How Do we Know the Gospels are Historical?

FATHER DWIGHT LONGENECKER

Anyone who wishes to engage in a thoughtful and intelligent exploration of the Christian faith will have to ask whether the gospels are historically reliable.

Can we believe that the stories in the gospels are a true and accurate account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth?

In answering this question the first thing to understand is what kind of documents the gospels are.  To do this we have to first say what they are not.  The gospels are not factual news reports.  They are not a bald list of events and eyewitness testimony as might be compiled, say, in a police report: "Just the facts ma'am."  They are not typical biography or the work of a professional historian.  Neither are the gospels academic historical documents which are cross referenced with multiple documentary, archeological and anecdotal evidence.  They don't pretend to be this kind of document, so it is ridiculous to blame them for not being so.

The gospels are actually totally unique documents.  They are recorded accounts of personal experiences of multiple individuals from within a faith community.  They are the written record of the stories told and sermons preached by the immediate followers of Jesus Christ about his life, teaching and death.  They were recorded by the faith community that followed the teaching of Jesus and his disciples.

They differ in this respect, not only from every other type of historical document, but also from every other type of religious document.  The Book of Mormon and the Koran purport to be dictated by an angel to the founder of the religion.  Virtually every other book-based religion bases their religion on a book written by its founder.  Jesus Christ never wrote a word.  He didn't leave a book with his teachings.  Why this is important will become clear momentarily.

In the meantime, let's go down a side route for a moment and ask first of all, whether any history can be written objectively.  Is it possible for a historian to write a historical account without a bias of any kind?  No.  Every historian is limited by his philosophical and cultural assumptions.  Every historian comes to his task with certain guiding principles that he thinks are true or valuable or helpful.  These guiding principles cause him to interpret the history he records.  He cannot help but make value judgements on the actions he records.  Furthermore, those value judgements are in effect in every aspect of the historian's work.  How does he choose which period of history to work on?  How does he choose which events are momentous?  How does he choose how to prioritize the events he records?  How does he select the important personages and events from the past?  As soon as he selects something to write about or study he is giving it prominence and therefore expressing his bias.  The only way history can be "objective" is if it is a list of events in chronological order.  The historian who is so naive as to imagine that he is not biased is even more compromised because his bias is invisible to him and therefore all the more influential.

Given the fact that the study of history must be biased, it is much better therefore if the pretense of objectivity is dropped.  Much clearer if we know ahead of time that a historical study is written from a particular point of view.  We can then make allowances for the bias and read other works from other perspectives to achieve balance.  If I know that a particular historian is a Marxist or a feminist or a post-modern atheist I will understand their bias on history and the more they are open about it, while still trying to be as objective as possible, the better will the exercise be.


So, to return to the gospels, we have before us documents that purport to record historical events.  The gospel says they are written "so that you might know that Jesus is Christ the Son of God."  They are derived from the experience of the first Christian community and written to help convert people to the Christian faith.  Therefore we are well aware of the bias and the intention of the documents.  Does this disqualify them completely?

No.  The whole reason why I wish to convince my reader of a particular conclusion is because the events that I wish to relate are so compelling.  If I wish to convince the reader that JFK was killed by a conspiracy of the mafia and Lyndon Johnson, that does not necessarily mean that the facts I present are totally bogus.  The selection of the facts and the interpretation of the facts may be dubious and open to criticism, but the mere fact that a document is persuasive in intent does not mean that it is either fabricated or fraudulent.

Why does the authorship suggest authenticity?  Precisely because two of the four gospel writers are NOT apostles.

We therefore have to consider the veracity of the documents themselves.  They are presented as the record of eyewitness accounts.  They are presented to the reader as a record of historical events.  We therefore have to ask whether it is possible that the gospels do, in fact, record eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ.  The first way we do this is to look at their authorship.  Most scholars conclude that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were composed before the death of St Peter and St Paul in the year 65 AD, and that the gospel of John was composed around the year 90AD.  Some scholars say the Gospel of John is the first gospel written — in the 50s — just twenty years after the death of Christ (JAT Robinson)

Who wrote the gospels Matthew is the only one of the three synoptic gospels authored by one of the Apostles himself.  John is also written by an apostle.  Mark was a disciple of Paul and Peter, and the early traditions say that he recorded Peter's sermons and accounts of the life of Christ.  Luke was also a companion of Paul and the early traditions are that he is the doctor who traveled with Paul, and that Luke also knew the Virgin Mary.  Why does the authorship suggest authenticity?  Precisely because two of the four gospel writers are NOT apostles.  Critics like to suggest that the gospels are much later creations — their authorship assigned falsely to the apostles.  However, if this were the case, would not the authors of Mark and Luke's gospels have assigned them not to Mark and Luke, but to Peter and Paul?  If the gospels were written by someone other than the apostles at a much later date, but used the apostles' names to give their writings weight they would have written under the name of one of the apostles — not Mark or Luke — who were not apostles.

