Are the Gospel records
about Jesus of Nazareth
accurate and reliable for learning about his life?
There are four ancient manuscripts about the life and teachings of Jesus from Nazareth. They are know as the Gospels and are all found in the New Testament. Each is named after its respective author: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Together, these four books are the most complete record of the life and teaching of the man from Nazareth available from ancient sources. Because of their importance many have attempted to destroy the credibility of these four resources, and also because The Liberator is based primarily on these sources, I felt it is necessary to look at the reliability of these four books.
Over the last few years since my original version of The Liberator, many new criticisms have surfaced along with new resources. So with that in mind, I have expanded this original section and refreshed my original research for this latest edition of the book to give you a more accurate rendition of the reliability of the Gospel sources.
1. The Gospel Authors
Of the four Gospel writers, two are attributed to disciples (Matthew and John) who would of course have been actual eyewitnesses. Luke took more of the approach of a historian (who was also a Christian) and we have good evidence that he also wrote the Book of Acts. Mark is reputed to have been the recorded recollections of the Apostle Peter about the ministry of Jesus.
All of these authors were
reputed to have lived in the first century during Jesus' life and also after his death.
If the men who are supposed to be the author's of these works actually are
their authors, and if the time
of their writings is accurate, then we have a highly unusual body of work for
authenticating the life and teachings of this man. (I point this out because
all of the biographical writers of all the other ancient founders of
religion were not written about by their contemporaries. See
Is Jesus Unique to History?)
There were many different books penned about Christ after his life. In most cases these books were written between the second and ninth centuries after Jesus' death, and they are often an attempt to add new facts and new doctrines to the already established four Gospels. This is especially true with the early life of Jesus and the early life of his mother Mary. Many of these books claim to be written by someone other than the actual writer penning the fiction.
For example, Gospel-type narratives have been attributed to such well-known biblical characters as James, Peter, Andrew, Thomas, Barnabas, Bartholomew, Nicodemus, Judas, Mary, Philip, and others. Obviously, if a book is reputed to be written by someone who did not write it, that book would be a forgery. That's an important reason why the author's identity is often a key element to establish a book's authenticity.
A lot is made in skeptical circles of the fact that none of the four Gospels were signed by the authors. For example, there are no authorial statements in any of the four that explicitly states something like, "This Gospel was written by Matthew the son of Alphaeus."
It was however a
common practice in the ancient world, for a writer not to include
his name as a manuscript's author, so this shouldn't be seen as a big issue. It is more important
to note that the evidence about these four documents and their authors within the
early church is actually highly consistent and supportive that Matthew, Mark, Luke and
John were indeed the actual writers. So let's examine each book in turn.
The Gospel of Matthew. The first Gospel is generally credited to have been written by the disciple Matthew (also called Levi), who was the son of Alphaeus. We know that Matthew was a tax collector when Jesus called him to be a disciple. As an eyewitness, he would have seen much of the prophet's life and would likely have written his book with a tedious regard for detail which we would expect from an accountant and tax collector.
All of the early manuscript copies of this book after A.D. 125 are titled with Matthew's name. Also, the early church fathers including Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius all attribute the book to Matthew. (See the post of Bill Pratt on Matthew.)
The Gospel of Mark. We believe that the Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas (who was an early Christian leader). As a young man, Mark was involved with missionary work under the leadership of both Paul and Barnabas and his name is found in the Book of Acts. Mark abandoned one of the missionary trips of the Apostle Paul (Acts 13:13) and earned Paul's disappointment for that failing (Acts 15:36-41). Later in Paul's ministry he records that Mark was of value as an assistant, so the breach between them was obviously later bridged (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10).
Mark later became an assistant to Peter when the Apostle was in Rome. According to Papias, a second century Christian writer, the Gospel of Mark was composed in Rome based upon information provided by the Apostle Peter. Peter's preaching is reputed to have formed the basis for his Gospel.
So, while Mark was not an eyewitness, he received the details of his account
from an eyewitness. There is internal evidence of this, because Mark's work is actually the most
kind to Peter, eliminating some of his more embarrassing gaffes. (Merrill C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary
Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan 1959 p. 510).
