by Douglas Groothuis-
The historical particulars of Jesus’ life are of paramount importance for accurately assessing his message and his identity. We know of nothing written by Jesus. He must be understood in terms of the encounters, discourses, and events narrated in the primary historical documents that recount his life—the four Gospels of the New Testament. His life setting and career cannot be separated from his argumentation and worldview. His work was his life. His thought emerges from his encounters, sermons, debates, prayers, and actions. Although historical claims about Jesus appear throughout the New Testament, we are dependent primarily on the Gospels for an accurate biographical account of Christ’s teachings and actions. Therefore, it is crucial for both Christian conviction and apologetic integrity that these documents be vindicated as historically trustworthy records of God Incarnate. To that end, we will consider the importance of historical evidence, the transmission of the Gospel manuscripts, some extra-biblical corroboration for the Gospel accounts, the nature of the Gospels themselves, their authors, and the relationship of the canonical Gospels to the so-called Gnostic Gospels.
Historicity and Evidence
While many Christians regard the Gospels as divinely inspired and thus unerring documents, this perspective does not rule out a careful investigation of their nature and credentials. Divine inspiration need not mean anything like dictation from God to the writers. For example, the prologue to Luke’s Gospel openly acknowledges that the author consulted various sources to present the history of Jesus:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
An interested person should admit that one’s worldview will affect how one looks at the question of Jesus in history. Some have tried to eschew questions of historical scholarship entirely in favor of faith alone (fideism). Fideism removes all controls, or checks, on “faith,” since it is untethered from historical or logical considerations. But as Ray Martin points out, this is a difficult stance when so much of popular and academic culture is taking up the question of “the historical Jesus.” Conversely, some have just assumed that genuine historical investigation (about “the historical Jesus”) can never agree with the tenets of Christianity (the “Christ of faith”). They thus prejudice the issue.1 Some even claim that historians qua historians can never discuss the miraculous. A better approach makes use of historical evidence and arguments in assessing the documents.
The Textual Transmission of the Gospels
Documents from antiquity are sometimes condemned for being ancient. Something several thousand years old could not have been preserved with integrity. Too many omissions, additions, and distortions would have crept in. In addition, many worry that ancient records—especially the New Testament—have been translated from one language to another to another, so that their original meaning has been lost.
The question of a document’s integrity (the preservation of the document’s original form over time) is separate from its original veracity (the truth of what the document affirms). An original document filled with factual errors might have been transmitted without distortion. It could be a well-preserved fiction or even a fraud. But if there are no good reasons to trust an ancient document’s integrity, its original veracity—or lack thereof—is of no consequence. Therefore, accurate transmission (integrity) is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for trusting a document from antiquity.
The integrity of the Gospels—and the rest of the New Testament—holds up extraordinarily well, especially in relation to other ancient candidates. First, it is false that modern translations of the Gospels have been corrupted by being translated from language to language—say from Greek to Latin to German to English. Translators of modern English editions consult primarily ancient Greek manuscripts. Greek is the original language of the Gospels.
Second, well over five thousand partial or complete manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are available to scholars today.2 The number and quality of these manuscripts have increased during the last few decades as archaeologists unearth more records of the world’s most copied, recopied, and collected books. A fragment of the Gospel of John dates to the early second century, probably only a few decades after it was originally written. Given the large number and high quality of many of the early manuscripts, textual critics have a wealth of material from which to reconstruct the original records with a high degree of accuracy. No original manuscripts (autographs) are available for any ancient book, but historians often trust ancient records with far less textual attestation than that of the New Testament. For instance, Caesar’s The Gallic Wars dates from 100-44 BC. The earliest copy is from AD 900, with a gap of 1,000 years. Only ten ancient copies of this document exist.3
A more germane comparison is found between the manuscripts of the canonical Gospels and various so-called Gnostic Gospels.4 The discovery of the ancient Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in 1945 gave scholars access to a wealth of primary sources on ancient Gnosticism,5 a multifaceted and somewhat mysterious religious movement that stressed the need to transcend matter through mystical illumination (or “gnosis”—Greek for knowledge). James Robinson, editor of The Nag Hammadi Library, the authoritative collection of these documents, notes that many of the manuscripts are in very poor condition and, unlike the Bible, cannot be checked against a larger manuscript tradition outside of themselves.6
Modern translations of the New Testament Gospels make note of marginal or alternative readings, and of disputed sections (such as John 8:1-11 and Mark 16:9-20). The rest of these textually questionable sections of the Gospels make up no more than two or three verses and most only bring into question a small portion of one verse. These variations are noted in most modern translations. They do not bring into question any major event or teaching in Jesus’ life.
