The Christian faith is built on history, so we need to be sure that its history is true. It matters that Christians can trust the four Gospels. But can we? It’s not the kind of question we can brush aside with glib, fundamentalist answers – not if we want the world to take us seriously. So, I’m going to provide just a few reasons why we can trust the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That’s a big aim for a short blog. Many writers have produced large books on the subject. So, if this article answers just a few of the questions, that’s good. But don’t just take my word for it; keep reading about the subject. The Gospel is worth a lifetime of study.
In my earlier blog, “Authentic Gospels”, I explained that the gospels we have in the New Testament are authentic documents produced at genuinely early dates. They were written close to the events they describe, and were acknowledged as authentic by people who knew the authors personally. But that’s different from saying that they are true. That’s the subject of this article.
There are four gospels in the New Testament, so why not just one? First, it’s an answer to those who believe that God literally dictated the Bible. He didn’t. Our faith is built on history, and history is written by people. That doesn’t mean that there was no divine inspiration; but ‘inspiration’ doesn’t mean ‘dictation’. The gospel writers used their research skills, as well as their writing abilities, to put together their accounts of the greatest story ever told. The fact that there were four means we can check them against one another and be more confident that the events they described really happened. When a news story breaks in our modern world, we can check reports in multiple newspapers, TV channels, and online media. We may not get the complete story from any one source, and they may vary in some details; but the combination of viewpoints assures us that the events really happened.
Scholars have debated for centuries about which gospel was written first, and who copied from whom. And they have disagreed about the reliability of individual evangelists. Interestingly, the gospels that have attracted the most virulent attacks have subsequently received strong archaeological support. But let’s consider the question whether the gospels were eye-witness accounts. In Luke’s case, the answer is certainly not; Luke states that he based his gospel (and the book of Acts) on careful research (Luke 1:1-3; Acts 1:1). However, he also says that his key sources were eye-witnesses. When his facts have been checked against external sources, he has been consistently proved accurate, through governmental documents, coins, and inscriptions. Incidentally, there is a strong likelihood that one of his sources was Mary, the mother of Jesus, who he could well have met in Ephesus (where the apostle John took her after their escape from Palestine).
Luke reports that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of a census called when “Quirinius was governor of Syria”. Critics claimed that the journey to Bethlehem was unnecessary, because censuses took place in the town of residence. This challenge has been shot down by evidence of other censuses of that period, which specifically commanded that people must return to the town where they were born. The other challenge to the accuracy of Luke’s Christmas story is based on the dates of Quirinius’s governorship. Documentary evidence shows that Quirinius became governor in AD6 – when King Herod had been dead for several years. Luke actually says that this was the first census under Quirinius’s governorship, which implies that at least one more took place under his rule. Evidence shows that Quirinius held some office in Syria from an earlier date, and that he was further appointed as governor several years later. Maybe he’d held the governorship previously? The question is not completely resolved.
Luke’s reliability has often been called into question, then subsequently proved in his favour. For example, in the book of Acts, Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary visit to Cyprus mentions a local ruler called Sergius Paulus, and gives him the title of “Proconsul”. Critics were keen to point out that Roman provincial governors were normally titled “Prefect”, so Luke must have been wrong. Later discoveries, however, revealed that Cyprus held the special status of a senatorial province, and its governors were indeed titled “Proconsul”. So much of Luke’s writing has been proved correct as new discoveries became known, that I expect his account of the census will ultimately be proved correct.
Was John an eye-witness? Obviously, yes, if the writer of the fourth gospel was the Apostle John. His authorship has been disputed but, as I showed in “Authentic Gospels”, it was confirmed by people who knew John personally. Critics tend to dispute the genuineness of John’s gospel because its doctrinal statements are far more developed than the other gospels; but John was long-lived, and had time to reflect on the things he had seen. Whoever wrote that book must have seen the scenes he described, because he gives details that could only come from an eye-witness (there were no photos in those days!) And the accuracy of his details has been confirmed by archaeology. His description of the Pool of Bethesda, for instance, mentions “five covered colonnades” (John 5:2), a detail that could not be confirmed from other documents of that time, but which was found to be accurate when the site was dug up.
In a story that is repeated in all four gospels (the tale of the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany) John alone mentions a distinctive sense-memory – the smell of the ointment (John 12:3). It is the vivid recollection of a man who had been there in person.
