How Do We Know The Gospels Are True?

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I’ve had a couple of people ask recently about the historical reliability of the Gospels?  How do we know they are true?  How do we know they are not some combination of fabrication, myth and wishful thinking?

What is my response?  First and foremost, we don’t know for 100% certainty.  We don’t know anything from history for 100% certainty.  However, I do believe there is a high probability the events of the Gospels are based in history and that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a fact.  

Why do I say this?  There are 5 primary reasons.

  1. Oral Tradition – The Gospels fit perfectly the profile of works originally passed down through communities orally.  But doesn’t this mean they could have been changed over time?  No, in fact quite the opposite.  Memorization and accuracy were exceedingly important in ancient Palestine (and elsewhere).  It was foundational to education.  Rabbis often memorized the entire Old Testament.  Thus, disciples of Jesus would have done the same with his teaching while interpreting and paraphrasing it in their own contexts later on.  Paul, in fact refers to this tradition in 1 Corinthians 11:2, 23 and 15:3.  He received it from others and now claims to pass it on to his churches.
  2. Eyewitnesses – During the period before the Gospels were written down and at the time of their writting, there were still numerous eyewitnesses alive to provide refutation if exagerations crept in about Jesus’ life.  No such refutations have been found.  It was only after all eyewitnesses were dead, in the 2nd Century, that spurious Gospel-like works began to appear.
  3. If the Gospels were invented or amended long after Jesus’ first followers why would they include all the differences and “hard sayings” that they do?  If you were going to make something up, why make it so difficult?  Would the disciples have made themselves look so foolish?  Why would the controversies of the early church go completely unaddressed?  For me, the most likely answer to these questions is that the events described in the Gospels are historical events which the early Jesus following communities preserved very carefully.  Paul is again helpful here.  1 Corinthians 7:10 displays for us his care in not adding words to the teaching of Jesus if they were not already part of the oral tradition which later became the Gospels.
  4. Early church leaders such as Ireneaus, Clement, and Eusebius consistently testify to the Gospels being written during the lifetime of the apostles, perhaps as early as the 60’s CE.  Even skeptical scholars place all four Gospels in the 1st Century.
  5. We have over 5,000 manuscripts containing the New Testament in part or in whole from which the original texts can be reconstructed to about 97% accuracy.  Furthermore, no crucial doctrine of faith falls into the 3% of passages which are disputed.  You can see most of the issues in the footnotes of a modern translation.  Moreover, the documentary evidence for the Gospels is vast when compared with other ancient documents.  For example, there are only 10 manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and they date to almost 800 years after the emperor’s death.

Again, you cannot prove Jesus rose from the dead beyond a shadow of a doubt.  However, there is certainly a preponderance of documentary evidence making the resurrection, not only reasonable but in my view likely.

I would love to hear from others.  What evidence is compelling (or not) for you?

Peace,

Ben

Much of this information is from Craig L. Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels.

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19 thoughts on “How Do We Know The Gospels Are True?

  1. Great post! The amount of manuscript evidence cannot be overstated. Not only are there thousands of full & partial manuscripts of the New Testament books, but many of them have been dated to within a generation or two of the events they describe. No other book from antiquity comes close to this, and yet you never hear of anyone doubting their reliability.

    Another line of evidence I would offer here is the reputation of Luke as a first-rate historian. Scholars have pointed out the incredible level of detail in his two books (his Gospel and the Book of Acts) concerning historical figures, geography, language, commerce and culture. Even secular historians have agreed that the details described by Luke are accurate for the time. If he would go to such great lengths to be accurate about the mundane details of life, surely we can trust him to be accurate on those things of greater importance.

    One last point about the early church fathers: they quoted the books of the New Testament so extensively that we could reconstruct almost the entire thing solely from the recorded sermons and works of the church fathers. This tells us that the New Testament was being widely circulated, and accepted as divinely inspired, very early in the life of the church.

    1. Thanks for your post. Agreed. All are excellent points. In addition to his accuracy as a historian I was recently reading about Luke’s “we” passages in Acts which also tie the document to the mid-1st Century.

      Very interesting stuff. Thanks for your perspective.

