Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the reasons to believe the gospel authors are first-rate historians. Yet there are three objections often raised against the historicity of the gospels. I’ll discuss and respond to each of these objections in this article.
But How Could They Remember?
One may object that these accounts of Jesus’ life were written years after the events in question. How could the gospel authors remember accurately what happened?
Much can be said in response—entire volumes have been written on this very topic. Here I’ll touch on the high points and refer you to the books below and in my bibliography.
Early Dating of the Gospels
First, the gospel accounts were written between the late 30s (Mark) and the late 60s (John). Therefore there is not as much time between the events and these records as many assume.
To determine this, we begin with the book of Acts, written by Luke. Acts records important events in the lives of Jesus’ early followers. However, two very significant events for these early believers are not recorded—the invasion of Jerusalem in AD 66 and its fall in AD 69-70. As Jerusalem was the center of religious life for Jesus’ followers, we should expect Luke to record these two events. But he did not. Why not? The best explanation is that Luke had finished writing Acts before AD 66.
Acts is a continuation of the historical narrative Luke began in the gospel bearing his name. This means Luke wrote his gospel account before he wrote Acts. Therefore Luke must have been composed before AD 66. Many suggest Luke was written by at least the late 50s.
When Mark is compared to Luke (and Matthew, which is similar to Luke), all but 20 to 30 of the verses in Mark are also found in Luke and Matthew. This seems to indicate Mark is a common source used by both Luke and Matthew in writing their accounts (good historians utilize other sources). Therefore Mark must be dated prior to the late 50s, to be in existence as a source for Luke and Matthew. Mark most probably existed by the early 50s.
Yet there is reason to date part of Mark much earlier. There is an abrupt change in the writing style of Mark beginning at chapter 14 and continuing through the remainder of the book (chapter 16). The stylistic form indicates Mark 14-16 pre-dates Mark 1-13. Furthermore, in Mark 14-16 early Jewish terms are recorded that are no longer being used by the 50s. For instance, Peter is referred to by his Jewish name “Cephas” and the Apostles are referred to by their earlier name “the Twelve.”
For these reasons many scholars have concluded that this later section of Mark pre-dates the rest of the book. The Mark 14-16 section is often referred to as the “pre-Markian Passion narrative,” as it tells the story of Jesus’ death, and Mark 1-13 were then written to fill in the “backstory.” Due to these stylistic and linguistic clues, scholars postulate Mark 14-16 was written in the late 30s or early 40s.
We know that Jesus died in AD 33. Therefore the pre-Markian passion narrative was written four to ten years after the events recorded. Compared to all other accounts in ancient history, this span of time is astonishingly short, and good reason to believe the events described occurred just as described. (See here for reasons to date John, the last gospel to be written, early as well—by the late 60s. Even this is a very short span of time when compared to other recordings of ancient history.)
Jewish Oral Tradition
Yet some may still object that even four to ten years is too long to accurately remember an event. Two responses may be offered in response.
First, four to ten years may be too long a time for us in the twenty-first century to accurately remember what others said and did. But this was not the case for those in the first century. In our day we are required to remember less and less. As a result, our “memory muscle” is not exercised and it atrophies. Even in the recent past our memory muscle was stronger than it is now. For instance, most readers will remember the days before cell phones, and even before speed dial. Back then we all had to remember many phone numbers and did so. We could easily remember the numbers of our parents and many friends. But not so today. Because of technology this ability has evaporated. I have a hard time even remembering my wife’s number. I don’t need to—she is in my “favorites” list on my iPhone.
Now fast-rewind to the first century. They had none of the technology we enjoy today to remember things. As a result, memory was of critical importance. Their memory muscle was exercised every day in ways we can’t even imagine. Therefore they were able to remember people, events, and conversations in amazing detail.
One example of this was their memorization of Scripture. First-century Jews did not have copies of their Scriptures easily accessible. The few hand-copied manuscripts they had were very precious. Therefore it was expected that all Jewish boys, as part of their religious education, would memorize large portions of Scripture word-for-word, and they did! This would be an astonishing feat for us today, but a common expectation of a first-century Jew.
The writers of the gospel accounts were Jewish men with this training. Therefore, to memorize the words and actions of Jesus was not that big of a deal. In fact, it would have been quite easy for them to do.
In fact, this was what was expected of those called as Jesus’ disciples. It was common practice for Jewish teachers of the time (rabbis) to invite others to be their followers. They were then expected to memorize everything the rabbi said and teach it to others when he died. So the disciples knew what was expected of them when they accepted Jesus’ invitation to be his followers.
