Too often it is claimed that the New Testament cannot be trusted to give us an accurate picture of what Jesus said and did. It is held that the Gospels are simply legends which grew over time and have no basis in historical fact, thus casting considerable doubt on the truth of the Christian faith. This view, however, cannot be maintained in light of the historical evidence.
In order to show that we can trust the New Testament, we will walk through three steps. Our first step will demonstrate that the Gospel writers were in a position where they could write accurate history about the life of Jesus. The second step in our walk will show that, in addition to being able to record an accurate portrait of what Jesus said and did, the Gospel writers intended to convey what Jesus really said and did. If the Gospel writers had the ability to write accurate history, and if they had the intention to write accurate history, we can safely conclude that they did write accurate history. But we do not need to stop there. The third step in our journey through the reliability of the Gospels will allow us to verify our conclusion that the Gospels contain accurate accounts of the events they describe.
Because of these three lines of evidence, we will see that we can safely say that the New Testament can be trusted to tell us what Jesus really said and did.
The Gospel Writers Were Able to Record Reliable History
To show this, we will establish four points. (1) The Gospels were written by their traditional authors, who (2) used first-hand, eyewitness testimony in their accounts. Furthermore, (3) the Gospels are early and therefore too close to the events they narrate for unhistorical legends to replace the hard-core facts. Finally, (4) the words of Jesus were preserved carefully during their oral transmission before being written down in the Gospels.
The Gospels Were Written by their Traditional Authors
This means that the Gospels were written by the people whose names they bear. Several lines of evidence support this, but we will focus on only a few. First of all, even though the authors of the Gospels did not sign their names to their work (the early Church gave each Gospel its name), this does not mean that their authors were not known or that the Church was wrong. In fact, if it was not widely known in the early church who wrote the gospels, we would expect there to be differing traditions among the early Christians about who did write them. Instead, there were no dissenting traditions in the first century of church tradition, but all agreed that the Gospels were authored by the people whose names they bear. The people who were closest to the actual composition, and therefore were in one of the best positions to know, unanimously agreed that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John authored the four gospels.
Second, since Mark and Luke were not apostles, and Matthew would have been the most “suspect” of the apostles since he had been a tax-collector, it seems unlikely that the early church would have invented these claims, especially if their goal was to enhance their credibility. In contrast, the later apocryphal gospels, which were not reliable records of Jesus’ life but later forgeries, attributed themselves to less suspect writers in order to enhance their credibility. The names of Peter, James, Philip, Thomas, and even Mary were attached to these gospels to give them status, even though they had nothing to do with their composition.
To put it another way, if the Gospels were simply creations of imaginative, anonymous Christians, then how did the early church come to establish that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really were the authors? Why did they not assign the Gospels to what would be considered less suspect writers?
In the case of the Gospel of John, B.F. Westcott has set forth a classic case demonstrating that it was authored by the one traditionally believed to have written it, the apostle John. His argument has never been refuted, but it has often been ignored. Westcott argued that the author must be a Jew because of his detailed knowledge of Hebrew feasts, customs, and Scriptures. The author must also be a Palestinian, he argued, because of his impressive grasp of the local geography and topography of the area.
He then narrows the possibilities down even further–the author must also have been an eyewitness because of his repeated and compelling references to details of people, time, and places. Such incidental details are characteristic of eyewitness reports. Not only must the author be an eyewitness, however, but he must also be an apostle because of the intimate acquaintance with the actions and thoughts of Jesus and the twelve. Having established these features, Westcott is then able to zero in on the apostle John as the one was able to meet all of these aspects, being the beloved disciple of 13:23; 19:26; and 21:20.
Additionally, John the Baptist is just called “John” in the fourth Gospel, whereas in the synoptic Gospels he is called “John the Baptist” to distinguish him from the apostle. Only if the apostle John wrote this to people who knew he was the author can this be explained.
The Authors Used Firsthand Testimony
Since we have established that the Gospels were written by their traditional authors, we will now establish that the writers were able to record reliable history. This is demonstrated because the authors were either writing as eyewitnesses themselves, or recording eyewitness testimony.
John was an apostle and therefore was also eyewitnesses. We have already seen the evidence that the author of John was John the apostle confirming this. Eusebius, from whom we know much of church history, attests that Matthew the apostle, who was also an eyewitness, wrote Matthew: “Matthew had begun by preaching to the Hebrews; and when he made up his mind to go to others too, he committed his own Gospel to writing in his native tongue, so that…the gap left by his departure was filled by what he wrote” (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III. 24).
Mark, although he was not an apostle, also recorded firsthand testimony because he received much of his information from the apostle Peter, an eyewitness. Irenaeus, who was a Bishop in A.D. 180 and a student of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the apostle, attests to this: “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III. 1.). Internal examination also confirms that Mark is recording the testimony of an eyewitness.
Luke was a companion of Paul, so he received much of his information from Paul and the other apostles during his extensive contact with them. This is confirmed by the external evidence (evidence outside of the New Testament) of Irenaeus: “Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher” (Euseubius, III. 24). Finally, Luke himself testifies that he wrote his Gospel based upon eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4).
