Six kinds of internal evidence certify that the Gospels are trustworthy.
- The Gospels are free of the scientific errors and moral lapses that pervade other ancient works.
- Gospel accounts of the miraculous are free of the sensationalism and other flaws found in works of religious fiction.
- The Gospels offer strictly matter-of-fact reporting without any editorial comment.
- The Gospels give us highly unflattering portraits of the leading apostles, especially Peter.
- The Gospels include many difficulties that might have given ammunition to opponents of the early church.
- The four Gospels agree with each other.
Absence of Ordinary Imperfections
Almost every ancient writing of at least moderate length is tainted by scientific errors and moral lapses. A modern reader easily overlooks the absence of such imperfections in the Gospels if he is unfamiliar with other ancient literature. That the Gospels stand on a lofty plane of their own is evident even when we view them in relation to noncanonical Christian writings. The Epistle of Barnabas, for example, says that the hyena changes its sex from year to year, that in every year of its life the hare acquires a new passage through its body, and that the weasel "conceiveth with its mouth" (1). Of like nature is the statement in the Shepherd of Hermas that "the world . . . is upheld by means of four elements" (2). Such errors, arising from a prescientific view of the world, are commonplace in ancient writings. Their absence from the New Testament writings in general and from the Gospels in particular is a testimony to their divine origin.
We need not prove that moral lapses infest ancient writings. Suffice it to say that even the Shepherd of Hermas, a work which many so admired for its holy sentiments that they wished to place it in the New Testament, is severely marred by blasphemous impurity. The author supposed that he saw the Holy Spirit as a woman "fair and gladsome, and her form fair" (3). Later he imagined that he saw certain "holy spirits," "powers of the Son of God," as virgins who kissed and embraced him and spent the night with him, though only as his sisters (4). It is hardly surprising to find impurity in an ancient writing, even by a Christian author, yet we find nothing remotely titillating or indiscreet in the Gospels. The perfect wholesomeness of the Gospels, as well as of the other New Testament writings, is another sign that the New Testament is truly the Word of God.
Distinctive Treatment of Miracles
The Bible is not the only book that reports miracles. They are featured in many other religious writings as well, especially in the apocryphal gospels, in hagiographies, and in works advertising shrines and relics. But all Biblical accounts of the miraculous are distinctive in bearing no marks of overheated human imagination.
- In their treatment of miracles, the Gospels avoid sensationalism. They give us no headlines, no interviews of witnesses, no lengthy recitals of attendant details, no rhapsodic prose telling how wonderful the miracles were.
- Every miracle in the Gospels is consistent with the character of God. None is outlandish or arbitrary. None is performed to coerce belief. And none is vengeful. Yet some affront to divine character tarnishes nearly every miracle reported by the apocryphal gospels. The following is a selection from The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written about 125.
3.1. But the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a branch of a willow and (with it) dispersed the water which Jesus had gathered together. 2. When Jesus saw what he had done he was enraged and said to him: "You insolent, godless dunderhead, what harm did the pools and the water do to you? See, now you also shall wither like a tree and shall bear neither leaves nor root nor fruit." 3. And immediately that lad withered up completely; and Jesus departed and went into Joseph's house. But the parents of him that was withered took him away, bewailing his youth, and brought him to Joseph and reproached him: "What a child you have, who does such things."
4.1. After this again he went through the village, and a lad ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was exasperated and said to him: "You shall not go further on your way," and the child immediately fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said: "From where does this child spring, since his every word is an accomplished deed?" 2. And the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said: "Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; or else teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is slaying our children."
5.1. And Joseph called the child aside and admonished him saying: "Why do you do such things that these people (must) suffer and hate us and persecute us?" But Jesus replied: "I know that these words are not yours; nevertheless for your sake I will be silent. But they shall bear their punishment." And immediately those who had accused him became blind (5).
- According to the Gospels, Jesus never employed more of the supernatural than was required to meet a real human need. He fed the five thousand, but He gave them the simplest possible meal, consisting only of bread and fish (Matt. 14:15-21).
- Every miracle in the Gospels is predicated on a step of faith by the beneficiary. John reports, for example, that the man blind from birth was not healed until he went to the pool of Siloam and washed off the mud plaster which Jesus had placed on his eyes (John 9:1-7).
