Can We Trust the Gospels? Yes, We Can.
For the last 30 years, I’ve been researching and teaching ancient languages and the Bible. I’ve tended to write abstruse things and to be pleased if I could get double-figure numbers of readers. I’ve also tended to advise budding scholars not to write too much. After all, it takes rather a long time to learn anything well. However, now I’ve finally written a book for lay people entitled Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway: 2018). I’ve aimed it at people without prior knowledge of the subject but writing so that even those who know a lot about the Gospels will learn something.
Though I’ve been thinking about the content of this work for over two decades, I wanted it to be short so that it could be given out to anyone who was moderately interested in the question, without taxing their patience. In fact, it isn’t much longer than a single Gospel.
One of the weirdest things about the question can we trust the Gospels? is that there are any Gospels at all. Ancient biographies—and Gospels are somewhat like biographies—were written either about those of high social rank or about those long dead. It’s therefore surprising that we have any narratives of Jesus at all, let alone four. In fact, we have as many accounts of Jesus’s life as we have of the most famous man on earth at the time, namely the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Because of the way the Gospels report Jesus both in speeches and in conversations, we actually have more variety of testimony for Jesus’s speech than for that of Tiberius. Even someone taking a skeptical view of sources should admit that we, therefore, know more about what Jesus said than about what the Emperor said. Even someone taking a skeptical view of sources should admit that we know more about what Jesus said than about what the Emperor said. Click To Tweet
One of the main chapters in my book looks simply at what the Gospel writers knew. Let’s suppose for a moment we don’t know who the authors of the four Gospels were and we don’t know when they were written. If so, we would still know quite a bit about the authors because of the knowledge needed to write a Gospel. By simply looking at all the place names they knew and by considering how difficult it would be for authors to discover names of villages in Galilee, we can deduce that either the writers had lived in the land of the events (Judaea and Galilee) or had had extensive conversations with those who had. All the Gospels know geographical things which no other literary source of the surrounding centuries reports, whether Josephus, Philo, Ptolemy or Strabo. There’s no way any of the Gospel writers could get their information simply by reading books. It had to come personally, either because they lived in the land or had had extensive conversations with those who did. But in either of these scenarios, they would be authors capable of documenting someone’s travels accurately.
Another feature of the Gospels is their Jewishness. They all show awareness of Judaism as it was before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In fact, historians regularly use them as sources for early Judaism. All four Gospels allude deeply to the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) in a way which later apocryphal gospels simply don’t. The level of familiarity the Gospels have with Judaism is not what we would expect if the content of the Gospels originated towards the end of the first century when Christianity was becoming rapidly less Jewish in outlook.
We could consider many more signs of the writers’ familiarity with the subject matter, but combining their geographical knowledge and their knowledge of Judaism alone would create significant plausibility to the view that the writers had access to early sources from the land of Jesus’s activity.
We can supplement these arguments with others. For instance, Gospel writers will often write in ways which subtly confirm each other. The study of these has sometimes been called “Undesigned Coincidences.” Analyses of these were made by John J. Blunt in the nineteenth century and by Lydia McGrew in the twenty-first. These are the sorts of minor oblique agreements we find between the Gospels which can be simply explained by supposing the narratives are true and for which any other explanation is more complex.
Take, for instance, the name “Sons of Thunder” given to James and John in Mark 3:17. No explanation for this is given in Mark. However, in Luke 9:54 we hear of the offer of these same two disciples to call down “fire from heaven” (i.e. lightning) in judgment on Samaritans. In Mark, “Sons of Thunder” is the only nickname given to these two. In Luke, their speech involving “fire from heaven” contains the only saying attributed to them. The two portraits match perfectly, but also in such a subtle way that it’s scarcely credible that one Gospel writer has made up his story to fit with the other.
These and many more features in the Gospels indicate that they are trustworthy reporting.
Perhaps, however, the most significant objection to the Gospels being trustworthy is made by those who cannot believe the miracles they report. The argument goes: we don’t see miracles today so we shouldn’t believe them then. Even if they did occur, we would need overwhelming proof to believe them.
I address this sort of reasoning specifically in the final chapter. In essence, I argue that we would readily accept the Gospels as historical were it not for their miraculous contents and that the miracles in the Gospels are not random interferences with natural laws, but form a pattern pointing to Jesus as the one who makes sense of the universe. Miracles are not less probable than things which secular materialists typically readily accept. In fact, in Jesus Christ a whole number of patterns converge, from testimony to miracles to prophecy to genealogy, to message and meaning, such that by accepting him as Son of God, we can make sense of vast amounts of data very easily. On the other hand, if we seek to avoid accepting this, we will be forced to jump many intellectual hurdles to try to find an explanation for all that is reported about him.
So when considering the question can we trust the Gospels? we may conclude that we can. In fact, we can go further: not only is it very intellectually satisfying to trust the Gospels, but it is more satisfying than any of the alternatives.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that humans are coerced into believing. We’re intelligent enough to find alternative explanations if we want. God gives us strong evidence of the truth of the Gospels, but those who do not want to see it will still be able to justify their unbelief—at least for now.