The strongest argument in favor of inerrancy begins with establishing the historical accuracy of the four gospel accounts. Last week I looked at the first criterion by which to determine this: how many copies do we have, and how close is the first copy to the original? The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John pass this test with flying colors. But this only tells us we have what these authors originally penned. How do we know they recorded what actually happened? Enter the other two tests of historicity.
The Internal Evidence Test
The second test is known as the “Internal Evidence Test.” As the name indicates, it examines data within the document for signs of historical accuracy or historical fraud. Is the document consistent internally? Does it contain other marks of historicity? If so, this is a sign the author accurately recorded the events contained in the work.
Are There Any Internal Contradictions?
Concerning the first issue, a sign of historical accuracy is a work does not say one thing in one section, and say another, contradictory thing happened in another section. This is a sure sign the author is “making this stuff up.”
Upon examination, there are no contradictions in the four books under consideration. Not one case can be found of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John contradicting themselves within their writings.
Some object that surely there are contradictions in these books. This is a mantra often repeated, to the extent that many just assume it to be true. When someone raises this objection, I simply ask him or her to name one—identify one contradiction in the works of any of these four authors. None can be identified.
However, sometimes the objector cites apparent contradictions between the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At this point I am quick to grant this is an important question to discuss. However, this is a different issue. The issue at hand is the internal evidence—whether a particular document contains contradictions within itself. Therefore, in order to proceed logically in our investigation I suggest we complete the examination of internal evidence, and then turn to comparing this document with other external documents (which is the third test for historicity—the External Evidence Test). Most objectors agree and we can continue our evaluation of the internal evidence.
Is Embarrassing Content Included?
In addition to the text being internally consistent, does it have the other central mark of historicity—does it record “embarrassing” content? If the author is recording history, he will record what happens, regardless of “how it looks.” On the other hand, if someone is making a story up, he tends to only make up and put into his “historical” record events and conversations that are favorable to his agenda. How do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do in this regard?
Each author records much embarrassing content, to a shocking degree. For instance, the authors record instances of the disciples fighting amongst themselves (see Luke 9:46, Matt. 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-34). There is no reason to include this if the authors are not committed to recording what actually happened. By including this the disciples are shown to be petty an immature in this instance. This does not help them as they give leadership to the early church.
John includes embarrassing content as well. He also writes about those seeking God fighting (John 3:25-26). Even more damaging, John records that Jesus’ own family didn’t believe he was the Messiah (God in flesh) in John 7:5. In a culture that highly prized family relations, for one’s own family—those closest to you—to not believe what you said was a huge red flag for others considering whether to believe you or not.
Perhaps the most outstanding example of the gospel authors recording what would be taken as outlandish content is their record of the women being the first to discover and attest to the empty tomb of Jesus (Matt. 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-10, Luke 23:27 and 24:1-10, and John 20:1-3). This event is the most important event in the historical account of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus’ resurrection was the sign that Jesus was God incarnate. If the tomb was not empty, everything else he did and said was irrelevant.
Therefore, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were making up even some parts of the story, this is the one place they would be sure to insert their own ideas, rather than “just the facts.” Whoever would be written in to “discover” the tomb empty would enjoy an important place of honor in the early church. One of Jesus’ disciples would have been the natural choice(s). This would bestow on them great honor and cement their place as leaders of the fledgling church. But disciples are not who the authors record discovering the empty tomb. In fact, Luke even records the disciples were skeptical of the report (Luke 24:11)!
Even worse for the original audience, those recorded as discovering the tomb empty are women, including one who was known to have been demon possessed (Luke 8:2-3). In the culture of the first readers, who Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were originally writing for, women were not to be trusted. We now know this prejudice was wrong. But it was their mentality. The assumption was that women were essentially incapable of telling the truth. They were not permitted to speak in court, unless they were the only witness to an event. Even then, a man was required to appear and attest their testimony should be admitted. Women were seen to be liars by nature (and even more so Mary Magdalene, the woman who had been demon possessed).
Therefore, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were inventing “history,” they most certainly would not have written in the women as those discovering the empty tomb, the central event in the entire narrative! The only possible explanation for this is the gospel writers were very, very careful to record the events exactly how they occurred, no matter what others thought. This is a clear indication Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were recording what actually happened, and not what they wanted to have happen.
This second test of historicity is designed to detect signs of authors “inventing” history in their accounts. By all accounts, the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John get the highest marks on this test as well, further proving their were first-rate historical accounts of the life and words of Jesus. As Will Durant (not a Christian) summarized after reviewing this and more evidence:
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed—the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.” —Will Durant, “Caesar and Christ” in The Story of Civilization, vol. 3 (New York Simon & Schuster, 1944), p. 557.
At this point it would be fair to conclude the gospels can be trusted as genuine history. However, there is a third test of historicity to confirm this conclusion even further: the External Evidence Test. Next week I’ll evaluate the gospel accounts by this last criterion of historicity.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading see F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? For a more in-depth treatment see Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.