  2. This topic is so threadbare it has almost been worn right through.
    To quote or reference all the gospel contradictions, errors etc would be waste as there are numerous scholars that have done this job already.
    Your first commenter believes that the writer of Luke was an excellent historian and his geographic knowledge of the area was superior.
    He is so obviously merely regurgitating common Christian belief without anything to substantiate his view. Luke’s description of the area around Nazareth and the city’ itself is so different to the archaeological evidence that it is virtually impossible to correlate what Luke is describing with the area in question. Even Bagatti’s report indicate this.
    There is no record of a census
    Even if there was one at this time only Jewish males were required to register.
    What husband would put his heavily pregnant wife in a donkey and ride close to 80 miles? Imean, REALLY!! Would you?
    If the couple then went down to Egypt how did they get back in time to present the infant at the temple?
    Herod’s massacre of the innocents is not mentioned by any other writer, biblical or secular; the consensus is that these elements were fictional.

    The oldest copies of Mark’s gospel do not feature the resurrected Jesus – they are widely regarded as Christian interpolations added later.
    etc etc…
    The list goes on and on.

    The gospels cannot be regarded as historically reliable or accurate.

    1. You are right there are difficulties. The fact is many Christians and non Christians have an overly wooden view on what biblical inspiration means. I would refer you to my post on Gospel Contradictions and Oral Traditions. They have the differences one would expect from historically reliable tradition being passed down orally.

      As for Luke, yes we can’t explain everything but there are some cases where Luke was thought to be wrong and proven correct. One example would be the Roman political titles.

      You are right many of these arguments from both sides are well worn. For me, I’m not all that interested in each “contradiction” or issue. The bottom line is the historical evidence leans toward something highly unusual happening on that morning (Easter). I’m not saying it is easy to believe or there are no difficulties, it seems to me something happened.

      Thanks for your comments and for reading.

      1. “They have the differences one would expect from historically reliable tradition being passed down orally.”

        Yes, they do. But how does one recognize truth? If each gospel differs in its account of the birth legend for instance, which do we believe? They cannot be harmonized.
        The fact that the birth legend only appears in two gospels and each version is not only different but implausible and, in the case of Mary and Joseph going up to Bethlehem, historically inaccurate, and in all likelihood, physically impossible considering the supposed state of Mary. Would you risk your wife suffering miscarriage in this fashion, especially if you believed she were carrying the Son of God? Honestly? This does not enhance the veracity of the tale but rather brings it into league with fiction, a story cobbled together bu the gospel author with a decidedly theological motive – to establish the greater fiction of fulfilled prophecy.

        “One example would be the Roman political titles.”

        This is a rather large jump” recognizing a few Roman political titles to establishing a factual verifiable case for the birth of a man-god.

        “The bottom line is the historical evidence leans toward something highly unusual happening on that morning (Easter). I’m not saying it is easy to believe or there are no difficulties, it seems to me something happened.”

        Firstly, there is NO historical evidence for the resurrection. None. And as I mentioned the account was NOT featured in the oldest copies of the first gospel, Mark.
        So, no historical account. All we have is merely a biblical account. The distinction is crucial. The latter requires in the belief that suspension of natural law is not only possible but that the supreme deity was also complicit in the murder of his son and demanded the death to be in the most cruel fashion. And this merely to ensure mankind’s redemption.
        Why couldn’t he have merely died of Malaria or a virulent strain of influenza?

        Because of the consensus that the resurrection account was tagged onto the end of Mark’s gospel the former statement, that there is NO historical evidence leaves us with the conclusion that is was a lie.

        Faith does not require evidence. Merely suspension of rationality.

      2. We recognize truth because Jesus rose from the dead and founded the church, and continues to inspire life change in people today. I believe in the Bible because I believe in Jesus, no the other way around. Therefore, I am not concerned about minor differences in the accounts. They reflect development in different communities. That’s all. The point I was making about oral tradition was that if the Gospels in fact follow from a historical account as they claim then that is something worth taking notice of and reorganizing one’s life around even though difficulties remain. The fact that these stories developed in different communities following a historical pattern of oral transmission, the explosive growth of the church, and the fact the Gospels and other NT documents were so widely disseminated so early indicates (not proves) that the resurrection is a historical reality.

