Can We Trust the Gospels?

Christianity is based on historical events. Throughout the Bible, there were eyewitnesses to events, and those people reported what happened. The Gospels, in particular, have extra-Biblical sources which help confirm their accuracy. First century non-Christian historians who refer to events in the Gospels include Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, Thallus, and Emperor Trajan.

Ancient Historians

The testimonies of ancient historians offer strong evidence against a purely mythical reading of Jesus. In contrast to those who have denied the historical existence of Jesus altogether, judging him merely to have been a mythological construct of early Christian thought, the testimonies of the ancient historians reveal how even those outside the early church regarded Jesus to have been a historical person. It remains difficult, therefore, if not impossible, to deny the historical existence of Jesus when the earliest Christian, Jewish, and pagan evidence mention him.1

Flavious Josephus is the most famous non-Christian historian of the first century. He was Jewish, born in a priestly family, and fought against the Romans in the first Jewish-Roman war. He was captured by the Roman army in A.D. 67 and became a slave, but later gained his freedom after helping the Roman army. His 20-volume work Antiquities of the Jews, written about A.D. 94, is a history of the Jews, written for his Roman benefactors. There is only one direct reference to Jesus, although there are also references to John the Baptist2 and James, the brother of Jesus3.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.45

Even modern atheist Biblical scholars acknowledge the ancient historians believed Jesus lived.

The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus—pagan, Christian, or Jewish—was fully convinced that he at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, his nonexistence is never one of them.6

Historical Accuracy of the Gospel of Luke

Luke 1:1-4 (NIV)7 claims to be “an orderly account” of Jesus’s life, and Acts 1:1-3 (NIV)8 (the sequel to Luke) says Jesus “gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” In Colossians 4:14 (NIV)9, the Apostle Paul says Luke is a doctor, so it’s not surprising both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts have many details, some of which can be confirmed by historians and archaeologists.

One test of the Gospels’ veracity is whether they display familiarity with the time and places they wrote about. If they do not, that quickly reveals that they cannot be trusted historically. If they do, that does not on its own demonstrate that all of what they wrote is true. It merely shows that the writers had enough know-how to write true stories, and it eliminates the objection that they were too distant from events to be trusted.10

Was Luke familiar with the locations and cultures he wrote about? In The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Colin Hemer has a list of 84 facts from Acts 13-28 which have been confirmed by historians or archaeologists11. I won’t bore you with the whole list, but you can read it on 84 Confirmed Facts in the Last 16 Chapters of the Book of Acts12. Many of the 84 facts are about geography or navigation, which people decades, or even centuries, later may have known. The ones below seem, to me, to be more likely local knowledge (some of these may make more sense when reading Acts in Greek rather than English). If the Gospels were written long after the eyewitnesses died, the authors would be more likely to get these facts wrong. As a Christian, I would expect an author, who interviewed eyewitnesses and was divinely inspired, to get these right.

  • 4 – the unusual but correct declension13 of the name Lystra (Acts 14:6 NIV)14
  • 5 – the correct language spoken in Lystra—Lycaonian (Acts 14:11 NIV)15
  • 9 – the proper form of the name Troas (Acts 16:8 NIV)16
  • 17 – the proper term (“politarchs”17) used of the magistrates there (Acts 17:6 NIV)18
  • 21 – the depiction of the Athenian life of philosophical debate in the Agora (Acts 17:17 NIV)19
  • 28 – the correct designation of Gallio as proconsul, resident in Corinth (Acts 18:12 NIV)20
  • 34 – the correct title grammateus21 for the chief executive magistrate in Ephesus (Acts 19:35 NIV)22
  • 38 – use of plural anthupatoi23, perhaps a remarkable reference to the fact that two men were conjointly exercising the functions of proconsul at this time (Acts 19:38 NIV)24
  • 80 – the proper title protos25 tēs26 nēsou27 (Acts 28:7 NIV)28

Although we live in an age when we have easy access to advance information about anywhere we go, we still tend to be surprised by aspects of geography and culture whenever we travel. Now imagine if someone asked you to write a story about events in a distant place you had never visited, and you were not allowed to use the Internet for research. Even with the wonderful libraries we have today, you would struggle to get all the information together to write a detailed story that fitted what a local person would know. This is because of the many aspects of your destination you would have to get right, and getting only most of them right would not make a story sound authentic. You would have to investigate its architecture, culture, economics, geography, language, law, politics, religion, social stratification, weather, and much more. You would even need to ensure that the characters in your tale were given names that were plausible for the historical and geographical setting of your narrative. All this requires effort and is not easily done.29

Summary

Neither ancient references to Jesus or accurate historical information proves the theology of the Bible is true. These do show, however, that the beliefs about Jesus developed earlier than some critics are willing to accept. If the historical information can be confirmed, then we have good reason to believe the theological information is also accurate.

