The Gospel writers claim to have recorded what Jesus said and did. How do we know they haven’t embellished history beyond the bounds of ancient biography as they did so? Should the Gospels be trusted or rejected as hopelessly un-historic?
Professor Simon Greenleaf didn’t think they were un-historic.
He lived in the 19th century, practiced law throughout his life, held the Royal Professorship of Law and Dane Professorship at the Harvard Law School, and played a major part in forming Harvard’s coveted reputation. The London Law Journal of 1874 said of Greenleaf, “It is no mean honour to America that her schools of jurisprudence have produced two of the first writers and best esteemed legal authorities of this century…Judge Story…and…Professor Greenleaf.”
Greenleaf believed that the New Testament Gospel writers would be taken as reliable witnesses in a court of law. Their writings should be viewed as historic. Greenleaf proposed five tests that led him to that conclusion:
Greenleaf Test #1 – Are the Witnesses Honest?
Do they honestly say what they believe to be true? The Gospels show many instances of the writers’ openness and sincerity. Historians sometimes call this the criterion of embarrassment.
The writers deal with such uncomfortable situations such as:
- The many failures of Jesus’ disciples.
- The occasional harshness of Jesus’ teaching.
- Jesus’ anguish as he faced his own death.
Greenleaf concluded the gospel writers were, “good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.”
Greenleaf Test #2 – Do the Witnesses Have Ability?
Did they have the opportunity to observe the situations they record? How well were they able to evaluate what they had seen and researched from other eyewitnesses? What about their ability to remember things?
Peter (Mark), John and Matthew had many opportunities to observe these events first hand. All three claim to have seen the resurrected Christ.
Luke was a physician and Matthew a tax collector. Both occupations required exactness in evaluation and reporting.
There’s no reason to question their mental abilities.
“the writings…indicate…mental vigour, as well as cultivated intelligence. The Gospels…reveal that elegance of style and lofty imagery which are invariably characteristics of intellectual depth and culture. The ‘ignorant fishermen’ idea is certainly not applicable to the Gospel writers…”
Greenleaf Test #3 – Are there Sufficient Numbers of Witnesses and are they Consistent?
Greenleaf reports that the number and authenticity of the witnesses would satisfy any court.
“There is enough of a discrepancy (their own form and style) to show…no previous concert among them…[yet] substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction.”
Greenleaf Test #4 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Conform to Our Experience?
This might be where things get tricky. After all, the Gospels report various miraculous events, culminating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Who’s seem a real miracle in their lives?
It turns out, MANY people have experienced what they believe are miracles. Craig Keener has done one of the biggest studies into miracle claims of all sorts in every human culture, and has come to this conclusion on miraculous physical healing:
“Hundreds of millions of people worldwide claim to have experienced or witnessed what they believe are miracles. Eyewitness claims to dramatic recoveries appear in a wide variety of cultures, among Christians often successfully emulating models of healings found in the Gospels and Acts. Granted, such healings do not occur on every occasion and are fairly unpredictable in their occurrence; yet they seem to appear with special frequency in cultures and circles that welcome them.”
Greenleaf himself urges an attitude of following the facts to their conclusion, even if the testimony is unusual. On the Gospel reports of Jesus healing miracles, he states:
“In every case of healing, the previous condition of the sufferer was known to all; all saw…restoration…these…were facts, plain and simple…comprehended by persons of common capacity and observation.
If they were separately testified to, by different witnesses…the jury would be bound to believe them”
These witnesses were credible.
Greenleaf test #5 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Coincide with Contemporaneous Facts and Circumstances?
There are various instances where the Gospel writers clearly speak accurately about the geography, history and social factors at work in their day.
1 – The Pavement
Jesus trial before Pontius Pilate is reported to have occurred in an area known as “the Pavement.”
“When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.”
If the pavement is fabricated, maybe the whole trial is?
But there’s good evidence to suggest that the pavement is not fabricated, because the archaeological evidence suggests it has most probably been located.
2 – The Pool of Bethesda
This is mentioned in John chapter 5 with reference to a healing miracle of Jesus. This pool is apparently not referenced by any other historical document, yet was excavated and identified recently.
In summary, dishonest witnesses tend to be guarded in what they say, avoiding detail that might reveal them as dishonest. Yet the Gospel witnesses are refreshingly open with details that are cross checked with what else scholars have learned about life in those days.
The evidence suggests therefore that the Gospel writers speak the truth.
Image courtesy of http://www.pexels.com.
 Cited in Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers’ Case for the Resurrection, (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, & Public Policy, Inc), 43.
 Clifford, 45.
 Cited in Clifford, 46.
 Craig S. Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), Kindle Edition, 2012, Loc 5814.
 Cited in Clifford, 48.
 John 19:13, NRSV.
 Pavement Stone at Fortress of Antonia, Bible History, http://www.bible-history.com/past/jesus_trial_pavement.html, accessed 26th July 2017.
 The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles, Bible History Daily, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/the-bethesda-pool-site-of-one-of-jesus%E2%80%99-miracles/, accessed 26th July 2017.