Friday, March 28, 2008

Historical Reliability of the Gospels

"We have four independent documents, three of which cover much of the same material (Synoptic Gospels).

There are no known competitors for authorship of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke.)

Matthew and John were disciples and therefore eyewitnesses.

Christian writer Papias affirmed in AD 125 that Mark had carefully and correctly recorded Peter's eyewitness observations. (Mark was the earliest gospel recorded.)

The standard scholarly dating is that Mark was written in the 70's (a mere 40 years after the Resurrection), Matthew and Luke in the 80's and John in the 90's - all within the lifetime of eyewitnesses! Many believe the dates are even earlier, within 30 years of Jesus' death. The above dates are conservative. While these dates seem late, they are not. The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great more than 400 years after his death, yet historians consider them to generally trustworthy. In other words, the first 500 years kept Alexander's story pretty much intact; legendary material developed over the next 500 years. The Creed Paul is given dates back to within 2-4 years of the events. (Crucifixion around AD 30, Paul's conversion AD 32.)

Textual Criticism is defined as: the science of comparing and classifying the manuscript evidence for an ancient document. Scholars of almost every theological persuasion attest to the profound care in which the New Testament books were copied. In the original Greek alone, there are over 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of portions of the New Testament, preserved from the early centuries of Christianity.

There is an unprecedented number of copies of the New Testament that have survived. Scholars wish they had 1/10 the number of documents for other ancient literature! There are only 9 copies of Josephus' The Jewish War, and these copies were written in the 10th - 12th centuries. Yet, this work is considered to be historically accurate.

Astonishingly, the second runner-up for the largest number of ancient documents goes to Homer's Illiad, which was the sacred literature of the ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 of these manuscripts and many are quite fragmentary.

Fragments of John's gospel have been found that date as early as 150 AD. This find has literally rewritten popular views of history.

Two of the almost complete New Testament documents date back to the 4th Century! These two texts play an important role in the NIV Bible. This means we have documents within 2 generations of the events, unlike 8 or 10 centuries for much of our other historical documents. In addition to the over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, there are about 24,000 other ancient New Testament documents in other languages found in areas such as Egypt and Ethiopia.

The evidence is simply overwhelming. The huge number of documents, many dating within 2 generations of the events, have allowed us to study them side-by-by side, comparing and analyzing the New Testament. While many documents are fragments, there is no part of the NT not represented by multiple documents. The history of the world is based on far fewer manuscripts and evidence!

For further study, consider the following books:

Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig

The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg

The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel."


Vinny said...

(1) Most scholars believe that Luke and Matthew drew heavily from Mark.

(2) There is no identification of the authors of the Gospels until Irenaeous writing in 180. He does not identify the source of his information. The lack of known competitors is equally explained by the acceptance of the gospels as anonymous collections of stories about Jesus.

(3) The authors of the gospels never identify themselves as eyewitnesses or place themselves at the scene of the events they describe.

(4) It is impossible to know whether Papias is talking about the document that appears under Mark’s name in our Bible. He does not quote from it and it is not clear whether he ever saw it or just heard about it. Moreover, he describes Mark as not being concerned with putting things in order. Papias also says that Matthew wrote an account, but contrary to the Gospel of Matthew we now know, Papias did not think that Judas hung himself. He believed that Judas lived and became so fat “that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself” and that Judas’ genitalia spewed out “flowing pus and worms.” In short, Papias provides very little corroboration.

(5) Tradition holds that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome after the death of Peter. It is unlikely that there would have been any eyewitnesses there to correct him. Moreover, the existence of eyewitnesses to provide correction depends on the assumption that the stories in the Bible are true in the first place. If the gospels exaggerated the number of followers Jesus had during his earthly ministry, there may have been very few eyewitnesses to provide correction n the first place, much less at the time the gospels were being written.

(6) Paul’s creed may indeed date back very early, but he provides very little detail about what he saw or experienced himself and confirms very few of the details later recorded in the gospels.

