I wrote several articles about the Torah, which is comprised of the first five books of the Old Testament. Now I want to move several hundred years later and research the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament.
The word Gospel comes from an Old English translation of the Greek word euaggelion (εὐαγγέλιον; Strong’s G2098), from which we get the English words evangelize, evangelist and Evangelical. Gospel means “good tidings” or “good news”. The Good News the Gospel books focus on is the forgiveness of sins for people who trust in Jesus Christ. The method the Gospels use to teach about the forgiveness of sin is to tell us about the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
The Gospels are not comprehensive reports about every area of the life of Jesus, but describe his birth and focus on his ministry years. The Gospels tell us nothing about most of the life of Jesus. We know Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape being killed by King Herod the Great1, but we don’t know how old Jesus was when that happened, although he must have been no older than two2. We also don’t know how old Jesus was when they returned from Egypt3. There is one brief story which takes place when he was twelve and was teaching in the temple4. Other than that, there are no reliable stories about what Jesus did until he started his ministry.5 We do know from John 24:256 Jesus did many other things which weren’t written down. This verse is likely referring to the teachings and miracles in Jesus’ ministry years, but could be referring to the childhood years also.
If then the Gospels are not complete biographies of Christ, what are they? The first answer must be, Four books inspired, fully inspired, of God; four books written by men moved by the Holy Spirit; books that are true, flawless, perfect. The second answer is that, the four Gospels are so many books, each complete in itself, each of which is written with a distinctive design, and that which is included in its pages, and all that is left out, is strictly subordinated to that design, according to a principle of selection. In other words, nothing whatever is brought into any one of the Gospels save that which was strictly relevant and pertinent to its peculiar theme and subject, and all that was irrelevant and failed to illustrate and exemplify its theme was excluded. The same plan of selection is noticeable in every section of the Holy Scriptures.7
There were hundreds of witnesses to the resurrected Jesus89, and the witnesses undoubtedly spoke about Jesus to their friends and neighbors. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the Apostle Peter told the Good News to the crowds. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41 ESV) The Good News of Jesus spread far and fast.
The years passed, and the people who knew Jesus were dying or being killed.10 Finally, some people decided to write down the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospels were written years, possibly decades, after Jesus ascended into heaven. Could the Apostles accurately write about Jesus’s life and ministry so long after he left? The Jewish people placed a strong emphasis on memorization and oral teaching, and the apostles certainly had much experience talking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (See Could the Gospel Message have been Accurately Transmitted Orally?)
The author of Luke indicates many other people tried to write about the events surrounding Jesus and his teachings. Luke was written based on direct testimony from the people who were with Jesus from the beginning.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Acts 1:1-4 ESV)
The books of Luke and Acts (written by the same author) are based on eyewitness testimony, as is the book of John11. These weren’t written based on rumors and half-remembered stories from decades ago. These witnesses undoubtedly repeated the Good News many times, and it’s likely there would have been plenty of people around who would have jumped in to make corrections if necessary.
It is interesting to read what a famous atheist scholar and author, Bart Ehrman, writes about the historical accuracy in the Gospels:
…the oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus . . . are the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the New Testament and its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists. This view is not, in other words, a biased perspective of only a few naive wishful thinkers; it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars who work on the problem of establishing what really happened in the life of the historical Jesus, scholars who . . . have learned Greek and Hebrew, the languages of the Bible, along with other related languages such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, scholars who read the ancient sources in the ancient languages and know them inside and out. We may wish there were older, more reliable sources, but ultimately it is the sources found within the canon that provide us with the most, and best, information.12
- Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) (Amazon)
- Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018; Logos book) (Logos)
- When they [the Magi/Wise Men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13 NIV)
- When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16 NIV)
- After Herod the Great died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2:19-20 NIV)
- Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41-47 NIV)
- Some sources, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, claim to reveal the childhood of Jesus, but are considered heretical.
- Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 24:25 (ESV)
- Pink, Arthur W. Why For Gospels? (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Dept, 1921; Wordsearch Book) (Logos) (Wordsearch)
- He [Jesus] presented himself alive to them [the Apostles] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3 ESV)
- …he [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:6 NIV)
- About that time Herod [Antipas] the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword…. (Acts 12:1-2)
- This is the same disciple who was eyewitness to all these things and wrote them down. And we all know that his eyewitness account is reliable and accurate. (John 21:24)
- Ehrman, Bart. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine (Oxford University Press, 2004) 102-103. (Google Books)