Contending for Easter is an 8-day (8-part) series of blog essays/articles published by members of the Canadian Apologetics Coalition. Each article makes a brief case for the truthfulness and historicity of Christian belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection. Yesterday's article (access here), finely-authored by Tim Barnett of ClearThinkingChristianity, argued that (a) the resurrection lies at the very center of Christian faith and belief; and (b) the resurrection is a historically testable event open to rational investigation and scrutiny.
Today's article (Monday, March 25, 2013) is authored by yours truly. I make a (very) brief case for the general historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. If the Gospels are not trustworthy (in general) as historically-informative documents, then it will be difficult to ascertain anything noteworthy about the post-mortem fate of Jesus of Nazareth. I hope the article is helpful on some level, and that you continue to follow the entire series of essays.
Contending for Easter, Part II - The Gospel Truth: Or Is It?
Are the New Testament Gospels Historically Reliable?
In the 1980s, the Jesus Seminar argued 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. If the Jesus Seminar is correct, it will be difficult to build a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. After all, our knowledge about what happened to Jesus after His arrest stems primarily from the New Testament Gospels, as even the Jesus Seminar affirms. If our knowledge of Jesus’s fate derives from the Gospels, then it is certainly important to know whether we can trust what the Gospels say—whether the Gospels can and do contain accurate biographies of Jesus’ life and ministry. To that end, I am going to suggest five lines of evidence which give us strong reason to believe that the Gospels aim to and actually deliver an accurate historical record.
1. The Gospels Claim to Contain Eyewitness Testimony
First, the New Testament Gospels present themselves as containing eyewitness testimony.
“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 1:1-4) Notice the emphases that Luke makes. First, his account accords with that of those who were eyewitnesses. Second, Luke has carefully investigated the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. What does that look like? Well, it involves Luke talking to the people who were actually eyewitnesses of the events he narrates. Why does Luke alone give us the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective? I suggest it’s because Luke alone talks to Mary to get her account to include in his gospel. Finally, he presents his Gospel as an orderly, historical account of Jesus’ life.
Based on passages like Luke 1, most scholars acknowledge that the Gospels claim to present eyewitness accounts of Jesus of Nazareth.
Admittedly, all this provides is a claim to be eyewitness testimony.
2. The Early Date of the Gospels
Second, the Gospels is that they were written relatively close to the time of the events which they relate (especially in comparison to other ancient historical sources). Most scholars agree that Mark was written between A.D. 50-65, Matthew and Luke between A.D. 60-85; and then John around A.D. 95. When the New Testament Gospels were written and began to circulate, there would still have been numerous people alive who had seen and heard Jesus.
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 accurate. Not only friends, but also foes of Christianity were around to counter false presentations. 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. 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. This is hugely significant – it indicates that the Gospels were most likely telling the truth about what Jesus said and did, so that no one could dispute their accounts.
3. The Church Has Always Recognized the Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Third, the Christian Church universally has acknowledged the Gospels as reliable. From the first century, Christians have recognized Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as historical records. We have accounts as early as Papias in the 1st century affirming the reliable eyewitness accounts contained within the canonical Gospels. By 170 AD, Irenaeus of Lyons can refer simply and authoritatively to “The Four Gospels,” comparing them to the four winds of heaven. Simply put, within 100 years, there was an established tradition within Christendom recognizing four, and only four, canonical Gospels as authoritative, reliable sources about Jesus of Nazareth. Our early testimony is unanimous and affirming – the Gospels are trustworthy. There is a lack of dissenting opinion. It is, in my opinion, the height of chronological snobbery to insist that we can know better, 2000 years later, what really happened in the 1st century than the people who were around then. So, we have the universal church recognition of the historical reliability of the canonical Gospels.
4. The Internal Evidence of the Gospels.
Fourth, 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.
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.
5. The External Evidence for the Gospels (The Discipline of Archaeology)
Fifth, archaeological discoveries verify the reliability of many details within the Gospels.
For years, critical scholars rejected the eyewitness standing of John 5 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 difficult 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!
Eventually, archaeological discoveries 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 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.
We have briefly surveyed five reasons to treat the Gospels as trustworthy historical records. This argument does not establish the truth of everything contained within the Gospels; it merely establishes that the Gospels must be taken seriously, as intentionally historical records that both intend to and are capable of presenting us with a factual account of the life, ministry, death, and fate of Jesus of Nazareth. With that in mind, we can carry on to consider whether the account of Jesus’ resurrection has any merit.
 See also John 20:30-31; John 21:24-25.
 See further Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
 It should be acknowledged that you do have the dissenting voice of Marcion, an early gnostic heretic, who insisted that only Luke’s Gospels was reliable. Marcion also rejected the testimony of the entire Old Testament, and all other New Testament documents except Paul’s letters.
 For further reading, see, e.g., F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?; Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.