A Case for Gospel Reliability
The four New Testament Gospels represent perhaps the most significant historical accounts in all of antiquity: the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are a primary source of Christian faith and tradition. The truth or falsity of these ancient narratives carries significant and far-reaching implications. If the Gospel records are false, Christianity crumbles (1 Cor. 15:16-17). However, if the Gospel records are true, the authority of Jesus Christ is confirmed. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to show that the Gospels we have today are trustworthy historical accounts, and represent an accurate rendering of the original writings. In short, this paper will make a brief case for the reliability of the Gospels.
What Are the Gospels?
The Gospels are written documents that contain historical, biographical, and theological elements. Many scholars find it difficult to classify the Gospels into any particular literary genre, as they do not fit with any specific modern style. However, according to the standards of their day, the Gospels most closely resemble Hellenistic biographies, which were essentially partial biographies that emphasized key parts of the subject’s life. As a literary category, Hellenistic biographies were considered historical narratives with the intention of teaching, exhorting, and improving their readers.1 New Testament Professor Craig Blomberg points out that “The Gospels may well differ from every other piece of literature in the history of writing but that does not permit one to treat them as unhistorical accounts of the events and people they choose to describe.”2
Understanding the literary genre of the Gospels is key if one is to rightly judge their accuracy and reliability. Dr. Mark D. Roberts explains the importance of understanding the nature of the Gospels:
The Gospel writers functioned in the mode of the biography and history writers of their day. This means they were permitted greater freedom in certain matters than would be granted to modern biographers and historians. Paraphrasing or rephrasing statements and speeches was acceptable, as was arranging events in thematic rather than chronological order. When we evaluate the New Testament Gospels in their own literary and cultural context, we can understand how reliable they are and the ways in which they are reliable.3
The Gospels should also be understood as their authors intended them. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had their own perspective, audience, and purpose in writing their accounts. If today’s reader were to apply modern biographical standards to the writing, he would be committing the error of anachronism: attributing a custom, event, or object to a period to which it does not belong. New Testament historian Dr. Paul Barnett explains, “…it would be unreasonable to measure [the Gospels] by modern canons of history writing. They are good products of their age and take their place with the best historical writing of that era, in particular the works of Luke in his Gospel and book of Acts.”4
The first-century audience reading the Gospels had no difficulty understanding their literal nature, their historical claims, and the fact that they had a theological message to convey. They did not regard the narratives as myth or legend, as the events that were being reported were recent, with eyewitnesses of the events still alive to vouch for the truth of the accounts. The reader of the Gospels took them as direct historical accounts of real people, places, and events. Because of this, the Gospels were accepted at face value and were highly regarded by their audiences, becoming authoritative documents for the early church. Distinguished Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce explains, “The Gospel collection was authoritative because it preserved the words of Jesus, than whom the church knew no higher authority.”5
Who Wrote the Gospels?
The authors of the Gospels originally wrote their accounts anonymously; the authors did not title their works with, “The Gospel according to…” However, church tradition strongly affirms an early unanimity on the authorship of the Gospels. Around A.D. 130 the Church father Papias refers to Mark as the author of a Gospel. Marcion mentions Luke’s authorship as early as A.D. 130. Around A.D. 180 the Church father Irenaeus refers to Matthew as the author of the Gospel that now bears his name. Internal evidence from the Gospel of John makes a strong case for his authorship. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus mentions all of the Gospel writers:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.6
According to Roberts, “ancient tradition is almost unanimous in attributing the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”7 The early Church fathers had direct contact with the apostles, and this strongly supports the reliably of their testimony. The early Church father Origen affirmed that “…the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ‘are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven.’”8
It is highly unlikely that the authorship of the Gospels would be falsified. Some would suggest that the authorship was attributed later simply in an attempt to add authority to the writings. However, Roberts shows that this theory falls short:
Two of the biblical Gospels were named after relatively inconsequential characters who did not actually know Jesus in the flesh. If you were some second-century Christian wanting to make up an author for a Gospel, you would never choose Mark, even if he was believed to have been a companion of Peter. And you would never choose Luke because he had no direct connection to Jesus at all… If second-century Christians were fabricating traditional authorship for the canonical Gospels, surely they could have done a better job.9
Although Mark and Luke did not directly know Jesus, they had access to those who did. In addition, it is likely that Matthew and John were actual eyewitnesses of the events they record and knew Jesus personally. Yet, Roberts rightly concludes: “…the reliability of the Gospels does not depend upon who wrote them so much as on the nature and purpose of the writings themselves.”10
Do We Have the Same Gospels?
