Are the Gospels historically reliable?
Do details reported in the Gospels have a tendency to be accurate? Are the gospels are reliable insofar as the contemporary audience would rarely become overconfident in falsehoods as a result of trusting in what they naturally took the gospels to be saying? Do they provide an “accurate gist or essentially faithful representation of what occurred”?1
- Michael Licona, Are the Gospels “Historically Reliable”? A Focused Comparison of Suetonius’s Life of Augustus and the Gospel of Mark (2019)
What some historians are saying
- Craig Evans: “Historians and archaeologists rightly regard the New Testament writings as early and generally reliable. I am not saying that they think the canonical Gospels are inerrant… many of these scholars do see Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts as valuable sources, without which historical and archaeological work in this field of studies and this period of time would be much more difficult.” [“Can we Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?” Ehrman, Evans, & Stewart (Westminster, 2020), 46.]
- Craig Blomberg: “[o]ne of the better kept secrets of the last quarter of a century is a growth of what has been dubbed the third quest for the historical Jesus, in which a large number of scholars, and by no means conservative Christian ones, have been growing in their confidence in how much we can know about the Jesus of history and in how reliable the New Testament Gospels are.” [The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 17.]
- Paul Eddy: “Here, two points worthy of focus would be: first, the remarkable observation that, just when Crossan and his fellow critics within the North American post-Bultmannian wing of New Testament scholarship have coalesced around a resurgent scepticism with regard to the canonical Gospels tradition, a growing trend among a much more diverse group of biblical scholars suggests that this same tradition offers a generally reliable historical base from which to launch a ‘Third Quest’. [Stephen T. Davies, et. al. Resurrection: Symposium (Oxford, 1998), 282.]
- Grant Osborne: “In conclusion, we are living in a new exciting era for historical Jesus studies, one in which a consensus is emerging that the gospels are far more viable for historical research than has been thought for the last two centuries. Moreover, this is a time when the theological reflections of the evangelists are more and more seen as stemming from the historical understanding of Jesus himself.” [“History and Theology in the Gospels” in Trinity Journal 24 (2003): 22?]
The Synoptics are our best source:
- Gerd Theissen & Annette Merz: “[t]here is a broad scholarly consensus that we can best find access to the historical Jesus though the Synoptic tradition.” [The Historical Jesus, 25]
- Greg Herrick: “The ‘burden of proof’ rests upon those who would argue [against the trustworthiness of the Gospel report]. Several factors tend to support this standpoint..[including] 1) the presence of eyewitnesses; 2) the existence of a church center in Jerusalem to oversee the guarding and disseminating of the traditions; 3) the generally high view the church had for its traditions (cf. Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 7: 10, 12); 4) the faithfulness of the church in transmitting some of Jesus’ more difficult sayings (Mark 9:2, 10:18, 13:32, etc.); 5) the problems of the early church as seen in the epistles are not specifically found in the Gospels, which indicates that the Gospels are not wholesale inventions of the early church in its attempt to deal with its questions, needs, and problems.” [“The Historical Veracity of the Resurrection Narratives” at Bible.org]
Skepticism of reliability is generally motivated by incredulity re miracles:
- R. T. France: “At the level of their literary and historical character we have good reasons to treat the gospels seriously as a source of information on the life and teaching of Jesus, and thus on the historical origins of Christianity… . Beyond that point, the decision as to how far a scholar is willing to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by his openness to a “supernaturalist” world-view than by strictly historical considerations.” [“The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity,” Truth 1 (1985): 86.]
Gospel stories are all witness-based
Most of the Jesus-biographical content reported in the gospels faithfully falls within what the relevant witnesses themselves were saying and approving (implicity or explicitly).
This page analyzes 6 arguments:
- The Gospel authors actively ensured their materal was witness-approved, and it was not a particularly hard thing for them to do. This should bias us in favor of thinking the Gospel stories are witness-based.
- Gospels spew witness-based stories.
- The Gospel stories are not lies/legends, and if they were not lies or legends, then we can safely infer that they had to be eyewitness testimony; it is not as if there was any other way for such specific material to begin existing.
