I was recently told - in a Twitter exchange - that I can't believe the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The presupposition seemed to be that these four testimonies are highly edited versions of oral accounts that were written down hundreds of years after the life of the historical Jesus – if he really existed at all. As Twitter – with its 140 character limit – isn’t the best format to respond to such a statement, I'm placing my answer here.
For a long academic response – footnotes, manuscript dates and all that – I recommend 'Jesus and the Eye Witnesses'. This book is by Richard Baukham who is professor emeritus of NT studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. So, he’s a highly recognised scholar - not an independent author and blogger (like me). For those who don’t have the time to read this massive work, here’s my brief 3-part response:
Why do you find the accounts of Jesus – as recorded in the four Gospel’s – historically reliable?
1. The Gospels aren’t written as myth. The ancient world had no shortage of stories about the gods descending to the earth and interacting with men and women. But the gospels aren’t written anything like those. They were presented to the world as historical fact by a persecuted minority. C.S. Lewis wrote about the influence of the gospels and their role in his conversion saying, ‘I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this.’
Had the communities that produced these stories to the ancient world only presented them as legend or inspirational tales, they would have been left alone. But because they insisted on a resurrection in real space and time, they were persecuted and killed (11 of the 12 apostles were executed for their testimonies). The only motivation the early Christians had for insisting on the historical validity of the events – based on eyewitnesses – was that they were true.
2. The content is counter-productive to mythology or fabrication. Had the gospels been made up by the early Church leaders, we would expect Jesus to be saying honourable things about them in the gospels. The opposite is true. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is constantly having to correct the disciples and rebuke them for their lack of faith. Though the disciples led the early church, the gospels that they circulated portray them as insecure teenagers and certainly not the brightest bulbs in the shop.
Contrast this with how Mohammad is portrayed in the Koran that he produced. In it, Allah is constantly telling Mohammad that he’s a genius and that people should honour him.
Even Jesus - though portrayed as the unique Son of God – is shown to be completely human as well. He cries, gets angry and is tired. Even before his death, we see Jesus in a place of great weakness saying, ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.’ This sort of vulnerability was not a cultural virtue among either the Jews or the Romans of the day. Why add this if it is not true?
3. The gospels were written too soon for it to be legend. The gospels were all written during the disciples’ lifetimes. The gospel of Luke prefaces his gospel by claiming the eyewitnesses he used were still alive. Not only were Jesus’ original supporters still alive, but so were his critics. Had they wished to write a counter argument to the gospels, they could have done so. Dr. Tim Keller remarks here that, ‘For a highly altered, fictionalised account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead…The gospels were written far too soon for this to occur.’
The sheer number of NT manuscripts out number all other documents from the ancient world. If we doubt the historical reliability of the gospels, then by the same standards we must completely doubt Plato, Aristotle, Pliny, the Caesars, Homer and all other ancient writings – all of which is far less attested to then the NT and the gospels.