It is clear that presently we have four Gospels that were considered authoritative for the Christian Church since the time of their writing. Trustworthy sources attest to the genuine authorship of these documents, and their style and literary genre indicate historical accounts of actual people and events. Yet, the question arises: how sure can one be that the Bible one reads today reflects what was originally written? Were the Gospels preserved and copied reliably? This is the question of reliability of transmission. For all ancient writings, the question of reliability of transmission hinges on the quality, quantity, and dating of the documents themselves.
It was the practice of the early Church to meet together for worship, fellowship, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and for the reading and teaching of scripture. The scripture of the early Church was the Old Testament. Bruce elaborates:
At the beginning of its existence, then, the Christian church found itself equipped with a book, a collection of sacred scriptures which it inherited. It was not based on the book: it was based on a person, Jesus Christ . . . acknowledged by his followers as Lord of all. But the book bore witness to him; in this role they found it indispensable. At the same time they found the record of his life and teaching, his suffering and triumph, indispensable to their understanding of the book.11
Clearly the early Church’s reliance upon the testimony of the Gospels was central to the faith, and in the light of the Gospels, the fulfillment of the Old Testament writings became clear. Bruce adds: “…the perpetuation of the words and deeds of Jesus could not be entrusted indefinitely to oral tradition…”12 The early Church valued the Gospel writings as authoritative, and was particularly concerned with the transmission and preservation of the writings. Because of this, the Gospel texts began to be copied and circulated widely among the early Church. To quote Barnett, “Clearly it was that Christian ‘habit’ of assembling on a ‘fixed day’ to hear the Scriptures read that explains both the multiplicity and the survival of New Testament texts.”13
The majority of scholars date the Gospels between 30 and 70 years after the death of Jesus.14 Scholarly opinion varies on the dating, but the fact of the circulation of the Gospels is not disputed. As Barnett observes, “Although no one can say exactly when the Gospels were written, we can say with certainty the dates by which they were in circulation.”15 The early circulation and authorship make the Gospel documents the earliest historical manuscripts available for events of their period. The time gap between the originals and the first surviving copies is around 25 years.16 Geisler and Turek state that the New Testament documents “have more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more abundantly supported manuscripts than the best ten pieces of classical literature combined.”17
Due to the extensive copying and propagation of the Gospel writings, scholars now have over 5,700 manuscripts that contain some portion of the New Testament. Roberts points out that “Among these manuscripts, a couple thousand contain all or portions of the biblical Gospels.”18 This abundance of manuscripts is astounding when compared to the available manuscripts for other ancient writings of the same period. “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.”19 Princeton textual critic Bruce Metzger and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman elaborate on the wealth of New Testament manuscript evidence:
Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.20
The abundance of manuscripts is a key element in testing the reliability of the Gospels. Not all manuscripts are exactly the same. Some manuscripts are complete, while others only contain fragments. Among these manuscripts, some contain variant readings of the texts. These variants, however, rarely affect the meaning of the text. As Roberts points out:
“If you were to take two different teams of text critics and ask them to work independently on a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, they would agree more than 99 percent of the time…having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.”21
It is the great quantity of manuscripts that allows for the crosschecking of the manuscripts with one another, filtering out errant readings. According to text critic Daniel Wallace, only about 1% of the textual variants make any substantive difference, with Roberts noting that “few, if any, of these have any bearing on theologically important matters.”22 In other words, the number of manuscripts for the Gospels reveals that any variant readings make no difference in the meaning of the text. The Gospels stand up to the scrutiny of textual criticism.
Were There Other Gospels?
