Are the Gospels Reliable?
By Pastor Tom Anderson
Can the stories of Jesus be dismissed as fairy tales made up by religious people to teach and support their beliefs? Haven’t the Gospels been corrupted through alterations and additions over the centuries so that the original version has been lost? Can we trust what we read? Let’s consider the trustworthiness of the Gospels as sources of historical information about Jesus.
We know all four Gospels were written in the first century. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact year of publication, the Gospels were written and began to circulate within a 50 year period from Jesus’ death in 33 A.D.. This means that the first generation of Christians--namely the eyewitnesses to the events of the Gospels were still alive. Any misinformation or exaggerations would have been contradicted by those with first-hand information. My parents are living witnesses to the events of World War II. If someone were to say there were no concentration camps in Germany, my parents could easily refute them as they were stationed in Germany and saw the evidence themselves. Likewise the early date for the writing of the gospels precludes fabrications and falsehoods.
The Gospel writers ground their narratives in hard historical and geographical facts. Consider this oft-read line from the Christmas story in Luke, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria…” This is not mythological or fairy tale rhetoric. It’s history: real people and real places that can be corroborated. Indeed Luke’s gospel alone mentions 32 separate countries, 52 cities, and 9 islands without error. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Anyone who thinks the Gospels are myths, has never read ancient myths.” The point is the Gospel authors are self-consciously recording history.
The Gospels all contain information that was embarrassing to the early church and it’s leaders. No attempt is made to omit or cover up the deficiencies and failures of leaders like Peter, James or John. No attempt was made to hide the facts about Mary Magdalene’s previous employment as a sex worker. The four Gospels show no signs of collusion. For example, the details of the Easter story do not line up on how many women went to the tomb or how many angels they saw. This is exactly what one would expect from a collection of eyewitness accounts of any event. This robust honesty underscores the reliability of the Gospels.
The manuscript tradition of the Gospels is well documented. We have over 5000 copies of the Gospels dating from the second century and hundreds of thousands through the centuries up to the invention of the printing press. It is undisputed that the text of the New Testament is unchanged from the first century. There have been no substantive alterations or additions.
It’s possible to read the Gospels and never find God or come to faith. Jesus himself pointed this out to a group of Bible scholars in his day, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39) To find the living God, we need to do more than just read the words but seek the God who is behind the words. Pride is our enemy here. Pride keeps human hearts from opening up to the Living Lord of the Gospels. We are afraid of what others might think of us should we declare our trust in Jesus. Many are afraid of what such faith would mean for the way they run their own life. It’s pride and fear that lead many people to dismiss the Gospels as made-up stories. The facts are clear: the Gospels are honest and trustworthy.