The Christian faith and doctrine has been under heavy scrutiny over the last few centuries. One of the most significant portions of the faith that has been under this scrutiny is the historical reliability of the New Testament text; particularly the Gospel Accounts and the book of Acts, which come across as recorded history. There have been multiple objections and criticisms, both internal and external concerning the historical reliability of these accounts from dating, alterations, authorship, textual variants, the supernatural, and the question of who is the historical Jesus.
This article seeks to present a credible defense for the historically reliable of Gospel accounts.
This work will look briefly at the dating and authorship of the Synoptic Gospels and John’s report, the evidence of authenticity through manuscript support, the likely-hood of the accounts being “made up,” the harmony and dissonance between the accounts, the question of miracles, and external evidence from extra-biblical sources.
If the Gospel accounts are shown to be reliable in the historical sense, it isn’t a far step to demonstrate the validity of the faith as a whole.
Though many other topics could be discussed for the defense of the Gospel accounts, considering the limited size of this work, we will look at the most crucial elements of the case.
Dating and Authorship
All four of the Gospel accounts are anonymous in that they don’t tell us within the text body who the author is. However, the titles attached to these accounts, such as κατα Μαθθαιον (according to Matthew), have been designated to these works with no evidence of variants in title throughout history. Some have argued that the Gospel could have been circulated anonymously before the titles were attached to the works. Martin Hengel, however, contends that the lack of variants cannot be explained by anything other than they were original to the work and it is improbable that these accounts would circulate for sixty years or more without variant titles. Despite any objections to Hengel’s claim, there isn’t any convincing evidence that these titles weren’t attached to the works outside of speculation.
With there being no variants in the titles of these works nor disputes in the early church, we can confidently say the authors of the Gospel are as titled; According to Matthew, According to Mark, According to Luke, and According to John.
Briefly looking at the dating of the Gospel accounts, depending on if you hold that Matthew borrowed from Mark, we can date Matthew between 65 and 100 AD. After all the evidence is laid out the best suggestion is that Matthew was written just before the temple’s destruction in 70 AD. According to Carson and Moo’s work, the Gospel account of Mark can be dated between 40 and 70 AD. The majority of contemporary scholars would place Mark in the mid-60s which would be a safe place for us to put it as well. Similarly, if we hold that Luke wrote his Gospel account before Acts, then we would be safe to date his work in the mid-60s AD. Some argue a later time of 75–85 AD considering Mark as potential source material, being dated later. John’s Gospel then would be dated the latest of the Gospel accounts by most scholars in the mid-80s or 90s AD. Now that we have a basic idea of the authorship and dating of these accounts we can begin to look at the evidence for the historicity of them.
Out of the entire collection of historical documents we have today the text of the New Testament canon has by far the most manuscript support.
Fienberg divides the manuscript evidence into four categories: (1) the papyri and codices portions of the Greek New Testament of which we have more than 5600; (2) the early versions of the New Testament including those in Latin, Syriac, and Coptic; (3) the quotes of the New Testament from the early church fathers; (4) lectionaries. Out of the thousands of manuscripts in support of the New Testament, Fienberg helpfully points out some specific manuscripts supporting the Gospel accounts.
First, he points out p52, which contains some of the Gospel of John (18:31–33, 37–38) and is dated incredibly early around 125 AD, which is at most forty years after the composition of John’s Gospel. The closeness of this date is important for showing us how close the circulation and reading of this account was to Jesus’ actual life, meaning an opportunity to verify and contest the account was possible. Other important manuscripts include p66, which includes a great portion of John dated around 200 AD; p64 + 67 have portions of Matthew’s account also dated around 200 AD; p75 contains parts of Luke and John and is dated between 175 and 225 AD. The most important codex includes the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis which contain most, if not all of the New Testament all dated in the fourth and fifth century.
The critical thing to notice about these manuscripts is the proximity of the dates in comparison with other ancient text we have today. Second place to the New Testament concerning manuscript numbers is the works of Homer numbering 643. The shortest time gap between the manuscripts we have and the actual writing is some 500 years. The time gap between most other writings and their original work is around 1,000 years. This gap is in comparison with the forty year time gap between p52, and the Gospel account of John speaks volumes to the Gospel’s historical authenticity.
Fienberg also rightly points out that the estimated accuracy of Homer’s manuscripts is 95 percent while the New Testament’s estimated accuracy is 99.9 percent. It seems rather odd that the New Testament and Gospel accounts should be questioned on this ground while Homer’s text and many others are not.
