Three Reasons Why the Gospels Record History

I’ve noticed that folks usually think before the New Testament Gospels got written down, a long time passed where people told taller and taller stories. Those tall tales are our Gospels. Not history, just stories.

This might be the common understanding. But Doctor Peter Williams from Cambridge University says that doesn’t reflect what we actually have in the Gospels.[1] Not close.

 

The Gospels as History

Historians can date pretty accurately when ancient documents were written. For example, the Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus was Tiberius. There are four surviving main biographical accounts of Tiberius. The best is from Tacitus, written around AD 116. That’s 79 years after the death of Emperor Tiberius in 37 AD.

The earliest biographical account of Jesus is Mark’s Gospel, estimated to have been written around AD60 or thereabouts. This dating is based on the hints in the text around the Jerusalem temple (it was destroyed by the Romans in August 70AD) and the dating of the other Gospels which used Mark as a source. That places Mark at around 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

So – let’s consider that for a moment. The first biographical account of Jesus was written much closer to the events it describes compared to Tacitus’ biography of Emperor Tiberius. Yet Tacitus is a respected historical source on Rome.

That shows the Gospels as credible sources. The closer ancient documents are to the events the better. “Ah,” someone says, “they are written by people who are biased.” I’m sorry – but EVERY AUTHOR has a position of bias. That does NOT automatically make them unreliable. In fact, a passionate person concerned with getting the details out there, is more likely to research and get the details correct.

 

So why do scholars respect the Gospels as historical sources?

First – because they get the little details RIGHT.

If they are right on the small things, they will get the bigger things right too.

Location Details:

The writers know a lot about the area where the action takes place. Not just the bigger cities, like Jerusalem, but the smaller areas like Judea and Galilee. Its not just the names they get right, but also the relative location of them.

One of the most famous first century Roman scholars was Pliny the Elder, and he wrote about Israel having never been there. But he’d never visited Israel, and so his geography has mistakes in it. Not so the Gospels. They communicate accurate information about twenty six towns and villages where the events surrounding Jesus life took place. This would have been impossible to fake.

Sometimes you hear people suggest that the Gospel stories were corrupted in the telling, and the miracles are result of fictional additions. Well, you would not expect to find corrupted texts containing big fictional events, surrounded by accurate incidental details like these. No – it doesn’t work that way. Rather, the correct incidental details support the veracity of the bigger claims about Jesus, his life and his death and resurrection.

 

People’s Names:

At that time, Jews had different sorts of names depending on their location. Alexandrian Jews tended to have different names from those in Turkey or Israel. The Gospels get Jewish Israel names right. But even more, they reflect the distribution of names correctly as well. From the most to the least popular. This level of accuracy would have been impossible for a later person to fake.

 

Second, because the Gospels record undesigned coincidences.

These are subtle agreement between different Gospel texts on little trivial details. These details would not have been important enough to have been faked. So, these coincidences give a big sign of authenticity for the Gospels.

For example, Mark records the incident of the feeding of the 5000 in Mark 6 by Jesus. And he makes a throwaway comment about “people coming and going” at the time.[2] What’s that about? The text doesn’t say. Yet in John’s gospel account of the feeding of the 5000, he says “The Jewish Passover Festival was near.”[3] This was the big event in the Jewish calendar. Think Christmas time for us. To understand what all the travelling was about, we need to take Mark and John together to get the full picture. The details dovetail in a way that would be impossible to fabricate.

 

 

But how do we know that the scribes who copied the Gospel manuscripts did a good job of passing on what had originally been written in the Gospels? Could the text have been changed and corrupted along the way?

Scribes made many many copies of these documents over the centuries, and we have a rich catalogue of surviving copies back to the second century. There are minor differences sometimes – spellings, words omitted and paragraphs moved around. But – we reconstruct the originals from the many copies. The earliest manuscripts say essentially the same as the later ones. We know what the New Testament said back in the second century.

But the gospels were written in the first century.

How do we know they weren’t corrupted before then?

Scholars can only extrapolate based on evidence they have, not what they don’t have. They have no reason to suspect the text changed between the first and second century, where our existing copies start.

But also, if you think about it, it would be very hard in the first century to intentionally change the story in one of the Gospels, and get those changes to stick. The day after a gospel is completed, no one knows its going to be one of the important texts in the New Testament. This writing is copied by hand, and many copies are made and shared around. So to modify what the gospel text originally said, you would have to go to the expense of

  • getting a scribe to write a different account,
  • make multiple copies of that, and
  • somehow get people to accept your changes.
  • And then, you just hope that you can get your changes to replace the original copies in circulation.

Its not possible to prove the gospels did NOT change between the first and second century. But there is a lot of evidence suggesting no change occurred.

 

Conclusion

Whether we accept and act on the claims of the Gospels is a different question. But are the Gospels viewed as reliable historical accounts by scholars? Can we view them as history? Absolutely.

 

[1] John Dickson, Undeceptions Podcast, 7. Gospel Truth.

[2] Mark 6:31.

[3] John 6:4.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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