        There is no basis to say the birth accounts cannot be harmonized or that they are implausible. First, you answered your own question. The accounts differ in part I believe because the authors have different theological agendas. Matthew in particular seems interested to show how the birth fulfilled various prophecies. However, there is nothing in them that is outright contradictory. Are there things we can’t explain or don’t understand, sure, but to say that means they are wrong just on that basis shows preconceived bias. Additionally, the account never says how far along Mary was when she traveled to Bethlehem. Perhaps she was not very far along and travel was no big deal. I don’t know. No one does.

        I was not saying you should believe Luke based on a political title, I was jus saying that is one example where he was proven correct. That’s all.

        Finally, you are wrong the oldest manuscripts of Mark do not include the resurrection. The oldest manuscripts do not include Mark 16: 9-20. However, the resurrection occurs in 16:1-8.

        Thanks for the conversation.

  3. “We recognize truth because Jesus rose from the dead and founded the church,”
    Nope, sorry. That credit must go to Saul, or Paul if you prefer. Go read his epistles again and see for yourself.

    “The fact that these stories developed in different communities following a historical pattern of oral transmission, the explosive growth of the church, and the fact the Gospels and other NT documents were so widely disseminated so early indicates (not proves) that the resurrection is a historical reality.”

    Smile. 🙂 You really need to do a bit more historical research ON YOUR OWN Rather swallowing hook line and sinker this old canard.

    “Additionally, the account never says how far along Mary was when she traveled to Bethlehem. Perhaps she was not very far along and travel was no big deal. I don’t know. No one does.”
    This is very true. Maybe Mary was only month or so gone and Joseph being the considerate husband that he was, especially as he knew his wife (? – we don;t if she was his wife yet, maybe she wasn’t) had recently been knocked up by an interloping Angel said , “Ah, to hell with it, if the Romans want to have a census we’ll go. What;s 80 miles on a donkey anyway, right? Okay, woman, stop your moaning and hop on.”
    I can see it now. And then they legged it down to Egypt when Herod was wiping out little kiddies and they also managed to get back to Jerusalem in time to present him and have his foreskin hacked off.
    All very reasonable, no problem.

    LOL! If you say so…..

      1. True. The difference being I initially read such material looking for history and truth.
        I quickly learned to recognize the bible contains little if anything of either, whereas you believes it contains absolutes, and you never bother to investigate, merely base your assertion on the hearsay and inculcation of others and a foundation of faith based on falsehood.
        However, the other more serious difference is you are inclined to pass on these insidious and completely unfounded ridiculous beliefs to others. No real problem there either, if you do this to other adults – we all have a choice, right?- but when it is done to innocent children? No sir, that is intolerable and amounts to,little more than child abuse and those that perpetrate such lies should be charged accordingly.

      2. You can disagree with me all you want. However, I do and will continue to investigate and to say my position is only heresay is totally unfounded. Again, I am not afraid of the any truth. I read many works from many perspectives and know people from many backgrounds and belief systems.

  4. I have never encountered a Christian who became and remained Christian based on intellectual reasons.
    Faith is the bedrock of your belief. This does not require proof, as there is no proof in the supernatural.
    If what you believe is the one and only religion then why do people in predominantly Muslim countries not automatically become Christians. The same criteria can be applied to Hindus or Jews or Buddhists?

    Maybe you do not fear the truth, however i doubt that you can approach such issues with an open mind.
    But as long as you are investigating all the time then the inevitable conclusion will,eventually be drawn, namely, what you currently believe will be shown to be false. Ask any evangelical deconvertee.

    1. I agree that people are not primarily Christians for intellectual reasons. People are not primarily anything for purely intellectual reasons. Our emotions and desires are the bedrock of the way we view the world.

      I don’t really understand your point about other countries. They are Muslim, etc. because that is their culture. However there are many Christian converts in those countries. Iran for example is estimated to be up to 10% Christian and growing. There are also huge and thriving Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, China, India, South Korea, all across sub saharan Africa and many other places. It’s not at all a Western faith. But yes, you are right. We are all shaped by our environment to a large degree. I’ve said that numerous times.

