14. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Summary and Conclusion
We come at last to the end of the series. Part Fifteen here can serve as a guide for which article the reader may need in the future. Let’s get started.
1. Who should read the series?
The series is intended for anyone who has access to the mass media. Ordinary believers, home Bible study leaders, Sunday school and catechism teachers, high school and college students, seminarians, pastors, and priests may find something of value in the series. But mainly it is written for the laity, so the series was put into a Q-&-A format.
2. What is the main goal of the series?
To explore the thesis that the four Gospels are historically reliable and accurate – that is the main goal. I did not discuss their inerrancy or infallibility, for how can we go that far if we do not first find out whether they are historically reliable, as inerrancy and infallibility have been traditionally understood? I leave those two doctrines to professional theologians, who have worked out clever means to argue for them.
Still another goal: critics of the Bible get onto the mass media airwaves and throw mud on the Gospels, implying that these historical (and sacred) texts were imaginative fictions invented by anonymous disciples who did not witness the ministry of Jesus or who never or rarely incorporated eyewitness testimony into the Gospels.
This series, however, contradicts that widespread belief that had been circulating after the first-fifth of the twentieth century (with seeds planted before then). To counter this belief, I brought onto the web scholarship that supports a traditional view of the Gospels. But rather than depending too much on the extraneous details of this high-quality scholarship, I chose those parts that uncover a lot of textual evidence (e.g. Richard Bauckham’s books). This kind of evidence stands the test of time. Or I chose to bring onto the web the conclusions that have in fact stood the test of time (e.g. Birger Gerhardsson’s books).
Finally, a theme that was threaded through all of the articles is coherence. The four Gospels cohere together remarkably closely (see Part Fourteen), despite the variations, which, it should again be noted, all histories and biographies have about an historical person in the Greek and Roman world. In fact, the coherence of the Gospels is much, much closer than various versions of the life of Socrates, for example (see Part Four and Q & A Seven in that link). Coherence is a good standard by which to measure truth and accuracy, but this criterion received only minor attention in the series -- but attention it did indeed receive.
3. So what is the summary of the series?
Here are annotations of each part in the series:
Part One: Historical Reliability of the Gospels introduces the series, asking these questions (and more). Do the four Gospels have any support from archaeology? Did Jesus even exist? Is the Gospel of John so far different from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that John has little or no historical value? Are the Gospels based on eyewitness testimony? What is the role of the Twelve in securing the traditions about Jesus? What is a tradition? Most importantly, are the four Gospels historically reliable? Can we trust them, historically speaking, in addition to their theology? The article has a brief section on Gnosticism, which I kept track of, in nearly all of the articles, indicating the essential differences between it and the teachings of the Biblical Gospels.
Part Two: Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels anchors the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in history, in time and place, in Israel about four decades before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Roman General Titus (in that that link see an image on the Arch of Titus of the Menorah [and more] triumphantly being carried through Rome).
This article and the next one are not intended to “prove” the Gospels (whatever that means). Rather, the four Gospels make historical assumptions because they are anchored in the life-story of Jesus, an historical person. So the two articles on archeology uncover these match-ups between the Biblical texts and the outside world.
Part Three: Archaeology and John’s Gospel shows that though it is a spiritual Gospel, it also assumes the geography and customs of first-century Israel. The vast majority of the cities and sites mentioned only in John has been found. This means that John is not another quasi-Gnostic “gospel” that has little or no concern for historical matters. (See also Part Fourteen, below, for John's coherence with the Synoptics).
Part Four: Did Jesus Even Exist? was an (annoying) digression from the main goal of the series. No reputable New Testament or religious scholar seriously asserts that Jesus did not exist. You cannot have an effect without a cause; a rock hitting a still pond causes ripples (effects). Jesus is the rock that landed in Israel, and he made a big splash around the Mediterranean world, via his disciples. Sources outside the Gospels assume that Jesus existed, just as these same sources assume that other persons in the Gospels existed, like Pontius Pilate and James the (half) brother of Jesus.
The next four articles round a corner and discuss what happened between the following time span, in handing on the stories about Jesus that eventually made it into the four Gospels:
Jesus’ ministry | | Written Gospels
Part Five: The Gospel Traditions asks (and answers) these questions (and more): What is a tradition? How does it relate to that time span? How did the Gospel material get transmitted during that gap? Was the transmission process historically reliable?
Part Six: Reliable Gospel Transmissions reinforces Part Five, exploring what happened during that gap. Part Six shows how important traditions were to New Testament authors. Then, it compares the four Gospels with the wider Greco-Roman literary, historical context, concluding that the four Gospels easily fit. We have no trouble accepting Greek and Roman texts, so why not accept the Gospels on an historical level? (Miracles are another matter, discussed in another series; see below.)