External (Extra-Biblical) Sources on Jesus
Historical references to Jesus are not limited to the New Testament documents, although these are the most detailed accounts. Some have argued that the relative scarcity and thinness of extra-biblical references to Jesus imperils our knowledge of him, since we are thrown back to the Gospels. The Gospels are the oldest extant biographical documents about Jesus, although some of Paul’s Epistles (which refer to Jesus, but are not biographies) were probably written earlier (in AD 50s). However, these facts do not jeopardize the trustworthiness of the Gospels. The records for any first century event are limited. Four biographies of Jesus and related references beyond them provide more than a sufficient amount of material, given the constraints of ancient history. Most written documents in ancient times focused on warfare, empires, and their leaders. If religious leaders were mentioned at all, it was because they occupied positions of institutional power. Jesus did not qualify for inclusion.
Several historically credible sources corroborate some Gospel claims about Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice in his Antiquities (AD 90-95), once in reference to James “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ,”7 and once in a longer and disputed passage. Some think that later Christian editors added some favorable theological material.8 But at a minimum it can be plausibly argued that Josephus writes that Jesus existed, was known as virtuous, was crucified, attracted many followers, worked wonders, and was believed to be risen from the dead.9 Several decades after Josephus, the Roman historians Tacitus, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius also note the existence of Jesus, pertinent facts about his life, and the beliefs of his followers.10
Various relevant archaeological artifacts have been discovered, which date near or during the time of the events recorded in the Gospels. An ancient Jewish burial site unearthed in 1968 contains fifteen stone ossuaries holding the bones of thirty-five Jews who died in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. One victim is identified as Yohanan. Injuries to his bones indicate he was crucified. He was also buried in a private tomb, as was Jesus. This is significant because some scholars claim that victims of Roman crucifixion were not buried in this way, but left on the cross to be eaten by animals or tossed into group graves.11 Other archaeological discoveries have also corroborated the existence of the pool of Bethesda, previously thought by some to be a literary invention of the Gospel of John (John 5:2);12 the existence of Pontius Pilate, mentioned on a Latin plaque at Caesarea; the greatness of the temple in Jesus’ day; the manner of tomb in which Jesus was buried; and many other items.13
The Gospels: What Kind of Documents?
The Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense because they lack material that would be included today, such as Jesus’ physical appearance. They focus on the exceptional events accompanying his conception and birth, his public ministry of about three years, and especially the last week of his life before his betrayal and crucifixion. These documents are focused accounts of the significance of Jesus’ life and teachings, not news reports or exhaustive biographies, neither of which existed in antiquity.
Some question the historical accuracy of the Gospels because their writers had a theological agenda. Luke’s prologue explicitly states why he wrote his gospel (Luke 1:1-4). The Gospel of John offers a similar confession: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (John 19:35; see also 21:24). The Gospels of Matthew and Mark do not make overt statements to this effect, but were written by advocates of the early Jesus movement. Neutrality or detached objectivity—if possible at all—is not required for honest and accurate reporting. Nor was it known or idealized in antiquity. Historians take seriously the accounts of Jews, such as Elie Wiesel, who were tortured in concentration camps, despite the survivors’ deeply committed perspectives.