What, then, of Mark – the shortest, and possibly the earliest of the gospels? Much of what he wrote is repeated in Matthew and Luke, so many scholars assume that his stories were picked up by those later writers. But, was he an eye-witness? From other reports (particularly in the book of Acts) we can see that, when Jesus’ started his public ministry, Mark was too young to have been personally present. But a brief account that Mark includes in the Easter story (but other writers omit) hints at the possibility that Mark was the young man who the soldiers tried to seize in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51) – in which case he was a witness to that event. But, as the son of a couple who supported Jesus, and the nephew of the apostle, Barnabas, Mark must have heard the stories from people who had been there. Mark later travelled with Paul and Barnabas on missionary journeys, and it is credibly believed that he also travelled with Peter. Many authorities believe that Mark’s gospel is based on Peter’s recollections.
The gospels do not agree in every detail. Matthew, for instance, tells a story of the healing of two demon-possessed men in the district of the Gadarenes (Matthew 8:28-34). The similar story related in Mark 5:1-17 and Luke 8:26-39 speaks of only one person being healed – so they don’t agree. But, if the author of Matthew was indeed the Apostle who had previously been a tax collector, his calling didn’t come into the gospel story until the following chapter (Matthew 9:9-13). He could not, therefore, have been an eye-witness to the Gadarene story. But, if he differed on this detail of the story, he must have used a different source from Mark and Luke – and this shows that the story was reported by multiple witnesses. Discrepancies can be evidence of a factual base.
Those who interview witnesses in criminal cases today know that, if witnesses agree on every detail of their evidence, it points to one conclusion – there must have been collusion. Memory is not a perfect recorder. Witness testimony always includes discrepancies. Skilled analysis of witness statements recognises the significance of points of agreement, often in apparently trivial detail. The discrepancies between the gospels are consistent with their being independent witness accounts, whose many points of agreement confirm their genuineness and truth.
The issues on which the gospels differ are trivial compared with the crucial stories on which they agree. Even the miracle stories pale into insignificance compared with the events of the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to which each of the gospel writers gives prominence. John gives the most detailed account (again backing up the impression that he wrote as an eye-witness). The suggestion that a crucified man could rise from the dead is by no means trivial. Everyone in the 1st century, knew just as much as we do today, that dead men do not come back to life. But the gospel writers agree that it happened. Not only that, but they agree that Jesus foretold that it would happen. His predictions before the event might be dismissed as incredible, except that his enemies reported those sayings at his trial. They didn’t understand what he meant, but witnesses testified that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. It was an unlikely accusation, but relevant to the chief priests’ objective to convict Jesus of blasphemy and sorcery (both regarded as capital offences). The testimony was not consistent enough to convict Jesus, but it confirmed that he really had prophesied his death and his rising again in three days. Jesus made these predictions on several occasions, with a variety of illustrations but always with this reference to three days. In one example, the words were, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19 NIV), meaning, as John explained, “…the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21 NIV).
The enemies of Jesus provide another clinching confirmation of the resurrection story, not this time by their words, but by their silence. Excepting John, the gospels were written before the destruction of Jerusalem and during the lifetime of many people who were in Jerusalem during that fateful weekend. But, long before these stories were committed to writing, they were being preached in the streets of that historic city. At least 500 people saw Jesus after he was raised from the dead, but thousands of people knew an uncomfortable fact that supported their testimony. All that preaching could have been refuted if any of the hearers were to lead the crowd round to the tomb to see the bones of Jesus. But everyone knew that the tomb was empty.
The truth of the gospels doesn’t depend on their being accurate to the last detail. It isn’t based on magical verification. The gospels weren’t written on golden tablets and discovered by angelic visitation. They were written by honest men, based on careful examination of eye-witnesses, and faithfully recorded and given to the churches.
To believe that the gospel writers were honest and faithful is consistent with the evidence. But, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead requires faith.
I believe both.
Illustration: RSV, simulated leather, Burgundy
Fundamentalism is a risky strategy for maintaining faith. It can lead to arrogance or even cruelty and it doesn’t cope well with doubts. “SOS – Stumbling Over Scripture” traces my 20-year journey from fundamentalism to honest faith, facing the problems and questions that cause people to stumble over scripture. Copies are available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.