The Gospel of Luke is reputed to have been authored by Luke, the physician who was probably a Gentile (Colossians 4:14). He traveled extensively with the Apostle Paul and also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. While the author does not name himself, he does state both his audience and his purpose in the first four verses (Luke 1:1-4). He admits that other Gospels had been written before his work and that he himself had cautiously examined everything from the beginning which led him to write an organized account of the Lord's life and ministry.
Of all the Gospel writers, Luke's work is the most like that of a historian. He was apparently well-read and demonstrates a sophisticated ability in the Greek language. His book was recognized by Justin, Polycarp, Hegesippus, Marcion, Heracleon, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria. Some have actually called Luke the "best book ever written."
The author of this Gospel tells us that he is writing to a man named Theophilus who no doubt was the patron who supported his research and the time it took to write the book. If you compare the Gospel introduction (Luke 1:1-4) with the one found in Acts (1:1-4) you will quickly see the similarities and the connection between the two books. The first four verses of Acts are really more like a summary of Luke's Gospel. The two books work together to become a seamless narrative of the beginning of the Christian movement.
The Gospel of John was penned by the fisherman who was one of the first disciples called by Jesus. His father's name was Zebedee, and some scholars believe his mother was Salome, the sister of Jesus' mother Mary. John's book definitely bears the stamp of an eyewitness; he writes as one who has seen the action take place first hand. (Tenney, op. cit. pp. 440-441).
More than with any of the other Gospels, the author of John indicates that he was present at most of the events that he writes about. He refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and he is often alone with just Jesus and Peter. Because the only other person (except from the Lord) who was privy to some of those conversations was Peter, it becomes pretty obvious that it was John who wrote this book.
Again, while the author of the Gospel of John does not name himself there is ample external evidence by early church leaders all stating he was believed to be the author. Ignatius, Papias, Aristides, Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius are all sources authenticating the origin of the book and John as its author. See Who Wrote John?
Authorial Conclusion. None of the identities of the biblical authors for the four Gospels have been seriously challenged over the years. All four of the Gospels were accepted historically and verified from ancient sources. Now this is not true of some of the other New Testament documents, so this is important to mention. None of the Gospels was ever in serious dispute as to whether it deserved a place in the canon. In short, these four sources seem the perfect and only place to start for a serious study of the life of Jesus from Nazareth.
The most interesting thing about the authors is that they could profited very little by their books. They had, on the contrary, everything to lose. All of them were persecuted, and three were martyred. It does not seem likely that these four authors would fabricate the information contained in their books knowing they were signing their own death warrants.
2. The Content of The Gospels
The distorter of history—and there have been quite a number of such people over the years—usually begin by telling a few lies. Once the imposter has begun to "create history", he usually has a tendency to lose his sense of reserve. When there is no check on the imagination, all kinds of fanciful sensationalism can result. There are a number of books written in the first few centuries which were reputed to have been histories written about the life of Jesus. Almost all of these contain considerable sensationalism, especially those that concentrate on the early life of Jesus after his birth.
In the New Testament Gospels, however, there is the fine sense of reserve possessed by the writers of true history. The childhood of Jesus is passed over in almost complete silence and shows no evidence of supernaturalism. This reserve testifies of the careful regard for facts held by the authors.
Jesus' miracles are reserved for his three-and-a-half year ministry. If the writers had added supernatural color to his life, they would no doubt have added it to his entire life. No one who reads the Gospels can question the restraint of the authors. They did not use miracles to excite wonder; they were merely reporting what they believed had taken place. (Norman V. Williams, Verbal Inspiration (Moody Press: Chicago, Illinois 1955, pp. 38-40).
The four Gospel accounts are also consistent in recording the supernatural. None of the books are any less supernatural, indicating that all of the authors felt Jesus had unusual powers. Nor do the Gospels contain inconsistencies in logic. The works attributed to Jesus do not deny his teachings. The natural and the miraculous are always clearly distinguishable and do not contradict one another. (Ibid. Pp. 50-52).
The Gospels also record many of the negative attitudes displayed toward Jesus. All of the questions, the accusations, and the name-calling are present. These elements go a long way toward proving that the authors were merely reporting what they saw and heard.
