The Gospels as history

Millions of christians believe the 4 gospels are true. But how are they assessed by secular historians?

Historical assessment of the New Testament texts

Historians consider the following in making judgments about the historicity of the New Testament.

Are the documents eye-witness accounts?

This is a surprisingly complex question for historians to answer.

The four gospels have been ascribed to their traditional authors from a very early date, but these names are not included in the documents anywhere. On the traditional view, Matthew and John would have been eyewitnesses, and Mark and Luke based on eyewitnesses. However most scholars do not believe the actual writers or compilers were the traditional authors, though perhaps some of the material goes back to them.

Rather, scholars generally believe that stories about Jesus and his sayings were told, re-told and perhaps memorised or written down, until they were written and compiled into the documents we now have. In the process, the material would have been edited, and interpretations added – with varying degrees of “certainty” about the status of different sections. Thus Luke’s gospel begins with this statement: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account ….” (Luke 1:1-3)

Much New Testament study over the past century has tried to “take apart” the gospels and separate out historical fact and interpretation in each small section. (It is important to historians to be able to separate “raw facts” from people’s interpretations, though this may be less important for those simply seeking “the truth”.) Thus highly sceptical scholars believe less than 20% of the material can be considered “historical”, with the rest containing significant interpretation by the early christians and also legendary material.

However this approach is considered by most scholars to be more sceptical and destructive than is applied to other historical documents. For example, classical historians Michael Grant and AN Sherwin-White commented that it appears that theologians are generally more sceptical than secular historians. Therefore scholars are reconsidering this “cut and paste” approach in recent years – N T Wright has argued for a more holistic approach, and Richard Bauckham has argued persuasively for a strong eyewitness content.

More conservative christian scholars have always maintained that the traditional authorship is correct, that the New Testament is historically true and only small amounts are later interpretation. They argue that the interpretation of events by the early christians is a valid basis for belief.

So, are the gospels based on eyewitness accounts? The answer of the mainstream historians seems to be that they are, but while some parts are factually historical without significant later amendment, there is much that includes the results of later reflection.

How soon after the events were they written down?

This question is important because the longer the gap between event and writing, the more likely it is that error, additions or legendary elements can creep into the stories.

It is generally agreed that the gospels were written between 30 and 70 years after Jesus died. Some other parts of the New Testament (namely some of Paul’s letters), in which only brief historical details about Jesus are given, were written perhaps 15-30 years after Jesus died.

These time periods may seem long by the standards of our modern information-rich age, but they are quite short for ancient documents. For example. biographies of Alexander the Great were not written until more than 400 years afterwards, yet they are considered to be trustworthy and generally free of legendary material.

The small gap between event and writing is emphasised when the New Testament is compared to the writings of some other religious founders. The Zoroastrian scriptures were written down more than a millenium after Zoroaster lived, the scriptures and biography of the Buddha were wrtten more than 600 years after he lived, and while Muhammed’s sayings were written by him, his biography was written more than a century after his death.

John A.T. Robinson: “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”

Are the documents we have now accurate copies of the originals?

We don’t possess the original gospels, but only full and partial copies of the originals. Ancient documents were copied by hand, so the gap between original and copies, the number of copies and how well they agree with each other, are all important in determining whether copying errors have occurred.

The New Testament stands up very well on these grounds. There are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts (the New Testament was written in Greek), with the earliest dated within 30 years of the original, and complete New Testament manuscripts from within less than three centuries. This contrasts with:

  • Roman historian Tacitus – there is only one early manuscript for each of the first few and last few books of the Annals, dated more than 700 years after the originals were written.
  • Jewish historian Josephus – 9 manuscripts dated 9 centuries after composition.
  • Of all documents of comparable age, Homer’s Iliad has the next greatest manuscript testimony after the New Testament – 650 manuscripts, but the earliest is dated about 1000 years after composition.

When all the different New Testament manuscripts are compared, the copying is shown to have a high degree of accuracy.

John Wenham, discussing why, in spite of the “great diversity” in our copies, the texts are still relativity homogeneous: “The only satisfactory answer seems to be that its homogeneity stems from an exceedingly early text-virtually, that is, from the autographs.”

Helmut Koester: “Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half a dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek… The only surviving manuscripts of classical authors often come from the Middle Ages, but the manuscript tradition of the NT begins as early as the end of II CE; it is therefore separated by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs were written. Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.”

Is the New Testament consistent within itself and with other known history?

There are some well-known areas in which the gospels seem inconsistent with each other, for example:

  • The accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke appear to differ in the dates and some details differ, though are not necessarily inconsistent.
  • The four gospel accounts of the resurrection appear to differ in the sequence of events, and some minor details such as the number of people/angels seen at Jesus’ tomb.
  • John appears to give different days of the week for the Last Supper and the crucifixion than those given in the other gospels.
  • The picture of Jesus, the content of his teaching and the manner in which he spoke, and the outline of his ministry portrayed in Matthew, Mark and Luke are different in many ways to the picture in John.

The significance of these matters is a matter of debate, with explanations and doubts expressed by different scholars. Nevertheless, while these apparent discrepancies might be a difficulty for someone who believes the Bible contains no errors, they are well within the parameters of normal historical documents, and the major aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings are not substantially affected by these doubts. (If you are interested in possible explanations of these apparent anomalies, see The historical reliability of the gospels (Blomberg) or The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus (Strobel), though note that these scholars are not representative of secular scholarship.)

Generally scholars find a reasonably consistent picture when comparing the New Testament to other historical documents. For example:

  • References in Roman writings to Jesus and the early christians are limited in detail, but generally agree with the gospel accounts. Roman historians Tacitus, Pliny the younger and Suetonius all give brief references to Jesus and confirm the broad outline of his life and death.
  • The same is true of the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Jewish Talmud, if the viewpoints of the writers are taken into account. (It is true that the main Josephus reference shows signs of having been amended by christians between the original writing and the copies we now have, but scholars have been able to generally agree on the sections that should be removed, still leaving a significant reference to Jesus.)

Archaeology provides some significant support for some of the historical accounts in the New Testament. Luke, who wrote the history of the early church in the book of Acts as well as a gospel, is considered by scholars to be a very reliable historian. Historians once considered Luke to have made errors in certain statements which archaeology has subsequently shown to be accurate, for example, in the names, titles and dates he gives for various government officials. John’s gospel has similarly been vindicated many times by archaeology – as noted in Archaeology and the truth of the Gospels, so that von Wahlde concluded: [The archaeology] “demonstrates the full extent of the accuracy and the detail of the Evangelist’s knowledge”

There have been some doubts cast on whether the town of Nazareth really existed in Jesus’ time, but archeologists have found the traces of a small settlement.

conclusion

It seems that, using a similar basis as for other historical analysis, the historical basis for the New Testament is strong (though not without its difficulties). Regardless of our beliefs, we can all reasonably accept the Gospels as reliable historical documents. This doesn’t guarantee that all the events recorded actually happened, nor that the christian interpretation is correct, but it does mean that the Gospels have passed a number of historical criteria and should be taken seriously as history.

Of course christians will go further than the secular historians and affirm the miracles (especially the resurrection) and Jesus’ status as God’s son. While these beliefs are matters of faith, it is clear there is a firm historical basis for them.

References

I have read books on this topic by a wide variety of scholars from christian apologists to complete sceptics. The sources below try to portray the mainstream of secular scholarship though from a generally christian perspective.

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