The Gospels are Early
It can also be shown that the gospel writers were able to record reliable history even without accepting the traditional authorship. With the exception of John, each of the Gospels date around A.D. 60. This puts them so close to the events that they narrate that there was simply not enough time for legends to replace the hard-core of historical fact. The early composition also puts the writers in a position where they were able to be accurately informed of the events they are narrating because many eyewitnesses were still alive to confirm or deny the reports.
How do we know that the Gospels were written so early? One reason is that Acts does not record the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in A.D. 70. Since Jerusalem is a central location in the book of Acts, this can only be explained if Acts was written before Jerusalem fell. Furthermore, both Peter and Paul are central figures in Acts, yet neither of their deaths are recorded. Again, the only way to explain this is if they had not yet been martyred when Acts was written. Since Paul died in 64, and Peter died in 65, Acts must have been written in the early 60s. Since Luke and Acts are a two volume set written by Luke (see Acts1:1, 2), and Luke was written first, it would have been even earlier, possibly between 57 and 62.
The early church believed that Matthew was the first Gospel written. Many of today’s critics say that Mark wrote first. But either way, almost everyone agrees that they were both written before Luke. This puts their composition in the late 50s.
So, we see that even if one does not accept the traditional authorship of the Gospels, they are still written too early for legend to prevail over truth. Eminent historian of Roman times A.N. Sherwin-White has studied the rate at which legends developed during this time period, and found that even fifty to eighty years is not enough time for legend to remove the core historical facts. Even the late dating of the Gospels done by many critics meets that standard. Furthermore, 1st century Judaism was not a myth-friendly environment!
Since the Gospels are early compositions, they are near enough to the events that they narrate that they are able to accurately convey the facts. That their authors were eyewitnesses and those who recorded eyewitness testimony adds force to the fact that they were able to record reliable information.
The Words of Jesus Were Accurately Preserved before they were Written in the Gospels
Several lines of evidence show that the oral transmission of Jesus’ sayings before they were written down in the Gospels was highly accurate and done with great care. First, it is important to note that ancient Jewish culture was an oral culture where people relied on their memory, unlike our culture today which is mostly a literary culture. Jews of that day were able to memorize vast amounts of material, and it was customary for a Jewish student to memorize their rabbi’s teaching. Recent studies in ancient Jewish culture have confirmed that memorization was an important part in Jewish learning.
Because of the high esteem that students in ancient Judaism held for their rabbi’s teachings, they frequently regarded them as “sacred tradition” and memorized them in detail to pass on with little or no alteration. It was said that a good pupil was “like a plastered cistern that looses not a drop” (Mishna, Aboth, ii, 8). Surely the disciples, who were Jews, would have given the words of the one who they considered to be God’s long awaited Messiah no less care!
Furthermore, a number of recent scholars have solidly argued that many of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels have a mnemonic form that makes them suited for memorization. In other words, Jesus’ teachings were most likely in a form that was easy to memorize and retain.
A common objection is that oral traditions attract unhistorical embellishments as they are transmitted over time, much like we see in the “telephone game.” The Gospels, however, were simply written too early for legend to overcome the hard-core historical facts. There was not enough time for Jesus’ words to be imbellished. Also, a study of the use of the Gospels in later Gnostic and aberrant Jewish Christian sources, as well as their use by the more orthodox church fathers, suggests that it was actually common for the length of narratives to be abbreviated and streamlined in transmission, not imbellished.
Apostolic control of the oral traditions would have also served to keep them accurate. The apostles, who had themselves been eyewitnesses and been the first to memorize Jesus’ teachings, would have not allowed for any departure from the facts.
And even if there would have been any tendency to distort the words of Jesus, the presence of hostile eyewitnesses during the short period of oral transmission before the Gospels would have served as a corrective on any intention to depart from the facts. False statements could and would have been challenged by those who were only too glad to do so in order to discredit Christianity.
The idea that the early Church willfully manipulated Jesus’ words cannot be held in light of the historical evidence. A lack of reference within the gospels to later church controversies (such as speaking in tongues and circumcision) indicates that the early church did not change or add sayings of Jesus as they desired to suit their purposes. If the teachings of Jesus were largely the invention of the early church, or if the early church purposely altered His teaching during the oral transmission, they would have had Jesus address such hot topics of their day. This tells us that the Jesus of the Gospels was not manufactured to meet the needs of the early church.
Lastly, a refusal to eliminate the “hard sayings” of Jesus (such as Matt. 10:5-6 and Mark 13:30) further shows that the early church did not feel free to rewrite the story of Christ’s life apart from the constraints of historical fact. If the early church actively distorted the sayings of Jesus, as is often claimed, then why did they not eliminate such difficult sayings? And as we saw earlier, why did they not invent sayings that would have suited their purpose and solved the current controversies of the day? There is therefore no ground for believing that the early church manipulated and changed the teachings and life of Jesus.
