“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”, the apostle Paul said, “for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom.1:16). Paul encountered Jesus after his ascension and met many who had followed him during his earthly ministry. He was fully persuaded by the authenticity of their message and his personal experience.
The four gospels are biographical portraits of Jesus, his life and teachings. The word ‘gospel’ is derived from the Greek word ‘’euangelion’ which comprises the parts “eu”, meaning good, (as in eulogy, or ‘good word’) and ‘angelion’, meaning message (‘angelos’ means angel or messenger). For some today, the term gospel may have lost its meaning, or be irrelevant except for referring to a genre of music. Yet it literally means “good message”.
For those who take the gospels seriously, some may have questions as to whether we can trust them today. These questions or objections can fall in to at least four categories.
Were they made up?
We know that the gospels were written early on, close to the events that they relay, with most sources dating all except John before AD70 and the destruction of Jerusalem (which is not mentioned in the New Testament except when prophesied by Jesus). Even leading agnostic and Jewish scholars date them all before AD100. Creeds containing core gospel truths recited by the first Christians appear in Paul’s letters written before AD60. With the rapid, widespread growth of Christianity, inaccurate written accounts would have been identified and discounted.
We know that the gospels are historically robust. Renowned skeptic, Bart Erhman, acknowledges that the gospels are the “oldest and best known sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus ….it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists”. Moreover, non-Christian sources, such as Josephus and Pliny the Younger, corroborate early church history as recorded in Acts, written by gospel writer Luke: the spread of Christianity, the lifestyle and persecution of Christians and even the event of Christ’s death under Pontus Pilate.
It is also clear that the authors knew the names, geography and topography of the places they include as well as the names of people that were common in that region at that time, in contrast to later false writings. Even obscure details abound with accuracy: that the little-known Chorazin is on the road to Bethsaida; that tax collectors operated in the border towns of Capernaum (known for its fish) and Jericho (known for its sycamore trees); that Luke, who grew up close to the Mediterranean, would consider Galilee to be a lake whereas the others who grew up there called it a sea.
Then there are the many ‘undesigned coincidences’, where details in different gospel accounts make sense of those in others, thereby independently building a complete picture of what took place. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida, close to Capernaum, home of Philip and Andrew (the two disciples mentioned), at Passover time when large movements of crowds to/from Jerusalem would have been commonplace and just after the winter rainfall when the grass would have been at its height.
Finally, we don’t just have one gospel, but a set of four, all flowing with a mix of unique and overlapping accounts. These flow seamlessly in to Acts, alongside the letters by Paul and others, with the 37 books of the Old Testament and make sense of church history and the personal experience of untold numbers of people. The simple explanation is that they relate to real people and to actual events; to say they were ingeniously made up poses the far harder question of how and why this may have been achieved.
Most importantly, the gospels capture Jesus unique teachings, which carry their clear ring of truth through to today. It is hard to imagine that these teachings could have been made up and carried through by the people of the day. As renowned Biblical scholar Peter J. Williams states, “again and again we find that supposing the authors handed on faithfully what they knew yields simple explanations whereas supposing they made things up produces complex ones.”
Have they been changed over time?
If the original gospel accounts have been changed over time then, as well as asking how this would have been achieved, we must ask when this would have taken place.
If this was early on, during Christianity’s rapid spread when many people alive at the time of Jesus or their children were still living, then it is hard to see how any significant fabricated accounts would have gained widespread credible traction or how distorted details would not have been identified and corrected.
If, as some may allege, the gospel accounts were changed later on, then we have to ask whether this happened between the time of the original writings and the earliest copies or whether it affected later copies produced up until those used by the great 16th century scholar Erasmus, who compiled the first Greek New Testament from two 12th century manuscripts. If the latter was true then we would expect at least some parts of the 2,000 or more manuscripts that have emerged and been carefully studied since Erasmus to give at least some evidence of significant variations. However, the reverse is, in fact, the case. If the former were true then we would have to ask why the gospels contain so many accurate details on so many different levels and why they do not contain many of the hallmarks of later writings by those who were not eyewitnesses, or known to them, which have been found to be false.
Moreover, the scribes who gave us the gospels were professionals who were very highly regarded for their faithfulness to the texts under their stewardship. These same scribes have given us many of the ancient writings and pagan texts of antiquity, which are not questioned to the same extent despite being written far longer after the events to which they relate and for which we have far fewer copies than the many copies we have of the New Testament.
What about the miracle stories?
Another objection pitted against the gospels is that they cannot be historically reliable as they refer to miracles. These are held to be impossible and, therefore, accounts of them are illusory or delusional.
However, the conclusion that ‘miracles are impossible’ is rooted in and derived from at least two philosophical commitments, both held prior to and irrespective of contrary evidence:
Naturalism – which holds that all phenomena have to be accounted for by only naturalistic methods and explanations, that no person or event can violate the laws of nature; and
Scientism – which holds that what science cannot teach, mankind cannot know.
However, both positions are ill-founded. Naturalism is only true if the laws of nature and matter (mass and energy) are primary, holding exclusive rights over reality and are entirely self-generating and self-sustaining, rather than being derivative (from the logos). There is little evidence that this can be the case. Scientism is self-defeating because at its core is a statement that is not scientific.
Moreover, people who to hold the view that miracles are impossible often hold to atheistic ‘miracles’ of their own: that the universe came from nothing, that mind and consciousness arose out of unconscious matter and that complex biological life assembled itself from basic chemical elements by chance, without any purpose in mind, or any foresight or guiding intelligence.
But, far from being impossible in Jesus’ time or having passed away since, miracles are prevalent and well-recorded even today (for a detailed study on this, please see Craig Keener’s book, “Miracles, the credibility of the New Testament accounts”).
Are they still relevant today?
Finally, some may hold to the view that the gospels, and the New Testament in general, only have limited relevance in today’s ‘progressive’ society. This liberal view of Christianity is founded on relativism which holds that truth is relative to the society in which it applies and, hence, changes over time or differs between cultures. From this, people are led to believe that things may be true for some people but not for them and that views which don’t correspond with their beliefs are intolerant. Ironically, this is done in the pursuit of freedom and tolerance.
This view has extended to parts of the church in the form of ‘progressive Christianity’. This emerging phenomenon is resulting in a selective use of the Bible, a reinterpretation of Christian doctrines, the elevation of personal feelings and beliefs over factual truths and a shift of emphasis away from the centrality of the redemptive work of Christ through the cross over sin to contemporary social justice issues.
Others may simply have not read, or even thought about reading, the gospels. When asked, they may reveal a mix of ignorance or apathy, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t care’. However, this view lacks the rigour that would be applied in any other areas of life of more immediate personal interest.
The common thread in these views is that they are all ‘volitional’ in nature – either a wilful ‘progressive’ stance against or a default position of static non-enquiry.
Trust in the gospels
Jesus said that he would build his church on the ‘rock’ of the revelation that he is ‘the Christ the son of the living God’ and that every individual that builds their lives on this foundation is wise. The gospels have stood the test of time and come through sceptical intellectual scrutiny of the highest order. They give us the clearest picture of Jesus and, as Peter Williams says, show us that ‘all of history hangs on Jesus’. Jesus can be trusted, and we can put out trust in him and follow him through the gospels.
For further reading, please see “Can we trust the gospels?” by Peter J Williams, Principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, published by Crossway.