The Reliability of the Gospels
Timothy Minich

It has been called a collection of malicious lies, a collection of stories, the misguided effort of men to describe the unknown, and the infallible word of God. The entire Christian faith rests upon the Gospels being completely accurate, but are they? If they are not, then the role of Jesus as the cornerstone of the Christian faith is in serious jeopardy. However, they can stand up to modern scrutiny, science, and archaeology, and the story of Jesus should be taken seriously. Opinions on the Gospels range from lies, to stories, to the infallible word of God, but what does the evidence say?

First, the authors of the Gospels intended to write a historically accurate document. Luke begins his Gospel by simply stating his intention:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

While Luke gives an explicit statement of intent, the other authors, Matthew, Mark, and John do not. However, they are similar to Luke in genre, content, and style. 'The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are called the Synoptic Gospels because they provide the same general view of the life and teaching of Jesus. They narrate almost the same incidents, often agreeing in the order of narration of events, and are similar in wording ('Gospel').' Therefore, it is safe to assume that the intent of the other Gospels would be similar if not identical.

Second, the authors of the Gospels were honest people that gave credibility to the gospels. While they were the disciples of Jesus, and therefore not a neutral source, they were interested in preserving historical accuracy. Lee Strobel writes that the gospel writers 'were honest and able to include difficult to explain material' (Faith 366). However, the greatest testament to their honesty was the fact that they were persecuted under the Roman government and died for what they believed in. People may die for the truth, but nobody would die for a lie that they conceived.

Third, they were precise and extensive in their recordings, not leaving out material that may seem embarrassing or contradictory. For example, it would have been convenient to leave out Peter's denial of Jesus, especially since he was the leader of the disciple. Neither did they leave out difficult to explain material, such as Mark 15:14, 'And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ÇEloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' which means ÇMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'' While this verse can be easily explained theologically, it would have been easier to omit it, especially considering the uneducated public of ancient Rome. There is also the baptism of Jesus; a perfect man would not need to be baptized, so his baptism could imply that Jesus was not perfect and that would appear to be a contradiction within the Gospels. Further study of this subject leads to a different conclusion, for example, he was setting an example for others and publicly submitting to God. It would have made things simpler had the authors left this out, but they included it anyway and preserved historical integrity.

Fourth, the fact that the Gospels were gave rise to the Christian movement in Jerusalem gives them credibility. Jerusalem was the city where Jesus spent most of his time and the city where he was crucified. Had the Gospels been fictitious, it would not have experienced such rapid growth in Jerusalem, since the populace of that city could verify claims in the Gospels themselves. 'At any rate, the time elapsing between the evangelic events and the writing of most of the New Testament books was, from the standpoint of historical research, satisfactorily short (Bruce).' This allowed for verification, or contradiction, from key eyewitnesses living in our around the city of Jerusalem.

The New Testament was complete, or substantially complete, about AD 100, the majority of the writings being in existence twenty to forty years before this. In this country a majority of modern scholars fix the dates of the four Gospels as follows: Matthew, c. 85-90; Mark, c. 65; Luke, c. 80-85; John, c. 90-100.4 I should be inclined to date the first three Gospels rather earlier: Mark shortly after AD 60, Luke between 60 and 70, and Matthew shortly after 70. One criterion which has special weight with me is the relation which these writings appear to bear to the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. My view of the matter is that Mark and Luke were written before this event, and Matthew not long afterwards (Bruce).

Fourth, the evidence indicating that the Gospels that we have today are the same as the original texts is overwhelming. 'The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt (Bruce).' Since we do not have the originals, the best way to determine the accuracy of our copies as compared to the original is with the multiplicity of the copies and the length of time between the original and the oldest surviving copy. Having lots of copies allows for cross checking between copies. They may then be determined reliable or unreliable depending on the discrepancies between the copies. The length between the original and the earliest copies also help determine reliability. For example, Homer's Iliad has about six hundred fifty surviving Greek manuscripts. These were copied in the second and third centuries, which places them about nine hundred to a thousand years after they were originally written. A Roman historian by the name of Tacitus wrote The Annals of Imperial Rome around 116 AD, the earliest and only copy is from about 850 AD (Christ 77-78).

