One might well object to the foregoing thus: “The New Testament is our only record of these events, and it’s hopelessly biased and therefore unreliable. So we can’t know what really happened.”
Let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious: the New Testament is, indeed, biased. It is strongly biased, in fact: written entirely by devotees of Jesus, each of whom writes according to the tenets of orthodox Christianity (or his writing wouldn’t have been accepted by the early church into the canon–the approved group of scriptures).
But so what? Most (all?) historical writing is biased. Who devotes himself or herself to a careful historical accounting of a subject in which one has no interest and about which one has no strong opinion? Pick among the famous historians of the ages: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Eusebius, Bede, Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Beard, von Ranke: they’re all conspicuously biased. Pick your favourite historian today: same deal.
The serious historiographical question is never that of bias. People who don’t know much about history-writing fret about bias, but no historian and no experienced reader of history does. The question instead is whether bias interferes with veracity.
Often it doesn’t, of course. Those who care most about an event are usually (not always) the best reporters of it. Again, who else cares to get the details straight, or to report on it at all (as most Roman and Jewish historians of the time understandably do not report on the life and death of Jesus)? The question is always whether the historian evidently is trying to portray what actually happened (rather than evidently writing flattery or deceit) and whether we have any other grounds to trust his or her word: any sort of corroboration, for example, or other writings of his or hers that we can verify in some way, or the testimony of reliable others to the veracity of the account in question, and so on.
So let’s turn to the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—whom ancient church tradition understands to be the Gospel authors—were not professional historians. According to the early traditions, they came from four different trades: Matthew was a tax collector, Luke was a physician, John was a fisherman—we don’t know what Mark’s trade was. Each was an amateur simply doing his best to serve the first Christians with reliable accounts of the work of Jesus. Leaving aside the question of supernatural inspiration and even whether church tradition is correct about the authorship of what are, in fact, anonymous documents, the four Gospel writers worked the same way all historians work: they collected accounts, both oral and written; reflected on whatever personal experience they might have had with their subject; and set to work writing brief portraits of their Lord for their intended audiences.
But did they write reliable history? To answer this honestly, I need to risk making enemies among my professional friends by asserting that there is no field of contemporary literary or historical study that is as rich, but also as confused, as New Testament scholarship. It seems that one can find a well-credentialed scholar proclaiming virtually any thesis imaginable about this or that part of the New Testament.
There are a variety of reasons for this cacophony of dissenting voices. For one thing, there is no text in western civilization that matters as much as the New Testament: not the Magna Charta, not the Declaration of Independence, not “E = mc2.” For better or worse, no text has affected our civilization like this collection of small first-century books. Furthermore, when scholars study the New Testament, ultimate things are at stake. The text itself claims to describe the most fundamental realities: God, the world, humanity, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, morality—who can study it and remain indifferent to its implications?
So while one can recognize the eruditon of many New Testament scholars past and present, it is likely (and, I think, evident) that in at least some cases their expertise has been put at the service of highly personal religious agendas. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in fact, pioneering scholars like Simon and Reimarus and Wellhausen and Baur pursued their studies with openly unorthodox, even anti-orthodox, concerns that skewed their work—even as each of them made important contributions to the understanding of the Bible. There is no reason to suppose that more recent scholars are so different from their distinguished predecessors.
The current scholarly voices that proclaim the gospels to be suspect as historical sources therefore must be listened to with caution—particularly since many reputable scholars think the gospels are in fact quite reliable. One must neither accept unquestioningly whatever happens to be the trend of the moment in New Testament scholarship, nor dispense with the whole field entirely. A critical arm’s-length stance serves one well in any area of human inquiry, and especially in one so contested as this is.
I myself, as a professional historian, have concluded that the gospels are at least basically reliable in their portrayals of Jesus. They vary from each other in details, even important ones, but their individual and composite portraits of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth seem at least as reliable as any other historical sources we have about the ancient world.
Why do I think so? For one thing, there are, after all, four accounts: not one or two, as is often the case in classical sources. And these accounts agree with each other far more than they seem to disagree.
It seems preposterous, we should pause to observe, to attribute this agreement to some sort of collusion among the four writers. Quite apart from the silliness of a charge of massive deceit levelled against devotees of a religious master whom everyone agrees taught honesty as a supreme virtue (it would be a different thing, for instance, to suspect collusion among Nazi biographers of Hitler), the very differences among the four gospels to which critics often point indicate that a conspiracy of agreement is highly unlikely. In other words, it would be a poor conspiracy that so obviously failed to iron out the many differences among the gospels. Instead, the more sensible explanation for four different, but mutually-reinforcing, accounts is that they are describing the same reality from four different points of view.
Furthermore, they agree with each other far more than they do with the other “gospels” written in the first, second, and later centuries—those attributed to the apostles Thomas and Peter, for example, or the early missionary Barnabas. The early churches quickly latched onto the four gospels that became part of the New Testament—in church after church across the Empire, as archaeology has shown—while repudiating others as fanciful, even heretical. This widespread agreement on the status of the four gospels over against their “competitors,” an agreement noted by scholars of various stripes, is a phenomenon not to be lightly received—especially in the light of recent excitement over so-called Gnostic and other “gospels.”
The early churches ought to be treated as the best judges of which gospels got the story right. At least a few eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life were still alive at the time of the writing and circulation of the gospels, and these eyewitnesses easily and authoritatively could have refuted, and did refute, any phony accounts. Even without the validation of eyewitnesses, it remains that the gospels were written within the lifetimes of the first generation after Jesus (that is, between A.D. 50 and 100, with the death of Jesus dated at about 30). Thus the four gospels of the New Testament were accepted as valid by the generation that had been taught the “Jesus traditions” by the apostles themselves. The vast majority of the early churches—and we have records right back to the late first century—broadly and independently agreed that these four were authentic.
So while scholars argue over whether Luke has a particular historical reference correct or whether John is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he never said, we might sensibly consider one thing that New Testament scholars rarely dispute. The early Christians themselves adopted these four as their basic community remembrances of the life of their Lord. The early churches prized these four accounts because, in their view, they told the truth about Jesus.
Many elements of Jesus’ career upon which all four gospel writers agree are also remarked upon in the still-earlier letters of the apostle Paul, which were written in the 50s and 60s, within thirty or forty years of Jesus’ death. And these letters—at least the major ones such as Romans and I and II Corinthians—were also widely received early on by most churches as teaching the truth about Jesus. So we in fact have five sources, all of them written within a century of the events they purport to describe, that disagree on details but massively agree on many essential parts of the story of Jesus’ life. These five sources together constitute an astonishingly rich and reliable resource base for study, especially when compared with any other records from the classical period of Greco-Roman history. If we simply apply to the New Testament documents the same tests that professional historians normally apply to other ancient accounts, it is clear that we have at least as much reason to trust the gospels as sources of historical data about Jesus as we do to trust any other writer, writing about any other subject, in the ancient Mediterranean world.
(A fine online resource on this matter is an article by Gary Habermas available here.)
Having said all this (!), we still can generously grant to a skeptic all sorts of minor difficulties in the gospel accounts as we move to make the next point in our discussion, namely, that there are historical data that point to the truth of the Christian claim of Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, even if one takes a minimalist approach to the historicity of the gospel accounts, even if one grants for the sake of argument that the gospels contain a large number of relatively minor inaccuracies—or even major mistakes or fabrications!—one runs up against data that are attested in all four gospels and held up as crucial, not incidental, events in the narratives.
Now, grant me just two facts—two data that, let it be clear, are not in themselves miraculous. Grant me these, and see what else might reasonably follow…
This discussion is adapted from my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press and InterVarsity Press).