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