Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Are the Gospels Historically Trustworthy?

How historically reliable are the Gospels? Using the objective tools that all historians employ, the answer is “Highly reliable!” Using these various criteria of authenticity, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg claims that these tools can,

• Eventually lead one to accept virtually all the gospel tradition….These include the linguistic, social, political, economic, cultural and religious environment s depicted; the great events of Jesus’ life-baptism, temptation, transfiguration, teaching on the kingdom, call to repentance , parables, beatitudes, teaching on God as Father, the miracles, and exorcisms as signs of the kingdom, the betrayal, agony, trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection…Latourelle sums up: “On each of the subjects enumerated, we can invoke the testimony of many exegetes. To the extent that researches [sic] go on, the material acknowledged as authentic grows ceaselessly until it covers the whole Gospel.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 253-54)

Let’s just look at one of these criteria. When Bill Clinton wrote his autobiography some years back, the critics and historians understandably panned it. It was just too self-serving. The only confessions that Clinton made were those that everyone already knew about. The book’s credibility was therefore highly suspect. However, if a politician’s autobiography includes confessions against his best interests – failures, criminality, moral weaknesses – we justifiably regard it as highly credible.

The same principle pertains to the study of the Gospels. If the Gospels reflect the interests of the early church, we might assume that the Gospels reflect their biases and not reliable reporting. If instead the Gospels do not reflect the interests of the early church, then we might assume that that they were written by people – the Apostles and those associated with them – whose overriding motivation was to transcend their biases to accurately tell the story of Jesus.

Let’s transpose our question this way. “Do the Gospels:

1. Reliably present the life and words of Jesus (27-30 AD), or
2. Do they reflect the interests of the early church (70-100 AD)?”

When we examine the Jesus of the Gospels, we find that virtually everything He did and said cut against the grain of not only His contemporaries, but also His Apostles and the early church. In other words, they go against the biases and interests of all parties involved.


His 12 chosen Apostles were all simple men. They didn’t reflect a cross-section of Israelite society. They weren’t highly educated people – not the type of people with whom you or the early church would want to identify; not the type of people who would draw new converts.

Even worse, Jesus’ 12 are consistently portrayed as simpletons who just didn’t get it. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find Jesus telling them that they had done a good job or that they were catching on. Yes, Jesus did affirm Peter’s response on one occasion, but then followed it with a stinging denunciation:

• "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Matthew 16:23)

In fact the Apostles misunderstood almost all of His teachings. Even at the end, they still failed to get it. The Apostles seemed to be so filled with themselves, that they refused to believe what Jesus told them:

• "You will all fall away," Jesus told them, "for it is written: " 'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.'” (Mark 14:27)

They all proudly protested that they would never abandon Jesus. Later, they had to eat their words. Nor could they even stay awake to pray with their Master. If the early church had written the Gospels – and they reflected the agenda of the early church – they would have presented a more glowing and winsome portrait of the Apostles, one that would lend status and credibility to this new and embattled religion. However, we find no indication of this kind of window-dressing. Instead, they are presented as morally bankrupt – racist and status-conscious. They looked up to everyone above them and tried to place impediments in front of those petitioners they regarded as inferior. They discouraged and even blocked the blind, children and gentiles from seeing Jesus. Meanwhile, they held the rich and rulers in high regard and went to great lengths to please them.

Who would want anything to do with such characters, and who would invent such patriarchs if they wanted their religion to flourish? No one! Why then do we have such consistently disparaging portrayals of the Apostles in the Gospels? They must be true!

Besides, Jesus received the worst sinners into His presence. They were such social outcasts that the ruling class concluded that He couldn’t be a prophet. He allowed a degraded woman to touch Him, bringing upon Him the contempt of the leadership (Luke 7:39). And it wasn’t only the ruling class which felt this way. The entire culture partook of this worldview. Jesus not only alienated everyone, He reserved His strongest denunciations for those who were most highly respected, certainly not something you’d want to do if you are starting a religion!

How then could such a Man have a following? Even many of the skeptics of the Jesus Seminar have reluctantly admitted that He must have been a miracle worker:

1. “On historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” Marcus Borg (Jesus Seminar {JS})

2. “Throughout his life, Jesus performed healings and exorcisms for ordinary people.” John Dominic Crossan (JS)

3. “On the eve of the Passover Yesu was hanged…because he practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.” Babylonian Talmud (Jewish sources have an aversion to mention Jesus by name and anything positive about Him.)

4. “Jesus certainly performed exorcisms as they were practiced in the first century…It would have been natural for an itinerant charismatic healer and teacher to do so.” John Rousseau (JS archeologist)


Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It makes it seem that He had a sin to confess. No one would have invented such an account. The fact that He was tempted by the Devil for 40 days suggests that He could be tempted. On the surface, this would seem to be inconsistent with the agenda of the early church to prove that Jesus is God.

We see a Jesus confessing ignorance about His return: “Not even the son of man knows” (Mark 13:32). The Gospel accounts of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane show a fearful and reluctant Jesus. On the Cross, we see a confused Jesus, crying out, “Why have You forsaken Me?” – hardly the portrait of Jesus that the early church would want to convey!

Besides, every other religion paints their leader departing in style, as an inspiration and an example for all the followers. However, Jesus departed in utter disgrace – beaten, stripped naked, murdered as a common criminal, abandoned by His Apostles. This is not a portrait that others would find inspiring. Why should the Gospels include this account unless it actually happened this way? Why were the women, whose testimony lacked any credence in that culture, be listed as the first ones to encounter the risen Lord? Again, it must have happened that way.


Some were difficult to understand. Others were impossible to follow. These would discourage followers. On one occasion, Jesus taught:

• "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6:53)

As a result of this difficult teaching, many departed from Him. However, just about all of His teachings were difficult to understand. He taught, “Hate mother and father,” “Let the dead bury the dead,” “Cut off hands,” “Don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing.” His parables were no less challenging. None of them had appeal to the common man or the leadership. Many were even offensive. None would warm the heart, except perhaps for the parable of the “Prodigal Son.” But even this parable ends by placing a sword into the gut of those who think that they are religious.

His other sayings and teachings were, for the most part, impossible to follow and utterly humbling for anyone who would try to follow them. He taught, “Sell all you have,” “Give alms of all that you have,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Give to anyone who asks.” It seemed as if Jesus didn’t want any followers. Who would want to be part of a religion that required everything? No one, who wanted to promote a religion, would create such teachings, least of all the early church, who understandably would want to make them appealing. Evidently, these difficult teachings had been recorded as such because these were exactly what Jesus had taught.


Jesus had been very cryptic about many of the central doctrines of the faith – His messiahship, His divinity, the atonement, the new covenant – those doctrines that the people of His day did not have the ears to hear. Had the early church edited the Gospels, they would have made these cherished doctrines more explicit in the mouth of Jesus. His words would have reflected their concerns. However, for the most part, He had been embarrassingly silent about these doctrines until the time of His departure.


Had the early church exercised editorial oversight over the Gospels, they would have surely smoothed out the rough edges. However, we have no evidence that this ever happened.

At the end of his book, Blomberg concludes,

• “Whether by giving the Gospels the benefit of the doubt which all narratives of purportedly historical events merit or by approaching them with initial suspicion in which every detail must satisfy the criteria of authenticity, the verdict should remain the same. The Gospels may be accepted as trustworthy accounts of what Jesus did and said.”

If the Gospels are reliable, then we can accept their accounts of the miraculous, especially the Resurrection. If Jesus rose from the dead, this authenticates His testimony about Himself and His words as the Words of God Himself.

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