The Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Sorting through the mountains of information regarding the historical reliability of the gospels is difficult and daunting. The subjects are many, including textual criticism, history, comparative study between the gospels, the nature of memory, oral storytelling, the question of genre, etc. How does one pick out what is important? How does one approach the reams of material in each of these categories? 

Note: This is not an academic paper, and thus is not footnoted. For more reading I would suggest either E. P. Sanders (The Historical Figure of Jesus) or Geza Vermes (Jesus). 

Thankfully, a whole lot of this information can be simply put aside once a few things are acknowledged. Starting with textual criticism, and without getting into details, there is good reason to think our copies of the Greek text of the gospels are very good. This doesn't mean the claims of the gospels are accurate, but it does mean that we know the texts of the gospels were not greatly corrupted in the copying process. Having recognized this, we don't need to worry about textual criticism for the question at hand. 

The study of memory has thrown doubt on how solid our memories really are, but there is not to much to be done about it. Having multiple sources is good because it reduces the chances of memory being wrong. Studies on oral storytelling have been brought into the question of the gospels reliability, but they really don't add too much. We don't have access to the disciples oral culture, so studies of modern oral storytelling cultures are interesting, but far from conclusive. Whatever genre the gospels are, early Christians seemed to think that they reflected real events. We can and should ask the question of whether they are accurate or not even if there was not an expectation of modern historical accuracy. 

So, the texts are good enough. Memory is what it is, and we can and should ask if the events in the gospels really happened, but perhaps without being too picky about detail. And this is exactly where we find some big problems.

Comparative study of the gospels demonstrates substantial agreement between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark as a source, and so usually when they agree with Mark they agree with each other. This agreement doesn't mean historical reliability because Mark might have been wrong. Where they don't have Mark to follow, we see some serious differences between Matthew and Luke. 

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are so different as to be contradictory. Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem one to two years after Jesus' birth (when the wise men visit), and then avoiding Judea at all costs by first fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. Luke has Joseph and Mary move back to Nazareth after Mary's purification and then visit the temple every year in Jerusalem. So if Luke is right then the Wise Men visited a Jesus who wasn't there. And Mary and Joseph didn't avoid Judea at all. Matthew and Luke seem to be working with different sources that don't agree with another, and for which there is no easy way to make them fit together. 

The resurrection accounts are all over the place. There is agreement that Jesus was dead and buried, but outside of that the details are a forest of minor disagreement. There might be a way to harmonize them save for one substantial difference between Matthew and Luke. Matthew has Jesus commanding the disciples to go to Galilee, and Luke has Jesus commanding the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. Whether or not the disciples stayed in Jerusalem or went to Galilee Jesus is reported as giving two contradictory commands. 

So for two of the most important historical questions for Christian belief and practice, the birth of Jesus and his resurrection, there is not agreement between the sources. And we don't have any other sources. So Matthew and Luke cannot both be right on Jesus' birth. One of them might be right, but we couldn't know because we don't have any other sources. In fact they might both be wrong. Comparative study of the gospels alerts us that on some important events the sources don't agree, and therefore we don't have unified testimony in the way  we would like. I have given only two examples, but there are more. 

When we dive into historical study as a whole, the gospels are sometimes out of step with what we know about the ancient world. Luke has the census of Quirinius happening when Herod the Great ruled, but these events were ten years apart. Some of the details about Jesus' trial seem strange and out of step with what we would expect. So the gospels don't always agree with what we know about the rest of the ancient world. 

These observations don't mean the gospels are wrong about everything. Possibility the gospels get many things right. What these observations mean is that we don't know. What we know is that the gospels are sometimes wrong and not always in agreement with each other. In this they are much like any other historical documents. But given that we don't have any other sources of Jesus' life, and that gospels are at best a second hand telling of the events of Jesus' life, and don't even know for sure who wrote them, pronouncing them historically reliable seems a stretch. 

Again, this isn't to say they are wrong about everything. Or right. We just don't know. Certainly we can read them as we would other historical sources and give them the benefit of the doubt unless we know better. But this isn't how Christians read the gospels or use the gospels. Christians make the claim that the gospels are true. But this can't be. Jesus can't have both told his disciples to go to Galilee and stay in Jerusalem. And both couldn't have happened the way the gospel writers describe the events. Granted, this one disagreement doesn't make the gospels wholly unreliable, but it does prove that you cannot assume they are accurate and reliable. 

