In his book “God and The Dock”, the famous British thinker C.S Lewis once wrote “As a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend, and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.” C.S Lewis, “God In The Dock”, HarperOne, 2014 edition Yet many in our culture today regard the gospel stories of Jesus as just that; legends, mythologies, some would even go so far as to call the stories of Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and his death and resurrection one big fairy tale! Of course, those who would say that the gospels are completely worthless as historical sources are an extremely tiny minority among New Testament scholars and historians, even skeptical non-Christian scholars. The only people who think that the gospels are entirely worthless can mostly be found on atheist blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and TikTok. But among scholars, even someone as skeptical and hostile to Christianity as Bart Ehrman would concede that there’s some historical value to the gospels. For example, Ehrman writes the following; “The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus are the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the New Testament and its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists.” Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 102.
Most scholars think some things can be known about the historical Jesus by using the “criteria of authenticity”. The criteria of authenticity are certain rules that can be applied to historical documents to discern whether what they report is more probably true than not. I’ve discussed the what these criteria are and how they can, in fact, be used to defend the resurrection of Jesus in numerous articles in the past such as my “The Minimal Facts Approach For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” just to name one example.
However, although I think that core facts such as Jesus’ death by crucifixion, His empty tomb, His postmortem appearances to the Disciples, Paul, and James can be established apart from presupposing the reliability of the gospels, it is undoubtedly true that any argument for the resurrection stemming from reliable, eyewitness documents known to be extremely accurate would undoubtedly be a stronger argument. Moreover, for some people such an argument might be the only argument that would convince them that Jesus was indeed God incarnate who died and rose from the dead. As followers of this ministry will know, I recently defended The Minimal Facts Approach from criticism against Lydia McGrew in articles such as “Saving The Minimal Facts Approach From Lydia McGrew (PART 1)” and “Saving The Minimal Facts Approach From Lydia McGrew (PART 2)”. In the latter article, I explained that although The Minimal Facts Approach is my go-to approach to defending the resurrection (for reasons I will not get into in this article), nevertheless, I agree that a “Maximal Data Approach” should be defended by Christians. From my understanding Maximal Data Approach is McGrewian terminology for what used to be called Reliablism (i.e that you defended the integrety of the gospels and based your arguments for the truth of Jesus’ resurrection on those accounts). One of the reasons I think every Christian (or at least ones like myself who set out to defend the truth of Christianity) ought to occasionally use a Maximal Data method is that it may be that there are some people in the world who might not resonate with The Minimal Facts Approach. Imagine if critics of The Minimal Facts method such as Lydia McGrew or Erik Manning weren’t Christians. Would we insist on using a method they think is dubious? We could (and I have) refute their objections to the argument, but what we might want to do is use a different argument, one that they would find more persuasive. Now, in the actual world, McGrew and Manning are followers of Jesus Christ, but in a possible world in which they aren’t, we should use different tactic. This doesn’t mean we couldn’t defend the Minimal Facts Approach to the best of our ability, but if after long hours of debating the issue, they still are persuaded it’s a bad … Continue reading. What if there are skeptics in the actual world who think The Minimal Facts Approach has epistemic problems? It is for the sake of these people that I believe putting out a case for gospel reliability is important.
A second reason to write a series of articles defending the reliability of the gospels is this; if I only ever use a Minimal Facts argument, some skeptics might be under the impression that I won’t defend their reliability because I can’t. They might think that they are indeed unreliable, and we Christians feel compelled to use The Minimal Facts Approach all the time on that basis. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that the gospels are unreliable, nor that I believe they are. I think the gospels are some of the most accurate, trustworthy biographies from the ancient world!
What Is The Criteria For Reliability?