Matthew and John were written directly by disciples with this charge. Peter’s account was recorded by Mark. Luke was written by a companion of Paul who investigated the claims of many eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus, certainly including interviews with Jesus’ disciples. (See here for more on the rationale for ascribing these as the authors of the gospel accounts, as well as alternative views. See here for a briefer treatment of the same.)
Finally, beyond their cultural training and expectations, Jesus’ disciples, and those recording the words of Jesus’ disciples had an even more important rationale and motivation to record correctly what Jesus said and did. Believing Jesus to be the Son of God (which was clearly their assumption), they believed they were memorizing and recording the very words of God. This is comparable to how those who recorded the words of the prophets in the Old Testament had to be very careful to record exactly what the prophets said. To inaccurately record the words of the Messiah, even in the smallest way, would be to change the very words of God, an unimaginable crime in their culture. Therefore they had the highest motivation possible to remember and record precisely what Jesus said and did.
Records Circulating in Jerusalem
Second, the pre-Markian passion narrative, describing Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, was circulating in Jerusalem in the late 30s or early 40s. Many if not most of the residents of Jerusalem lived through the events described. If Mark was “making this stuff up” they would have been the first to detect this and call him out on it. (The same can be said of the other gospel accounts that began circulating in Jerusalem over the next few decades.)
Moreover, it would have been the Jewish resident’s moral and religious duty to call out errors. As strict monotheists they would not have liked the idea of Jesus being made out to be equal with God. This would be even more motivation for the Jewish community to dispute the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts of these events.
In addition, as Jews they were awaiting their Messiah to deliver them from oppression. Jesus’ followers claimed he was the Jewish Messiah, and this fact was established by his resurrection. This is even more reason the Jewish community would have argued the gospel accounts were false.
However, there is no record of anyone in Jerusalem during this period challenging the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts. Instead of challenges to the historical accuracy we have different interpretations of the events offered, as is recorded in Matt. 28:11-15 (an alternative explanation of the empty tomb of Jesus—see my article here discussing this further). This seems to indicate the gospel accounts were widely if not universally accepted as historically accurate accounts in mid-first century Jerusalem—the very city many of the events are recorded to have occurred.
I Don’t Buy Those Tests for Historicity
Sometimes I hear people simply object to these three tests for historicity (the Bibliographic, Internal Evidence, and External Evidence tests). These are the tests used by professional historians to determine the accuracy of ancient documents. But perhaps they are wrong, and there is a better test(s). So I ask what test(s) the objector takes to be better. Usually the person cannot offer an alternative. He just doesn’t like these tests because they confirm the historicity of the gospel accounts. Yet that is not rational. Regardless of whether we like a conclusion or not, to be rational and reasonable we should be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Otherwise we are just being dogmatic, narrow-minded, and believing what we want to believe on “blind faith.”
If someone does suggest an alternative means to determine a document’s historicity, I ask why it is a better means of determining historicity than these three standard tests. I have never had anyone offer reasons an alternative test or tests are superior to these three.
But Isn’t It Still Possible They Are Making It Up?
Finally, one can raise the old “but isn’t it possible” objection. Yes, there is much evidence in favor of the gospels being historically accurate. But how can we be sure? Can we really say we know this to be the case? Isn’t it possible we may be wrong? If so, shouldn’t we reserve judgment and not conclude the gospels are historically accurate documents?
This objection can be raised against any conclusion one disagrees with, including conclusions leading to scientific, as well as religious knowledge. I’ve addressed the fallacy of this objection in more detail here. But in brief, yes it is possible one could be wrong about this. In fact, it is possible we can be wrong about everything we conclude (outside mathematics, which offers 100% certainty of a conclusion).
But if certainty is required for knowledge, this means that all our scientific “knowledge” is really not knowledge, because we could be wrong about it. Furthermore, all of our “knowledge” of literature must be rejected for the same reason, as well as our “knowledge” of history (including ancient and modern history). And so on for all other fields. In this case schools should just shut down because nothing can be taught or known.
Of course, this is absurd. We know much through research and discovery. It is certainly possible we are wrong. But we are justified to claim we have knowledge of science, history, literature, and so on, unless and until it can be show it is probable we are wrong.
So it is in this case. It is possible I am wrong about the historicity of the gospels. Yet until it can be shown it is probable that I am wrong, I can confidently say I know the gospels are accurate historical documents.
We can now reasonably conclude that the four gospels, when tested by the standard criteria, are proven to be accurate historical documents. Therefore we can trust that when the gospels record Jesus saying or doing something, he really said or did it.
The first premise for the argument for inerrancy is therefore established: The four gospels are historically accurate documents.
We must next examine the second premise: The central figure of these historical documents (Jesus) claimed to be and proved to be God in the flesh. Many claim this isn’t so. Next week I’ll discuss evidence in support of this second premise.
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.