The Quest for the Historical Jesus Part 1 - Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

The following article by BJ Rudge, Ph.D. is part one of an article that was published in the Journal of Biblical Apologetics.

The issue of "who Jesus is" has been a topic of debate throughout history. During His own time, some saw Jesus as a great prophet like Elijah or John the Baptist. Those who opposed Jesus saw Him as working in the power of Satan. Others, like Peter, saw Jesus as the Son of God. In recent times, there has been a growing interest in the study of the historical Jesus. Our culture has been inundated with a plethora of attempts to answer the question: "Who is Jesus of Nazareth?"

This resurgence has resulted in numerous published books, documentaries, and even movies. Within these sources one can find a variety of opinions on the historical Jesus. Consider some of the following theories: a political revolutionary, a Jewish prophet, a magician, founder of a royal dynasty, and an international traveler.

While there is a divergence of opinion on the "true" identity of Jesus of Nazareth, there appears to be a common underlying belief that runs throughout many of these modern historical theories.

This shared belief is that the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are inaccurate and religiously biased accounts of the historical Jesus.

Thus, many of the modern quests for the historical Jesus are not merely trying to critique the traditional view of Jesus of Nazareth, but they are in fact promoting an entirely "new" Jesus.

Are the canonical Gospels historically reliable documents on the life of Jesus?

"How can you trust the Bible when it was written two thousand years ago?" "How do you know that the Bible is not full of myths and fabrications when it was written many years after the actual events?" It seems anytime I talk to others about the Christian faith I end up hearing one of these questions. On a recent trip I was able to speak with an airline pilot about the evidence for the Christian faith. Although he claimed to be a Christian, he argued we really could not be sure of the total accuracy of the recorded events in the Gospels since they were written years after the events actually occurred. Instead, he felt that the Gospels were probably the result of men and women bringing together different legends and myths about Jesus of Nazareth. There are numerous reasons we could appeal to in establishing the historical trustworthiness of the canonical Gospels. The following are just four of these reasons:

1. Multiple Attestation

The canonical Gospels provide us with four different accounts on the life of Jesus. In these accounts, while the authors may stress different aspects of Jesus' life and have different purposes for writing, they each present harmonious historical information about Jesus of Nazareth. The following are just a few examples from the Gospels where we have multiple reports on events in the life of Jesus: Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13- 17; Mark 1:9-11;Luke 3:21-23a); Jesus' teaching on the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3b-23; Mark 4:3- 25: Luke 8:5-18); Jesus feeding the crowd of five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32- 44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14); Jesus' tomb found empty (Matthew 28:5-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8; John 20:1-10). Thus, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans notes, "... when two or three of the Gospels are saying the same thing, independently – as they often do – then this significantly shifts the burden of proof onto somebody who says they're just making it up."

2. Primary Sources

The canonical Gospels are primary sources on the life of Jesus of Nazareth because they are grounded in eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35). In other words, the authors of the canonical Gospels either claim to have had actual contact with the events themselves, or at least knew people who did and then checked it out. This eyewitness testimony in the canonical Gospel accounts supports their reliability and authority as sources in regard to the events they describe. This is the case because they were not written by men who were disassociated from the events themselves. Rather, the authors of the Gospels either personally participated in them (Matthew and John), or they had firsthand knowledge of the events through the testimonies of those who did (Mark and Luke).

3. Early Date

The standard dating for the canonical Gospels, even among liberal scholars, ranges from A.D. 50 to 100. The uniqueness of this dating, considering the end of Jesus' earthly ministry is dated between A.D. 30-33, is the fact the canonical Gospels were in existence during the lifetime of both hostile and non-hostile eyewitnesses. Thus, the presence of these eyewitnesses would help ensure there were not any fabrications or falsifications on the part of the Gospel writers. For instance, the hostile witnesses (such as the Pharisees and Sadducees) could have easily contradicted what was documented in the canonical Gospels. When a Gospel writer said Jesus did or said "x," the hostile witnesses were in the position to say Jesus did not do or say "x"because they were present during the events that the Gospels recorded. However, they remained silent, and their silence merely supports the fact that what is recorded in the canonical Gospels are trustworthy accounts of the person and life of Jesus Christ.

4. Coherence

The canonical Gospels provide us with information that is consistent with what we know about the history and culture of Israel during the life of Jesus. We know this is the case because archeology has repeatedly confirmed the canonical Gospels are accurate sources in regard to what they say about historical people, places, and events.

Consider just the following two examples. First, all of the canonical Gospels record Jesus was put on trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18-19). Since there was no mention of Pontius Pilate outside the canonical Gospel accounts, many scholars questioned whether Pilate was a historical person. Two Italian archeologists answered this question when they unearthed an inscription in Latin at the port city of Caesarea, which stated, "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberium to the Caesareans."

Second, two of the canonical Gospels mention Nazareth as the city where Jesus was raised (Matthew 2:23; Luke 4:16). Since the Old Testament, Josephus and the Talmud never list Nazareth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 4:16; John 1:45) among the villages and cities of Galilee, Nazareth was considered by many scholars to be a fictitious city. However, in an excavation at Caesarea in 1962, a Hebrew inscription was found "... which mentions it (Nazareth) as one of the places in Galilee to which members of the twenty-four priestly courses emigrated after the foundation of Aelia Capitolina in A.D. 135."

Added to this discovery, first century tombs were uncovered around the vicinity of Nazareth, which has led archeologists to conclude "... that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period."

Thus, as these two examples have shown, archeology continues to demonstrate the canonical Gospels are coherent with what we know about first century Israel.

A true examination of the evidence has shown the allegation the canonical Gospels are not historically reliable documents on the life of Jesus, is historical fiction and not historical fact.