(6) Very few documents date to within a century of the original gospels. The early fragment of John contains only three verses. Third century Christian Origen complained about the propensity of copyists to make changes.

Jeff said...

The early church fathers were unanimous in holding that Matthew and Mark were the respective authors of those Gospels. And much unmistakable evidence points to Luke as being the author of the third Gospel.

Papias (c. A.D. 140) quotes an earlier source as saying that Mark was a close associate of Peter, from whom he received the tradition of the things said and done by Jesus, and that this tradition did not come to Mark as a finished, sequential account of the life of Jesus, but as the preaching of Peter---preaching directed to the needs of the early Christian communities. Mark accurately preserved this material. The conclusion drawn from this tradition is that the gospel of Mark largely consists of the preaching of Peter arranged and shaped by John Mark. For example, Acts 10:37 is similar to the outline of Mark’s Gospel---Peter’s sermon begins with John’s baptism and continues to the resurrection of Jesus. This is significant since the early church fathers viewed Mark as the “interpreter” of Peter.

It is generally agreed that the Mark who is associated with Peter in the early non-Biblical tradition is also the John Mark of the New Testament. The first mention of him is in connection with his mother, who had a house in Jerusalem that served as a meeting place for believers. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from Jerusalem, Mark accompanied them. Mark next appears as a “helper” to Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Mark reappears in Paul’s letter to the Colossians written from Rome.

According to early church tradition, Mark was written “in the regions of Italy” (Anti-Marcionite Prologue) or, more specifically, in Rome (Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria). These same authors closely associate Mark’s writing of the Gospel with the apostle Peter. The above evidence is consistent with (1) the historical probability that Peter was in Rome during the last days of his life and was martyred there, and (2) the Biblical evidence that Mark also was in Rome about the same time and was closely associated with Peter.

The Gospel of Luke is a companion volume to the books of Acts, and the language and structure of these two books indicate that the same person wrote both. They are addressed to the same individual, Theophilus, and the second volume refers to the first. Certain sections in Acts use the pronoun “we,” indicating that author was with Paul when the events described in these passages took place. By process of elimination, Paul’s “dear friend Luke, the doctor” (Col. 4:14), and “fellow worker” (Philemon 24) becomes the most likely candidate. His authorship is supported by the uniform testimony of early Christian writings (e.g., the Muratorian Canon, A.D. 170, and the works of Irenaeus, c. 180).

“Luke, sort of a first-century investigative reporter, gathered information for his gospel from those around Jesus and also from his close companion Paul, who himself had encountered the resurrected Christ.” (p. 52, “Exploring the DaVinci Code,” by Lee Strobel and Garry Poole)

The scope of the Gospel of Luke is complete from the birth of Christ to His ascension; its arrangement is orderly; and it appeals to both Jews and Gentiles. Literary excellence, historical detail and warm, sensitive understanding of Jesus and of those around Him characterize the writing. Although Luke acknowledges that many others had written of Jesus’ life, he does not indicate that he relied on these reports for his own writing. He used personal investigation and arrangement, based on testimony from “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (1:2)---including the preaching and oral accounts of the apostles. His language differentiates from the other Synoptic gospels and his blocks of distinctive material indicate independent work, though he obviously used some of the same sources.

Since the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) report many of the same episodes in Jesus’ life, one would expect much similarity in their accounts. The dissimilarities reveal the distinctive emphases of the separate writers.

If Matthew did draw upon Mark’s account (which is an assumption), then that showed that he agreed with it and wanted to show that the apostolic testimony to Christ was not divided.

Some, who hold that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a major source, have suggested that Mark may have been composed in the 502 or early 60s. Others have felt that the content of the Gospel and statements made about Mark by the early church fathers indicate that the book was written shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

“None of the gospels mention the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D. This is significant because Jesus had prophesied its destruction when He said, "As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down," (Luke 21:5, see also Matt. 24:1; Mark 13:1). This prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned the Temple. The gold in the Temple melted down between the stone walls and the Romans took the walls apart, stone by stone, to get the melted gold. Such an obvious fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy most likely would have been recorded by the gospel writers if they had been written after 70 A.D. Also, if the gospels were fabrications of mythical events then anything to bolster the Messianic claims -- such as the destruction of the temple as Jesus prophesied -- would surely have been included. But, it was not included suggesting that the gospels (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written before 70 A.D.

