By James Bishop| The general reliability of the gospels is the claim that the gospel biographical texts, which constitute the primary sources for the ministry of the historical Jesus Christ and some of the earliest events preceding the founding of the Church, are historically reliable, and that this view can be arrived at through historical methods. Historian Gary Habermas explains that,
“These arguments are typically based on the quantity, quality, and early date of the available New Testament manuscript copies, additional considerations that favor the traditional authorship of the books, plus extra-biblical confirmation, along with a few archaeological discoveries” (1).
This method approaches the gospels (of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) as historical texts in the same way the historian would approach any other ancient document. It does not privilege the gospels as inspired Scripture (as do Christian readers), nor does it throw them out because one dislikes its message (as do many skeptics). Instead, one typically intends to show the reliability of the gospels on historical grounds.
Importantly, this approach is not devoid of meeting certain interpreter interests. In the case of Christians, apologists will attempt to demonstrate the general reliability of the gospels as a means to authenticate the Christian religion, primarily through highlighting evidential weight in favour of the gospels most central episode: the resurrection of Christ. Nonetheless, as Habermas noted, there are several arguments usually posited in favour of the proposition that the gospels are generally reliable.
The Gospels as Historical Sources
It is clear that almost all historians within New Testament studies and other relevant fields (i.e. Greco-Roman history, classical history etc.) hold that the gospels provide historical information that can be used to reconstruct objective history. To what degree they do will certainly differ depending on which historian one decides to ask.
However, that the gospels are devoid of historical value or that they are entirely legendary and mythical is a view no longer held within scholarship. Instead, the gospels are treated as valuable historical documents on the ministry of Christ. Scholar Bart Ehrman explains that,
“If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons—for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (2).
Biblical scholar Richard Burridge says that when the gospels are,
“judged by the criteria of the 1st century and I think they are pretty reliable documents. They share essentially the same story of Jesus’ public ministry, his teaching, his preaching, his activity, his healing and the events of the week leading to his death – and the fact that something very odd happened afterwards” (3).
Some of the reasons below will demonstrate why scholars have reasoned to these conclusions.
The Gospel Genre
The genre of a historical text is important. If an author intended to write romantic fiction it would be different to if he had selected to write historical biography. That the gospels are ancient biographies is an important point to take into account concerning their purposes. Scholar James Dunn says that “it has become clearer that the Gospels are in fact very similar in type to ancient biographies” (4).
Graham Stanton agrees: “the gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of biographies” (5). According to New Testament professor Craig Keener: “Most Gospel scholars today—not all, but most—see the Gospels as biographies” (6).
There are several reasons why the gospels are biographical. Firstly, the authors aimed to portray their subject’s character by narrating his words and deeds, a standard motivation behind a biography (7). Further, despite that the gospel authors possessed agendas for writing (which is the case for all authors), they still decided to adopt Greco-Roman biographical conventions in order to explain the story of Christ.
This suggests that they wished to convey what really happened to him (8). These are just some reasons why the “Gospels are a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives,’ that is, biographies” (9).
The Transmission Process
The transmission process of the gospel documents is generally reliable given historical standards. The time in which Christ lived there were no printing presses, so documents needed to be hand-copied by scribes onto manuscripts, which would then be kept. This was a common need if ancients wished to keep records of what they felt was important to them and wished for others to read.
One of the charges leveled at a transmission process such as this is something like the “game of telephone.” According to this, a single message is introduced to someone on one end of a chain/line of people, and at the end of it being handed down via the chain, the message which comes out bears no resemblance to what it was at the beginning. In other words, the message became corrupted somewhere within the chain, and the corruption of the original message also purportedly applies to the process of manuscript transmission of the New Testament/Gospels.
It posits that there was an original message perhaps on the earliest manuscript(s), and that over time, as it was copied and handed on (from one scribe to the next set of scribes and copyists), it was corrupted, and that this corruption is what we have in our final form (i.e. in the gospels as they are now printed in the New Testament that Christians read). This final form is nothing like the original message.
