Lots of conversations with unbelievers about the Christian faith come back to the question we began to look at in March/April issue: ‘How do you know you can trust the Bible?’ Often it’s even more focused – how do we know the gospels are historically reliable, and give us the truth about Jesus?
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularised the discrediting of the gospels, and television documentaries find new ‘evidence’ for who the real Jesus was and what really happened to him. Many people in our culture now assume the gospel accounts to be more myth than history, often being so dismissive or aggressive that Christians are reeling.
What can we say?
First, the main problem of unbelief is not a lack of evidence but suppressing the truth (Rom. 1:18-19) because we don’t want God in charge of our lives. We should respond thoughtfully to unbelievers’ questions and doubts, but clever arguments alone will convert no-one. We depend on God’s Spirit to open blind eyes, and the means he uses are not only our words but the quality of our lives, as individuals and as a community (1 Peter 2:12). We want to win the person more than the argument.
Questions like this often come up unexpectedly and in a context where we only have a couple of minutes to say something useful! We need to be prepared to say something in the first 30 seconds that provokes people to talk, or at least think, more. We might begin by encouraging an unbelieving friend to doubt their doubts. Many people have not come to doubt the reliability of the gospels from personal investigation, but have simply imbibed their views from the surrounding culture. If we turn their doubt around, to a belief in the unreliability of the gospels, then we may ask ‘on what basis do you believe the gospels are so unreliable? Have you ever read any of them?’ The answer is often ‘no’.
The aim here is not to score a point or make them feel foolish – we’re to answer people with gentleness and respect, but nevertheless to graciously show them that they may be just as close-minded as they think we are. It may encourage them to investigate a bit further.
If the conversation continues, here are 10 lines of evidence confirming the reliability of the gospels – any or all of which we might encourage our unbelieving friends to consider. They also help Christians feel less intimidated, and more confident that our faith is not as irrational as our culture assumes.
Ten lines of evidence
- The manuscript evidence for the New Testament, when compared to other historical works, is overwhelming. There are more than 5,300 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 early portions of the New Testament – a total of over 24,000 manuscripts. For Homer’s Illiad there are just 634, for other works of that era the number is much less. The oldest New Testament manuscripts we have date from within 100 years of the original writings. For every other writing from that era the gap between original and oldest extant manuscript is at least 500 years, usually over 1,000 years. Sir Fredrick Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, said about the New Testament:
The interval, then, between the dates of composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.
- The copying and transmission of the text of the Bible over the centuries has been done far more accurately than is usually assumed. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg says that 99% of the original text can be reconstructed beyond reasonable doubt. Where variants do exist they are almost all very minor and are highlighted in footnotes in most modern translations.
- The gospel writers certainly claimed to be writing history. Luke begins his gospel saying he’s ‘carefully investigated’ what he’s writing, his ‘orderly account’ has come from talking to ‘eye witnesses’. The form of Luke’s prologue is similar to that found in other historical works of the time.
- The writers were either themselves eye-witnesses (Matthew and John), or closely connected with eye-witnesses (Mark associated with Peter, Luke travelled with Paul).
- Most scholars (liberal and conservative) date the gospels within 60-70 years of Jesus’ death (which happened around AD30). Conservatives typically date Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts to the 60s and John to the 80s or 90s. They were written while other eye-witnesses were still alive meaning if there was any embellishment of the truth, people could and would have spoken up to correct them. Had they been known to have distort the facts in any way, Christianity would never have even got off the ground.
- The memory of Jews and Greeks of the time was much better than most of ours! They were used to passing on their stories, traditions and history verbally. Before the gospels were written, Jesus’ followers passed on the message orally so that the stories became well known within the faith community. This oral tradition wasn’t like a game of Chinese whispers, any mistakes in the telling, and later writing, would immediately be corrected by the community.
- You could say that because they were followers of Jesus, the gospel writers were likely to be biased. But equally you could argue that as they were devoted to him, they would take particular care to preserve the truth about him. Some of them gave their lives for their beliefs about and devotion to Jesus – whatever else they were, they were certainly sincere.
- The gospels don’t always paint the apostles in a favourable light. For example, they include arguments about who was the greatest, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ desertion of Jesus. If the writers were not so committed to historical truth they would surely have been tempted leave some of this material out.
- The writers clearly didn’t feel free to distort their material to make Christianity more attractive. The gospels include sayings of Jesus which were hard for the early church to explain, such as his statement on eating his flesh and drinking his blood (John 6:53-54). Equally, the gospels don’t include sayings on which it would have been useful for the early church to have an authoritative declaration from their Lord, on subjects such as charismatic gifts or how a church should structure itself.
The testimony of non-Christian writers, particularly Josephus, supports many details of the Gospels and Acts. In all about a dozen ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman writers mention Jesus. Together their writings detail various events from Jesus’ life, as well as other names and places mentioned in the New Testament.
In the light of this evidence, and more importantly the claims the Bible makes about itself to be the very words of God, it would be foolish to dismiss the gospels as irrelevant myths without at least reading them. Why not pass on a gospel to your friend, challenge them to read it, and pray that as they do they will hear the voice of Jesus and come to follow him (John 10:27)?
Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Sir Fredrick Kenyon, quoted in Why Trust the Bible? Amy Orr-Ewing
The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg, accessed from the internet.