Similarly, this argument is important when we consider the dating of the book of Acts which was written after the gospel of Luke by Luke himself. Acts is a history of the Christian church right after Jesus' ascension. Acts also fails to mention the incredibly significant events of 70 A.D. which would have been extremely relevant and prophetically important and naturally would have garnered inclusion into Acts had it occurred before Acts was written. Remember, Acts is a book of the history of the early Christian church. The fact that the incredibly significant destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is not recorded is very strong evidence that Acts was written before A.D. 70. If we add to this the fact that Acts does not include the accounts of "Nero's persecution of the Christians in A.D. 64 or the deaths of James (A.D. 62), Paul (A.D. 64), and Peter (A.D. 65)," and we have further evidence that it was written very early and not long after Jesus' ascension into heaven.”

Those who assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a major source have one of two views: either (a) Mark was written in the 50s or early 60s, Matthew was written in the late 50s or the 60s, and Luke was written in 59-63; OR, (b) Mark was written 65-70, Matthew was written in the 70s, and Luke was written in the 70s.

Those who assume that Matthew and Luke did NOT use Mark as a source hold to one of two views: (a) Mark could have been written anytime between 50 and 70; or (b) Mark was written 65-70, Matthew was written in the early 50s, and Luke was written in 59-63.

Research source (other than indicated above): NIV footnotes and chapter notes

Jeff said...


The Gospels get a myriad of details (geographical, political facts, etc.) correct that only an eyewitness would have gotten.

If the Gospels were invented, the most likely culprits would be the early church (as most liberal scholars hypothesize). Yet, the Gospels include many unflattering details about the disciples, who would have been revered founders in these early churches.

There are more copies of the text dated closer to Jesus’ life than we have for any other ancient event.

Even Christianity’s early opponents - Celsus, Emperor Julian, etc. - conceded that the authors of the Gospels were indeed the respective traditional authors.

Vinny said...

Aren’t geographical facts and political facts precisely the kind of facts that can be gotten correct by research? Gone With the Wind gets lots of such facts about the Civil War correct, but no one thinks that Margaret Mitchell had to be an eyewitness.

I am not sure which liberal scholars you are referring to but I am not familiar with the hypothesis that the gospels were “invented” by “culprits.” I understand the hypothesis to be that the gospels were compiled or synthesized from stories that were found in the oral tradition by anonymous authors. The unflattering details were included because they were part of the oral tradition and because they were an important part of the story of a messiah who had the power to transform flawed human beings. The transformation would make no sense without the unflattering details.

Even if we had the original texts of the gospels, they would still be anonymous documents written thirty to sixty years after the events. But we don’t have the original documents and most of the early texts we have are fragments. Perhaps the most important point is that we have very little information about the gospels prior to 150 A.D. and no identification of the authors for another two to three decades after that (Papias only reports that accounts were written, he does not identify those accounts). Can you suggest any other ancient history that is considered reliable where there is so little information about the transmission of the accounts and the sources for one hundred and twenty years after the events?

The fact that someone concedes a fact in an argument does not indicate that the person possesses any knowledge of affirmative evidence for that fact. For example, I am willing to concede for the sake of this discussion that the gospel writers got geographical and political facts correct. However, it is not something I know to be true because I have not studied the question enough to reach a conclusion. I only concede the fact because I do not believe it supports the conclusion that you have drawn from it.

Celsus is someone that I have not seen cited before, but I could not find anything to suggest that he ever identified the authors of the gospels or that he would have any reason to know who the authors were. He seems to have accepted the Christians claims that the gospels were written by disciples, but that does not constitute independent verification of the claim. Any concession the Emperor Julian might have made in the fourth century is even less significant. Would you expect him to have any information with which to dispute the authorship of the gospels?