3. The Historical Sources of The Gospels
Some have held that the first three Gospels are so much alike in their material that the authors must have used a common-source document. However, there are differences in the way the authors approach the same event to prove that they did not conspire in their writing. Like four reporters at the scene of a news event, each records what happened from a different perspective, and yet all agree with the basic facts. The writers do not contradict one another. (Ibid. p. 40).
These four histories undoubtedly used sources to obtain some of their information. All of the books contain information of which the authors could not have been personal witnesses.
Matthew gives the genealogy of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. As Joseph was no longer living, Matthew probably received this information from one of Jesus' half-brothers. The genealogy in Luke's Gospel is of Jesus' mother Mary. As Luke presents the birth of Christ from Mary's point-of-view, it is obvious that he must have obtained his information from her.
In Matthew and Mark there are several long accounts of the conflict between Herod the tetrarch and John the Baptist. It is highly probably that both drew information on this from a man named Manean who grew up with Herod (Acts 13:1). Manean became a Christian and later taught in the church at Antioch, where Matthew wrote his book. The account of the inner workings of the Jewish high court recorded in all four Gospels were probably supplied by members of the ruling Sanhedrin like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. (Mark 15:43).
There should be no doubt that the Gospel authors were cable of interviewing those who had information concerning events which they had not personally witnessed themselves. The ancient world was quite literate and we should not think that there were not lots of manuscripts and libraries available for those who could afford to use them. Believers began to copy early Christian letters and also copies of the Gospels soon became available. So it was very likely that many believers had copies of a wide variety of first century documents.
Luke was once considered to be a poor historian because it was thought he had been inaccurate in many of his facts. For some time it was suspected that this was the case regarding a section in his account of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:1-3). It was argued that there had been no census, that no one had had to return to his ancestral home, and that Quirinius was not governor of Syria when Jesus was born.
Then archeological discoveries were made proving that the Romans had a regular enrollment of taxpayers every fourteen years and that this procedure was begun by Caesar Augustus. It was also found that for the approaching census, all those remaining away from their homes were required to return to the cities of their father. Finally, an inscription found in Antioch gives good evidence that Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria at the time of Jesus' birth. (Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict Campus Crusade for Christ, Arrowhead Sprints, San Bernardino, CA 1972, p. 85).
A number of different archeological finds have substantiated the occurrence of events and the existence of places and people mentioned in the Gospels. Thousands upon thousands of coins have been unearthed from the reigns of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Caesar Augustus, and the other rulers of the time. A number of inscriptions, like one with Pontius Pilate's name on it, have been discovered. Many places Jesus visited, like the pools of Bethesda and Siloam, Bethany and Capernaum have been excavated. When a study is made of the four Gospels in the light of the discoveries of the archeologists, it is evident that the information they present is quite accurate. Each author was, in his own right, an adequate historian.
4. The Accuracy of The Manuscripts
So many centuries have come and gone since Jesus was in Galilee that we do not now possess any of the original manuscripts of those first-century writers. This should not be surprising because we possess only a few original manuscripts of any type from this period of history. If a book or document was popular or important, it was copied many times and circulated to those who could afford a copy. These copies are what have come down to us.
There are so many manuscripts of the New Testament in existence today (over 4,000 of them) that we can be virtually certain we now have those books as they were originally written. (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI, 1943, p. 16).
In addition to these manuscripts we have over 19,000 quotations from the Gospels by early Christian writers that we can substantiate almost all of the manuscripts just with these quotes alone and support the accuracy of the Greek text even further. (McDowell, op. cit. p. 55). There is so much manuscript evidence available that most historians (unless they have an obvious liberal bias) are quick to accept the accuracy of the New Testament. (Bruce, op. cit. p.15).
Such a large number of copies of these early Christian manuscripts were made no doubt because these books were of tremendous value to the early Christians. But when it comes to the other books from this era of history, we do not have anywhere near the number of sources to rely upon. As an example, the historian Livy wrote 142 books of Roman history, but less a a quarter of them—only 35—of them have survived to our day. That is the situation with almost all of the well-known manuscripts for this period of ancient history. So if the authenticity of the New Testament Gospels is questioned on the basis of the manuscript evidence, then the rest of ancient history would have to be considered as completely unreliable because it has far less manuscript support then the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament (Ibid. pp. 16-17).
