That the gospel texts have come down to us in reliable form has been amply demonstrated over the years. The quality and quantity of ancient manuscripts confirming the modern text’s integrity stands unequalled by that of any ten ancient documents combined. But some question not the integrity of the texts, but their believability. They argue that even if what we’re reading today is actually what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John originally wrote, the gospels are still not worthy of our trust, because they are ridden with contradictions, discrepancies, and unrealistic claims. At first glance, some of the evidence cited by these detractors can seem compelling. On further investigation, however, the gospels’ supposed problems are really found to be no problem at all.
The Ring of Realism
To begin with, the gospels have the ring of realism. For example, they are not full of unlifelike, one dimensional heroes that can do no wrong (as we find in other religious texts), but rather, show the “holy apostles” in all their humanity—in moments of great faith, but also in moments of embarrassing conceit and doubt. On at least three different occasions, we read of the apostles jockeying for position, arguing about who will be the greatest in the Savior’s coming kingdom (Mark 9:33-34, 10:35-37; Luke 22:24-27). We read of Peter having the audacity to rebuke Jesus, and hearing in response: “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:22-23). We read of most of the apostles abandoning Jesus when the going got tough the night of his arrest (Mark 14:50), of Peter lying to save his own skin, saying he didn’t even know Jesus (Luke 22:56-60), of Thomas and the other apostles—in spite of testimony from trusted friends—doubting that Jesus had really resurrected, prompting Jesus to rebuke them for their hardness of heart (Mark 16:14). Several other examples could be cited. These are not the sort of things included by authors interested in painting an idyllic view of their spiritual leaders. They are what we’d expect from honest historians.
“But the gospels contain contradictions,” some say. But do they? It is true that variations in language appear within the gospel accounts. In fact, this is by far the most common type of difference among parallel accounts of the same event. For example, if we carefully compare the parallel accounts of God’s pronouncement at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), we will notice minor differences in pronoun usage. In Matthew, we read “This is My Beloved Son,” while in Mark and Luke’s accounts, it reads “You are My Beloved Son.” The second half of God’s statement reveals similar variations. In Matthew and Mark, we read “in whom I am well pleased,” while in Luke it reads “in You I am well pleased.” To a modern reader accustomed to verbatim quotation (made possible only with the advent of recording technology), this sort of thing can be very disturbing, and raises concerns about accuracy.
But the Bible is not a modern document. It’s an accurate document, but not a modern document. The gospel writers wrote their histories faithfully, but they looked at past events through different lenses than we do. Neither Hebrew nor Greek, for example, had symbols for quotation marks. Language is a reflection of how a culture thinks, and these ancient cultures did not think in terms of word-for-word precision when it came to “quoting” someone. Faithfulness to the speaker’s meaning was expected, but paraphrasing was not considered problematic at all. To judge these ancient, eastern documents by modern, western standards is misguided and uninformed, and only leads to mistaken conclusions.
But what about the alleged chronological discrepancies that exist within the gospel accounts? This is one of the major reasons some critics question the gospels’ historical reliability. This is an understandable question, but it arises out of a false assumption, namely, that the gospels are biographies. The gospels are not biographies. This is evidenced by the fact that none of them tell us anything at all about the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ life! Taken together, the gospels mention only events surrounding Jesus’ birth, one event during his toddler years, one more when he when was 12, and then they skip to the beginning of his ministry when he about 30. Most of his life is never discussed, or even referenced. Why?
Because the gospels are not biographies.
It is evident that the gospel writers were not seeking to supply a detailed itinerary of Jesus’ life, nor even of his ministry. Each of them included or omitted events as they served to advance the goal of his particular work. An account can be accurate without being exhaustive. Some of the accounts are directed towards different audiences (e.g. Matthew to the Jews, Luke to the Gentiles), and some are for different purposes (e.g. Matthew to prove that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament, John to prove Jesus’ deity). We even see that events appear to sometimes be organized thematically. In Matthew 8-9, for example, there is a concentration of healing stories. In Luke 14-16, a concentration of parables. In Matthew 13, a succession of seven parables concerning the kingdom of heaven. This is not an approach taken by biographers trying to nail down chronology. It is an approach that highlights content and character rather than sequence. The gospel writers succeeded marvelously in what they were trying to accomplish.
But What about the Miracles?
One of the reasons some reject the historical reliability of the gospel accounts is their inclusion of miracles. The rationale for this opinion seems to be that since they have not seen evidence of miracles in our modern era, this must mean that miracles have never occurred, and hence the gospels are fake history. But this rationale is flawed. It assumes, without evidence, that things have always been the way they are. This is a philosophical objection, not a scientific one. Science draws conclusions based on observation, and we cannot observe the distant past. The only thing we can do is use the evidence at our disposal to draw conclusions about the past that are beyond reasonable doubt (as is done in a court of law).
Does such evidence exist for the gospels’ historical accuracy? Yes. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail that evidence, but the secular-historical components of the gospel accounts have been repeatedly confirmed archaeologically (ruins and artifacts), bibliographically (written materials), geographically (locations), etc. The gospels have shown themselves to be eminently trustworthy in secular areas…time and again. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were good historians in non-religious, natural matters. In light of that, the honest skeptic will be open to the possibility that they might have been good historians in religious, supernatural matters, as well. If not, why not? Because of the evidence? Or because of bias?
It should be observed, also, that miracles make perfect sense if theism is true—that is, if there is a God who is interested in communicating with his creation. Only if deism or atheism is true do miracles become a logical problem. If Jesus was, in fact, who he claimed to be, his miracles (kind, selfless, merciful acts every one) are not only possible, but probable. Expected, even. God is not a slave to physics, and empowering Jesus to perform acts contrary to their laws would have been a sure way to convince first century hearers (and us, for that matter) that Jesus really was from God.
So much more could be said, and has been by others. A brief bibliography of sources devoted to defending the gospels’ claims for Jesus follows. More than once, intelligent, educated people have approached the gospels with their skepticism fully intact only to walk away with it fully dismantled (Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, William M. Ramsay to name a few). There are reasons for that.
Let us invite our skeptic friends to put the gospels to the test and see what they find. The truth has nothing to fear. They have nothing to lose…and everything to gain.
Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (J. Warner Wallace)
The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Lee Strobel)
The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Gary R. Habermas)
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Craig L. Blomberg)
~ John Morris