A final consideration for this category of evidence is the words of the early church fathers. Most significant is Irenaeus words in Adversus haereses. He writes,
“Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their tongue when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there…Mark, the disciple…himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel…Then John…himself produced his Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus.”
This quote is crucially significant because of both its date and Irenaeus’ relation to the Apostles. This text was written about 180 AD, and Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the apostle John. Therefore Irenaeus, only two generations removed from the Apostles, is confirming their authorship and authenticity.
Did the Author’s Lie?
One of the simple objections skeptics make against the historicity of the Gospel accounts is the possibility of the accounts being made up. When we look at the authors of the Gospel accounts the only one that has any reasonable chance to be used pseudonymously is the beloved one, John. The writers of the Synoptic accounts, however, seem to be the least likely candidates with Mark and Luke not being Apostles and Matthew being a tax collector for the unliked Romans. If someone were to write pseudonymously, these aren’t the top “names” to be an influence. This further confirms the authenticity of the Gospel accounts. In the same vein if these stories were made up many of them would be depicted quite differently.
The Gospel accounts are full of embarrassing stories painting the disciples in a bad light.
Just the example of the Apostle Peter, the “rock of the church” will make this clear. In Matthew 14 as Jesus walks on water to come to the disciples, Peter gets out to walk on water and starts sinking, taking his eyes off Jesus. In Matthew 16 and Mark 8 when Jesus speaks of the suffering to come to him, Peter rebukes Jesus and is told by Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” To top those stories off, all four Gospel accounts record Peter denying Christ during his trial for crucifixion, not to mention all the other disciples are nowhere to be found during the crucifixion either. These stories, painting the Apostles as often foolish, don’t seem like ones that would be made up or even recorded if the authors weren’t looking to give an accurate history of the events.
A final piece of evidence to put on the table in this section would be the use of women visiting Jesus’ tomb after he rose from the dead. Most scholars point out that women’s credibility in this time and culture was worthless. So if the disciples were to make up this account, using women as the main characters would give them the least credibility in presenting witnesses of the empty tomb. The only reason to use women in this story is that that was the actual historical details of what happened. All of the evidence shown shows an extremely low likelihood of the Gospel accounts being “made up” and thus the burden to prove otherwise is on the skeptic.
Harmony of Dissonance
The next place we turn is to briefly consider how to harmonize some of the dissonances between the Gospel accounts that many skeptics bring up. The task is to show a possible way for harmonization at the least. In the limited space of this work, we can’t deal with all the dissonance skeptics bring up on an individual level, but we can provide answers to the general problems. In The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Blomberg delivers some helpful more significant topics that address dissonance in the Gospels. Thus we will follow fairly closely to his categories. This work will provide brief answers to the simple language variations between the accounts, chronological problems, and differences between names and numbers.
It is somewhat apparent that multiple people giving the same accounts would word the stories slightly different though hopefully communicating the same story accurately. The problem many modern readers have is the differences between speeches and parts of dialogues that seem like they are quotes from another source. This objection is an understandable one under the modern framework of historical writing, but under the ancient world’s understanding, this just isn’t the case. Blomberg helpfully points out that,
“Greek and Hebrew had no symbols for quotation marks, and a historian or biographer referring to what others said did not necessarily try to cite their exact wording.”
The goal was only to remain faithful to the meaning of the words said, and the practice of paraphrasing is a faithful rendition. With this in mind, to call into to question the historical reliability of Gospel accounts based up slight wording variations is out of place.
We must also bring up that on a surface view of the Gospel accounts there appear to be some chronological problems between the various reports. To answer the obvious chronological issues, it is recognized by most scholars that the Gospel writers were not seeking to write history as the West would like in chronological order. Blomberg points out that this fact has been recognized at least as long ago as St. Augustine. Though there can be identified some broad sequential flow, the authors of the Gospel accounts arranged the passages and stories in topical ways. This structure is easily confused because often in the translation of the Gospel accounts to the English, connecting words between passages are translated in a temporal sense when they don’t necessarily have to be. One example will suffice. Blomberg points out that Luke moves John the Baptist imprisonment “from its place in the middle of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Mark 6:14–29) to it beginning in order that it may form the natural conclusion of his section on John the Baptist’s mission (Luke 3:1–20).”