In order to say that I have successfully defended the historical reliability of the gospels, we have to first answer two questions. First, what do we mean when we say the gospels are “reliable”? Secondly, how do we know when we have enough data to conclude that they are indeed reliable? For the first question, what I mean by “reliable” is that the gospels have been proven to be accurate, truthful, eyewitness reports to a degree that even if a statement of theirs couldn’t be verified by a criteria of authenticity, an archeological discovery, an extra biblical document, or what have you, we would be justified in taking what they say at face value. In other words, they get things right more often than they get things wrong (assuming they get anything wrong at all), we can trust them. Think of the gospels as like a group of friends who tell you something amazing. Based on your experience with them, you know that they are very scrupulous in telling the truth. Whenever you’ve doubted something they’ve said, even on a minor detail, you’ve investigated it for yourself and found out that they were right. By contrast, we all know of people who have a tendency to lie. We’ve caught them in lie after lie after lie, and so we become skeptical whenever they tell us anything; even if it’s something mundane. People who are untrustworthy always have to have their words verified. We cannot trust them on the basis of a track record of accuracy because they have no such track record! They have a track record of inaccuracy. So, if we know what the original gospel documents said, that the documents come from early and eyewitness material, that archeological and extra-biblical evidence validates them time after time, and if their testimonies bear lots of features typical of truthful eyewitness reportage, then we can consider them reliable. Reliable and Trustworthy are being used as synonyms for the purpose of this series.
Let me now answer the second question. When do we know when a document is reliable? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules in history to determine this. To a certain extent, this is subjective. There can be varying degrees of reliability with being historically worthless being on one end of the spectrum and being inerrant on the other end of the spectrum. But I will attempt to set some rules in place so that skeptics of Christianity, in trying to debate this with me, won’t feel like they’re trying to nail jelly to a wall.
The four gospels are historically reliable if….
1: The gospels we have today say what the originals said.
2: The gospels are either written by or got material from eyewitnesses.
3: The gospels are early (within a maximum of 100 years of the events they describe).
4: Extra-Biblical Sources (both written sources and archeological sources) validate their claims more often than invalidating them.
5: Internal Evidence indicates that they were eyewitnesses interested in and succeeded in recording the facts.
The Outline Of This Series
In defending each of these 5 points for reliability, I will have a separate article dedicated to each of them.
In Part 1, I will look at the issue of what is called “Textual Criticism”. In other words, I will argue that the gospels we have today are the same as the ones originally penned to a degree of 99.99% accuracy. This is in contradiction to skeptics who would argue that the text of the New Testament got distorted and garbled over the years like in a game of telephone. It does no good to examine the contents of the gospels to see if they were telling the truth if we don’t even know what the gospel authors actually said.
In Part 2, I will look at the external and internal evidence for the traditional authorship of the four gospels. I will look at (1) what the early church fathers said, and (2) I will examine the contents of the gospels themselves to see if, for example, the contents of Mark is consistent with the idea that Mark acted as Peter’s secretary. And with regards to this excercize, I will admit upfront that I am deeply indebted to the work of J. Warner Wallace.
In Part 3, I will make a case for the early nature of the gospel accounts. To an extent, this is not necessarily a hill I need to die on as even the most liberal scholars will date the gospels within 100 years of the ministry of Jesus. Most scholars say that the gospel of Mark was written in the 60s, with Matthew and Luke being written sometime in the 70s, and finally with John in the 90s. This is actually fairly good by ancient standards. However, the earlier we can date the gospels, the better. Because the earlier a written source is, the less time there is for things to be embellished. So, I will argue for the more conservative dates of Mark in the 40s, and Matthew and Luke in the 50s.
In Part 4, I will look at extra-biblical written sources as well as archeological findings which show all the various details that the gospels got correct. These are so numerous in number that I’ll have to be selective with what I include. I anticipate that this will be the longest entry in this series. Examples would be things like the crucifixion of Jesus mentioned by Flavius Josephus, Tacitus, Mara Bar Sarapion, and Lucian Of Samosata, who are all non-Christian writers and have no theological axe to grind. They independently and multiply attest to Jesus’ crucifxion among other gospel details. And Flavius Josephus also corroborates the existence of New Testament figures such as Herod The Great, John The Baptist, Jesus (as already mentioned) Jesus’ brother James, Pontius Pilate, and others. Moreover, archeological findings such as coins, ossuaries, inscriptions, et. al. support the existence and ranks of political figures such as Pontius Pilate and Herod The Great. And they provide extra-biblical testimony to some of the things the gospel writers attribute to them (e.g Caiaphas being the high priest).
