Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

We argued in the previous post that the text of the New Testament is fundamentally the same today as it was when it was composed. But this textual reliability should not be confused with historical reliability; the textual reliability of the New Testament merely allows us to investigate whether the New Testament is, in fact, historically reliable. Going forward, we’ll narrow our focus to the parts of the New Testament that are needed for our discussion: the four canonical gospels (which contain records of Jesus’ life). We’ll assess the historical reliability of the gospels by asking two questions: first, to what extent were the gospel authors attempting to communicate historical fact? Second, if they were reporting historical fact, what reasons are there to accept or reject their testimony?

Let’s begin with our first question: to what extent were the gospel authors attempting to communicate historical fact? There are several avenues by which we can answer this question, but the most important is literary. On the basis of the character of the texts themselves, contemporary New Testament scholarship has largely agreed that the gospels are historical in nature, most closely resembling ancient biographies. Indeed, a simple and straightforward reading of the texts indicates that the authors are attempting to communicate historical truths (see, for instance, the opening of the book of Luke). This literary conclusion is reinforced historically; the gospels were cited continuously by early church fathers as reliable sources of (historical) information on Jesus’ life. If the gospels were originally intended as nonhistorical, it’s hard to see how the leaders of Christendom could’ve so quickly become confused about their function. Lastly, as we’ll talk about in the next section, some statements in the gospels which appear to be historical claims have been verified by archaeology as historical fact. I include this first section mostly for the sake of completeness; it’s not generally disputed that the authors of the gospels intended them to be read as containing historical truth, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll move on to the site of most disagreements. But as always, if you’re unconvinced by the condensed argument given here, investigate!

While most skeptics will concede that the gospel writers intended the gospels to be read as containing historical truths, they maintain that nevertheless the gospels aren’t historically reliable. There are two basic forms of this position: the gospel authors wrote falsehoods either deliberately (i.e. they were lying) or accidentally (i.e. they were mistaken). In assessing the strengths of these positions, methodology will be important. While it would be inappropriate and probably circular for the Christian to demand that we approach these texts with the presupposition that they contain no falsehoods, it’s equally inappropriate for the skeptic to take an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent” towards gospel claims, asserting that they’re false or unreliable unless they’re explicitly confirmed by an external source. We ought rather to begin at a tentative middle ground – assume that the gospel authors are well-intentioned yet fallible people attempting to record historical truth to the best of their ability. As we investigate their claims, we may find the authors to be blatantly dishonest, hopelessly inept, generally reliable, or even supernaturally flawless – but these are conclusions, not starting points.

Let’s look at the objections to gospel reliability first, both against the writers’ honesty and their competency. The main attack on the honesty of the gospel authors is to point out that they were Christians and therefore hopelessly biased; of course they’ll say that Jesus rose from the dead, performed miracles, gave true prophecy, etc. But this attack seems relatively weak. All historians – indeed, all people – are vulnerable to bias. While we ought to be aware of this danger, we still generally trust that historians who believe that World War 2 occurred (and even that the Allies were in the right) are capable of accurately reporting the facts of the matter. The bare possibility that the authors’ beliefs could have led them into biased reporting isn’t sufficient to discredit their account in the absence of any evidence that they actually succumbed to this temptation. (If it were sufficient, we should distrust all of history.)

The most popular attack against the competence of the gospel writers centers on the existence of alleged contradictions between the different gospel accounts; given a genuine contradiction, at least one of the contradicting sources must be in error. From there, the skeptic states or implies that if there are errors in the gospels then we ought to think that all (or most) gospel claims are unreliable. This objection is doubly flawed. While it’s certainly true that there are divergences in the gospels, this is characteristic of unharmonized eyewitness testimony and does not count against their reliability in the slightest. A contradiction is an instance where the texts make assertions that are logically incompatible with one another, not merely places where one text omits events included in another or something of that nature; it is up to the skeptic to demonstrate that there are contradictions of this nature in the gospels and this burden has not been met. But even if there were some contradictions (and therefore some errors) in the gospels, it does not immediately follow that the gospels are unreliable. If the police take statements from eyewitnesses following a bank robbery and receive wildly varying descriptions of the robber’s height, weight, color, and so forth, are they justified in concluding that there was no robber? Certainly not! During a shocking and terrifying robbery, it may be quite hard to observe and remember peripheral details, but it’s not hard at all to see that someone is robbing the bank. So the existence of some errors isn’t enough to substantially damage the reliability of the central testimony of the gospels; one would have to additionally show that the parts of the testimony in error are as likely (or at least comparably likely) to be mistaken as the parts of the testimony one wishes to discredit, and in the case of the gospels this simply can’t be done. Even if we were to grant that a few peripheral details are contradictory in the gospel accounts (which I do not think they are), the central facts pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection that are unanimously attested in the four gospels are of a completely different type than those details on which they allegedly contradict. Unless the skeptic can demonstrate the existence of genuine contradictions and then justify his leap from the presence of errors in the details to unreliability on even the most central points, the objection fails.

