What evidence do we have that the Gospels are reliable?

10 Jun

the four gospels

Apologetics – What evidence do we have that the Gospels are reliable?

(Apologetics Definition: reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Four Gospels and One Jesus

3. Archaeological discoveries

4. Extra-Biblical and Non-Christian Sources

5. Quantity and Quality of the Manuscripts

6. Oral Transmission

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

End Notes

 

Introduction

The Gospels in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, has come under huge scrutiny for its reliability as a historical document or as a source of knowledge about the life of Jesus. However, one can claim that the Gospel has been unfairly scrutinized in comparison to other ancient documents. Popular opinion of the Gospel according to the secular world can be summed up as “they are not reliable. They were composed long after the events they purport to describe – by writers strongly biased in his favour…The writers fed back into the Jesus-events their own developed beliefs and prejudices, turning the simple figure of the Galilean teacher into a miracle-working God-man” (Bridge, 1996, p17). As it comes to analysing the authenticity and credibility of the Bible, especially the Gospel, one needs to ensure they follow where the evidence leads them. Scholars can subconsciously bring personal bias or prejudices when it comes to researching the reliability of the Gospel. Putting these aside, one can find there is incredible evidence that cements the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Gospel. You can find specific evidence through these certain aspects: the fact that there are four different gospels/eye-witnesses about Jesus, archaeological discoveries, extra-biblical and non-Christian sources confirming the existence of Jesus, the quality and quantity of manuscripts and the methods in which people passed on the story and message of Jesus Christ. It is our role and responsibility that we look at the evidence, which has come to light, subjectively; as one would do for a secular writing/theory. Knowing this, there is incredible evidence that points to the reliability of the Gospel. It certainly outweighs the arguments against the reliability of the Gospels.

Four Gospels and One Jesus

Having four gospels about one Jesus can raise some eyebrows. There are emerging points that having four gospels is unreliable because they are different and seem to contradict each other. However, it is the opposite effect. “The four Gospels give us a complementary, not a contradictory, account” (Zukeran, 2014). If you were a judge and you had four different eye-witnesses for a court case, imagine if they all said the same story; right down to the very specific details. You would be very suspicious. There are four different perspectives about Jesus because each author of the gospels had different audiences they intended to reach. Along with this, it is believed the Gospels were written at different times and locations. Zukeran shares how Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience and includes many teachings of Christ, while including references for the Old Testament prophecies to build creditability. Mark reached out to the Gentile audience and set out to prove that Jesus is the Son of God; so he focused on sharing events of Jesus’ life, demonstrating his Kingship over all. Luke wrote from a historical perspective, looking to write accurately the account of Jesus’ life. John wrote the last gospel as a reflection of his experience walking with God and writes the most theological gospel of all” (Zukeran, 2014). As you can see, there are different details and perspectives of the life of Jesus and the Gospel, the underlying truth and overall message is still the same. This presents the Gospels’ case for truthfulness and accuracy which strengthens the eyewitnesses’ testimony. Putting together all four Gospels, it provides a comprehensive picture of the person, teaching, miracles and life of Jesus Christ. The argument of having four gospels of Jesus, through the perspectives of different eye-witness; while presenting the same message further cements the reliability of the Gospels’ as an insight of the life of Jesus Christ.

Archaeological discoveries

Archaeological discoveries have often been ignored in the past as a source of evidence for biblical reliability and accuracy. However, such evidence needs to be presented alongside other evidence without any prejudice. “Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics. It has shown…that these views rest on false assumptions and unreal, artificial schemes of historical development. This is a real contribution and not to be minimized” (Burrows, 1956, p1). There have been many archaeological discoveries that can build the creditability of the Bible. “In general terms, archaeology confirms the Gospel background and even pinpoints some of the places. John’s Gospel in particular reads almost like a guidebook to Jerusalem between AD 20 and 70” (Bridge, 1996, p23). Such archaeological discoveries include towns mentioned, inscriptions written or specific architecture confirmed in the Bible. “Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history” (Albright as cited by McDowell, 1979, p65). A professor, Urban C. Von Waldhe, who focuses hugely in the Gospel of John; points out many incredible discoveries that validate the trustworthiness of John’s writings.