Part Seven:What Is the Q ‘Gospel’? The Gospel According to ‘St. Q’? explains this hypothetical source. Did it exist in some form, written or oral, or both? What does the source teach? This “gospel” has been used as a weapon against traditional Christianity and Gospel studies. But if it existed, and if Matthew and Luke incorporated it, then they saw nothing wrong with it, so why should we? Not surprisingly, it is quite orthodox – since it made it into Matthew and Luke! Greco-Roman authors used sources, so why wouldn’t Matthew and Luke? They were intentionally fitting into their larger literary, historical context.
Part Eight: Did Some Disciples Take Notes During Jesus’ Ministry? zeroes in on the time when Jesus was ministering and teaching, and a little afterwards. A large number of scholars have reached the conclusion that at least one disciple may have jotted down notes. This possibility fits into the immediate Jewish and wider Greek and Roman cultures and schools. If this happened, then it helps to secure the historical accuracy of the Gospel traditions. But if this did not happen, then the Twelve and other guardians of the Gospel traditions depended on the security of oral transmissions, which was much, much more reliable and accurate than today's game of "Telephone," for example. Not even close! (See Part Five and Q & A Nine, for a discussion of "Telephone" and oral transmission in the Near East).
The next four articles round another corner and examine the evidence within the four Gospels for eyewitness testimony and other signposts of historical reliability. Greek and Roman historians and biographers valued eyewitness testimony, and so do the four Gospel authors.
Part Nine: Authoritative Testimony in Matthew’s Gospel says that Matthew is keen on showing us that the Twelve and certain women embody authoritative, participatory eyewitness testimony. They receive their special status by their historical, real-life proximity to Jesus, while he trained, discipled, and commissioned them. This means that the Gospel of Matthew is reliable because of its origins and coherence with Mark and Luke and John: all four Gospels anchor their themes and literary strategies in the real-life story of Jesus (see Part Fourteen, below).
Part Ten: Eyewitness Testimony in Mark’s Gospel says that Peter is the principal eyewitness source of Mark’s Gospel. It was widely known in the early church that Mark worked with Peter. Mark wrote down Peter’s version of the story about Jesus. Though the Gospel is all about Jesus, the textual evidence is very strong, supported by many examples, that Peter’s point of view and other literary devices indicating Peter’s testimony provide the foundation of Mark’s story. Mark also refers to other (surprising) eyewitnesses.
Part Eleven: Eyewitness Testimony in Luke’s Gospel lays out the thesis that Luke and John have the same criteria for the authoritative persons to safeguard the traditions about Jesus, namely, those who were with Jesus from the beginning. Luke says this in his preface to his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) and in the selection process of the successor of Judas (Acts 1:21-22). And John says the same in 15:26-27. Luke also has some surprise eyewitnesses. Surely not Jesus’ uncle! Click on the article to find out.
Part Twelve: Eyewitness Testimony in John’s Gospel begins with numerical facts: John uses the Greek word group for witness far more times than all three Synoptics combined, by a long way. Later in the article, we find out that he also uses verb groups for seeing many more times than the other Gospels, over ninety times. These facts simply cannot be dismissed casually as a literary device with no bearing on actual eyewitness testimony. Further, one scholar helpfully points out that in Acts 4:20 some words often found in Johannine (adjective for John) writings are used. John the Apostle says in Acts: “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:20; cf. John 3:32). This is a hint of independent confirmation inside the New Testament (other than Johannine literature) that the Apostle John may have written the fourth Gospel.
Before we move on to the annotations of the remaining two articles, we should take stock of the articles on the Gospels themselves. All four are about Jesus and are based on his life story, but they also have another unifying theme: the commissioning of the disciples, including women. They are to go and be his witnesses. No doubt that when the four Gospel authors were writing their stories about Jesus, they knew firsthand that the church was expanding rapidly, so they asked themselves – why? The answer was not difficult to find: Jesus had commanded this. So the life-story of Jesus is continued in the story of the earliest church. Coherence of the basic facts – even after factoring in normal variations in accounts – is a signpost of historical reliability.
This coherence of the storyline means that the Gospel authors were recording things carefully, as they happened, and not going off on their own, as if to present only the teachings of Jesus in an esoteric manner, like the Gnostic “gospels” do.
The Biblical Gospels incorporated the best and longest-standing eyewitness sources, just as the Greek and Roman authors did. Therefore, the Gospels fit into their larger literary, historical context.