- The Gospel stories are a subset of what the 1st church was teaching, and this means the gospel stories were witness-based because the 1st church (i.e. the Jerusalem church) had exclusively witness-based stories about Jesus (e.g. Jerusalem was lead by the apostles who walked with Jesus, along with many of Jesus's other other most prominent witnesses).
- The Gospels are historically reliable, and it is unlikely that this occurred by chance. Inevitately, it is reliable becauase it formed in a reliable way, and the only plausibly way that meets this condition in this case is formation via eyewitness experience and testimony.
- Pop Jesus-bio was a subset of what witnesses said. And to some extent, the stories which made it it into the Gospels were the stories that were popularly circulated among the early churches. So by transitivity the Gospel content was also a subset of what wintesses said.
If we can agree the Gospel stories are all witness based, it matters. Why? Because barring special circumstances, true witness-based testimony would be generally reliable (confidence inspiring) on the relevant points.1 so the Gospel traditions we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will be quite accurate.
But no… [All forthcoming]
- The Gospel stories are lies/legends, so trivially that were not formed by relevant eyewitness testimony.
- Gospels only ask to be read as myth, and that's not the kind of thing you ask of authentic eyewitness testimony.
- • Robert Stein: “to assume the inauthenticity of the Gospel materials, unless proven otherwise, appears to be an extreme skepticism unwarranted both in the light of the various arguments listed above [i.e. the arguments of eyewitnesses, faithfulness to traditions, etc.] and a violation of a common courtesy every witness deserves.” [Bible.org article]
The Gospels do not spew inaccuracies
All things considered, there are relatively few candidate inaccuracies in the Gospels.1
- Michael Licona: “When we bracket theological claims in the Gospels, since they are outside the reach of historians, there are only a few historical items in the Gospels that are reasonably good candidates for being incorrect: For example, Luke’s report of Augustus’ census when Quirinius was governor of Syria; the differing genealogies in Matthew and Luke and the chronologies in their infancy narratives; three instances where the name of a person in the Old Testament is stated differently in the Gospels; a few occasions where Mark may be geographically confused, references to Christians being banished from the synagogue at a premature date in John; a few minor chronological items in the Passion narratives in Mark and John; and the manner in which Judas died in Matthew and Acts. Reasonable alternatives to error have been posited for many of these. However, even if we were to judge that every last one of them are outright errors, they are minor matters and make up only a very, VERY small percentage of the content in the four Gospels” [Licona's opening statement in his 2018 debate with Bart Ehrman]
This is relevant precisely because of the incredible amount of information contained within the Gospels. There is a super-abundance of opportunities for the Gospels to have made demonstrable errors, but instead we find a super-abundance of plausible or confirmed information.
But so what? Plausibly…
- Verified inaccuracies are just harder for us to discover/confirm.
- • H. Jason: “The nearer, better known, and more everyday the historical and geographical setting of the tale, and the nearer its actors to the narrator’s personal experience, the more ‘real’ the happening of the tale will appear to the narrator” [“Concerning the ‘Historical’and the ‘Local’Legends and Their Relatives,” in Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, ed. A. Paredes and R. Bauman (University of Texas Press, 1972), 144]
The gospels spew inaccuracies
The Gospels are full of errors that we can point out, one by one.
A full page will cover these 5 arguments:
- Miracles are prohibitively improbable/impossible.
- The Gospels mutually disagree on Jesus-bio.
- The Gospels spew historical absurdities.
- The Gospels are non-historical genre.
- The Gospels would spew inaccuracies.
This helps show that the Gospels are historically unreliable cause they do not spew a relevantly high number of accuracies; the ratio then suggests the Gospels are not usually accurate and that's a sufficient condition for unreliability.
Gospel stories are not witness-based
A full page will debate these 5 arguments:
- Miracles don’t occur. (E.g. because god-did-it is not a valid explanation, or naturalism is true)
- The Gospels mutually disagree on Jesus-bio.
- The Gospels spew observed historical absurdities.
- The Gospels spew observed lies/legends.
- The Gospels spew observed myths (non-historical genre).
This is relevant because they do not spew a large number of accuracies; the ratio then suggests the Gospels are not usually accurate (for whatever reason).