5. Acceptance in the Early Church
If you research into how and when the biblical canon for the New Testament was established, you will discover that by the middle of the second century the list of books we have in our N.T. was solidly accepted. There were only a few New Testament books that were in question, but the four Gospels as we have them now, were all accepted early as being in the canon and none of the apocryphal Gospels is ever mentioned in anyone's list as needing to be added in. This goes for the Muratorian Canon in the middle of the second century, Irenaeus' list around the same time, Tertullian's list towards the end of the second century and Origen in the middle of the third century. So the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and only these four—were immediately accepted by the early church. All of the many other so-called Gospels were seen as apocryphal.
6. The Evidence of Secular Writings
Some have claimed that apart from the New Testament, there is no proof Jesus ever lived. Ancient history, however, completely disagrees with that claim, and all true scholars do as well. "Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted." (See the History of Jesus, wikipedia, for more on this).
There are so many books and stories and memoirs written about Jesus from Nazareth—beyond just the direct New Testament documents—all written soon after his death and resurrection so that the question is not "did he exist?" The real question for any historian is how to sift through all of the voluminous works written about the Nazarene to find the man behind any of the myths that may have developed apart from the New Testament.
There are indeed a number of non-Christian, non-partisan writers who wrote about Jesus, proving that he was not a pure fictional creation of the Gospel writers' imagination. The Mishnah and the Talmud have quotes about Jesus which attempt to make him into a sorcerer and/or magician, but they do not deny his existence. Here are the most compelling quotes from contemporary Roman sources:
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian born in A.D. 37, wrote about Jesus in his Antiquities (xviii 33). The Arabic text of that passage reads: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." (McDowell, op. cit. pp. 84-85).
Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian born in A.D. 52, alludes to the death of Christ when writing about the emperor Nero. Nero was being blamed for burning Rome; so to escape the blame, he "punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius..." (Ibid. p. 84)
Plinius Secundus, the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D.
112) wrote to the emperor Trajan seeking counsel on how to treat the
Christians. "They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain
fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to
Christ as to a god..." (Ibid. pp. 85-86)
A Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion sent a letter to his son in the first century which reads in part, "What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. . . Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teachings he had given." (Ibid. pp. 86-87).
7. Criticism of The Jesus Seminar
It is amazing to me that one of the most influential critiques of the life of Jesus comes from a recent project called: "The Jesus Seminar." This group of self-proclaimed "authorities" on the Gospels are really just a handpicked assembly of biblical agnostics who have invented a theory based more upon their biases. They have not presented any rational attempt at historical research.
They teach that the Jesus of the Gospels is at best a fiction, and at worst a fraud. In there completely unproven premise, they seek to take apart the four Gospels piece by piece and determined—by drawing lots no less—to determine what is true. That's the level of scholarship they bring to this project.
They selected a collection of the words of
Jesus, and then arbitrarily denied that 80 percent of those words were ever
actually spoken by the Lord. They distort or butcher those texts to support
their theory that the story of Jesus is a work of fiction. They also drain
all historical truth from the Gospels by claiming several things, like: that there weren't any
genealogies in the Hebrew world at that time from which the authors could
have drawn their information. Of course, to maintain their own fiction, they must completely ignore the fact that the Jewish people kept
accurate records of births, circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs, marriages, and all
sorts of other vital statistics.
"The Jesus Seminar" has a difficult time with the miracles of Jesus because the authors all hold such a naturalistic world view where miracles are simply impossible. But as you can see in my Lord, Liar or Lunatic? the historical evidence for his miracles merely vouches for the authenticity of the Lord's overall teaching message. Those miracles also substantiate his position as the Son of God.
"The Jesus Seminar" has been adequately refuted with in an excellent book, so I won't bother to go into it any further here. If you have any doubts about what they say, check out: "Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus." The latter response has done an excellent job of destroying "The Jesus Seminar" and their half-baked theories. You can find it on Amazon.
8. Are The Gospels Reliable?
I have examined here only a small fraction of the available evidence concerning the authenticity of the four Gospels. But this sampling reveals that these four books are historically accurate, free from the normal signs of fictional sensationalism and that they are very likely to be trustworthy. In short, they should be considered as reliable evidence concerning the life and teachings of Jesus from Nazareth. Together, these four books are the most complete record of the life and teaching of the man from Nazareth available from ancient sources.