Jeff said...

As a comparison, Latter Day Saints generally believe that the Book of Mormon describes historical events. However, mainstream historians or archaeologists do not accept the existence of these civilizations.

In fact, the Smithsonian Institution's response to inquiries about the Book of Mormon states that it "has found no archaeological evidence to support [the book's] claims."

Similarly, the National Geographic Society has stated "Archaeologists and other scholars have long probed the hemisphere's past and the society does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon."

And as far as the ‘unflattering details,’ they continue (in Acts and the other Epistles) even after the “transformation” of the disciples. And in the Gospels, the "unflattering details" continue after Jesus' resurrection.

Actually, the John Ryland Manuscript, a portion of the Gospel of John which has been discovered, dates to 130 A.D. Likewise, we have the Bodmer Papyrus, which dates to the middle of the second century and contains most of the Gospel of John. The Chester Beatty Papyri dates to just 200 A.D. and contains large portions of the New Testament.

Sir Fredric Kenyon writing in The Bible and Modern Scholarship said this about the Chester Beatty Manuscript:
“The net result of this discovery -- by far the most important since the discovery of the Sinaiticus -- is, in fact, to reduce the gap between the earlier manuscripts and the traditional dates of the New Testament books so far that it becomes negligible in any discussion of authenticity. No other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text, and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.”

Most scholars, both believers and nonbelievers, are willing to accept that the Gospels were written within 40-60 years of the actual events. This makes the Gospels to be among the most verifiable contemporary documents of ancient times. Thus, the fact that the earliest manuscripts date to within less than 100 years of their authorship is remarkable.

If the same standards the critics apply to the Bible were applied to other books of ancient times, we would have to reject as unreliable virtually all ancient literature. Just a sampling shows that the time gaps between works considered authoritative are much greater than those with the Gospels. Here are a few examples:

Caesar - 1000 year gap
Plato - 1300 year gap
Thucydides - 1300 year gap
Herodotus - 1300 year gap
Aristotle - 1400 year gap
Pliny the Younger - 800 year gap

There are more than 4,000 different ancient Greek manuscripts containing all or portions of the New Testament that have survived to our time.

Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus -
These are two excellent parchment copies of the entire New Testament which date from the 4th century (325-450 A.D.).

Earlier still, fragments and papyrus copies of portions of the New Testament, date from 100 to 200 years (180-225 A.D.) before Vaticanus and Sinaticus. The outstanding ones are the Chester Beatty Papyrus (P45, P46, P47) and the Bodmer Papyrus II, XIV, XV (P46, P75).

From these five manuscripts alone, we can construct all of Luke, John, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and portions of Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Only the Pastoral Epistles (Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy) and the General Epistles (James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1, 2, and 3 John) and Philemon are excluded.

Perhaps the earliest piece of Scripture surviving is the one I mentioned earlier---a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33 and 37. It is called the Rylands Papyrus (P52) and dates from 130 A.D., having been found in Egypt. The Rylands Papyrus has forced the critics to place the fourth gospel back into the first century, abandoning their earlier assertion that it could not have been written then by the Apostle John.

This manuscript evidence creates a bridge of extant papyrus and parchment fragments and copies of the New Testament stretching back to almost the end of the first century.

In addition to the actual Greek manuscripts, there are more than 1,000 copies and fragments of the New Testament in Syria, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, and Ethiopic, as well as 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate, some of which date back almost to Jerome's original translation in 384 400 A.D.

A further witness to the New Testament text is sourced in the thousands of quotations found throughout the writings of the Church Fathers (the early Christian clergy [100-450 A.D.] who followed the Apostles and gave leadership to the fledgling church, beginning with Clement of Rome (96 A.D.).

Even if we had no early manuscripts, there are other indications of early authorship. Consider the quotations from the New Testament found in the writings of the early church fathers. The likes of Polycarp, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr writing in the late first and early second centuries of the current era quote frequently from the New Testament writings often referring to them as scriptures. Even at this early stage of the growth of the church, some of the writings of the Apostles were considered on par with Old Testament writings. One scholar decided to try and reconstruct the entire New Testament from the writings of first and second century church fathers and succeeded.

