In this third installment, we turn to the question of the gospels’ authenticity and accuracy. Even though the texts of the gospels have come down to us in reliable form, their believability is another question altogether. Is there reason to believe that the gospel accounts were ever true to begin with? Or are they just carefully copied frauds? LOTS could be said on this, and we will have to content ourselves with only scratching the surface.
It is conceded by modern scholars that the gospels are first century compositions. Consider how significant this is. It means (among other things) that the gospels were written and circulated within the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries, those who had seen and heard him firsthand. This would have made inaccuracies and/or falsifications much more difficult to disseminate with success. Eyewitness disciples would have been eager for absolute accuracy. Eyewitness enemies would have been eager to expose error or fraud. That the content of the gospels was not summarily debunked and disregarded by first century readers is worth noting. It is not, in and of itself, absolute proof of their accuracy, but it is certainly one point among many that bolsters their claim of credibility.
Additionally, we may add that when one reads the gospels, one cannot but notice the ring of realism. These are not works full of shallow, one dimensional characters that can do no wrong. For example, they show the “holy apostles” in all their humanness—in moments of great faith, but also in moments of embarrassing conceit and doubt. On at least three different occasions, we read of the apostles jockeying for position, arguing about who will be the greatest in the Savior’s coming kingdom (Mark 9:33-34; Mark 10:35-37; Luke 22:24-27). We read of Peter having the audacity to rebuke Jesus, and hearing in response: “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:22-23). We read of most of the apostles abandoning Jesus when the going got tough the night of his arrest (Mark 14:50), of Peter lying to save his own skin and saying he didn’t even know Jesus (Luke 22:56-60), of Thomas and the other apostles—in the face of testimony from trusted friends—doubting that Jesus had raised from the dead, causing Jesus to have to rebuke them for their hardness of heart (Mark 16:14). Several other examples could be cited. These are not the sort of things included by authors interested in painting an idyllic view of their spiritual leaders. They are, however, just what we’d expect from honest historians.
“But the gospels are full of contradictions!” or so it has been said. But again, let’s examine the situation with care. It is true that variations in language appear within the gospel accounts. In fact, this is by far the most common kind of difference among parallel accounts of the same event. For example, if one carefully compares the parallel accounts of God’s pronouncement at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), one will notice minor differences in pronoun usage. In Matthew, we read “This is My Beloved Son,” while in Mark and Luke’s accounts, it reads “You are My Beloved Son.” The second half of God's statement reveals similar variations. In Matthew and Mark, we read “in whom I am well pleased,” while in Luke it reads “in You I am well pleased.” To a modern reader accustomed to verbatim quotation (made possible only with the advent of recording technology), this sort of thing can be very disturbing, and raises concerns about accuracy.
But the Bible is not a modern document. It’s an accurate document, but not a modern document. The gospel writers wrote their histories faithfully, but they looked at past events through slightly different glasses than we do. Neither Hebrew nor Greek, for example, had symbols for quotation marks. Language is a reflection of how a culture thinks, and these ancient cultures did not think in terms of absolute word-for-word precision when it came to “quoting” someone. Faithfulness to the speaker’s meaning was expected, but paraphrasing his/her statement was not considered problematic at all. To judge these ancient, eastern documents by modern, western standards is misguided, and will only lead us to mistaken conclusions.
But what about the alleged chronological discrepancies that exist within the gospel accounts? This is one of the major reasons critics question the gospels’ historical reliability. Well, though I may be beginning to sound like a broken record, let’s stop and see if there’s a reasonable explanation for these supposed “discrepancies.” I believe there is, and it rests in the fact that the gospels are not biographies. This is evidenced by the fact that none of them tell us anything at all about almost his entire life! Taken together, the gospels mention events surrounding Jesus’ birth, one event during his toddler years, another when he when was 12, and then they skip to the beginning of his ministry when he about 30. Most of his life is never even discussed. Why?
Because the gospels are not biographies.
The gospel writers were not seeking to supply a detailed itinerary of Jesus’ life, nor even of his ministry. Each of them included or omitted events as they served to advance the goal of his particular work. An account can be accurate without being exhaustive. Some of the accounts are directed towards different audiences (e.g. Matthew to the Jews, Luke to the Gentiles), and some are intended for different purposes (e.g. Matthew to prove that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament, John to prove Jesus’ deity). We even see that events appear to sometimes be organized thematically. In Matthew 8-9, for example, there is a concentration of healing stories. In Luke 14-16, a concentration of parables. In Matthew 13, a succession of seven parables concerning the kingdom of heaven. This is not an approach taken by biographers trying to nail down chronology. The gospel writers did not fail in what they were not even attempting to accomplish.
But What about the Miracles?
One of the chief reasons some reject the historical reliability of the gospel accounts is their inclusion of miracles. The rationale for this opinion seems to be that since they have not seen evidence of miracles in our modern era, this must mean that miracles have never occurred, and hence the gospels are not trustworthy. But this approach is founded upon assumption. It assumes, without evidence, that things have always been the way they are. This is a philosophical objection, not a scientific one. Science draws conclusions based on observation, and we cannot observe the distant past. The only thing we can do is use the evidence at our disposal to draw conclusions about the past that are beyond reasonable doubt (as in a court of law).
Do we have such evidence for the gospels’ historical accuracy? Yes. Beyond what has already been cited in this series, we can point to the fact that the secular-historical components of the gospel accounts have been repeatedly confirmed archaeologically (ancient ruins), bibliographically (written materials), geographically (locations), etc. The gospels, in other words, have shown themselves eminently trustworthy in secular areas…time and again. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were good historians in non-religious, natural matters. In light of that, isn’t it reasonable to consider that they might have been good historians in religious, supernatural matters, as well? If not, why not? Because of the evidence? Or because of bias?
It should be observed, also, that miracles make perfect sense if theism is true—that is, if there is a God who is interested in communicating with his creation. Only if deism or atheism is true do miracles become a logical problem. If Jesus was, in fact, who he claimed to be, his miracles (sober, kind, selfless, merciful acts every one) are not only possible, but probable…expected even. God is not a slave to physics, and empowering Jesus to perform acts contrary to their laws would have been a sure way to convince first century hearers (and us, for that matter) that Jesus really was from God.
So we draw this series to a close. So much more could be said...and has been by others. A brief bibliography of sources devoted to defending the gospels’ claims for Jesus follows. More than once, intelligent, educated people have approached the gospels with their skepticism fully intact only to walk away convinced of the gospels' accuracy (Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, William M. Ramsay to name a few). There are reasons for that.
Do you doubt the gospel accounts of Jesus? If so, could it be that, like these men (before they began their research), your present convictions rest in false assumptions or ignorance? And how do you know? Have you studied the evidence? Could it be that you don’t know what you don’t know?
I invite you to put the gospels to the test and see what you find. You have nothing to lose...and if they're true, you have everything to gain.
Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (J. Warner Wallace)
The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Lee Strobel)
The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Gary R. Habermas)
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Craig L. Blomberg)