In Part 5, I will take a page from Frank Turek’s book not literally, that would be plagarism and use the criteria of authenticity to build a cumulative case for their truthfulness. Using criteria such as embarrassment, multiple attestation, dissimilarity, enemy attestation, etc. I will show that the gospel authors were so committed to getting their facts straight that they would even include material that made them look bad or raised theological questions, are attested by other sources, or report Jesus saying things unlikely to be made up by the later Christian church.
In Part 6, I will also look at various arguments for the eyewitness reportage nature of the gospels which I have learned from Dr. Lydia McGrew such as “Undesigned Coincidences”, “Unexplained Allusions”, and “Unnecessary Details”. I’ll explain what all of these categories of evidence are once we get to that part of the series. I have to say that when I began researching for this blog series, I had no idea just how much internal evidence for the truthfulness of the gospels there really is! While I have my disagreements with Dr. McGrew on a number of issues, I am very thankful for her books bringing these powerful yet obscure arguments to my attention.
In Part 7, I will deal with the issues of differences in the gospels and whether or not they cast doubt on the accuracy of the gospels. Here, I will be upfront in saying that I side with Dr. Lydia McGrew in engaging in harmonization over Dr. Michael Licona’s literary device view. Dr. McGrew holds that we should try to harmonize the gospel accounts as best as they can when two authors tell the same story and appear to contradict one another. Dr. Licona holds that the authors of the gospels felt free – allegedly by the standard writing conventions of Greco-Roman Biographies of the day – to occasionally change details in a story for various literary purposes. After having read Michael Licona’s book “Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography” and Lydia McGrew’s rejoinders “The Mirror Or The Mask: Liberating The Gospels From Literary Devices” and “The Eye Of The Beholder: The Gospel Of John As Historical Reportage”, I’ve come not only to side with Dr. McGrew on this issue, but I’ve also realized how deep and granular this debate can be. Were I ever to argue one view over the other, it would take an entire series in and of itself! So, upfront I will say that I won’t be arguing against one author or the other. For the sake of not overwhelming the reader, I will assume harmonization as the default position and proceed accordingly.
In Part 8, I will deal with the elephant in the room; miracles. It is my belief that if the gospels weren’t filled with miracle stories that required one to hold to a specific worldview, the reliability of the gospels wouldn’t even need to be defended. Pretty much everyone in academia would take them as truthful and faithful historical accounts. The gospels are held to a much higher standard than any other book from antiquity, and miracles are the reason why. Either people think miracles are impossible because of arguments from atheist philosophers like David Hume, or they just have a general credulity of them. One might think that after the “avalanche of evidence” (as Lee Strobel described the case) “In light of the convincing facts I had learned during my investigation, in the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: It would … Continue reading that this should cause one to reconsider one’s presupposition on the possibility of miracles. For some, it has. Former skeptics like Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace are a couple of them. However, it might bolster an already strong case if we make a case for miracles. What about David Hume’s argument? Is it really as sound as many naturalists think it is? I should also say that this chapter will really only be pertinent to naturalistic atheists. Non-Christians like Muslims, Hindus, and others won’t really be interested in this part. Theists who aren’t followers of Christ already accept the possibility of miracles, and religions like Islam even contain some of them. For non-Christians in theistic categories, this is a chapter they can readily skip if they so choose.
In Part 9, I will summarize all of the data surveyed in the previous chapters of this blog series. After that, I will provide a case for the central truth claims of Christianity; Christ’s deity, death, and resurrection, in a way that as a minimalist, you’ve never seen me do. I’ll be using data points that would be considered inadmissible evidence in a minimal facts approach. So even if you’re a reader who is used to the way I normally defend the historicity of Christ’s deity, death, and resurrection, you’ll want to read this chapter.
A Quick Word About Faith
I want to get a common misconception out of the way about the word “faith”. Often faith is thought to be belief in something either in spite of evidence or against overwhelming evidence. Christians and non-Christians alike may wonder “If we have historical evidence for the truth claims of Christianity, what room is there for faith? Aren’t we just supposed to read The Bible and believe it?” Sometimes the objection is phrased like “If we have evidence, we don’t need faith”. There are a couple of problems with this objection; first is that it misunderstands the definition of the word “faith”. The second is that The Bible is full of examples of God, a prophet, or an apostle giving his listeners evidence for their claims.