Paul frequently speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. It's almost the core of his doctrine. At one point speaking to the question of whether or not Jesus rose from the dead he says:
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. “ (1Co 15:3-8)

The obvious question is where and when did Paul "receive" this doctrine of the resurrection? In all probability, he received it during the time he spent learning from Ananias and other Christians after his experience on the Road to Damascus. Because of the circumstances of the persecution of the Christians we can date this fairly precisely to about 2 - 3 years after the resurrection. So the first reports of the resurrection were not recorded by an overzealous believer in the Third Century. If so, how could Paul in the First Century have known about it? And if Paul had concocted the story of the resurrection on his own, then why did he in essence, challenge people to check out his story?

There is yet another route by which we can date at least one of the Gospels to an early date. It is less certain than what has been presented for the Epistles, but is still suggestive.
Luke writes the book of Acts as a sequel to his Gospel. He states this clearly in the introduction to the book:
“The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach” (Act 1:1)
The interesting thing about the book of Acts is that by the ninth chapter, it becomes mostly a biography of the journeys of Paul. What makes this interesting is that at the end of the book, Paul is under house arrest in Rome. In other words, Luke had to have concluded writing the book before Paul's death. Otherwise, why would he have not written of Paul's death? And to argue that he would not have known of it is questionable, because the last chapter of acts is written in the first person. Luke accompanied Paul on the journey to Rome.

Thus, if Acts was written before 67 A.D. when Paul died, and if this is the second book written by Luke, the first being the Gospel bearing his name, then the Gospel must have been written earlier. If only a year earlier, that places a firm date of it being written prior to 66 A.D. or a mere 30 years or so after the events of Easter week. Again, hardly enough time for a complex mythology turning a provincial, local teacher into a divine avatar of the living God, who dies for the sin of the world, then is resurrected and ascends to heaven.

The writers of the Biblical accounts invited critical analysis, as revealed in 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1; and Revelation 2:2. They wanted people to believe their testimony was true. It was imperative they provided accurate, objective and truthful information, because lives were at stake. Not just their lives, but also the lives of those who received their message.

Vinny said...

Jesus died around 30 A.D. The first writings by an identified author are the epistles of Paul written in the 50’s. The first non-canonical writing is the First Epistle of Clement of Rome written around 95 A.D. Clement references Paul’s letters but never refers to the gospels even though he quotes some sayings of Jesus. These sayings are similar to those found in the gospels but not identical suggesting that they may be drawn from the same oral tradition. The next writings are the letters of Ignatius around 110 A.D. He uses phrases and ideas that are found in the letters of Paul as well as the gospels of Matthew and John but he does not cite his sources. The epistle of Polycarp written in the 140’s contains sayings of Jesus that closely match those in the gospels, but he cites neither the written gospels nor their authors, although he does refer to the letters of Paul.

Justin Martyr in 150 A.D. is the first one to quote from written accounts of the life of Jesus which he refers to as the “Memoirs of the Apostles.” Papias refers to writings by Mark and Matthew but does not quote from them. Justin Martyr cites one source as the “Memoirs of Peter,” but does not mention Matthew, Mark, Luke or John as authors. Justin also quotes from oral traditions that do not appear in the gospels. It is not until Irenaeous in 180 A.D. that the authors of the four canonical gospels are identified. It is also Irenaeous who declares these four gospels to be the exclusive authoritative accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are available at

So while it may be reasonable to conclude that there were written collections of Jesus’ sayings circulating early in the second century, there is little evidence to suggest that they were recognized as either authoritative or exclusive sources of Jesus’ teachings until the second half of the second century. If these writings were believed to be the work of disciples, there would be no reason not to identify them as the authors just as Paul was identified as the author of his epistles.

I have not read much ancient history, but I doubt that there are very many accounts that are considered reliable where so little is known about how the accounts developed during the first hundred years after the events. Rather, I suspect that the accounts considered reliable are ones in which the historians identify themselves in their writings and trace their sources back to named eyewitnesses to the events.

