Why believe Christianity is true? Because the Gospels tell me so. Although this may sound trite or dismissive, it is a reasonable response if the biblical content preserves the events as they really happened. And if Christianity is based in certain empirically verifiable events, then Christianity is true. This essay will speak to the general reliability of the New Testament Gospels.
Preliminary questions regarding ancient literature purporting to record accurate historical events include: “What is the author’s intent?” “Did the Gospel authors intend to capture a genuine portrayal of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth?” If not, then at least it is psychologically naïve and at most historically irresponsible to rely upon the Gospel accounts as accurate sources. If it can be demonstrated the Gospel authors intended to write biographies and accurately record the words and works of Jesus, then it becomes a small distance to travel in believing Christianity is true. (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)
Should we give the benefit of the doubt to the Gospels or should we just assume they’re inaccurate? Dr. Greg Boyd cautions against taking the latter stance:
Historians generally assume that an author’s intent is to write history if it appears he or she is trying to write history. … [W]e in general trust the account unless we have reasons not to do so. The burden of proof, in short, is always assumed to rest on historians to demonstrate that a work is untrustworthy; it does not rest on documents to in every instance prove the opposite. … Unless such a commonsensical assumption were made, it is difficult to see how the discipline of writing ancient history could ever get far off the ground.1Professor Luke Timothy Johnson highlights the desperate result of applying skeptical methodology to historical documentation:
Each writer follows the predictable path of rationalist reduction. Historical difficulties in the texts as we have them are construed as hopeless obstacles, which must lead inevitably to skepticism. The void of skepticism is then filled with inventive speculation. The speculation is not a reasonable alternative reading based on the available evidence, but a complete reshuffling of the pieces, yielding a picture more satisfying to the aesthetic or religious sensibilities of the authors.2If we wish to avoid the agnostic pitfalls of skepticism, we should grant the courtesy Boyd notes above and apply it to the New Testament Gospels.
While modern biographers typically cover the entire life span of their subjects, ancient biographers were more selective and focused on the end of the person’s life. The Trial of Socrates by Plato is a good example. This selectivity may explain why there is little of Jesus’s life before he began his public ministry.
Eyewitness testimony was considered essential for a reliable Greco-Roman biography. Luke’s prologue is clear that he interviewed eyewitnesses before assembling an accurate account of Jesus’s life (Luke 1:1-4). Moreover, it is possible that Mark’s Gospel has an inclusio* in which he begins and ends with Peter, traditionally understood to be Mark’s main source. Martin Hengel has noted that Mark 1:17 and 16:7 work to show that Peter was a legitimate eyewitness per the qualifications in Luke 1:2, John 15:27 and Acts 1:22.3
Paul D. Adams (the co-author of this essay) makes some important points about first century oral culture. He writes:
Though the author's right to summarize rather than cite every word was recognized, there was an intense concern for accuracy in what counted as history, both in the Greco-Roman tradition and the Jewish tradition. … The primary issue is between summary versus citation. But, as [Darrell] Bock reminds us, "it is possible to have historical truth without always resorting to explicit citation.4If the Gospels are historically accurate, then the events in them must be aligned with real people and places. Archaeology can be immensely helpful to confirm historical record. Consider the discovery of the Caiaphas Ossuary (bone box) outside of Jerusalem in 1990; this artifact holds the bones of “Yehosef bar Kayafa," translated as "Joseph, son of Caiaphas"5
Excavations verify the pools of Bethesda (John 5:1-15) and Siloam (John 9:1-11).6 Bethesda is especially relevant since critics long doubted John’s accuracy, only later to find his description matches down to the detail. Similarly, in 1961, a team of Italian archaeologists working on a theater in Caesarea Maritima found what is now known as the “Pilate Stone”. It mentions Tiberius and includes an inscription describing Pilate as the Prefect of Judea.7 At last count, there are nearly twenty different people mentioned in the Gospels, either confirmed by archaeology or cited by non-Christian writers.8 Craig Blomberg estimates nearly sixty confirmed historical details in John’s Gospel.9 Obviously, these findings speak to the veracity of the Gospels.
In summary, the authors of the Gospels intended to record an accurate account of Jesus’ earthly ministry and we can verify they are accurate. Archaeology and non-Christian historians give confirmation to the Gospels, offering evidence that when we read about the actions and message of Jesus in the Gospels, we are reading what really happened. In short, Christianity is true because “the Bible tells me so.”
*An inclusio is a literary device that brackets or frames a section by purposefully repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning and the end of the section. Also called an “envelope”.
1 Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies (Wheaton, Ill: BridgePoint, 1995), 220-221.
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 32.
3 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s ), 124-126.
4 See http://tmch.net/mystery.htm and references there.
5 see http://www.formerthings.com/caiaphas.htm, cf. Matthew 26:3; 57; Luke 3:2.
6 Hershel Shanks “Where Jesus Cured the Blind Man” Biblical Archaeology Review vol 31 no 5 Sep/Oct 2005, 16-23
7 see http://www.formerthings.com/pontius.htm
8 See Table 10.1 in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 270.
9 Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2001), 70-280.