it is not dependent upon rational or philosophical or historical arguments; but rather makes a personal appeal.
If you put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, you will find the truth of the Gospels confirmed in your life. You will experience the release of forgiveness & reconciliation with God; you will receive abundant joy of life in Christ. You will, both quickly and gradually, experience the transformation of your character, will, and works. Finally, you will find redemption and meaning in the midst of suffering. All that Jesus promises in the Gospels to those who will follow Him, you will find confirmed in your life – if you follow Him.
We have surveyed some strong rational and evidential reasons to consider them trustworthy historical records of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The Gospels themselves claim eyewitness status, and profess to contain a reliable record of Jesus’ life. The Gospels were written within the lifetime of those who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life. The Gospels are biographical histories, a genre which intends to and is expected to contain historical accounts of the relevant life. The Church historically has accepted the Gospels as trustworthy accounts. The incidental details contained within the Gospels confirm their eyewitness status. Archaeology has confirmed many of the eyewitness details recorded in the Gospels. But finally, and ultimately most persuasively, the Gospels are open to personal, experiential verification. As we embrace the Savior proclaimed in and through the Gospels, we find God confirming the truth of the accounts of Jesus’ life.