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Can we trust the gospels?
March 23, 2022
We are not the first ones to consider the credibility of the Gospels. The earliest Christians relied on three criteria—the date, authorship, and message—to determine the historical reliability of the four canonical Gospels.
Even among critical scholars, it is widely agreed that the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—are the earliest extended accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching. But just because the Gospels tell us quite a lot about Jesus doesn’t mean they are reliable sources of history. After all, the Gospels contain accounts of miracles and claim that Jesus was not only the divine Son of God, but that he rose again from the dead. That’s a little hard to believe. And that’s why many people conclude that the Gospels—at the very least—must be highly embellished stories. So let’s be honest. Can we really trust the Gospels?
We are not the first ones to face this problem. The earliest Christians relied on three criteria to determine the historical reliability of the four canonical Gospels. As for them, so for us, by considering the date, the authorship, and the message, we can trust what the Gospels tell us about Jesus.
First, we can trust the date. The more time that elapses between a historical event and a written account of it, the less credible the document becomes. The first thing to note is that the four Gospels were written within living memory of the events they record. The same cannot be said of the Gnostic Gospels, such as the so-called Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas.
Legends and apocryphal stories about historical figures develop over a long period of time, after the original witnesses are long-dead and there is no one left to contradict the stories. But the canonical Gospels were written too early to be legends. The earliest letters of the Apostle Paul were written 15 to 25 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark was written 30 to 40 years later, and the others Gospels were written 40 to 60 years later—at the most. Many people were still alive at the time of writing who had been present during the events described in the Gospels. For that reason, they could refute whatever the authors reported Jesus said or did. We have no record that anyone ever did. The Gospels were written too early to be merely fictionalized stories.
Second, we can trust the authors. Modern biblical scholars have challenged the reliability of the canonical Gospels by arguing that the Gospels are based on more or less anonymous stories that circulated and evolved over many decades until they were eventually written down. As a result, the authors were separated from the actual events and there is no way of telling fact from fiction.
But recently, the highly respected New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has called that hypothesis into question. Through meticulous research, Bauckham shows that the Gospels are not based on oral traditions, but eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers were no fools. They take pains to recount what happened with precision, and they deliberately cite their sources to make clear who precisely saw what.
Third, we can trust the message. Some contemporary scholars argue that there were dozens of other gospels written about Jesus that should be included in the canon, but the early Christians were biased in favor of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the fact is that those other so-called gospels were written much later, they are not based on eyewitness reports, and their message is strikingly inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.
Rather than providing a narrative about Jesus centered on his death and resurrection, which is told as the fulfillment of God’s promises made to ancient Israel, the other gospels primarily present a collection of sayings that reflect a Gnostic worldview that emerged out of the Greek world of the 2nd century—rather than the Jewish world of the 1st century in which Jesus lived.
So, we can trust the Gospels for all the same reasons that the earliest Christians did. They were written very early and remained in continuous use by the fledgling movement of Jesus’ followers. They were written either by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness reports. Their message is not only historically plausible, but also biblically consistent.
The end result? The New Testament Gospels present Jesus as a thoroughly believable figure of history. So here is the question for you. If we have more reason to trust the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus compared to many other ancient documents recounting the lives of historical figures, how does that change your view of Jesus? Perhaps you could read the Gospels with that thought in mind and see the difference it makes.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Directed and edited by Andrew Walker