Part Thirteen: Are There Contradictions in the Gospels? is another (annoying) digression, of sorts (see Part Four, above, for the other annoying digression). I did not enjoy writing this article because the Gospels are intended to be (true) narratives or stories, so we should not, in my opinion, reduce the content like parts of the parables or healing stories to out-of-context propositions. Authors in the Greco-Roman world omitted or admitted data into their stories, according to the best sources. They wrote their histories and biographies with variations on a single topic within their accounts, according to their literary and other strategies and purposes. The Gospel authors did the same. However, if readers would like to find out if there really are unsolvable “contradictions” in the Gospels, then they can click on the article.
Part Fourteen: Similarities among John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) serves as a balance to Part Thirteen. Critics of John say that it strays so far from the Synoptics that it is not historically credible. However, in the four articles on the Gospels (Parts Nine to Twelve), we discovered that they all share the same storyline about Jesus, particularly in the context of his and the disciples’ mission. We should therefore be able to find this storyline in a comparison between John on the one hand and the Synoptics on the other. It surprised me to learn how many similarities that at least one Synoptic and John have. Can the reader guess how many? Over fifty? Over a hundred? Two hundred? Fewer than fifty? What surprised me the most was how often all four Gospels share common features, ranging from large themes to verbal agreements. To find out how many similarities there are, click on the article.
Part Fifteen: Summary and Conclusion (what you’re reading now!)
4. How does all of this relate to Gnosticism?
I kept track of this question in nearly all of the articles in the series, though I wish I did not have to do that (seePart One for a brief definition and discussion of Gnosticism). But nowadays certain experts in Gnosticism have pushed these texts too far onto the public.
Gnostic texts come in the second century and later. They wander far from the Jesus and the disciples of the four Biblical Gospels. The authors of these odd and eerie Gnostic texts did not bother to anchor the vast majority of their discussions and dialogues in historical time and place, in Israel about four decades before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, they delight in repudiating the flow of Biblical history, salvation history. Jesus saw himself as being a part of it and fulfilling it. He did not mock or knock it.
These Gnostic authors did not follow the commonsense and obvious truth that if they had researched the real-life Jesus more carefully, then the more believable their dialogues would have become. Rather, compared to the Biblical authors, the Gnostics seem not to care one little bit to find the real Jesus – the Jewish Jesus. So their texts lurch over into errors and take flights of fancy, not only because they repudiate Judaism and the Old Testament, but also because they had a strong agenda to teach their own esoteric doctrines. They have no grounding, certainly not like the Biblical Gospels do. (Click on Part Fourteen and find "His Hebrew Bible" to see how reverentially all four Biblical Gospel authors treat the Old Testament.)
The Gnostics capitalized on the fame of Jesus and his disciples, as Christianity spread around the Mediterranean world over the centuries in the Roman Empire. They used names like Mary Magdalene, Andrew, Philip, Peter, and others. But no one can be confident that these disciples and especially Jesus really did and taught what is in the Gnostic texts. In fact, we can be confident that they did not teach or do what is in those texts, except a few passages that are obviously derived from the earlier Biblical Gospels.
Therefore, we today should not hesitate one little bit to call these outlandish (literally out-land-ish) Gnostic texts and Gnosticism heretical and unorthodox. We do not need to put quotation marks around those words. There are clear, unambiguous differences between the Biblical Gospels and the Gnostic texts. The latter are not orthodox (no quotation marks), even by a generous definition of orthodoxy (no quotation marks). After writing the series, it is clear to me why great church leaders like Irenaeus and Athanasius rightly considered them heretical fictions. These and other church leaders would have been derelict in their duty, if they had allowed Gnosticism to freely penetrate church life.
5. So are the four Gospels historically reliable?
In case this Summary and Conclusion has not been clear already, let me state it categorically:
Historically speaking, the four Gospels are highly reliable and credible and accurate accounts, particularly measured by the standards of their own Greco-Roman and Jewish literary contexts.
6. What does the series mean to the Church of all denominations?
Confidence. The Church needs to be confident that the four Gospels are historically reliable. We do not need to be nervous about all the mud slinging on the national airwaves done by scholars who seem extra-gleeful to grab media attention in order to scare listeners who take the Gospels seriously, but who do not have a background in Biblical – Gospel – studies.
Simplicity. Despite the detailed analysis of the four Biblical Gospels done in this series, I strongly urge (for what my opinion is worth) the Church to read the sacred Gospels as written now, in their final form, as they are in our Bibles today. The vast majority of the Church does not need to concern itself with the background details, except for what a good and respectful commentary offers.