  • The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were almost certainly written within 40 years of Jesus’s resurrection, and one of the Gospels possibly less than 20 years.
  • When the Gospels were written, there were too many living eyewitnesses, including the disciples of Jesus, for the authors to make up stories about Jesus which weren’t true.30

We may affirm that the Synoptic Gospel writers would have wanted to preserve accurate history according to the standards of their day, that they had every likelihood of being able to do so, and that the overall pattern of widespread agreement on the essential contours of Jesus’ life and ministry coupled with enough variation of details to demonstrate at least some independent sources and tradents [a person who passes on tradition] on which each drew makes it very probable that they did in fact compose trustworthy historical and biographical documents.32

Resources

  • Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013) (Amazon)
  • Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018; Logos book) Chapter 5: Do We Have Jesus’s Actual Words? (Logos)

Footnotes

  1. Elledge, Casey. “Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius: Seeing Jesus through the Eyes of Classical Historians,” in Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions, edited by James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014) 717. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 157. (Amazon)
  2. Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (Josephus, Flavious. Antiquities of the Jews  Book XVIII, Chapter 5, Paragraph 2. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library))
  3. Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…. (Josephus, Flavious. Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter 9, Paragraph 1. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library))
  4. Josephus, Flavious. Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3, Paragraph 3. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
  5. Many scholars dispute the precise wording of this passage, claiming it was embellished by Christian scribes in later centuries, but acknowledge the main points of the passage were probably written by Josephus. For more information, see: Morrow, Jonathan. What Did the Jewish Historian Josephus Really Say About Jesus? (JonathanMorrow.org) Accessed 20-May-2019.
  6. Ehrman, Bart. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012) 171. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 171. (Amazon)
  7. Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 NIV)
  8. In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:1-3 NIV)
  9. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. (Colossians 4:14 NIV)
  10. Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018; Logos book) 51. (Logos)
  11. Hemer Colin J.The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Wiona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990) Quoted in: Geisler, Norman L. and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crosswsy Books, 2004), 256-259.
  12. Chad. 84 Confirmed Facts in the Last 16 Chapters of the Book of Acts (Truth Bomb, November 07, 2017; Blog) Accessed 19-May-2019.
  13. Declension: (in the grammar of Latin, Greek, and certain other languages) the variation of the form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective, by which its grammatical case, number, and gender are identified. (Oxford Living Dictionaries: Declension) Accessed 01-June-2019.
  14. they became aware of it, and fled unto the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the region round about: (Acts 14:6 NIV)
  15. When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11 NIV)
  16. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. (Acts 16:8 NIV)
  17. Politarchs: Strong’s G4173.
  18. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials [politarchs], shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here…. (Acts 17:6 NIV)
  19. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:17 NIV)
  20. While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. (Acts 18:12 NIV)
  21. Grammateus: Strong’s G1122.
  22. The city clerk [grammateus] quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? (Acts 19:35 NIV)
  23. Anthypatos: Strong’s G446.
  24. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls [anthupatoi]. They can press charges. (Acts 19:38 NIV)
  25. Protos: Strong’s G4413.
  26. Tēs: Strong’s G3588.
  27. Nēsou: Strong’s G3520.
  28. There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief [protos] official of the [tēs] island [nēsou]. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. (Acts 28:7 NIV)
  29. Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018; Logos book) 51. (Logos)
  30. The style of the Gospels is not the style of myth, but that of real, though unscientific, eyewitness description…. If the events recorded in the Gospels did not really happen, then these authors invented modern realistic fantasy nineteen centuries ago. The Gospels are full of little details, both of external observation and internal feelings, that are found only in eyewitness descriptions or modern realistic fiction. They also include dozens of little details of life in first-century Israel that could not have been known by someone not living in that time and place (see Jn 12:3, for instance). And there are no second-century anachronisms, either in language or content. (Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 163.)
  31. It would be foolish to continue to foster the illusion that the Gospels are merely fictional stories like the legends of Hercules and Asclepius. The theologies in the New Testament are grounded on interpretation of real historical events, especially the crucifixion of Jesus, at a particular time and place. (Charlesworth, James. “The Historical Jesus and Biblical Archaeology: Reflections on New Methodologies and Perspectives,” in Jesus and Archaeology, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 690–93 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 694. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 159. (Amazon))
  32. Blomberg, Craig L. “Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why It Matters,” in Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, edited by Douglas Groothuis (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011) 456. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 158. (Amazon)

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