By James Bishop| One of the most common objections to Christianity is that Gospels are not reliable or trustworthy sources for Jesus. A variety of reasons are often given for this, including the religious bias of the authors and the decades in between the events and the written accounts of the life of Jesus.
Perhaps the leading, and by far most popular, skeptic and critic when it comes to contemporary Christianity is the agnostic Bart Ehrman. However, Ehrman still affirms the historical nature of the gospels, writing 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” (1).
Likewise scholar Burridge argues the gospels to be reliable as historical sources, for instance when “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” (2).
The literary critic and expert, Holly Ordway, says that the gospels “were fact, not story. I’d been steeped in folklore, fantasy, legend, and myth ever since I was a child, and I had studied these literary genres as an adult; I knew their cadences, their flavor, their rhythm. None of these stylistic fingerprints appeared in the New Testament books that I was reading” (3). These positions are well grounded, and we will briefly review why in the following 5 reasons.
1. The literary genre of the Gospels
One might like to know the genre of our gospels. Surely, for instance, if the authors intended to write romantic fiction that would be different than if they chose to write historical biography. According to my lecturer in New Testament Studies the gospels are “described as modified ancient biographies” (4).
This is a position affirmed by scholar Dunn who claims that “it has become clearer that the Gospels are in fact very similar in type to ancient biographies” (5). Scholar Graham Stanton agrees that,
“the gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of biographies” (6).
In an interview Professor Keener informs us of the general academy: “Most Gospel scholars today—not all, but most—see the Gospels as biographies” (7).
What has convinced most scholars of the genre of ancient biography is that the authors aimed to portray their subject’s character by narrating his words and deeds (8). Further, although we are well aware of our gospel authors theological agendas, they still decided to adopt Greco-Roman biographical conventions in order to explain the story of Jesus, and this suggests that they wished to convey what really happened (9). These several reasons are why most scholars hold that the
“Gospels are a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives,’ that is, biographies” (10).
2. Reliable transmission process
We find that the transmission process of our New Testament documents was reliable. We must note that at the time history in which Jesus lived, and afterwards, no printing presses were available, rather documents needed to be hand copied by scribes. This was certainly not unique for our New Testament but for all written history afterwards (until the first printing presses in the 2nd millennium AD) and before. However, at this juncture a challenge by the skeptic is often the case.
The skeptic might charge that the transmission process was like the “game of telephone,” the game that we may be familiar with. According to the game of telephone a single message is inputted at one end and, by the time it is handed down via a chain, the message that pops out the other side is nothing like what it initially was. So, the skeptic’s claim is that we can know little reliable information on Jesus because during the transmission process our data on him was garbled, changed, and many errors crept in.
However, historians have shown that the transmission of New Testament documents was unlike the game of telephone (GOT). Firstly, whereas the GOT has a single line of transmission our New Testament has multiple lines. For instance, the original document was copied, and that copy was copied by several scribes, and then that copy was further copied by several scribes. Very soon we would have a plethora of copies of the original that was passed down over time, and by comparing them together we can have a good idea what the original document said.
Secondly, whereas the GOT involves oral transmission the New Testament involves textual transmission. This suggests that the original document, from which a scribe was copying, was available at all times to consult, whereas for an oral transmission process it is once off.
Thirdly, the GOT, as a child’s game, involves joking about and being playful, however, our scribes were serious about their task and would have at least tried to be accurate. Also, that the scribes may have had access to earlier copies of documents from which they were copying suggests that a late 2nd century scribe may have even had access to the originals.
Scholar Wallace captures this well, explaining that “the early copying surely wasn’t done in only a linear fashion: that is, the original manuscripts and other early copies were used more than once in making later copies. Textual criticism is not like the telephone game” (11).
Fourthly, the eyewitnesses were still alive during the time the Gospels were written and would have been corrected by the eyewitnesses if their material was false. Mark, for example, is believed to have been written between by a companion of Jesus’ disciple Peter at a time when at least Matthew and John (any maybe others) were still alive. Peter also may have still been alive during the penning of this Gospel, which is dated to have been written between 60-70 AD.
If lies were being spread by the companions of the disciples, the disciples themselves would have corrected them and protested the false information. Unlike a game of telephone, the writers of the Gospels would have been able to refer to the original apostles (or at least be corrected by them after the fact) in their writing of the biographies of Jesus.
However, in continuing, it is worth noting that errors and blunders do appear in the manuscript copies. This fact isn’t in dispute. The late conservative scholar Archer concedes that “Even the earliest and best manuscripts that we possess are not totally free of transmissional errors. Numbers are occasionally miscopied, the spelling of proper names is occasionally garbled, and there are examples of the same types of scribal error that appear in other ancient documents as well.