Since the Gospels faithfully preserve even the difficult aspects of Jesus’ teaching and life, and refuse to add to Jesus’ words to suit their purposes, we have good reason to believe that they are just as faithful in preserving other less controversial aspects of His ministry. Since the early church did not invent/distort the words of Jesus, then the only other option is that they recorded what He actually said.
The Gospel Writers Intended to Convey Reliable History
This is forcefully supported by the careful preservation of the oral tradition that existed before the gospels, which we just examined. Also, analysis of the kind of writing that the gospels are (its “genre”) suggests this. Formally, the gospels parallel other historical and biographical literature of the day.
The presence of details which actually go against the purpose of the account also supports that the writers intended to be accurate. For example, a woman’s testimony was not considered very trustworthy in that day. They could not even testify in a court of law. Yet, the gospel writers have women as being the first witnesses to the resurrection. There is also much material in the Gospels that is embarrassing to Jesus’ disciples. They are portrayed, in each account, as unbelieving, cowardly, and dull. This shows the integrity of the writers to tell it like it was.
Finally, the gospel writers claim to be writing accurately. This is the strongest testimony of their intentions because it comes from their own mouths. Luke writes at the beginning of his Gospel:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
Here Luke explicitly says that his purpose was to record actual historical events (thus, the NT is not, say, a grand fictional story such as The Lord of the Rings or an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress) and that had a strong concern for accuracy. First, he speaks of others who had written a narrative “of the things that have been accomplished among us.” So the purview of Luke consists of things that have actually happened–things that “happened” among them. Second, he notes that those who had compiled these narratives before him sought to to write in accord with what was “delivered” or “passed on” by those who were “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” That can only be a reference to those who walked with Jesus–namely, his disciples. The mention of them as eyewitnesses underscores the important value Luke held in conveying things accurately in his Gospel–that is, he is aiming to record events passed on by direct eyewitnesses. Third, note that Luke affirms not only the concern for accuracy these others had, but explicitly reinforces his own concern for accuracy as well, saying that he has “followed all things closely for some time past.”
One might ask who these people are that compiled these narratives of the events of Jesus’ life that he refers to. He is likely referring in part to the other Gospel authors, especially Mark and Matthew (as John was likely written last). Also, many NT scholars have pointed out that the Gospels used source material. As we saw above, for example, the words of Jesus were preserved before being written in the gospels. Some of these sayings were likely written into the narratives of which Luke speaks, which were then incorporated into the final form of the Gospels as we have them now. Regardless, the point cannot be missed: Luke shows a strong concern for accurately recording historical events as they occurred, and shows that this was a common and pervasive concern within the early church.
The other apostles echo this concern for accuracy. John declares “and he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe” (John 19:35). And Peter is very clear when he says “For we did not follow cleverly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). They knew the difference between fact and fiction.
Because the writers were seeking to convey real events, this means that if in any way they willfully manipulated the facts, they were intentional deceivers. And because the apostles were present to ensure that the oral tradition did remain pure, any tampering would have been willful. For example, if Jesus’ tomb was not empty, the gospel writers were intentionally lying when they say that it was empty. This means that if the gospels are not accurate records of the sayings and doings of Christ, then they are simply a colossal fraud. Yet, no reputable critical scholar today holds that the early disciples were intentional deceivers.
The Gospel Writers Did Record Reliable History
External evidence from non-Christian writers and archeology almost always confirm this. Wherever the Gospels can be checked for accuracy against external evidence, they have passed the test. That’s why scholar F.F. Bruce has said “Archaeology has served to confirm the New Testament record.” The renowned Jewish archaeologist Nelson Gluek has said “It…may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”
Sir William Ramsey, regarded as one of the greatest archaeologists to ever live, first thought that the book of Acts was not a trustworthy account. But after observing the intricate accuracy of the book through his research on the history of Asia minor, he was forced to conclude that “Luke is a historian of the first rank…this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
Liberal scholars used to argue that a town named Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus, until archeology of the last few decades confirmed its existence. The Gospels’ portrayals of the temple, Pilate’s court, Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the mode of His execution have all also been confirmed. The list could go on and on.
Where the gospels cannot be tested against external evidence, we are still not without reason for confirming their accuracy. First, since the gospels have been shown to be true where we can test them, it is most likely that they are also true where we cannot test them. Second, as Gregory Boyd points out, the application of the standard criteria of authenticity makes it probable that a substantial majority of the details in the Gospels do describe what Jesus and the apostles actually said and did.
After examining the evidence, we can conclude that the Gospel writers had the ability and the intention of recording reliable information, and so therefore did record reliable information. We further examined how external evidence, in each area that can be checked, almost always serves to reinforce this conclusion. Therefore, we can confidently conclude that the Gospels present a true, undistorted picture of the life and teachings of Jesus. We can trust the New Testament.
Craig, William Lane, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton Illinois: Moody Press, 1984).
Boyd, Gregory A., Jesus Under Siege (Wheaton Illinois: Victor Books, 1995).
McDowell, Josh, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (Nashville Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993).
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.