Christians make claims that need the historical reliability that the gospels are unable to give us. The Christian message is that Jesus died for us and rose from the dead to save us from eternal punishment. Christians claim that Jesus is the Lord of all people, and that all people must believe in him and bow the knee or face eternal torture in hell. This message demands a total life change from all people and threatens terrible consequences if it is ignored. 

But then we don't have documents that we know are historically reliable. How can eternal punishment be threatened when we don't even know for certain about Jesus' life? 

Some might say that there is enough. That the gospels agree on the main points. This amounts to saying even though I know at least parts of the gospels must be historically unreliable because of their disagreement, that where ever the gospels agree it must be true. This is first a non sequitor: all the gospels might be wrong about an event they agree on. The truth is that we don't know. Furthermore if only the agreement of the gospels is taken as true, then there is not much left to work with besides a skeleton of facts that doesn't lead to much. 

Basic agreement with substantial disagreement in the details seems hardly reassuring in light of the seriousness of Christian claims. The virgin birth, for example, is important for Christian theology. But Luke and Matthew tell two entirely different stories about it. These stories do not directly support the other even if they are compatible. They both could be true, they both could be false, only one of them might be true. We don't know. That Luke and Matthew agree that Mary was a virgin doesn't mean they are historically reliable on that particular fact! And the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is central to Christianity, depends on Jesus being born of a virgin and the Holy Spirit. 

In short, we know that the gospels are occasionally not historically reliable, and we don't know know where they are historically reliable. This directly undermines claims of Christianity to be true, based on historical happenings. The truth is, we don't know for sure what happened with Jesus because we don't know if or where the gospels are historically reliable. 


The Resurrection and Warranted Belief

This is the first post in our De-conversion series.

Imagine that you have a friend named Jim who comes to you excited. He tells you that he has found out that the reason we die is because all humans have a deadly disease. He continues to say that he knows a way we can live forever. You ask him how. He encourages you to look at a letter from a friend of his named Luke from a distant country. You examine the letter and find a claim that there is a man named Josh from that country who 5 years ago died, but then came back to life.

You ask Jim how he knows this, if the letter writer had seen Josh come back to life, etc. In other words you ask for evidence establishing why the claims of the letter should be believed. Jim admits that Luke never saw Josh come back to life, but that Luke had spoken to people who knew Josh's closest disciples. These close disciples had seen Josh come back to life. Furthermore there are other letters from a man named Paul who saw a vision of Josh. 

Jim encourages you to pledge allegiance to Josh and follow his teachings in order to escape death. You ask if Josh's followers live forever. Jim admits that Josh's followers die, but insists that Josh is going to raise all his followers to live eternal one day. 

In this circumstance you have no reason to believe Jim. You would be entirely justified in thinking that Jim had been fooled. The fact that Jim insists that numerous people have believed in Josh is no argument at all, the evidence itself is severely lacking to establish anything, let alone that Josh has somehow beaten death. 

Yet this is exactly how the stories of Jesus' resurrection read; and even worse, these letters and stories were written about 2000 years ago by people who only claim to have talked to eyewitnesses or to have had visions. We have no evidence aside from the fact that many people believed that Jesus rose from the dead. 

There is no way to verify or establish that what the Gospels claim about Jesus coming back to life. This is in fact much like many other ancient documents, but the difference is that, on this meager evidence, Christianity demands that you devote your entire life to Jesus and the church. When placed alongside a contemporary example in which the evidence is of the same quality, we see how ridiculous this is. 

No matter how many arguments are put forward concerning the New Testament, a couple facts remain.

  1. The stories we have are from writers who heard these stories from other people. 
  2. We have no way to independently corroborate these stories.

Even if the texts of the Gospels were perfectly preserved as from the original author's hand this still doesn't mean you should believe their claims. The disciples told people who told others who told others who wrote it down. Perhaps, although we don't know for certain, the one of the disciples told the story of Jesus' resurrection to one of the Gospel authors. But then again we don't know for certain who wrote the Gospels. All of this to say the Gospels are at best second or third hand stories from people we cannot identify for certain. 

Believing a story of a friend of a friend who saw someone dunk a basketball from the foul line is one thing. We have proof that some athletes can in fact do this. Believing a story of a friend who read a letter from a man who claimed to have spoken with someone else who claimed that a man rose from the dead is quite another. Furthermore, supposedly this man rose from the dead to save you from a problem you cannot see or feel and which will only become plain after you die. 

Just as you would never believe Jim, you shouldn't believe the New Testament claims about Jesus. Used in the loosest sense of the term, anything is possible. But that doesn't mean you should believe.  

D & J