- Adam Butler
Can You Trust the Gospels? (Part 2)
In a previous article, we evaluated the historicity of the gospel accounts (the first four books of the New Testament, which account for the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It was determined that the New Testament, namely the gospels, surpass practically every other historical document of their time, with remarkable accuracy. However, the question then arises as to whether or not the authors were lying.
After all, could it all just be a successful conspiracy? Could it all have just been a myth? Based on the evidence, the answer is no.
One of the most important things to consider, which was touched on in the previous article, is the motive which the gospel authors had for “creating” a resurrection story to begin with. Remember that these were die-hard, committed Jews, who were kicked out of the Synagogue, persecuted, and ultimately martyred for their claims about a resurrected Jesus. In other words, they had nothing to gain and everything to lose, if it was all just made-up.
Secondly, there are details within the gospel accounts which historians and textual critics look for when determining a document’s historical reliability. Most notably, there are a myriad of “embarrassing details” throughout the texts.
The criteria of embarrassment is a testimony to the trustworthiness of a document, being that if an author were fabricating a story to try and gain followers, he or she would not include details that make the subjects of the story look bad. In other words, if you are going to lie about yourself, you are most likely going to lie to make yourself look good. However, this is the opposite of what we see throughout the gospels.
The gospel writers frequently point out the shortcomings, failings, and frankly, the cluelessness of the disciples. The disciples lacked faith, were rebuked by Jesus on several occasions, and even continued to doubt after his bodily resurrection. For example, Peter, the leader of the twelve disciples and the one whom Jesus referred to as the “rock” upon which he would build the church, was called Satan by Jesus (Matthew 16:23)! In addition, Peter is the one who denied knowing or being associated with Jesus 3 separate times prior to Jesus’s crucifixion (Luke 22:54-62). Thomas is commonly referred to as “doubting Thomas,” and was the one who needed physical evidence in order to believe his resurrection, despite Jesus telling the disciples that he would, in fact, die and rise from the grave (John 20:25).
Most notably, Jesus himself is not described as the type of Messiah the people were expecting. They were expecting a military king who would set up an earthly throne and overthrow the government. However, Jesus arrived humbly and quietly; he was a carpenter, the son of a virgin, whose bloodline contained two prostitutes! His teaching was hard and exclusive. He claimed to be God on multiple occasions, and was accused of blasphemy for it (which is ultimately the reason he was crucified). He had his feet washed by the hair of a woman (which would have easily been considered a sexual advance by her, which was scandalous for a rabbi). He broke the cultural norms by regularly convening with sinners and tax collectors, and reaching out to outcasts such as lepers and the Samaritan woman.
The gospel writers did not soften any teachings of Jesus. In other words, they made clear the gravity of following Christ. Jesus promised hardship and suffering as a result of following Him. The gospel writers did not exclude these teachings. Jesus told his followers to “carry their crosses,” and the gospel writers displayed this in their own lives. Following the resurrection of Jesus, not once did the gospel authors recant their statements regarding Jesus. They ultimately went to their graves for the sake of their claims regarding his resurrection.
Why would anyone go to such extremes, risking everything for a lie? The most reasonable explanation is that they were not lying. They were transformed by what they witnessed: the resurrection of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. We could go further into the reliability by looking at the life of Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) who was one of the most notorious persecutors of Christians, only to become one of the most passionate church planters and evangelists, all because of having witnessed the risen Messiah. However, that is for another article. The gospels alone, if not for the rest of Scripture, provide a persuasive account that the testimony of the authors is verifiable and true.