Absence of Editorializing
Although some critics protest loudly and dogmatically that the Gospels are a species of religious fantasy, that is precisely what they do not appear to be. They hew closely to the attitude and style of strict, matter-of-fact reporting. Contrary to human nature, the authors never inject themselves into the account. They do not beg us to believe them (6). They refrain from any diatribe against the enemies of Jesus (7). They omit any eulogy of Jesus, as well as any attempt to describe Him, His disciples, or the settings of memorable moments in His ministry (8). They make no effort to explain His teaching, to justify His actions, or to resolve any difficulties that might occur to the reader. In short, the Gospels are completely free of editorializing.
Each author withdraws himself from the account to the extent that he does not even identify himself. All four Gospels are, in their own assertions, anonymous, although we know who wrote them. The reason each author hides himself is that he does not want any undeserved glory as a biographer of Christ. Thus, any self-reference by a Gospel writer is denigrating. We saw earlier how concerned Mark and John were to make themselves look unworthy (Mark 14:50-52; John 13:23—this is not a boast, but an expression of amazement). The only list of the twelve apostles that identifies Matthew as a tax collector is the list given by Matthew himself (Matthew 10:3).
A reader coming to the Gospels without preconceptions would, from their objective tone, take them as serious history. Otherwise, it is hard to explain how the Gospels alone, without help from preaching, have always been very effective in winning converts to Christianity.
Unflattering Treatment of the Apostles
The Gospels are unmercifully critical of the chief apostles. Matthew remembers when James and John grasped for the highest places in the kingdom that they expected Jesus to establish soon (Matt. 20:20-24). Luke does not conceal how John provoked the Lord to rebuke him twice, once because he had forbidden someone to cast out devils in Jesus' name, once because he, in company with James, had sought to bring fire from heaven upon the cities of Samaria. We read even that Jesus accused John of having another spirit (Luke 9:49-56).
The Gospel portrait of Peter is everywhere unflattering. In one incident after another, we see his faults and failures. After he resisted the preaching of the cross, Jesus addressed him as Satan (Matt. 16:23). On the night of Jesus' arrest and trial, Peter forsook the Lord and denied Him with oaths and cursings (Mark 14:66-72). On one occasion Peter actually spoke to Jesus with extreme impudence. When Jesus desired that the woman with an issue of blood would courageously step forward and identify herself, He asked who had touched His garment. Peter replied, in essence, that the question was foolish, since people were pressing Jesus on every side (Luke 8:45).
Considering that the leaders of the early church allowed, even sponsored, the general distribution of writings so critical of themselves, what may we say about these men? We may, without risk of being too generous, say that they were honest (9).
Inclusion of Difficulties
If the Gospel writers were inventors of mere fiction, they would certainly have tried to make their story more believable by ironing out anything that might raise questions and nourish skepticism. Yet the Gospels exhibit many difficulties.
Matthew records that at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, John the Baptist publicly identified Jesus as the Christ (Matt. 3:13-17). But the same writer records later that after John was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?" (Matt. 11:3). Does the inconsistency cast doubt on the truthfulness of Matthew? No, this is the sort of inconsistency which is commonplace in real life but missing in any well-contrived work of fiction. At the very least, a writer of fiction would attach an explanation. Matthew, however, is less interested in explanations than in facts. Thus, he passes over the anomaly in John's question.
Yet an explanation lies unobtrusively in the context. John's attitude makes sense when we realize that his disciples had approached Jesus earlier to query why He did not impose such duties as fasting upon His disciples (Matt. 9:14). It appears that they had been listening to the Pharisees, who were busy spreading the slander that Jesus and His disciples were always eating and drinking with sinners (Matt. 9:14-15; 11:19). Having received the impression that Jesus tolerated negligence of religious duties, the disciples of John were deeply offended. Their critical attitude perhaps infected John himself, and he sent Jesus a question implying doubt that anyone who condoned such merriment could be the true Christ (Matt. 11:3). In reply, Jesus said,
And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
In other words, "Do not take offense at me, John." He went on to describe John as neither a shaking reed nor a man cradled in soft luxury (Matt. 11:7-8). As an uncompromising and rigorously self-denying man, he was the last and greatest representative of an ancient line of prophets (Matt. 11:9-11). Note the realism. Jesus did not give His high estimate of John until John's disciples had departed (Matt. 11:7). He evidently believed that any praise reaching John's ears would do him no good or would be resented. Jesus said in summation that although John shunned some of the pleasures which He approved, they both did God's will and displeased an ungodly generation (Matt. 11:16-19). They both were offspring of divine wisdom (Matt. 11:19).