Jeff said...

You wrote, “If these writings were believed to be the work of disciples, there would be no reason not to identify them as the authors just as Paul was identified as the author of his epistles.”

I disagree. The Gospel writers did not want the focus to be on them. They wanted the focus to be on Jesus. They were not authors out to make a name for themselves, or looking to make money off their writings. Jesus taught them to die to self and forget self. The ‘Good News’ was not about them; it was about Jesus. They were nobodies in society. They were merely followers of Jesus---what was then considered by unbelievers in that society to be merely a cult. Paul, on the other hand, had been an enemy of Christianity; so to put his name to the text would be beneficial to the message, because he had been a Pharisee and a persecutor of Christians, but was now a Christian himself.

You keep suggesting that the accounts are unreliable just because the gospel writers don’t identify themselves. But realize that an eyewitness could fabricate events, while a careful historian writing much later could accurately portray the facts. You admitted yourself that facts can be gotten correct by research.

Some hold that the Gospels themselves use sources that go back even closer to the events of Jesus’ life. For example, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, commonly called the Passion Story, was probably not originally written by Mark, they say. Rather, Mark used a source for this narrative. Since Mark is the earliest gospel, his source must be even earlier. In fact, Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the Passion source must go back to at least AD 37, just seven years after Jesus’ death.

In fact, Luke writes:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”

He speaks of his lengthy investigation of the story he’s about to tell and assures us that it is based on eyewitness information and is accordingly the truth.

Luke had joined Paul on his evangelistic tour of the Mediterranean cities. In chapter 21 he accompanies Paul back to Palestine and finally to Jerusalem. He was in fact in first hand contact with the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry in Jerusalem.

Whether or not you believe that Luke wrote that Gospel, there is no avoiding the conclusion that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written by a traveling companion of Paul who had the opportunity to interview eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life while in Jerusalem. Who were some of these eyewitnesses? We can get an idea by subtracting from the Gospel of Luke everything found in the other gospels and seeing what is peculiar to Luke. What you discover is that many of Luke’s peculiar narratives are connected to women who followed Jesus: people like Joanna and Susanna, and significantly, Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Was the author reliable in getting the facts straight? The book of Acts enables us to answer that question decisively. The book of Acts overlaps significantly with secular history of the ancient world, and the historical accuracy of Acts is indisputable. This has recently been demonstrated anew by Colin Hemer, a classical scholar who turned to New Testament studies, in his book The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Hemer goes through the book of Acts with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out a wealth of historical knowledge, ranging from what would have been common knowledge down to details which only a local person would know. Again and again Luke’s accuracy is demonstrated: from the sailings of the Alexandrian corn fleet to the coastal terrain of the Mediterranean islands to the peculiar titles of local officials, Luke gets it right. According to Professor Sherwin-White, "For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd." The judgment of Sir William Ramsay, the world-famous archaeologist, still stands: "Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." Given Luke’s care and demonstrated reliability, as well as his contact with eyewitnesses within the first generation after the events, this author is trustworthy.

You mentioned oral tradition. In an oral culture like that of first century Palestine the ability to memorize and retain large tracts of oral tradition was a highly prized and highly developed skill. From the earliest age children in the home, elementary school, and the synagogue were taught to memorize faithfully sacred tradition. The disciples would have exercised similar care with the teachings of Jesus.

Even in modern times, primitive cultures, which rely on oral tradition, show an incredible ability to retain facts, which is unmatched in Western society.

Also, there was insufficient time for legendary influences to expunge the historical facts.

No modern scholar thinks of the gospels as bald-faced lies, the result of a massive conspiracy. The only place you find such conspiracy theories of history is in sensationalist, popular literature or former propaganda from behind the Iron Curtain. When you read the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doubt that these people sincerely believed in the truth of what they proclaimed.