However, there is reason to doubt this scenario on the grounds that the transmission of New Testament/gospel manuscripts, as it occurred over time, was vastly unlike the evolution and corruption of a message one finds in the game of telephone. The ultimate advantage the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts have is that in rather than being transmitted by a single, sole chain (like in the game of telephone) there are multiple chains of transmission.
For instance, the original gospel manuscript was copied, and that copy was copied by several scribes, and then that copy was further copied by more several scribes, and so on, until we possess many thousands of these manuscript copies. This functions as valuable means of comparison, and by comparing them together the textual critic can arrive at a good idea concerning the content the original manuscript would have contained.
The result has been successful because textual critics have been able to identify what words, sentences, and paragraphs were in the earliest manuscripts, and what was likely added later by a scribe for some other purpose. A good example is the ending to Mark’s gospel (the portion running from 16:9 until 16:20) which is not in the earliest manuscripts and was almost certainly added by a later scribe, possibly in the early 2nd century. The result is that many mainstream Bible translations include footnotes acknowledging the possible lack of originality of these verses.
A further reason to doubt the game of telephone analogy involves the nature of transmission itself: oral versus textual. Oral transmission, at least in the version of the game of telephone, seems to have a lack of control (i.e. someone later in the chain cannot access the message at an earlier stage) whereas by the very nature of copying manuscripts such control and access would be possible.
It is not unlikely that the original manuscript, if not the earliest of them, was available to later scribes copying its contents. The result is access to earlier manuscripts and their earlier message, allowing scribes to double check their own copies if needs be.
Finally, unlike the game of telephone, largely deemed a lighthearted game for children, the scribes of New Testament/Gospel manuscripts were serious about their task. It is not unlikely that they (most of them at least) would have attempted to be accurate as a result.
Also important to note is that no textual critic believes the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts to be error free. Like any other ancient set of manuscripts, they possess minor transmission errors. These include, but may not be limited to, occasionally miscopied numbers, incorrect spelling of names, or garbled copying of words, and so on. These are often innocent mistakes likely due to a lapse in concentration or because of some other natural phenomena (i.e. poor lighting). According to Ehrman,
“of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us” (10).
Wallace writes similarly: “The vast majority of them are quite inconsequential. And less than 1 percent of all textual variants both affect the meaning of that verse (though none affects a core doctrine) and have some plausibility of authenticity” (11).
Although Ehrman notes the insignificance of these textual changes one might be concerned with his claim of “hundreds of thousands” of these changes. Are our manuscripts so error-ridden? What might strike one as a surprise, however, is that the more textual changes one has in the manuscripts the better, simply because it means textual critics have more manuscripts in number to work with in order to reconstruct the original message.
The fewer the manuscripts the fewer changes; the greater number of manuscripts the more changes. The latter scenario is preferable because the rule of thumb is the more manuscripts to work with the merrier. If Wallace’s 1% figure is to be believed, it would claim that one is able to trust 99% of what she finds in the gospels as representative of the original manuscripts. This is not impossible, but other textual critics have posited a slightly lower statistic often ranging from around 96 to 98%. Either way, it’s usually in the high 90s range.
That one can reason to this fairly strong conclusion is because of the sheer number of manuscript copies textual critics have to work with, which allows them to contrast and compare, and therefore catch transmissional changes, errors, and distortions whenever they occur. It seems then that the transmission of the New Testament/Gospel manuscripts is quite reliable, and that this position is warranted in the absence of a reasonable doubt. As noted, no-one claims the process to be perfect, but the claim is that it is reliable enough to allow readers of the gospels to be fairly certain that what they hold in their hands is very close to what the original gospel authors would have written.
As noted above one can have confidence that we have a good idea of what the original documents from our New Testament said in light of the great number of manuscript copies we have. It is true that we do not possess the originals of the New Testament so trying to reconstruct them is an important task for the historian.