The dimension of the miraculous is integral to all four Gospel accounts. The Gospels feature miraculous events, such as those surrounding Jesus’ birth, his ministry of healing the sick and raising the dead, his casting out of demons, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven.
However, David Hume has argued against the rationality of believing any miracle-claim, basing this on the vast improbability of the “laws of nature” being “violated.” He also impugns the credibility of the supposed witnesses to miracles and argues that the various miracle-claims offered by different religions cancel each other out.14 All of Hume’s in-principle arguments have been seriously challenged by professional philosophers and others.15 Ray Martin has also pointed out that, although many contemporary scholars who study the Gospels claim to be “objective” and “disinterested” in their pursuits, they really presuppose a questionable “methodological naturalism,” which absolutely precludes the supernatural from the purview of the historian.16
While the Gospels include miracles, other supernatural events, and theologically significant claims made by Jesus about himself, many scholars affirm that they read as historical, narrative, factual accounts—not as embellished and fantastic myths. Their credibility is supported by their references to specific people, places, and events surrounding the life of Jesus. John, considered the most theologically oriented of the Gospel writers, makes abundant references to particular buildings and landscapes, many of which have been corroborated from archeology.17
The historian Will Durant, no friend of religion, observes in his multi-volume series, The Story of Civilization, that the Gospel writers included many things that “mere inventors would have concealed,” such as the apostles’ prideful competition for high places in the kingdom of God, Peter’s denial of Jesus, Jesus’ ignorance of the future, and his despairing cry on the cross. Durant did not accept everything in the Gospels, but he did observe the basic marks of authenticity.18 Biblical scholar A. E. Harvey concurs: “In general, one can say that the miracle stories in the Gospels are unlike anything else in ancient literature” because “they do not exaggerate the miracle or add sensational details.” In other words, “they tell the story straight.”19
The Authorship of the Four Gospels
Who wrote the Gospels and when? If they were written by eyewitnesses or those who interviewed eyewitnesses during a time shortly following the events they narrate, the Gospels gain credibility.
First, the outer limit for when the Gospels (and other New Testament books) were written can be established by later Christian (post-apostolic) sources that quote from them. Since historians are able to date these writings with some certainty, the Gospels must predate them. For example, Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, quotes or refers to all four Gospels in a letter dated at about AD 110. Ignatius wrote seven short letters in about AD 108, which mention or quote from every Gospel. Clement, writing from Rome in about AD 96, mentions the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke by name.20
Second, many reputable scholars date the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) at approximately AD 70 or earlier, with Mark usually dated first. John is usually dated sometime in the AD 90s, but some date him much earlier.21 This places the accounts, whoever wrote them, just a few decades after the life of Jesus. Even the more liberal dating of Mark around AD 70 and Matthew and Luke sometime in the AD 80s still, by the standards of ancient historiography, puts the writings quite close to the events they record. Given the practice of memorizing the words of important teachers in an oral culture, this time gap is not damaging to the documents’ historical reliability.22
To put this into comparative perspective, the Buddhist Scriptures were not written down for about five hundred years after the life of Buddha (BC 563-483). Buddhist scholar Edward Conze notes that while Christianity can distinguish its “initial tradition, embodied in the ‘New Testament’” from a “continued tradition,” consisting of reflections of the church fathers and councils, “Buddhists possess nothing that corresponds to the ‘New Testament.’ The ‘continuing tradition’ is all that is clearly attested.”23
Third, the traditional authorship of the Gospels cannot be ruled out, although it is often questioned or rejected. The Gospels themselves were probably unsigned. The titles “The Gospel According to…” may have been added at a later date.24 However, the earliest extra-biblical corroborating sources, which are from the second century, refer to the Gospels of Matthew and John as written by Jesus’ disciples, Luke as written by a physician and companion of the Apostle Paul, and the Gospel of Mark as written by a companion of the Apostle Peter. There is also some internal evidence to support the traditional authors.25
If the traditional authorship holds, the Gospel material is based on eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life or on those who consulted eyewitnesses (Mark relying on the Apostle Peter) or at least inquired into the events at a time not far removed from them (Luke’s investigations). Even if the traditional authorship is questioned or rejected, the documents are not rendered unreliable by that fact alone, given the considerations mentioned above.