“…of the 20 Johannine sites, 16 have been identified with certainty: Bethsaida; Cana, Capernaum, the harbor, the synagogue, Jacob’s well, Mount Gerizim, the location of Sychar, the Sheep Gate, the pool(s) of Bethesda; Tiberias; the pool of Siloam; Bethany, near Jerusalem; Ephraim; the Kidron Valley; the Praetorium; Golgotha; and the tomb of Jesus[1]” (Von Wahlde, as cited by Charlesworth, 2006 p523).

When you piece together all the archaeology discoveries so far today and give respect the evidence demands, there is clearly more archaeological evidence that proves the authenticity of the four gospels than it does deny. “Archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record; “more than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine” (Burrows, 1956, p1).

 

Extra-Biblical and Non-Christian Sources

To further push the case of the reliability of the Gospels, there are extra-biblical and Non-Christian sources that were written around the time of Jesus, and they confirm the life of Jesus. The argument that the writers of the Gospels are biased toward Jesus is a valid point. To rebut this point, one cannot ignore the external sources of writings that were written during the time of Jesus Christ. These sources actually confirm that Jesus existed and these authors were not biased. This cements that at the least that Jesus lived in this world and had influence. “In light of these non-Christian references, the theory that Jesus never existed is completely unreasonable. How could non-Christian writers collectively reveal a storyline congruent with the New Testament if Jesus never existed?” (Geisler & Turek, 2004, p223). It is hard to ignore that the writers of the Jesus era knew of Jesus even though they did not follow him; they knew that there was a change happening. In some of the writings, there are mentions of Jesus doing some supernatural work, or that the followers of Jesus are living accordingly to the teachings of Jesus Christ. “The external evidence for the Gospel traditions reinforces the confidence in their historical reliability, which the internal evidence has been building up in previous chapters” (Blomberg, 2007, p295). Regarding Non-Christian sources, Gleghorn looks at strong evidence that point to the existence of Jesus. Gleghorn shares writings from Tacitus, a Roman Historian; Pliny the Younger, a Roman Governor; Josephus, 1st Century Jewish Historian; the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings; and Lucian of Samosata, 2nd Century Greek satirist (Gleghorn, 2014). Josephus further confirms the truth within the Gospels incidentally; “Josephus also provides more indirect corroboration of the Gospel narratives about Jesus…He also makes reference to John the Baptist, with testimony about John’s message, ministry and execution that is potentially compatible with the Gospel’s accounts” (Blomberg, 2007, p256). Pliny the Younger, shares certain behaviours that he noticed from the early followers of Jesus.

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind” (Pliny, cited by Habermas, 1996, p199).

Piecing together these sources and more, you begin to form the central message and purpose of the gospel. “The historical sources outside the Gospels confirm their core content[2], but not the details” (Roberts, 2007, p150). But this alone, at least, validates the basic premise of the gospel. The purpose of the gospel is to bring the insight and details of the message of Jesus and the external sources of that age authenticates this basic message. Regarding the confirmation of authorship, Kirby shares a source from Irenaeus, an Early Church Father and apologist, who specifically mentions Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors of the gospel in his book, In Against Heresies[3]  (Kirby, 2001).

Quantity and Quality of the Manuscripts

One of the valid arguments against the reliability of the gospel that circles around today is that Scripture today has been translated too many times and has too many variations. This is true to an extent for we do not have the original scriptures. However, there is no other ancient book in comparison that is more reliable than the New Testament.

“No other ancient book is so well authenticated. The great New Testament scholar and Princeton professor Brice Metzger estimated that the Mahabharata of Hinduism is copied with only 90 percent accuracy and Homer’s Iliad with about 95 percent, by comparison, he estimated the New Testament is about 99.5 percent accurate. Again, the 0.5 percent in question does not affect a single doctrine of Christian faith” (Geisler + Turek, 2004, p220).