In that sense—and only to that degree—can it be said that even the finest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew-Aramaic Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are not wholly without error” (12).
But what does the historian make of these errors? How do they impact the historian’s effort in reconstructing the original texts? Professor Bart Ehrman explains that “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 any-thing other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us” (13).
Likewise Wallace agrees that “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” (14).
Thus, by pitting our extant manuscript copies against each other we can iron out the scribal errors and thus determine with some confidence what the originals would have actually read like.
3. Manuscript Attestation
As I hinted at above we can have confidence that we can have a good idea of what the original documents from our New Testament said because of the great number of manuscripts copies that we have. It is true that we do not possess the originals of our 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, for example, we have over 5000 copies in the original language of Greek (15) with some 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.
This should only help us to appreciate the manuscript attestation we have for our New Testament. For example, for Caesar’s Gallic War (written somewhere between 50 & 58 BC) we have only 10 decent manuscripts, and the earliest of which comes some 800 years after he lived. The History of Thucydides (5th century BC) only comes down to us in some eight manuscripts.
The earliest copy of these comes in around 900 AD (although a few small fragments date to 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 of them coming some 1000 years after the original (17).
However, compared to these other ancient texts how does our New Testament fair? Our earliest extant fragments for Matthew’s gospel (general consensus puts Matthew at 80 AD) date between 150 & 250 AD, a large fragment from Mark (consensus is 70 AD) is dated to around 250 AD, and several large fragments from Luke (consensus is 80 AD) date to between 175 & 250 AD.
Our earliest fragment of John’s gospel (consensus: 95 AD) is P52. P52 is dated to 125 AD and is our earliest fragment of any New Testament text, dating to 30 years after the original was written.
Several other fragments of John’s gospel date from after P52 to no later than 250 AD. Beyond our gospels several fragments of the book of Acts (consensus is 80 AD) is dated to the early 200s AD. The fragments for the rest of our New Testament documents range from 150 to 350 AD. Further, our first complete books of the New Testament date to around 200 AD, while the first complete copy of the entire New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, dates to the 300s AD.
Bearing in mind that our entire New Testament was completed no later than 95 AD this leaves a gap of over 200 years before our entire first copy. Many fragments date earlier than that. With this understood we are dealing with a negligible time gap in comparison to other major texts of ancient history.
Scholar Gary Habermas explains that “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).
Remarkably 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).
4. The Early Nature of the Gospels & New Testament
Our entire New Testament dates prior to the end of the 1st century. Jesus died at 30 AD, and most scholars date our gospels from 70 to 95 AD whereas Paul’s letters date even earlier from the early 50s onwards (1 Thessalonians 51 AD) and may even date to the late 40s (Galatians). This means that what we have is 1st century testimony to the life of Jesus.
We can appreciate this when we note that what we know about Alexander the Great (died 323 BC) depends on biographies written by Arrian and Plutarch within the 1st and 2nd centuries, several centuries after Alexander’s time. Scholar Mike Bird argues that this is early especially in “comparison to other historical figures” (20). Scholars also demonstrate that we can actually get back earlier than that 70 AD mark when we analyse the traditions behind our gospels.
In a nutshell we have early 1st century testimony attesting to Jesus as early as 31 years (or less) after his death and resurrection. Professor 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).
5. Archaeological evidence
In many places where our gospels can be tested archeologically they seem to pass the test. According to Professor Kruger, “John’s numerous geographical references have 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).
Further, the Gospel of Luke demonstrates accurate knowledge of influential and political people of his time, scholar Bruce argues 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 as Professor, and perhaps one of the leading Jesus & New Testament scholars, 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). Thus numerous discoveries have been made that have increase the historians confidence in the gospel accounts, for instance, the discovery of a 1st century boat that matches the description of the one Jesus and his disciples allegedly used to cross the sea (26), a synagogue that Jesus went to was uncovered (27), many other sites (28), and even conditions such as 1st century leprosy have been corroborated (29).
For these reasons the historian and scholar Paul Johnson concludes that
“Historians note that mounting evidence from archaeology confirms rather than contradicts the accounts of Jesus” (30).
On a similar note 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).
We have looked at several lines of evidence that suggests the New Testament and gospel accounts pass the historian’s vetting process. Historians have persuasively shown that the historical nature of the gospels is that they are ancient biographies supported by a trustworthy transmission process, ample manuscripts, early attestation, and archaeological discoveries. With this all in place we can maintain that the gospel accounts are authoritative sources for learning about the life of Jesus.