We can therefore conclude with the majority of scholars that Mark's gospel was indeed written by John Mark the companion of Peter, and Luke's gospel was written by Luke, the companion of Paul.  Their sources therefore, were Peter and Paul — both eyewitnesses to the events portrayed in the gospel.  Furthermore, these gospels were written just thirty years after the events described.  This would be like us writing about events in 1982.  Many people were still alive who remembered the events.  Furthermore, these eyewitnesses of the events were members of the communities from which the gospels originated.

The stories were recorded and read aloud in worship by people who remembered the events and would have corrected any glaring errors.  Evidence for this is in Mark 15.21 where Mark records that Simon of Cyrene — who helped carry the cross of Christ — was the "father of Rufus and Alexander."  Mark is probably writing the account for the use of the Church in Rome where history records he ministered with Peter.  In St Paul's epistle to the same Roman church he mentions Rufus as one of the faithful.  (Romans 16.13) One can almost hear Peter talking about Simon of Cyrene and saying, "And he was Rufus' father — who is here with us now."


The community origin of the gospels makes them completely unique documents in human history.  Nowhere else do we have four accounts of a character from ancient history written within sixty years of his death, compiled not by one person but compiled out of the community experience.

The fact that the gospels were records of sermons to the early church community strengthens the case for historical reliability because the community itself would exercise a form of check and balance with the historical record.  Because it was a community activity — rather than the work of an isolated author — the fact checking would be part of the community life.  This is why it is important that the New Testament is not the work of Jesus himself.  One author is easily biased, misled, misinformed or just plain crazy.  When the founder of a religion writes a book the whole book stands or falls according to his or her credentials.  That's why so many religious texts are claimed to have been given by dictation by an angel — there's no arguing with that! Instead, Jesus does not write a book.

It is also important to remember that not only did Jesus not write a book, but neither did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John simply sit down to write a biography of Jesus.  Textual criticism shows that the gospel writers were not doing their own work.  They relied on earlier written sources and earlier oral sources from the community.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels, but they did not create the gospels as a single modern author might.  Instead they were like editors — gathering together the various stories which were circulating in the community and compiling them to create the gospels as we have them.  Again, it is important to stress how unique these documents are.  They are not the creation of any one individual, but the record of the stories and accounts and memories from many individuals.

This varied background gives a remarkable reliability to the gospels.  Instead of one single record — like a single biography — of the life of Christ we have not only four different versions (totally unheard of for any character in ancient history) but those four versions themselves are compilations of the accounts of many individuals who were present at the events.  This multiplicity of sources adds an astounding level of veracity to the gospels since those many different sources check and balance and correct one another.

The community origin of the gospels makes them completely unique documents in human history.  Nowhere else do we have four accounts of a character from ancient history written within sixty years of his death, compiled not by one person but compiled out of the community experience.  These documents are not compiled by a single historian who is prone not only to bias, but to factual errors and misunderstandings.  Because the gospels come out of this lived and shared experience they are far more likely to be accounts of what really happened.  If something blatantly false were written the community would have corrected it.

In addition to this we must consider the Jewish context of the early church.  A strict memorization of the Scriptures is part of the Jewish tradition.  Jewish boys even today for their Bar Mitzvah have to memorize parts of the Scripture and are checked for it word by word.  In the first century, with the scarcity of manuscripts, boys were taught to memorize the entire Old Testament, and to recite the accounts of the history of their people word for word.


It is easy to dismiss oral tradition as some kind of game of Chinese whispers — in which the story is exaggerated more and more by each person who re-tells is.  While this is understandable from our point of view, it displays ignorance of the Jewish culture and tradition where oral tradition — rather than being unreliable — was considered more reliable than written tradition.  Written manuscripts — the argument goes — can be altered and edited.  Anyone can write a written manuscript and say whatever he wants.  Written manuscripts can be lost and destroyed.  The oral tradition, on the other hand, is a living, active part of the whole community.  The teacher and the whole class gathered together as the boy recited the ancient stories word for word.  They corrected him to make sure he did not leave anything out or add anything.  This was, after all, the Word of God, and therefore to be treated with utmost sacredness and care.  This was part of a living sacred tradition, and has been shown, rather than being an unreliable way of transmitting a tradition to be a very reliable way indeed.

The stories of Jesus Christ were told and re-told within this Jewish context by Jews who were the first Christians.  The worship of the first century Christians was an outgrowth of the Jewish religion and culture, so they would have had the same respect and care for the new sacred tradition of their Lord as they had for the earlier sacred stories and writings. Critics of the historicity of the gospels like to talk in vague terms of "the mythological elements" which crept into the gospel account.  However, no one actually quotes chapter and verse.  That is because there are no "mythological elements."  Those who talk about mythological elements are clearly ignorant not only of the gospels themselves, but of what mythology actually consists of.  What they usually mean by 'mythological elements' is the supernatural.  The gospels do indeed contain supernatural elements, but these supernatural experiences — angels appearing to people or miracles happening — are recounted as real events that were recorded because they were real events and therefore all the more astonishing.  The supernatural elements presuppose belief in a supernatural dimension.