In contrast, more than five thousand Greek copies of the original manuscripts have been found, the earliest which date to somewhere between one hundred and one hundred fifty AD, which places it between twenty and one hundred years later than the original. Manuscripts in other languages, including Latin, Ethiopian, Slavic, and Armenian, bring the total to about twenty-four thousand manuscripts (Christ 79-81). These copies also contain only a few minor discrepancies. These are so rare and minor that scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix concluded that 'The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book - a form that is 99.5 percent pure (quoted In Christ 85).' 'The textual evidence decisively shows that the Gospels were written and circulated during the lifetime of those who witnessed the events. Since there are so many specific names and places mentioned, eyewitnesses could have easily discredited the writings. The New Testament would have never survived had the facts been inaccurate (Zukeran).'

Fifth, there are ancient, non-Christian documents supporting the besides the Gospels that supported the Gospels. For example, Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century, also wrote about Jesus, such as in the following passage called the Testimonium Flavianum:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (qtd. in Christ 103-104).

While most scholars agree that the phrases 'if indeed one ought to call him a man,' 'He was the Christ,' and 'On the third day he appeared to them restored to life' were inserted by early Christians, the rest is accepted as written by Josephus and plays an important part in buttressing the Gospels as a corroboration by a non-Christian.

There is also an extremely important piece by the Roman historian Tacticus, which helps confirm another basic premise in the Gospels.

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of the hatred of mankind (quoted in Christ 107-108).

Not only does this state that Nero persecuted Christians for the fire that he started in Rome, but it also confirms the crucifixion story.

Sixth, archaeology also plays an important part in verifying the Gospels. While archaeology cannot confirm whether or not what was written is true, it can check on historical details provided in the Gospels. If those details don't match history, there is a good chance the rest also doesn't. However, if archaeology confirms the Gospel, it gives if more credibility.

Hundreds of facts such as the names of officials, geographical sites, financial currencies, and times of events have been confirmed. Sir William Ramsay, one of the greatest geographers of the 19th century, became firmly convinced of the accuracy of the New Testament as a result of the overwhelming evidence he discovered during his research (Zukeran).

An example of Archaeology confirming a historical document is with a statements by Josephus that states that the harbor at Casarea on the coast of Israel is as big as one at Piraeus, which was one of the main harbors at Athens. While at first, it appears that the harbor at Casarea is much smaller than the one at Piraeus, and underwater excavation discovered that the harbor had caved in and, though Casarea appears to be smaller now, the two are actually comparable. Josephus was right after all. The same logic applies to the Gospels, and they fare very well. Luke's detailed observations, such as his reference to politarchs, or city officials, in the city of Thessalonica, have been confirmed by archaeology such as writing on a stone wall which refers to the same politarchs. Matthew, Mark, and Luke's Gospels have also been verified through archaeology with details such as the location of Nazareth, the location of specific wells inside Jerusalem, and the Roman census at the time of Jesus' birth (Christ 129-40).

The evidence is very clear on the Gospels, they are reliable, historical documents that should be taken seriously. This comes from literally two thousand years of information that all lends itself to the accuracy of the authors of the Gospels. The authors clearly had the intention in preserving historical accuracy, and they were honest, even to the point of death. They did not exclude difficult or embarrassing material, but included all pertinent material. The Christian religion grew rapidly in Jerusalem, where claims in the Gospels were easily verifiable. More than any other ancient text, it is certain that the Gospels we have today are true to their ancient counterparts, preserving the authors' original words. Non-Christian sources confirm parts of the Gospels, as well as the extensive evidence that archaeology has uncovered verifying the Gospels' historical accuracy. The Gospels are not just a collection of stories, they are founded in fact.


Bruce, F.F., Ph.D.. 'The New Testament Documents: Their Date And Attestation.' World

Invisible Online. 29 Apr. 2003

"Gospel." Microsoft Encarta '95. CD-ROM. Redmond, Washington: Microsoft, 1994.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. El Reno, Oklahoma: Rainbow Studies, 1996.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000.

Zukeran, Pat. 'The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?' Probe Online Ministries. 1997. 29 Apr. 2003

© 2003

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