Faith is synonymous with the word trust. There is such a thing as blind faith and there is such a thing as reasonable faith. I often use this illustration in showing the difference between the two; let’s suppose as a kid you’re walking home from school and a car slows down by the side of the road. The window drops and you see the face of a man you’ve never met before. “Hey kid, I’m a friend of your mom’s. She told me she couldn’t pick you up today, so she sent me to do it instead. Hop on in!” If you decided to get into the car with this man, you would be excercizing faith, but it would be a blind faith. Blind faith is indeed irrational and atheists like those we often meet on social media are quite right to ridicule it. You had zero reasons to trust this man! You’d never seen him before, your mother never mentioned him to you before, and you have no idea what kind of person he is. There is, of course, a chance that he might be a nice guy. There’s a chance he’s telling you the truth. But would you be willing to risk it? After all, he could be a sicko who’s going kill you! Why take a risk when your life is at stake! By contrast, if the person who pulled alongside you were your mother, you would be excercizing a reasonable faith in getting into the car with her. You have past experience of your mother being kind, gentle, taking care of you, not hurting you. You have lots of reasons to trust her to get you home safely and no reasons not to. You’re excercizing faith in both scenarios, but one of them is irrational and the other is rational. One of them is blind and the other is based on good evidence.
I have lots of evidence for Christianity which makes me confident in its truth. There are plenty of arguments for God’s existence such as The Kalam Cosmological Argument, The Fine-Tuning Argument, The Moral Argument, The Ontological Argument, The Argument From Beauty, there’s archeological evidence for the accuracy of The Old Testament, there’s evidence for the reliability of The New Testament (see the rest of this series), there’s The Minimal Facts Argument for Jesus’ Resurrection. And objections to Christianity such as The Problem of Evil or The Problem Of Hell can be dealt with. Nevertheless, no matter how much evidence I have, I still need to excercize trust in God daily. I have to have faith that He will provide for my every need as He said in Matthew 6:25-34. When bad things happen to me and I don’t know why, I trust that God is in control and is working all things for my good (Romans 8:28). I have faith that He can bring about a greater good even if I can’t see how. This is what Proverbs 3:5 means when it says “Trust in The Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” In light of the arguments and evidence, this is a reasonable faith. I have evidence there even is a God in the first place, but not only that, but I have evidence of His track record of provision in my life. He hasn’t always given me what I wanted, but He’s always given me what I needed. No amount of apologetic arguments could ever be a substitute for true biblical faith. When you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from or when you don’t know how you’re going to make it through a tough time, you have faith/trust in God. Whether your Christian Worldview has an evidential foundation to it or not.
The second problem with the “If we have evidence, then we don’t have faith” objection is that there are plenty of examples within The Bible itself of people giving evidence for God’s existence, superiority, etc. In the Ancient Near Eastern context of The Old Testament prophets, virtually no one was an atheist Psalm 14:1 may possibly indicate at least one example. In Psalm 14:1 we read “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no God'”. However, whether the psalmist is really taking potshots … Continue reading. The question in peoples’ minds wasn’t “Is there a God?” but rather “which gods should we follow?” So what you find in The Old Testament are prophets taking pot shots at other gods to make Yahweh out to be superior. Often times this is done by applying epithets or titles that pagan gods like Baal had and attaching them to Yahweh (e.g rider of the chariots in Ugaritic literature pertaining to Baal, cf. (Isaiah 19:1; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 68:33; 104:3). See Michael S. Heiser, “What’s Ugaritic Got To Do With Anything”, https://www.logos.com/ugaritic. However, in one narrative, Yahweh displayed His superiority over Baal not by (rightly) claiming His titles, powers, and deeds, but a showdown of power. 1 Kings 18 records a contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Both Elijah and the prophets of Baal set up alters to their respective gods. Elijah determined what the results of the contest would be; whoever lights the fire of the alter is God and should be followed (verse 21). Whoever doesn’t is a false god and should be rejected. As you read 1 Kings 18, you read that the prophets of Baal did all sorts of theatrics all day long to get Baal’s attention (verses 26, 28-29), resulting in the famous meme-able statement by Elijah that Baal was probably too busy relieving himself (verse 27). Afterwards, Elijah’s alter to Yahweh was set up and he commanded it be drenched in water. Because, after all, if you can set something on fire that’s been drenched in water several times, that’s just an extra flex (verses 30-35). Then Elijah prayed to God, and whereas the prophets of Baal cried out to him all day long, Elijah only prayed once. When he did, fire fell down and consumed the alter (verses 36-38). Yahweh had won the contest. Baal had lost. Now, this contest has evidential value to the Israelites. Look at how powerful God is to consume even a wet pile of wood! Look at how swift He is to respond to prayer! Yahweh is so much better than Baal! But imagine if Elijah said “I know Baal seems like a pretty good god to follow, but you gotta believe me! Yahweh is so much better! Just have faith! Ask God to reveal to your hearts the truth!” Do you think that would have had the same effect as the contest that was actually held between Elijah and the prophets of Baal? I don’t think so.