But we want to say more than that the gospel writers aren’t demonstrably unreliable; what positive reasons are there for thinking that they were accurately and sincerely reporting the truth? One line of internal evidence supporting the gospel writers’ honesty is the presence of embarrassing statements in the gospels. Jesus’ disciples, some of whom were crucial church leaders at the time when the gospels were written and circulated, constantly fail him. They lack faith, misunderstand His teachings, fall asleep when instructed to pray, and so on, culminating in most of them abandoning Jesus at His crucifixion. To a lesser extent, Jesus is also portrayed “embarrassingly,” i.e. in ways that it would’ve been convenient for the authors to omit. One of the most notable examples is found in John 6:53; Jesus has just miraculously fed a crowd of thousands with a single boy’s lunch and His popularity is cresting. Then, unprovoked and unprompted, Jesus tells His Jewish audience that his true followers must “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.” This was preposterous; obviously the idea of consuming a person is alarming in itself, but additionally, blood was extremely ritually unclean for Jews. Unsurprisingly, many of Jesus’ new followers promptly leave upon hearing this. Hard sayings like this would’ve continued to be stumbling blocks for early Jewish Christians and all too easy for a propaganda piece on Jesus to quietly omit; but the gospel writers show themselves to be more honest than that, including embarrassing and awkward stories about leaders of the early church and their Lord in their writing.

What about reasons for thinking that the gospel writers were competently and accurately reporting history? To name just one, the gospel writers show great attention for detail in their accounts. All four gospels use many place names when describing the ministry of Jesus, many of which are minor and would likely have been “local secrets”; a fruitful comparison can be made with counterfeit gospels like the Gospel of Peter, which was written far from the life of Jesus both temporally and geographically and is therefore reluctant to name any location other than Jerusalem. The author of Luke and Acts shows himself to be exceptionally concerned with such details, frequently using unique local jargon to name local authorities who often had short and unremarkable terms. Many of these unique titles, and sometimes the named person themselves, have been archaeologically verified; it would’ve been exceedingly difficult for anyone in the first century to gather the necessary information by any means except having been there. The presence of these details give the definite impression that the gospel writers were “on the ground” and proximate to the events they recorded in both time and space, and that they were paying close attention to carefully record their surroundings. (They could, of course, have stolen this historical setting accurately and then fabricated the particular stories of Jesus; that’s why this argument has to be given alongside others which defend the gospel writers’ honesty and aim at historicity.)

One last line of evidence referred to as “undesigned coincidences” argues directly for the historical reliability of the gospels and thereby supports both the honesty and the competence/accuracy of the gospel writers. (This evidence is thoroughly explored by Dr. Lydia McGrew in her book Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts.) The basic idea is that eyewitness testimonies naturally diverge from one another, but if they are genuine eyewitness testimonies, they’re grounded in the same real event. This underlying unity is sometimes reflected when testimonies fit together like puzzle pieces, complementing one another in ways that are best explained by their simply being true. For instance, consider the miraculous feeding I mentioned briefly in the previous paragraph. The following are facts reported by the gospels about that occasion:

  1. Jesus asks Philip, one of his more minor disciples, to go find food.
  2. Philip is from the town of Bethsaida.
  3. The miraculous feeding occurs at Bethsaida.
  4. Many people were coming and going on a road nearby.
  5. A major Jewish festival was occurring soon for which people would have to travel to Jerusalem.

These five facts fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But our puzzle pieces come from surprisingly different places: we learn facts 1, 2, and 5 in the Gospel of John, fact 3 from the Gospel of Luke, and fact 4 from the Gospel of Mark. This happens over and over throughout the gospels and is poorly explained by hypotheses which take these facts to be fabrications or errors. The intricacy with which these facts fit together has what can fairly be called the “ring of truth” and bolsters our confidence that the gospel writers were both honest and meticulously careful.

Though all of my posts have been focused on brevity rather than depth, this post is perhaps the most condensed of all of them. In my skeptical period, I don’t think any post of this length could have convinced me that the gospels were historically reliable. But I sincerely hope that, if your interest has been at all piqued, you’ll continue looking into the work of the McGrews or any of the other great scholars currently arguing for the reliability of the gospels to learn about the evidences I have here omitted. (And if you haven’t already, read the gospels for yourself! At worst, they’re some of the most influential documents in history. You may even learn something that lets you school a Christian in an argument, which is always fun.) I have also omitted many objections, so if you came in with a question and think it hasn’t been answered, you’re probably right. But for the sake of getting to the conclusion of my argument, I’ll press on and simply reiterate my encouragement that everyone interested continue dialoguing, commenting, and reading until they’re thoroughly convinced of one position or the other.

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