It has been shown that the vast amount of copies we have at our disposal is quite impressive. We have over 5000 copies in the original language of Greek (15) with 19 000 other copies in Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. It is true that such a number, the 5000 Greek manuscripts, outstrips what we have for our other ancient Jewish, Roman and Greek literature. For example, for Caesar’s Gallic War (written somewhere between 50 and 58 BCE) we have only 10 decent manuscripts, of which the earliest is some 800 years removed from his life.
The History of Thucydides (5th century BCE) only comes down to historians in eight manuscripts. The earliest copy comes in around 900 CE (although a few small fragments date to the Christian era), some 1300 years later (16). Arguably the next best-preserved work besides the Bible is that of the Iliad, a work by Homer, that boasts some 650 copies with the earliest dating 1000 years after the original (17)
Compared to these other ancient texts how does the New Testament fair? Our earliest extant fragments for Matthew’s gospel (general consensus puts Matthew at 80 CE) date between 150 and 250 CE, a large fragment from Mark (consensus is 70 CE) is dated to around 250 CE, and several large fragments from Luke (consensus is 80 CE) date to between 175 and 250 CE. Our earliest fragment of John’s gospel (95 CE) is the small P52. P52 is dated to 125 CE and is our earliest fragment of any New Testament text.
Several other fragments of John’s gospel date after P52 and no later than 250 CE. Beyond our gospels several fragments of the book of Acts (consensus is 80 CE) are dated to the early 200s CE. The fragments for the rest of our New Testament documents range from 150 to 350 CE.
Further, the first complete books of the New Testament date to around 200 CE, while the first complete copy of the entire New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, dates to the 300s CE. Bearing in mind that our entire New Testament was completed no later than 95 CE this leaves a gap of over 200 years before our entire first extant copy. Many fragments date earlier than that.
With these dates and manuscripts in mind we are dealing with a negligible time gap in comparison to other major texts of ancient history. Gary Habermas reveals the importance of this,
“What is usually meant is that the New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing. Classical sources almost always have less than 20 copies each and usually date from 700-1400 years after the composition of the work. In this regard, the classics are not as well attested. While this doesn’t guarantee truthfulness, it means that it is much easier to reconstruct the New Testament text. Regarding genre, the Gospels are usually taken today to be examples of Roman biographies” (18).
Scholar Frederick Bruce claims that,
“the evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning… It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians” (19).
Early Source Materials of the Gospels and the New Testament
The entire New Testament dates prior to the end of the first century. Christ died around 30 CE, and most scholars date the gospels from 70 to 95 CE whereas the Apostle Paul’s letters date earlier from the 50s onward. This means that historians are in possession of is first-century testimony to the life of Christ and the origins of the Christian movement.
One can appreciate this when we note that what we know about Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) depends on biographies written by Arrian and Plutarch in the first and second centuries, several centuries after Alexander’s life. Christ stacks fairly well when compared to other major religious figures.
For the Buddha, historians are dealing with materials at least four centuries removed and more. For the Prophet Muhammad, the earliest biographies only come in 150 to 200 years later, and for Confucius, it’s about a century. All considered, a gap of 40 to 60 years for Christ is not very large. Scholar Michael Bird agrees and says that the source materials for Christ are early in “comparison to other historical figures” (20).
New Testament cholars have also demonstrated that they can actually get back earlier than 70 CE mark when they take into consideration creeds and the traditions behind our gospels, such as Q, L, and M, and possible eyewitness testimony (see pre-Mark).
Historians are dealing with first-century testimony attesting to Christ, which means that the data did not evolve over several centuries as one might find with legendary figures. In many cases, when the traditions on Christ were in circulation or being preserved by the Christian community, this was often in the time of the eyewitnesses and the first and second generations of Christians. Craig Keener explains that “Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry,” and as a result we are dealing with “substantive historical information” (21).
A final premise supporting the general reliability of the gospels is that in many places where they can be tested archeologically they pass the empirical test. This is even the case when one considers the latest gospel, the Gospel of John (90 CE), which Professor Kruger says has “been tested and found to be very accurate,” and that the author of “John exhibits impressive knowledge of the places where the events of Jesus’ life took place” (22).