In Acts 17:16-17, we read of the apostle Paul that “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (emphasis in bold mine). In verses 18-34, we read that Paul stood up and spoke before the Greeks. He used philosophical arguments, quoted their poets, and made his points through reasoning with them. Some were persuaded of Paul’s message, though most of them ridiculed him. Even earlier in the same chapter, we read in verses 2-3a that “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (emphasis in bold mine) Explaining and proving? Doesn’t sound like Paul the apostle thought faith was founded on a total lack of evidence.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul appeals to eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection as part of an argument against the Corinthian church who were denying that the dead were raised at all!
All of this is to say that the biblical examples of using evidence to establish Christian truth claims isn’t some sort of modern, worldly way of doing spiritual warfare or anything like that. Rather, the prophets and apostles themselves appealed to reason and evidence to persuade those who were far from God. They used arguments and evidence to win over their skeptics and we should too! They didn’t seen an evidential basis for believing in Jesus (New Testament apostles) or the supremecy of Yahweh (Old Testament prophets) as incompatible with faith, and neither should we! I could go on and on with examples of characters in the biblical narratives providing evidence or reasoning with people. I could even point to the numerous times Jesus Himself did it. In fact, the late Norman Geisler has a whole book I’d like to read on this topic called “The Apologetics Of Jesus”! However, I think I’ve said enough to prove my point. Biblical Faith is not blind faith. Biblical Faith is a Cerebral Faith.
It is my hope and prayer that all of my blood, sweat, and tears that went into the research and writing of this blog series will convince you that Christianity is true. That is, assuming you’re one of the many skeptics who follow this blog and ministry. If you’re one of my many Christian readers, I pray that this blog post series equips you to defend your faith to non-Christians and doubters. As we go throughout this series, it is my hope that you’ll see that you can believe in Jesus Christ because of the brain God gave you, not in spite of it.
|↑1||C.S Lewis, “God In The Dock”, HarperOne, 2014 edition|
|↑2||Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 102.|
|↑3||This doesn’t mean we couldn’t defend the Minimal Facts Approach to the best of our ability, but if after long hours of debating the issue, they still are persuaded it’s a bad argument, it couldn’t hurt to try something else|
|↑4||not literally, that would be plagarism|
|↑5||“In light of the convincing facts I had learned during my investigation, in the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: It would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth!” – Strobel, Lee; Strobel, Lee. Case for Christ Movie Edition: Solving the Biggest Mystery of All Time (Case for … Series) . Zondervan. Kindle Edition.|
|↑6||Psalm 14:1 may possibly indicate at least one example. In Psalm 14:1 we read “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no God'”. However, whether the psalmist is really taking potshots at atheists is disputed, but even if this is a reference to an atheist, this type of person would be in an extreme minority in the time and place this was written down.|
|↑7||See Michael S. Heiser, “What’s Ugaritic Got To Do With Anything”, https://www.logos.com/ugaritic|