      I will continue to investigate. I hope you do as well. You say ask any deconvertee, I say ask any convert. I think we can all quote people in our corner.

      1. “I don’t really understand your point about other countries”
        It is quite simple. In a Muslim country/family one is almost certainty going to be brought up Musilm.
        In a Christian country/family one is a, most certainly going to be brought up Christian.

        If culture had nothing to do with it and Christianity was THE religion then by Christian reckoning we would all automatically become Christian, which is patently NOT the case,.
        Which says a lot more about religion and the insidious inculcation people are subject to than the supposed claims of truth and salvation.
        I doubt you will understand/relate to this , but this is the way society is.

        You mention Iran – do you have a reference that lists accurate figures? Purely for interest sake, I am not challenging your assertion.

        “I will continue to investigate. I hope you do as well. You say ask any deconvertee, I say ask any convert. I think we can all quote people in our corner.”

        The list of de-convertees is as long as your metaphorical arm, and the numbers are on the increase, if the Internet is a microcosm of the religious world at large.
        The stories of deconvertees all follow similar patterns.
        Most deconvertees I have come across, known personally or read were evangelicals inculcated from tiny tots at their parent’s knee.
        When they became adults, or adult enough to ask commonsense questions, they are inevitably disappointed with the answers which invariably end with variations on the theme of such diatribe as “It is God’s will” or similar non-committal nonsense.
        Breaking away from such deeply rooted prejudice is usually traumatic,often being ostracized by friends and family. The repercussions are sometimes worse than admitting one is gay.

        But once the decision has been made, based on the realization that what they have been subject to since birth is little more than ignorant lies, there is usually no turning back.
        Every individual that I have read about that has pulled through talks of the freedom they experience, often for the first time in their life.

        Yes, there are converts -Christians are switching sects all the time it seems, and to a lessor extent, religions – but on the face of it very few come from the ranks of atheists,and these are usually celebrated cases which are lauded in the (mostly) Christian media, and i would hazard that those that do are suffering from emotional issues ( or drugs, booze sexual problems etc) like their religious counterparts.

        It is highly improbable that an atheist would become a Christian, Muslim, Jew etc based solely on intellectual criteria – somewhat of an oxymoron in any case if one considers the supernatural aspects of all religion.
        Not impossible, of course, but it would definitely be the rare exception to the rule.

      2. I guess we can agree to disagree.

        I respect your point of view.

        Two last quick points.

        The point I am making is that many people in countries where a majority of people are adherents to different religions are becoming Christians. In some cases the numbers are quite large. Here is a reference on Iran. Looks like I exaggerated the number but my point remains: http://www.christianpost.com/news/open-doors-growth-of-christianity-in-iran-explosive-71946/. I get you may dismiss it as Christian propaganda, but nonetheless there you go.

        Secondly, I agree Christianity is for the weak, abused, and needy. Indeed that is its’ stated purpose.

  5. Interesting article. I can’t see any obvious signs of exaggeration, though it would be reasonable to assume Moeller will blow his own trumpet. And why not?
    Islam is more mind numbing than Christianity so it is no real surprise that such people would still cling to the belief in a god. Might as well be the Christian one as any other I suppose.
    As ignorant as most Muslims are about the true nature of their own faith they will likely be just as ignorant about Christianity…at first. But it is a step in the right direction. Maybe some will eventually come to realise that Christianity is just as fallacious as the religion they have left behind.

    I am sorry, but I will never respect Christianity, or any other religion that demands I worship a man- made deity under pain of eternal damnation. To do so is insane.

    “Secondly, I agree Christianity is for the weak, abused, and needy. Indeed that is its’ stated purpose.”

    I’m not sure I put it quite like this, but I concur. This is exactly what those who founded Christianity had in mind and the religion has a nasty habit of ensuring members stay this way by continually affirming that unless you acknowledge you are a sinner and need a god for salvation you are less than worthless and doomed.
    Nice ‘message’ for the kids, don’t you think?

    Which was NOT what Jesus stood for. Sadly most people don’t realise this.

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