Further study. Let's Not take simplicity too far. I highly recommend this commentary for further study: The New International Version Study Bible. Written by a large team of scholars, the NIV Study Bible is excellent for many reasons, but mainly due to the notes on nearly all the verses, the numerous essays, and the introductions to each Biblical book. The commentary on the Psalms, for example, has to be one of the best I have ever read, considering that the many notes are brief.
Education. It is the best antidote to confusion. Education can edify the Church. I certainly learned a lot while writing the series.
My confidence in Scripture has been built up.
This series of articles is dedicated to my father, who passed away on December 31, 2007.
References and Further Reading
I have found these books to be very helpful while writing the series.
Paul Barnett. Is the New Testament Reliable? 2nd ed. Intervarsity, 2003. This one is intended for beginners. Start here second; go first to Roberts’ book and blog articles (see below), and my own series perhaps?
Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006. I will refer to this excellent book very often. It has inspired this series. He was kind enough to correspond with me, offering encouragement and suggestions on my article on the Gospel of Mark. His book goes a long way to upset overly skeptical scholarship that has exerted a lot of influence on New Testament studies for a long time. But his book is not for beginners, unless web readers first read Roberts’ (see below) and my series (?) and have a lot of time to work through Bauckham’s.
Craig Blomberg. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. 2nd ed. Intervarsity, 2007. This furthered Bruce’s efforts and set a new gold standard. He is a fine exegete.
---. The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. Intervarsity, 2001. Very helpful for my articles on John.
D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Zondervan, 2005. Excellent introduction from a conservative point of view. For me, the arguments in favor of traditional conclusions, such as the authorship of the four Gospels, are stronger than against, thanks in large part to this book. Highly recommended. Both are fine exegetes.
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Traditions. Baker Academic, 2007. This has quickly become the best book on the historical reliability of the synoptic Gospels, but it can get very technical. Inexperienced readers may work their way through it after reading Roberts’ book and my series, perhaps? However, note the next entry:
---. Lord or Legend? Baker, 2007. I discovered this belatedly. It's written for the laity. It's a clarification of their more academic book, noted in the previous entry. Definitely get this one.
Birger Gerhardsson. Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson, 2001. The best (and shortest) on the specific topic of the oral stage before the Gospels were finalized in their written forms. At first, his earlier works – some of which are summarized in this book – were not well received, but now the tide has turned.
Donald Guthrie. New Testament Introduction. 4th ed. Intervarsity, 1990. Very good introduction from a conservative perspective. Highly recommended.
Mark D. Roberts. “Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?” 2005. His blog series has been turned into a book.
---. Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007. Start here and his blog to be introduced to the issues – along with my own series, perhaps? Roberts has been a pastor for a number of years, so he has a good “ear” for the laity. His book and blog is for them – for you.
Lee Strobel. The Case for the Real Jesus. Zondervan, 2007. I discovered this book belatedly. It is definitely worth getting. It is written for the laity. It will also lead you back to his earlier books, which are excellent.
For students of the Old Testament – I have only glanced at these two books, since they do not relate directly to my series. But they appear to be excellent, not least because they are written by two superior Old Testament scholars who respect Scripture.
Walter Kaiser. The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? Intervarsity, 2001.
K. A. Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Eerdmans, 2003.
As for the Gnostic writings, go to the latest edition of the Nag Hammadi collection. Reading these texts will only confirm how different and outlandish they are compared with the four Biblical Gospels.
My modest scholarly contribution, though not directly related to the historical reliability of the Four Gospels, is here:
Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts. Hendrickson, 1997.
I have also written three series that are intended to interlock and support this present one and others that I may write on the Bible.
New Testament Manuscripts:
Part One: The Basic Facts
Part Two: The Right Stuff
Part Three: Discovery and Classification
Part Four: The New Testament Is Reliable
Miracles and New Testament Studies:
Part One: Miracles and New Testament Studies
Part Four: Miracles and the Laws of Nature
Part Five: Do Miracles Happen Today?
The two series, above, have been updated and posted at biblicalstudies.org.uk (look under Hosted Articles, and then Authors A-B).
The third series is on Postmodernism and the Bible. The series seeks to explain why, in part, we have breathed in hyper-skepticism that influences our interpretations of the text, in a negative, destructive way. This series has been posted at americanthinker.com.
Part Two : The Origins of Postmodernism
Part Three: Postmodern Truth Soup
Part Four: Deconstruction: A Primer
Part Five: The Deconstructed Jesus
Part Six: The De-deconstructed Jesus
Part Seven: Alternatives to Postmodern Hyper-Skepticism
Part Eight: Postmodernism and the Bible: Conclusion
Related Topics: Gospels