Recent popular fiction and conspiracy documentaries seem to have raised awareness of “alternative Gospels” among the general public. Although it is true that there are other documents that can be called “gospels,” it should be noted that these so-called “gospels” bear little resemblance to the biblical Gospels. These gospels are referred to as the apocryphal gospels, meaning hidden writings. These would include such writings as The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Thomas, and a number of others. A cursory examination of the apocryphal gospels tends to strengthen the case for the reliability of the biblical Gospels.
First, the apocryphal gospels are dated much later than the biblical Gospels. They came much later – most scholars agreeing on dates in the second or third century. Unlike the biblical Gospels, the apocryphal writings were self-titled – obviously in an attempt to gain credibility, as their writing postdates the death of their purported authors. Roberts tells us “Almost no scholar believes that the extrabiblical Gospels were actually written by their purported authors.”23
Second, the other gospels were not historical narratives like the biblical Gospels. The Gnostics were a contemporaneous sect of mystics professing themselves to be keepers of “special knowledge,” and many of the alternative gospels were clearly written from a Gnostic point of view. With their mystical tone, emphasis on secret sayings, and esoteric nature, the Gnostic writings show no substance of historical narrative. In this regard, they do not match the style and content of the biblical Gospels. What narrative does occur includes stories of Jesus’ mystical boyhood miracles and his secret conversations with the apostles after his resurrection. They rely on the biblical Gospels for their context, often filling in the “untold” stories of Jesus’ life. Whereas the miracles of the biblical Gospels are presented plainly, the apocryphal gospels contain embellished accounts of miracles without any particular purpose.
Finally, the apocryphal gospels failed to edify the church. In the history of the canon of the New Testament, the second-century Christian writer and theologian Tatian authored his Diatessaron. In writing the Diatessaron (from a musical term meaning harmony of four), Tatian’s goal was to combine the four Gospels into one complete whole. As Metzger puts it, “The Diatessaron supplies proof that all four Gospels were regarded as authoritative, otherwise it is unlikely that Tatian would have dared to combine them into one Gospel account.”24 Although Tatian’s Diatessaron was eventually rejected in favor of the original and authoritative four, it should be noted that he didn’t choose among the apocrypha. Metzger continues: “…it is certainly significant that Tatian selected just these four…”25 The four biblical Gospels were accepted immediately; the apocryphal gospels came much later and were considered more heretical than beneficial.
Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, published a list of authoritative writings that contained all of the books of the New Testament. In A.D. 367 he wrote concerning the apocryphal gospels and their shortcomings:
[N]or is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.26
In summary, the other gospels did not prove to be genuine in the eyes of their first audiences. Those closest to the Gospel message and the apostles, the early Church fathers, rejected their authorship and denounced their teachings. These false gospels failed the test of antiquity due to their late authorship. They were not copied due to their lack of impact with Christian believers, and they had no seal of apostolic authority. When compared with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the other gospels pale in comparison. In short, the apocryphal gospels failed to be reliable historical accounts of the life of Jesus.
We see that the Gospels we have today were written very early by trusted sources. Their readers received them as the authoritative account of the life of Jesus Christ. Because of this, they were copied and preserved more than any other ancient writing. The abundance of manuscripts show that there is virtually no difference between what was originally written and what we have today. Other false gospels were rejected because they failed to show themselves to be genuine historical accounts. In conclusion, the New Testament Gospels can be trusted as reliable historical records of Jesus.
1 Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), pp. 84-86.
2 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), p. 240.
3 Ibid., pp. 91-92.
4 Paul W. Barnett, Is The New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 15.
5 F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 132.
6 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978-1980).
7 Roberts, p. 43.
8 Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 136.
9 Roberts, pp. 48-49.
10 Ibid., p. 49.
11 Bruce, p. 55.
12 Ibid., p. 118.
13 Barnett, p. 45.
14 Ibid., p. 58.
15 Ibid., p. 39.
16 Normal Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 225.
18 Roberts, p. 31.
20 Ibid., p. 32., citing Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 126.
21 Roberts, p. 33.
22 Ibid., p. 34., citing Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), p. 56.
23 Ibid., p. 40.
24 Metzger, p. 115.
26 Roberts, p. 179., citing Athanasius, Festal Letter for Easter 367 A.D., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978-1979).