In fact, there were indeed significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses and the apostles’ supervision. Since those who had seen and heard Jesus continued to live and the tradition about Jesus remained under the supervision of the apostles, these factors would act as a natural check on tendencies to elaborate the facts in a direction contrary to that preserved by those who had known Jesus.

Despite the ridiculous false claims in recent years of the Dan Browns and Jesus Seminars, the Gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.

The authors that wrote the Princess Diana biographies after she died may have known her or they may not have. The ones that did know her personally can write about what they saw and heard while they were with her. Those that did not know her talked to her friends, family, and those that did know her and then wrote those facts down as a book and it is instantly accepted as the truth, even though they had never met her. Should we not give the same considerations to those writing about the life of Jesus? I would be extra careful with all the facts if I knew God was looking over our shoulder; don’t you think they did as well? And remember this was a time when you were stoned to death for being a false prophet. I know I would surely do my best to get every fact correct!

What if that biography on Diana said she had four children and had a wart on the end of her nose? Well, it would be quite easy for us to debunk those lies. How? Well we can clearly see she only had 2 sons, William and Harry. Even without all the media, it would still be easy for someone to read that biography and say, “Wait a minute…that is not true! William and Harry don’t have any siblings!” The same goes with those that knew Diana; they would quickly inform us that she, in fact, did not have a wart on the end of her nose. In today’s world, that “biography” would be placed in the fiction section today and the author would have a hard time finding another job as a biographer. In the days of Jesus, especially with him preaching to thousands, many of his acts were well known. And the Gospels were not written and distributed in some far-off country where Jesus had never walked. They were distributed in the very same area where Jesus’ ministry had been. In addition, they were distributed in a time and area that was persecuting Christians, which would be all the more reason that someone would point out falsehoods in the Gospel accounts.

The four Gospels were written from four different points of view, to four different audiences.
Matthew was written to the Jewish audience.
Mark was written to the Roman, action-result oriented person.
Luke was written to the Greek, thinking, discerning and understanding person.
John was written to Christians.

The Gospels generally, but not always, include the same events but with different information from that event.

For example, if I participated in the event of going to someone's house for lunch and then later I related the event to a person I would relate the information from the lunch event that is relevant to the person that I am talking to. I might talk about the weather, the type and location of the event, about the landscape and about the occupations and hobbies of some of the other guests. Later I might be talking to another person about the same event but relating similar and also unique or different information, information intended for the different audience. I might relay the mood and theme of the lunch, the conversation and what we ate and how it was prepared and displayed. It was the same event but it is the different audience that determines how and what information is relayed.
The differences in the four Gospels is that God is reaching out to all mankind and in reaching out God is confirming that He has created people with different preferences, temperaments and personalities. God is providing the information to the action oriented person and likewise God is providing the information to the thinking and reasoning person. God is not willing that any person should perish and has therefore written four distinct Gospels about His life here on earth in order to reach all of mankind.

Vinny said...

The Gospel writers did not want the focus to be on them. They wanted the focus to be on Jesus. They were not authors out to make a name for themselves, or looking to make money off their writings.

This may be true, but it also indicates that they were not doing history. If you look at ancient historians, I think you will find that they all try to give their readers the reasons why their accounts of the events should be considered factually accurate. They identify themselves and their sources in order to establish that their work is trustworthy. The fact that the gospel writers did not trace their stories back to eyewitnesses suggests that their work should not be deemed comparable to other works of ancient history.

The introduction to the Gospel of Luke shows that the author understands the importance of tracing his stories back to eyewitnesses. Moreover, he does seem to be very careful about geographical and political facts. Nevertheless, he does not follow the routine practices of other historians who identify sources and discuss why one source is preferred over another. He may have had some reason for doing this, but we have to acknowledge that his work is inferior to other ancient histories in this respect.

Along with the authors’ failure to identify themselves, there is the problem of the early church fathers’ failure to identify them. In his letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome quotes extensively from the Old Testament and from Paul’s epistles, but does not quote the gospels or indicates that he is familiar with them. According to church tradition Clement knew both Paul and Peter. How is it that he was not familiar with the gospels of Mark and Luke if they had already been written?