The originals were copied onto the manuscripts, which provide us with our source of the teachings of the gospel. These manuscripts were carefully copied and today there is a huge amount of manuscripts. “We do not possess any of the original autographs of New Testament texts. But these originals were carefully copied and preserved, and today we possess an abundance of manuscripts – over 5,700 (from the second to the fourteenth centuries)” (Burge, Cohick & Green, 2009, p442). There is not only a huge quantity of manuscripts but the quality of the manuscripts has been carefully monitored to ensure that sanctity of the gospel and the preservation of the message “The wealth of existing manuscript evidence (not to mention all the translations and citations from rabbis and early church fathers) allow for a high degree of certainty that the original text is represented within the wealth of manuscripts we now have” (Von Kamecke, 2009, p36). Continuing the argument of the different translations, sceptics point to the different translations and variations as the undoing of the reliability of the gospels (and the Bible as a whole) under the assumption that every single copy and word needs to be the same for it to be true. However, with all the differences in each translation, it is only minor and does not affect the message of the gospel as a whole; “The vast majority of variants involve spelling, grammar, harmonization, and the like, most of which are easily identified” (Von Kamecke, 2009, p37). Another argument placed upon the unreliability of the gospel is that the time gap between the actual events of the gospel and when it was recorded causes it to be subject for error. It is assumed that the gospel could easily be forgotten, changed or misinterpreted. It is believed that the earlier a copy is written, the more reliable it is. In saying so, The New Testament, in comparison to other ancient books, is copied far earlier. Ancient text such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristotle, Caesar, Pliny, Tacitus, Confucius and I Ching are copied more than 750 years after the original; whereas, the New Testament is copied within the time gap of 0-300 years[4]. This shows that the New Testament ought to be considered more reliable according to this particular argument. “The length of time between the events and their recording in the gospels is not much more than two generations, even on the latest dating now proposed” (France, 2012, p291). There is insurmountable evidence of the quality and quantity of manuscripts that bring us the writings of the Gospel. One has to ensure that they treat the New Testament like any other historical document when looking to authenticate or expose the writings. “Treat the Gospels just like you would any other historical document. Subject it to the same criteria. Treat it just like Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Josephus’ Jewish Wars, or Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome. If you accept them as generally accurate, on what basis would you discount the reliability of the Gospels?” (Copan, 1998). One can see that in comparison to other texts, the Gospel can be seen as most reliable.

Oral Transmission

A popular argument that is believed to impact the credibility of the gospel is the fact that in the first few centuries of the development of the Scripture, it was passed down orally before being put onto manuscripts. There is a common reference to the game ‘Telephone’ (a.k.a. Chinese Whispers); where one person shares a sentence to another, and they pass on the message to a group of people, one by one. In the end, the statement has often been changed through the process; whether it is one or two words, or even the complete sentence. This point is raised when it comes to the transmission of heavy doses of Scripture from one to another. However, one can discuss that the people in the Jesus era lived in a verbalized culture. People such as Jewish, rabbis or even Jesus followers had practice in giving and receiving knowledge orally. “During the first four centuries of our era the verbalized Torah tradition of the Jewish rabbis grew enormously, and it was still being handed down orally. If one wonders how it was possible for such a huge body of text to be preserved and passed on orally, one must consider the rabbis’ pedagogical methods and techniques employed in oral transmission” (Gerhardsson, 2001, p9). In today’s generation, we do not need to remember much because we have information stored in technology, books and under our fingertips. We can access phone numbers on our phone without memorizing it; therefore we have not exercised our full ability to store information and remembering it clearly. “The early followers of Jesus lived in an oral culture…only the wealthy had access to libraries and literature. So people needed good memories. They remembered stories, sayings, Scripture passages…Their oral culture had contexts in which crucial information, like religious stories, would be passed on faithfully” (Roberts, 2007, p73).

 

Conclusion

As you piece all the evidence together, it is clear that the evidence for the reliability and authenticity of the Gospel far outweighs the evidence stating the Gospels are unreliable. Compared to its contemporary ancient writings, the Gospel is far more credible; as seen by the quality process of the copying of manuscripts and the confirmation of such corroborative eyewitnesses and archaeological findings. Most arguments that push for the Gospels to be seen as unreliable are mostly claims that have not backed up through facts. It is crucial that people look at the evidence subjectively so the evidence itself can paint a clearer picture of the question of the reliability of the Gospel; rather than personal opinion and biases. There are certainly issues that can cause the gospel to be unreliable, such as the chance of error arising from oral transmission, the fact there are no originals and that there are supposed contradictions in the four Gospels. However, these arguments can be as mere statements due to lack of facts proving there is definite error in the Scripture today. There are far more certain facts that build the trustworthiness of the Gospel, whether it is sourced from within the Bible or in external sources. Objectively, the Gospels ought to be seen as reliable due to tremendous evidence that paint this theory.