The Gospel of Luke too demonstrates accurate knowledge of influential and political people of his time, many of whom can be found in non-biblical sources. Scholar Bruce claims that “One of the most remarkable tokens of Luke’s accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned” (23).
Archaeology has also been kind towards other gospel traditions. Craig Evans says that “where they [gospels] can be [archaeologically] tested, we find they are talking about real people, real events, real things that we can unearth” (24). He goes on to say that the gospels talk “about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that…” (25).
Empirical evidence has thus increased many historians’ confidence in the gospel documents. The discovery of a first-century boat matches the description of the one Christ and his disciples allegedly used to cross the sea (26), a synagogue that Christ went to was uncovered (27), as were many other sites (28), and even conditions such as first-century leprosy have been corroborated (29). Historian Paul Johnson concludes that “Historians note that mounting evidence from archaeology confirms rather than contradicts the accounts of Jesus” (30). Professor of archaeology Millar Burrows says that,
“On the whole archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics” (31).
Although archaeological corroboration does not prove that the narratives within the documents are authentic, they can be taken, with what else we have considered above, as a signpost pointing in that direction. Empirical corroboration suggests that the gospel authors were talking about real people that lived, places that existed (and still exist), and events that likely happened. If it were the opposite of this in that the authors spoke of legendary people and locations that we know did not exist, then historians would have a reason to be more cautious about the documents.
Having looked at several premises it seems that the gospel accounts satisfy the criteria historians use to measure the reliability of most documents of ancient history. It seems that by these measures the gospels, our primary sources for the ministry of Christ, can be trusted as generally reliable.
This conclusion is supported by a multilayered and multi-dimensional transmission process, numerous manuscripts, some of which are early, the early date of the gospels in proximity to the life of Christ (at least compared to other important ancient figures), and archaeological discoveries that place the gospels and the ministry of Christ in time and space.
1. Habermas, Gary. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
2. Ehrman, Bart. 2008. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford University Press. p. 229.
3. Christian Evidence. 2013. Four Gospels, One Jesus. Available.
4. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 185.
5. Stanton, Graham. 2004. Jesus and Gospel. Cambridge University Press. p. 192.
6. Keener, Craig. 2009. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up? The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus. Available.
7. Hägg, Tomas, and Harrison, Stephen. 2012. The Art of Biography in Antiquity. Cambridge University Press. p. 155.
8. Keener, Craig. 2003. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Baker Academic. p. 13.
9. Stanton, Graham. 2004. Ibid. p. 192
10. Ehrman, Bart. 2005. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperSanFrancisco. p. 207.
11. Wallace, Daniel. and Bock, Darrell. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Thomas Nelson. p. 71.
12. Elliott, Keith., and Moir, Ian. 2000. Manuscripts and the Text of the New Testament: An Introduction for English Readers. Bloomsbury T&T Clark. p. 1.
13. Bruce, F. 2003. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Eerdmans.
14. Moss, Joseph. 1825. A Manual of Classical Bibliography. p. 526.
15. Habermas, Gary. Dr. Habermas Answers Important Questions. Available.
16. Bruce, F. F. 1960. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? InterVarsity. p. 15.
17. Bird, Michael. 2014. Yes Jesus existed… but relax, you can still be an atheist if you want to. Available.
18. Keener, Craig. 2009. Ibid.
19. Kruger, Michael. 2013. Is the Gospel of John History or Theology? Available.
20. Bruce, F. F. 2003. p. 82.
21. Vision. 2013. Is the Bible Reliable? Available.
22. Vision. 2013. Ibid.
23. Sacred Destinations. Jesus Boat Museum, Tiberias. Available.
24. Williams, Peter. 2010. Archaeology and the Historical Reliability of the New Testament. Available.
25. Williams, Peter. 2010. Ibid.
26. Evans, Craig. 2012. Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 110.
27. Paul Johnson, “A Historian Looks at Jesus,” speech to Dallas Seminary, 1986.
28. Burrows, Millar. 1956. What Mean These Stones? Meridian Books. p.1.
This article was originally featured in the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission from the author.