Last week, I cited multiple ancient authors who referred to Jesus in their respective works. These individuals, who lived in the same and/or following century that Jesus lived, spoke of him as a real historical figure. None of them were Christians, and at least two of them were quite hostile to Christianity, yet they spoke of Jesus as someone who had impacted their world in recent times. There is no reasonable reason to doubt their testimony on this point, and so the overwhelming majority of scholars don't. But what of those who wrote about Jesus in the first century who were Christians? What about their testimony? In other words, what about the so-called “gospels”—the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Can we trust their accounts? Is there evidence one way or the other? These are questions worth answering…for the gospel writers not only affirm that Jesus walked the earth, but that he came from heaven to save us from the consequences of our sins against God. If there’s any chance that might be true, we definitely want to give the gospels a fair hearing.
So let’s see where the evidence leads....
Put Them to the Test
Concerning the reliability of any historical document, there are tests that can be applied to determine its textual integrity, overall authenticity, and historical accuracy. These tests are exactly the same for secular documents and sacred documents. No exceptions or exemptions should be made for either category. If an historical work is trustworthy, it will pass these tests. If it’s not, it won’t.
Let’s apply these tests to the gospel accounts, and see how they do.
First of all, let’s address the question of textual integrity—that is to say, is the text that we are reading a trustworthy transmission of what was originally written, or has it been corrupted en route? Many today are quick to object to the assertion that we can have any confidence that the gospels have come to us in reliable form, but let’s see what the evidence says.
To begin with, consider that we have over 2,000 Greek manuscripts (transcribed copies) of the gospel accounts that have come down to us through the centuries (no other ancient work boasts even half that number—the gospels’ closest competitor is Homer’s Iliad for which we have only 643 copies). And that number (2000+) doesn’t include the many copies we have in languages other than the original Greek. All of these have been compared, and have been found to paint a consistent, coherent narrative of the ministry of Christ.
Additionally, in terms of historiography (the study of historical writing), the age of these manuscripts is extremely significant. Their nearness to the time of the original compositions is unsurpassed among ancient writings. For example, the oldest copies of Tacitus’ Histories and Annals that we have post-date his original by 700-900 years. For Plato and Josephus, the gap is at least 1,000 years. For Aristotle, it’s 1,100 years. And for Thucydides and Herodotus, it’s 1,300 years! More than a millennium. For the gospels? We possess papyrus manuscripts that date to within 100-150 years of the original, and vellum manuscripts that date from 250-350 years. In other words, to call into question the transmission of the gospel texts is to call all of antiquity into question! I know of no historian willing to do that.
“But there are variations in how the copies read,” someone will say. And that is true. Upon comparison, we do find that there are variant readings in the manuscripts. For example, we observe in Matthew 1:18 that some manuscripts read “the birth of Jesus Christ” while others read “the birth of Christ Jesus.” Another reads “the birth of Christ” while yet another, “the birth of Jesus.” Four variant readings. But are they significant? No. The substance of the passage remains firmly intact. Even the most skeptical of scholars (Bart Ehrman) has admitted: “To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts [and here he speaks of the entire New Testament, not just the gospels (John)], most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.” In an age of technology, it’s easy for us to make more of scribal errors than is merited.
So, as far as the text of the gospel accounts is concerned, we can rest assured that we have in substance what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote all those years ago. The question for us is not whether we have what they intended for us to have, but whether or not we can believe it.
And this sets the stage for the next question: “Do the gospel accounts, even in their intended form, bear the marks of authenticity and accuracy?” That is, "Are they believable?" The next post, Jesus & the Evidence III, will seek to address this question.