Lastly, there needs to be mention of differences between names and numbers in the Gospel accounts. Most of these differences are quickly reconciled or have come up because of textual variants in spelling over time. Though we can’t look at all of the instances of these discrepancies in this work, we can present how these types of issues are usually resolved. In the case of name variations often the difference is because of one author referring to a more extensive region and the other being very specific (Mark 1:39 compared with Luke 4:44 or somewhat in Mark 5:1 compared to Luke 8:26). Other times it is merely misspellings and confusion of city names going from Hebrew to Greek or other variant names of the same place (see the comparison of Matt. 15:39 and Mark 8:10). Concerning numbers, often we see one author write about two people and the others only one (i.e., blind men in Matt. 20:30 vs. Mark 10:46; angels in Luke 24:4 vs. Mark 16:5). Though some have sought to find a more complicated way of solving these differences it seems more than plausible that there were two in these instances and one comes forth as the spokesperson.
The Miracle Question
Next, we turn to what has been the most disputed part of the Gospel accounts in our day; how can the Gospel accounts be historical with all of the miracles recorded in them? I would like to note, however, that these miracles reports in our day are less disputed than we think, especially to those of a post-modern mindset. Blomberg has helpfully divided the objections into three different categories: (1) the scientific, (2) the philosophical, and (3) the historical. This work, due to its limits, will briefly address the objections in categories one and two.
First, the scientific objection is the questioning of miracles validity because of the natural and physical laws of the universe, which can’t break. Many who hold this objection strongly will say that the people of the Biblical times believed in miracles because of their lack of scientific knowledge. Two things come in opposition to this sentiment:
(1) what proof do you have that ancient people groups lacked scientific knowledge and
(2) things like the virgin birth and resurrection from the dead seem to be apparent miracles to all people at all ages no matter how you spin it.
Thus, defending miracles doesn’t mean the negation of natural law.
Norman Geisler points out that science doesn’t
“have sovereign claim to explain all events as natural, but only those that are regular, repeatable, and/or predictable.”
This reality is why miracles are called miracles right? Because they don’t happen all the time, they aren’t regular occurrences. It logically follows that if the God of theism exists, then miracles are not only possible. “For if a transcendent, personal God exists, then he could cause events in the universe that could not be produced by causes within the universe.”
Second is the historical objection of which Blomberg turns to Troeltsch, who declared that
“the historian has no right to accept as historical fact the account of a past event for which he has no analogy in the present.”
I believe we can both deny the actual principle of Troeltsch and deny that miracles aren’t experienced in the present. To reject the principle, I know a young man who has grown up in the city of Springfield, Ohio and has never had an opportunity to leave his region of southern Ohio and therefore he has never seen the ocean. Since this young man has never seen such a body of water is he to believe it doesn’t exist despite what people have told him or what school has taught him? That seems quite irrational. The same principle would then apply to miracles; just because one hasn’t experienced such an event or have the category to place such in the present does that mean it can’t exist. Not so. On the second front, it seems rather ignorant to dismiss all the stories of people’s miraculous experiences today. We might acknowledge that miracles probably happen less in charismatic circles than they think, but we can equally say they likely occur in other circles more than they realize. They can’t just be dismissed based on your personal experiences.
Finally, this work will succinctly point to some extra-biblical sources both Graeco-Roman and Jewish, that supports the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. Some of the critical Graeco-Roman sources includes Julius Africanus (3rd Century), cites historian Thallus who refers to the darkness that occurred at the time of the crucifixion in his work on world history in Greek in the first century. You also have Roman writer Tactius of the early second century who describes Christians getting their name from “’Christ who had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.’” The major Jewish source of evidence is found in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities from the late first century who wrote very explicitly about Jesus writing: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats…When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified…” Josephus also elsewhere in his work gives reference to many of the characters in the Gospel supporting the comparable narratives of history found in the Gospel accounts and the book of Acts. These extra-biblical sources give robust support to the historical reliability of the Gospel by authenticating their narratives in secular historian’s writings of the time.
In this short work, the Gospel accounts can be shown as historically reliable employing both internal and external evidence putting the burden of proving otherwise on the skeptic. The amount of scholarship out there on the Gospel’s authenticity and historical reliability is vast and goes far beyond the evidence this work has provided. With full confidence, I can say the Gospel accounts are dependable sources of history and an excellent basis for belief in the Christian faith and worldview.
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