Within a faith community (whether it is first century Palestine or twenty first century America) supernatural experiences are part of the world view.  That is, after all, what religion is all about.  That religious documents record supernatural experiences is no more unusual than a sports page recording the football scores.

The supernatural elements in a story do not demand religious belief, nor do they demand belief that the supernatural events took place just as said, nor do they demand assent to the whole premise of the supernatural.  What they do demand is that the reader accept that they are the record of a real experience by a historical person.  So, for example, one may doubt that Jesus walked on the water.  One may come up with all sorts of other explanations.  However, one must accept that Peter and the other disciples experienced Jesus walking on the water.  What actually happened may be open for question and debate, but the one thing we know happened is that twelve men perceived another man to be walking to them on the waves.


When confronted with the accounts of the miraculous we have to ask ourselves why anyone would fabricate a tale which is so obviously incredible.  What motivation would there be, for instance, to fabricate a story of Jesus walking on the water?  Why would someone make up a story like that?  Why would twelve other men corroborate the tale if it had not happened?  The only possible motivation for fabricating a story would be that more people would join their religion.  But that religion didn't do anything for them.  It did not bring them fame or fortune or power or glory.  On the contrary, it only brought them ridicule, persecution, torture, hardship and eventually death.

The only possible motivation for fabricating a story would be that more people would join their religion.  But that religion didn't do anything for them.  It did not bring them fame or fortune or power or glory.  On the contrary, it only brought them ridicule, persecution, torture, hardship and eventually death.

Surely a person who was fabricating tales — or even allowing them to be exaggerated — would not have the moral fortitude to then die an agonizing death for those lies.

The record of supernatural events does not negate, therefore, the historical claims of a document.  I might tell you the story of how our family car avoided a head on collision because the two cars de materialized in a supernatural way.  One may dispute the miracle, say that there must be another explanation and find that element of the story incredible, but the mere fact of the supernatural element of the story does not negate the fact that we experienced something otherwise inexplicable, and that the story we told was essentially, therefore true — that is to say — it was a true account of something we experienced.  The existence of miracles in a story do not, therefore, render the whole story unhistorical.

Let us turn again to the question of historicity of the documents themselves.  Critics point to the discrepancies of detail between the gospel accounts.  Here a character is missing, there an incident happened a bit differently — here there is confusion about who a character is related to.  Here the chronology differs between one account and another.  This is put forward as a criticism of the historicity of the accounts, but when this is examined more thoughtfully it actually proves the authenticity of the gospels.  Wouldn't it be much more suspicious if there were four different accounts of the same events and they matched perfectly?  Then we would surely conclude that there was a work of fabrication and serious editing going on.  Instead we find four different account which essentially agree, but which differ in detail.  This is exactly what you would expect from four different perspectives from four different witnesses of the same event.  Not everybody sees everything.  Details slip, some things are observed by one person and not by another.  Witness one says the suspect wore a red hat.  Witness two says it was a pink hat with a red band.  The detail differs and because it does it feels right that both persons are probably eyewitnesses.

How does this criteria stand up next to modern critical historical practice?  What you have in the gospels are documents recording a multiplicity of eyewitness events recorded by four different editors within thirty years of the events themselves.  What other historical figure or event from ancient — or even medieval history can claim such a wide range of balancing, correcting and corroborating witnesses?  None.  In fact the standard for checking and balancing the historical claims is far higher and wider in the gospels than you would have for many universally accepted historical events and characters.

It is true that the gospels do not measure up to the standards of modern critical historical practice.  But they do not purport to be modern, scientifically verifiable documents.  They are the records of real events experienced by real people within the faith community following Jesus Christ.  One of the key elements of this community's belief was that astounding events really did happen within human history, and the gospel stories are the record of those events.

Whether you choose to believe them or not is another matter altogether.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Dwight Longenecker. "How Do we Know the Gospels are Historical?" Patheos (Standing on My Head) (July 15, 2012).

Reprinted with permission from Father Dwight Longenecker. Standing on my head is the blog of Father Longenecker on Patheos.

THE AUTHOR

Father Dwight Longenecker is the chaplain of St. Joseph's Catholic School, Greenville, South Carolina. He also serves on the staff of St. Mary's, Greenville. Father Longenecker studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: Catholicism Pure and Simple, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Adventures in Orthodoxy, Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Visit his website here and his blog here where you can listen to his podcasts of his lectures and homilies and read regular updates.

Copyright © 2012 Father Dwight Longenecker




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