Bibliography

  1. Blomberg, C.L. (2007) The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
  2. Bridge, D. (1996) Why the Four Gospels? Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.
  3. Burge, G. M., Cohick, L. H., & Green, G. L. (2009). The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament Within Its Cultural Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  4. Burrows, M. (1956) What Mean These Stones? New York: Meridian Books.
  5. Copan, P. (2001) You Can’t Trust The Gospels, They’re Unreliable, Excerpted from Copan, P. (1998) True For You, But Not For Me, Ada, MI: Bethany House Publishers (Accessed 30/05/2015: http://www.apologeticsindex.org/r14ac.html).
  6. France, R.T (2012) The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity, in Meister, C & Sweis, K.A (Ed.) Christian Apologetics: An Anthropology of Primary Sources, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  7. Geisler, N.L. and Turek, F. (2004). I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
  8. Gerhardsson, B. (2001) The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
  9. Gleghorn, M. (2014) Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources, Probe Ministries (Accessed 30/05/2015: https://www.probe.org/ancient-evidence-for-jesus-from-non-christian-sources-2/#text10).
  10. Habermas, G.R. (1996) The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Joplin MO: College Press Publishing Company.
  11. Kirby, P. (2001) Early Christian Writings: Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1 – (Accessed on 27/05/2015: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/irenaeus-book3.html).
  12. McDowell, J. (1979) Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidence for the Christian Faith, San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers.
  13. Roberts, M..D. (2007) Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton IL: Crossway Books.
  14. Von Wahlde, U.C. (2006) Archaeology and John’s Gospel, in Jesus and Archaeology, Charlesworth, J.H. (ed). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  15. Von Kamecke, F. (2009) Busted: Exposing Popular Myths about Christianity, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  16. Zukeran, P. (2014) The Historical Reliability of the Gospels – An Important Apologetic for Christianity Probe Ministries (Accessed 27/05/15: https://www.probe.org/the-historical-reliability-of-the-gospels/)

END NOTES

[1]Von Wahlde’s findings with reference to verses in John’s Gospel:

Bethsaida (1:44); Cana (2:1, 11; 4:4654; 21:2); Capernaum (2:12; 4:46; 6:17, 24); the harbor (6:24, 25); the synagogue (v. 59); Jacob’s well (4:46); Mount Gerizim (4:20); the location of Sychar (4:5); the Sheep Gate (5:2); the pool(s) of Bethesda (5:2); Tiberias (6:1, 23; 21:2); the pool of Siloam (9:19); Bethany, near Jerusalem (11:117; 12:111); Ephraim (11:54); the Kidron Valley (18:1); the Praetorium (18:28, 33; 19:9); Golgotha (19:17, 18, 20, 41); and the tomb of Jesus (19:41, 42). Of the remaining four, two can be narrowed to within a relatively restricted area: the place in the temple precincts for the keeping of animals (2:1316) and the place where Pilate brought Jesus (19:13); the other two are still highly controversial: Aenon near Salim (3:23) and Bethany beyond the Jordan (1:28; 10:40).

[2] To further clarify the core content that the author Roberts is talking about, he shares – “If we had to piece together the data about Jesus from sources outside the Gospels – from the Roman writers, from Josephus, and from Paul and the other New Testament writers…we would have Jesus, a Jew from Judea, who for some reason got in trouble with Pontius Pilate and was crucified. We could also know that something amazing happened after his death because his followers actually multiplied dramatically…This picture of Jesus is sketchy, to be sure, but it focuses on the most important aspects of the Gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus” (Roberts, pp149-150)

[3] “Matthew also issues a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome…After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also did hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (Iranaeus, Book 3, Chapter 1)

[4] Notes sourced from Issues in Apologetics Unit, Lecture 33: The Nature and Origins of the Bible at Harvest Bible College, Lecturer: Dr Jon Newton

Copyright © James Moody 2015

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2 Responses to “What evidence do we have that the Gospels are reliable?”

  1. gabriel kwok June 12, 2015 at 12:38 am #

    wow! Is this your essay?

  2. jamesmoody12 June 12, 2015 at 4:09 am #

    Yeah it is

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