The exact literary sources for the Gospels are much debated. The question of the sources for and relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is known as “the synoptic problem.” Many contemporary scholars believe that Mark was written first. Luke and Matthew rely on Mark’s material quite often, but both also have material in common that is not in Mark. This material is conjectured to be from a lost document called Q, taken from the German word for source, quelle. Some reputable scholars still hold to the traditional view that Matthew was written first. The Gospel of John has a considerable amount of material in common with the synoptic Gospels; it also includes some elements that are unique.26
The differences in the Gospel accounts on matters of detail or chronology have been extensively studied, and differing conclusions have been reached. Nevertheless, rather than proving that some of the accounts are erroneous, these differences demonstrate an absence of a flat uniformity that would indicate collusion. Each Gospel writer wrote to a specific audience and shaped his account accordingly. Moreover, ancient writers were not always bound by strict chronology. They may organize historical accounts thematically rather than chronologically. A difference of perspective between several accounts does not necessarily imply a contradiction or a fabrication.
All the Gospels agree on the central facts of Jesus’ life and death. The events surrounding his conception and birth were supernaturally tinged. His youth is not addressed in any detail. He was a carpenter by trade, as was his father. He began his public ministry at about age thirty after the endorsement of the prophet, John the Baptist. Jesus gathered disciples around himself, associated with various classes of people, including the despised of society (tax collectors, the handicapped, and women), preached the reality and pertinence of the kingdom of God, healed the sick, raised the dead, performed other types of miracles, and made dramatic theological claims about himself and his mission. He became progressively estranged from the religious establishment of the day and was put to death by crucifixion at the urging of that establishment and through the agency of the Roman state. He was buried and three days later rose from the dead and commissioned his followers to take his message to the ends of the earth until the end of the age. About all this, the Gospels are in straightforward agreement.
Jesus and Gnostic Documents
Some have hailed Gnostic documents as important sources about Jesus, despite their exclusion from the New Testament. The general Gnostic perspective asserts the worthlessness or evil of the physical world, affirms the existence of an ineffable highest realm called the pleroma (Greek for fullness), and rejects the God of the Old Testament as the Supreme Being. Gnosticism also advocates escape from the physical body through mystical self-knowledge and interprets the central human problem not as sin against God but as ignorance of one’s true origin in the realm beyond matter. Some scholars, such as Elaine Pagels, have claimed that this mystical and dualistic tradition is on an equal or better footing than the Gospels with respect to the historical Jesus.27 The Jesus Seminar includes “The Gospel of Thomas” in its main sources on Jesus. Hence the title of their book, The Five Gospels. Thomas is a collection of 114 short sayings by Jesus without a narrative context. Despite its title, modern scholars do not believe that Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, is its author. Less than half of these sayings roughly resemble material in the synoptic Gospels, but are shorn of the historical frameworks provided by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The extra-canonical sayings emphasize the mystical and saving power of self-knowledge, an essential Gnostic theme not found in the four Gospels.