Jeff said...

From earliest times, and for almost 2000 years now, the first Gospel has been attributed to Matthew. Much of Matthew’s material is almost identical to Mark’s, and Mark’s main source of information was Peter. Tradition states that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, writing down Jesus’ story as he had heard it directly from the apostle Peter. The name ‘John Mark’ occurs often in Acts and the epistles (‘John’ the Jewish name and ‘Mark’ the Latin). His mother had a household in Jerusalem where the early church met (Acts 12:12). Mark was a cousin to Paul’s companion, Barnabas.

John refers to himself simply as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20,24). He is one of the Twelve, and one of those closest to Jesus and also to Peter. These facts, and the fact that this Gospel makes no mention of the apostle John, and describes the Baptist simply as ‘John,’ make it likely that he is himself John, son of Zebedee, brother of James, and business partner of Peter and Andrew. The early Church certainly thought so, and taught that the aged apostle wrote or dictated this ‘spiritual’ Gospel from Ephesus in present-day Turkey. And John may have been Jesus’ cousin (his mother, Salome, being Mary’s sister: Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; and John 19:25).

There may have been a number of reasons why the Gospel authors did not identify themselves, in addition to the reason I stated earlier. The Gospels were not brand new material that no one had ever heard before. Each of the Gospels was not the only biography about Jesus. No claim could be made that this was new material. In fact, John seems to assume that the readers already know the facts about Jesus’ life. Their purpose for writing the Gospels was not as a history book for the sake of history; neither was it for the purpose of writing a biography about someone. Their purpose for writing the Gospels was to persuade men to believe in and accept Christ Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. The Gospels are books written by convinced Christians to commend and explain their faith to others (see Luke 1:3-4 and John 20:31). They are first and foremost documents of faith, and only secondarily do they convey historical information.

For example, John wrote toward the aim of bringing the reader to faith in Christ. And Luke was not simply a biographer; his overriding concern was to get at the truth of what happened in Palestine in the critical years of Jesus’ lifetime on earth. Luke’s Gospel is carefully compiled from reliable, first-hand sources. Luke says that he has made a careful examination of the evidence before writing his Gospel (Luke 1:1-3). All the evidence points to Luke the doctor, Paul’s companion on his missionary journeys, as the author of that Gospel. For example, the precise way that diseases are described in the Gospel fits in well with this. From the Gospel itself, it is clear the writer is an educated man, with a wide vocabulary; he is an artist with words; and he is at home with both Greek and Jewish backgrounds---although he writes for non-Jews, using Greek titles and quoting from the Greek version of the Old Testament. Archeology has proved him an accurate historian. Luke worked with Mark and knew him well, and the Gospel that Mark wrote might have been one of his main sources.

The Church very soon realized the need to get down in writing the stories of Jesus and His teaching, which were circulating by word of mouth. Luke, maybe having time on his hands and opportunity to check on the facts during Paul’s imprisonment at Caesarea, took on the task of compiling an accurate record. So again, the Gospel writers were not trying to write best sellers; they were merely trying to preserve in writing what others were already talking about. This may be yet another reason why they did not sign their names to the Gospel accounts. And Luke and Paul may have used secretaries. And if Matthew and Luke used Mark as their main source, but signed their own name to it, many today would consider that plagiarism. And if Mark used Peter as his main source of information, but signed his own name to it without giving credit to Peter…well, people today might take a person to court for doing something like that. There are just so many reasons that the Gospel writers may have had for not writing their name to the Gospel records; and none of those reasons takes away from the credibility or reliability of the Gospel accounts. Besides, they are not anonymous writings. As I said before, for nearly two thousand years, scholars have known with a good deal of certainty who it was that wrote the Gospels. Probably no other documents in history, in any language, have been subjected to such detailed critical examination as the Gospels. The minutest details of vocabulary and syntax have been critically weighed. Not to mention all the times when attempts have been made to eliminate all copies of the Bible by burning, by making it illegal, etc. And yet, it remains by far the best seller of all time. That alone should tell you that God is behind it.