Last week when we considered the question, “Is Jesus Really God?,” we noted that the writer C.S. Lewis said that when you read the gospels, you come to a conclusion that Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord since his words and actions lay claim to him being God. As I concluded the blog post looking at the same question,some have given another option, which is that the accounts that show Jesus saying and doing things that claim divinity are actually legendary. In a nutshell, many people (including scholars) would say the gospels are not authentic, historical accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry, but rather the creation of his followers; they preserve some teachings and actions of Jesus but also feature things that he did not say or do. Therefore, one can say he is a great teacher — and his followers have been the deceivers and deceived.
In my academic study, I have spent a fair amount of time reading these claims and interacting with those who believed it. They are good people, but I do not think the evidence supports the idea that the New Testament gospels are not reliable accounts of Jesus’s life. In fact, I think it is just the opposite — the New Testament gospels are reliable. Here are some of the reasons I believe the New Testament gospels are reliable, many of which I was able to share in a message at a sister church this weekend.
Not a Game of Ancient Telephone
People sometimes say that since there were a number of years that passed between Jesus’s life and the gospels, there was something of an ancient game of telephone happening whereby Jesus’s message and stories about him were shifted to match the needs of his followers.
However, the early transmission of Jesus’s teaching was much different than the game of telephone, as recently pointed out by Peter J. Williams. For one thing, the goal of the game of telephone is to mess up the saying so that by the end of the line it doesn’t resemble the original at all — it is not fun if that doesn’t happen! It is passed along with whispers in hopes of corruption; you are not allowed to repeat it, and you cannot write it down. That is not how people would keep Jesus’s teaching, rather the goal would be to preserve the teaching. In addition, this transmission occurred in a culture that could remember things; while we sometimes can’t even remember phone numbers,e people in the ancient world memorized the teachings of their teachers (especially good teachers that had memorable sayings — a category I think people would put Jesus in). Furthermore, people in the ancient world saw a difference between legends/myths and historical events; legendary stories might be shifted, but not tellings of history.
It should also be noted that the period between Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the gospels is not that long — likely between 30-60 years (depending on how one dates a couple of the gospels). Therefore, the period is likely one generation, not thousands of years like some ancient folklore believe. In addition, in that period the eyewitnesses would be around and could (and I think would) offer corrections if significant errors were being passed along. If Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, I think they would have said something! There may even have been some written versions before the New Testament gospels were written that would have already preserved these traditions accurately.
Not Lost in Transmission
Some people and groups claim that Jesus’s teachings have not been transmitting accurately. They claim the manuscripts containing the gospels have been changed over the years, so we do not know if that is what was said and written. Therefore, it was not the first generation but later generations who made the changes.
However, we actually have an embarrassment of riches compared to the data the classical Greek and Latin scholars have to contend with, both in terms of the date and the number of manuscripts. The manuscripts of the New Testament and gospels are much closer than most ancient documents in terms of the date of composition. The earliest copy we have of the New Testament is a part of the Gospel of John (known as P52), and it is dated in the early second century, within 30-50 years of the original. We have an entire copy of the New Testament in the 300’s and this matches our earlier partial manuscripts. This might seem like a late date, but it is better than many other ancient texts (which can be hundreds of years between the writing and our earliest copies).
In addition, while we only have approximately 20 copies for many ancient texts, we have over 5,800 in Greek for the New Testament, in addition to early translations in languages such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and Gothic and many quotations of church fathers (with almost all of the New Testament quoted by church fathers). The number of differences in New Testament manuscripts is inflated compared to other sources because we have so many manuscripts. Since they did not have copiers or scanners back then, we would expect more errors in copying; however, the errors are remarkably minimal and unimportant as noted by Daniel Wallace and other scholars. Therefore, we can be confident that the words we have are indeed the words that were written.
Not the Other Gospels
People have said that the gospels most recently found (the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas) show that there were many gospels out there, with some of these potentially more historically accurate about who Jesus was than the New Testament gospels but the early church suppressed them. However, when you compare the gospels in the New Testament with the other gospels, the New Testament gospels prove to be more reliable from a historical perspective. They were written earlier and we have much more evidence for them. In fact, the other gospels show the influence of the New Testament gospels (as if they were trying to oppose or supplement them) and seem to have been written after the New Testament gospels. The church had accepted that there were only four gospels very early (see writers like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr). The church knew about these other gospels but did not find them reliable. They do not bear the mark of eyewitness testimony like the New Testament gospels do. If you want to know something about Jesus, the best place to turn to are the New Testament gospels.
Not Legends, but Eyewitness Testimony
In the ancient world, historians sought to find eyewitness testimony, and those eyewitnesses were viewed as reliable sources for telling what happened. This seems to be what we have in the New Testament. In John 21:24, John claims he was a witness, and Luke says he interviewed eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Matthew is traced back to Matthew the Apostle, and Mark shows the marks of Peter’s testimony.
The gospels do reflect what you would expect from eyewitnesses — there is agreement in the basic facts with some minor (but not contradictory) differences in details. They also include odd details, like the number of fish in John 21:11. In his book Jesus and the Eyewitness, Richard Bauckham shows that names are sometimes included and other times not (see Luke 24:18), with the likelihood that these named people would be eyewitnesses known to the readers who would testify to the events (for example, Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21). Details of the stories match the culture in terms of the geography of the area, including the distribution of the most common names in the area (as Bauckham has also pointed out) and the locations noted (as Peter Williams has recently pointed out).
Reliable Witnesses – Yes?
If the gospels feature the testimony of eyewitnesses, do we have reason to believe they are credible witnesses? Well, they often include embarrassing details about themselves and other things that do not put themselves in a good light. In some of these stories, it appears the apostles are not the brightest in the world.. Women are the first witnesses of the resurrection, and women did not even have standing in a court of law at the time. You find details like Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist — that seems confusing, why include that detail? There are even there some differences in the stories that need to be harmonized — why not iron those out and get the story straight?
In fact, we need to remember that the claims of Jesus (crucified Messiah) go against what would be popular in the culture, and worshipping Jesus as God goes against key Jewish beliefs! They really had nothing to gain and everything to lose… and they lost it! Therefore, they seem like credible witnesses in terms of their motives.
Once Again: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?
Much more could be said on this topic than can be said in a single blog post. I recommend great books such as The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg and Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams as well as some of the articles at Explore God. The bottom line is the gospels are the best window we have into who Jesus was, and thus Jesus does not leave space for us to think he was just a good teacher. Either Jesus is Lord who has risen from the dead and the Bible is God’s Word, or the claims of the Christian faith are wrong. We must wrestle with these options and make a decision about what we believe.
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