Of all the Gnostic accounts of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas is the leading candidate to be dated possibly as early as the first century, although many date it sometime in the middle of the second century. The earliest references to The Gospel of Thomas in ancient literature come from Hippolytus and Origen in the third century. These very late references are unlike the plentiful references to the four Gospels, which date as far back as the early second century. Such a long silence would be unlikely if Thomas were indeed a first century document.28 Furthermore, Thomas quotes sayings paralleled in every Gospel and in every putative Gospel source (Q, etc.). These facts strongly suggest that Thomas is dependent on these previous sources. For these and other reasons, many scholars contend that Thomas dates after the canonical Gospels, and that it is not an original source for material on Jesus but a reworking of earlier accounts.29 All the other Gnostic texts date well into the second or third centuries and are clearly dependent on a preexistent Jesus tradition, which they reinterpret according to a worldview alien and antithetical to the Gospels.30
Historian Philip Jenkins persuasively argues that much of the contemporary interest in Gnostic “hidden gospels” (such as Thomas) is more a matter of ideological interest in overthrowing orthodoxy than of pure scholarship, since the evidence for the alternative sources is quite weak in relation to the canonical Gospels. Jenkins claims that the historical case for these alternative gospels is often stated in overly dramatic terms that obscure important issues.31
Nevertheless, some are attracted to the Gnostic materials because of their supposed psychological insights, which differ considerably from perspectives in the canonical Gospels. Pagels find parallels between the Gnostic teachings and that of modern psychoanalysis, both of which emphasize inner knowledge as the source of human liberation.32 Gnosticism claims that the inner or true self is divine, however, while most of psychoanalysis—especially the Freudian wing—works from a less metaphysically cially the Freudian wing—works from a less metaphysically 1961), though not a biblical scholar, was significantly influenced by Gnosticism and claimed it was psychologically superior to orthodox Christianity.33
While this brief essay could not pursue all the lines of defense or counter all the skeptical challenges raised against the historicity of the Gospels, it should, nevertheless, be clear that this blessed portion of Holy Writ has strong historical credentials. While liberal critics and assorted revisionists devise one new “historical Jesus” after another—all essentially made in their own image—the testimony of the four evangelists remains true to reality. This means that one may discover and even encounter the genuinely historical Jesus in these remarkable documents of ancient Christian testimony (see John 20:30-31).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. This article is adapted from his book On Jesus (Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2003). Used by permission.
1 See Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999). For an argument for rationally believing the New Testament without relying on historical evidence, see Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
2 Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 87.
3 F.F Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1960), 16.
4 The title “Gospel” is not fitting, since the literary genre is not that of the canonical Gospels, although the Gnostic texts do claim to give accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.
5 Much was known previously of the basic Gnostic worldview through the writings of the church fathers and a few scattered other sources.
6 James Robinson, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 2.
7 Josephus, Antiquities 20:9.
8 Ibid., 18:3.
9 See Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 81-104.
10 Ibid., 19-53.
11 Jeffrey Sheler, Is The Bible True? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1999), 110-111.
12 R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 131-132.
13 Ibid., 140-157.
14 See David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “Of Miracles,” many editions.
15 See C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975; orig. pub. 1947); R. Douglas Geivett, Gary R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997); and J. A. Cover, “Miracles and Christian Theism,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael M. Murray (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 345-374.
16 Martin, 99-120.
17 Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1986), 64.
18 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 2, The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 557.
19 A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 41-42.
20 Barnett, 38-39.
21 John A.T. Robinson dates all the Gospels before AD 70, largely because none of them mention the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. See Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).
22 Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 26-27.
23 “Introduction,” in Buddhist Scriptures, ed. Edward Conze (New York: Penguin Books, 1959), 11-12.
24 Martin Hengel disputes the traditional notion of unsigned Gospels in The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity Press International, 2000).
25 See the sections relating to authorship in Douglas Moo, D. A. Carson, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1992).
26 See Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Leicester and Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), and Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh: An Incarnational Theology Incarnational Theology 430.
27 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979).
28 Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1995), 134.
29 Blomberg, Historical Reliability of The Gospels, 211-212.
30 For a critique of Gnosticism historically and philosophically, see Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock reprint, 2002), 77-118.
31 See Phillip Jenkins, The Hidden Gospels (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
32 Pagels, 119-141.
33 C. J. Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 192. On Jung’s aberrant and heretical views, see Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy, 80-81; and Douglas Groothuis, “The Hidden Dangers of Carl Jung,” Christian Counseling Today 5, no. 1 (1997):44-47.