The Gospels exhibit many other discrepancies arising from the complexity of the true story they are telling. For example, Matthew says that when Jesus came to Jericho, He healed two blind men (Matt. 20:29), whereas Mark and Luke mention only one (Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35). Have we spied a contradiction? No, a narrator must always be selective as to details. If someone mentions that he saw a certain person at church, does he mean that he saw nobody else? The details selected by each narrator of the healing outside Jericho reflect his didactic purpose. Matthew wants to emphasize the magnitude of the miracle. Mark and Luke want the reader to see himself in need of healing, so they focus on Jesus' encounter with one man, Bartimaeus.
A further difficulty is that according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus performed the miracle as He was leaving Jericho, whereas according to Luke, the incident occurred "as he was come nigh unto Jericho." Various solutions have been proposed. Gleason L. Archer suggests that Bartimaeus first accosted Jesus as He was entering the city, but failed to get His attention until He came out again (10). A simpler, more satisfying solution depends on seeing the context of Luke's account. Luke presents the healing of Bartimaeus as one of the notable events during Jesus' last journey to Jerusalem. The words "as he was come nigh unto Jericho" mean only that the miracle occurred when, in the course of this journey, Jesus was near Jericho.
As we have seen, each Gospel writer probably had some knowledge of at least one other Gospel. Yet he declined to delete apparent discrepancies from his own account. His failure to remove them shows (1) that he saw no real contradictions and (2) that he aimed to give a truthful account from his own, unique perspective. The lack of verbatim agreement between the Gospels assures us that they furnish independent testimony. Since one Gospel is not simply a carbon copy of another, we may fairly judge that they were written by different authors with different sources and points of view.
More evidence showing the truthfulness of the Gospels is their inclusion of some passages that the writers might easily have omitted for fear of giving offense or inviting scorn. Jesus said on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Mary Magdalene, a former demoniac, was the first person Jesus approached after His resurrection (Luke 16:9). Jesus defused the intent of a mob to stone a woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11, apparently deleted from some early manuscripts). Jesus cursed a fig tree because it failed to provide Him with food (Matt. 21:18-20). He cast demons from a man into a nearby herd of pigs (Matt. 8:28-34).
Furthermore, the Gospels occasionally include a teaching that is very obscure. Puzzling sayings that have been passed along to us without explanation include the following:
For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.
Although the Gospel writers pay scant attention to difficulties, we need not ignore them ourselves. Each difficulty has an explanation leading to many instructive truths. For example, on Easter morning Jesus had several good reasons for appearing first to Mary Magdalene. His resurrection was a token that God can keep His promise to raise every believer. Therefore, Jesus went first to Mary, a woman who had been possessed by seven demons, to stress that the promise does not exclude any believer, even the greatest of sinners. Perhaps too He went to her first as an act of mercy, because sorrow and confusion weighed more heavily on her than on His other followers. And perhaps He was rewarding her for faithfully staying near Him throughout the days of His ordeal. She had watched His death and burial (Matt. 27:55-56, 61) and no doubt had kept vigil at the tomb.
Curiously, the difficulties in the Gospel record leave us with greater rather than with less confidence in its historical accuracy. Had the Gospel writers freely reworked their materials to suit apologetic or doctrinal interests, they would have smoothed over or eliminated all roughness disturbing to faith. Thus, we may conclude that the Gospels we have received from antiquity do not misrepresent what Jesus said and did. The content here and there that may strike a reader as contradictory, questionable, or obscure is in the nature of reality, which by no means has the neat, self-contained flow of a well-constructed novel.
Superficial discrepancies among the four Gospels are but infrequent and muted waverings from a consistent harmony. Thus, the Gospels furnish us with mutually corroborated testimony. In Jewish law, no fact could be established except by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). It is evident that in the New Testament canon, the number of witnesses to the life and teachings of Christ is not only sufficient to satisfy the law, but superabundant.
The Synoptics are properly counted as separate witnesses. The three writers offer different selections of teachings and stories. When two or more recall the same incident, each uses his own words, emphasizes different details, and introduces his own point of view.
Yet, in case anyone protests that the Synoptics are too similar to be so counted, the New Testament offers another witness to Jesus' life and ministry, the Book of John. By its obvious independence from the Synoptics, this book assures that the unbeliever has no excuse before God. The Synoptics and John together give him enough evidence to believe.