The authenticity of the Gospels shines out from three kinds of external evidence.

  1. In none of the Gospels is there any anachronism or any error suggesting the author's unfamiliarity with or long separation from the geographical, historical, and cultural setting of the events he relates.
  2. The Gospels are altogether free of Gnosticism and of the other aberrant theologies that pervade many writings from the second century.
  3. The Gospels mention details of place, culture, and politics that could have been known only to contemporaries of Jesus.

Absence of Inaccuracies Pointing to a Later Date of Origin


The apocryphal gospels that began to appear in the second century are full of historical inaccuracies. The Gospel of Peter (second century) alleges that Herod had jurisdiction in Jerusalem, such that Pilate could obtain Jesus' body only by requesting it from Herod (1). The Gospel of Nicodemus, better known as the Acts of Pilate, states that the imperial standards, which bore images of the emperor, bowed down to Jesus when He entered Pilate's judgment hall (2). In fact, as a concession to Jewish scruples against graven images, the standards were, in Pilate's day, left outside the city (3). Although such errors abound in all the apocryphal writings, they are completely missing from the Gospels.


Absence of Deviant Theologies Influential during the Second Century


The apocryphal gospels contain many strange doctrines. Doceticism, the doctrine denying the humanity of Jesus, appears in the Gospel of Peter, which declines to say that Jesus really suffered and died (4). The Gospel according to the Egyptians (second century) reflects the heresy of Gnosticism, a pagan pseudo-Christianity that rejected sound teaching and holy living in favor of cultic secrets and sexual aberration. This gospel so called has Jesus say, "I came to destroy the works of the female" (5). None of the many late noncanonical gospels won a large following. The church as a whole rejected them because most believers could see that they contained many bizarre departures from orthodox tradition.

In the familiar four Gospels, we find no traces of the heresies that flourished during the second century. The absence of such traces, pervasive in the apocryphal gospels, is further evidence that the canonical Gospels originated in the first century.


Inclusion of Facts That Only the Contemporaries of Jesus Would Have Known


We will confine our discussion to Luke and John, since these Gospels are the most generous in noting historical and geographical details.

As we said earlier, the Gospel of Luke was originally combined with Acts in a single work. The author, Luke the physician, was a careful and conscientious historian. The accuracy of Acts led one eminent archaeologist at the turn of the century—Sir William Ramsay—to become a believer in Christ. Through his extensive excavations in Asia Minor, Ramsay himself made many discoveries showing the historical reliability of Acts. Ramsay concluded,

Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history; and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident (6).

One of many striking confirmations of Luke's accuracy is his use of titles. The many titles that he brings into his narrative would, if he were careless or uninformed, most certainly give rise to errors. He notes that when pagan opponents of Christianity rioted in Ephesus, there was more than one proconsul of Asia (Acts 19:38). Sergius Paullus appears in Luke's history as "proconsul of Cyprus" (Acts 13:7) and Gallio as "proconsul of Achaia" (Acts 18:12), although the province was ordinarily known as Greece. The local authorities in Ephesus are "Asiarchs" (Acts 19:31). The magistrates of Philippi are "praetors" and their assistants "lictors" (Acts 16:20, 35), but the magistrates of Thessalonica are "politarchs" (Acts 17:6). The chief official of Malta is protos—first man of the island (Acts 28:7). Herod Antipas, known to his subjects as a king, is designated a "tetrarch" (Luke 3:1). And Lysanias is called "tetrarch of Abilene" (Luke 3:1). All these names and titles have been verified as correct, in some instances by archaeological discoveries within the last century (7). Luke's accuracy is all the more remarkable when we consider the difficulty of his task. Roman political titles were in a constant state of flux. Moreover, a writer in antiquity could not check his facts by going to a local library.

Perhaps the most interesting book ever written on the historicity of Acts is James Smith's The Voyage and Shipwreck of Saint Paul, first published in 1848. Smith, himself a skilled mariner who retraced Paul's voyage from Jerusalem to Rome, showed that Luke's account of this voyage must be altogether authentic, for the writer is accurate in his use of nautical terms, and the events he relates correspond perfectly to ancient sailing methods, the capacities of ancient ships, and the conditions of wind and weather in the Mediterranean (8).

The only reasonable conclusions are (1) that the Book of Acts must have been written by an eyewitness of the events he reports, and (2) that the author was a stickler for accuracy. According to the traditional view that the author was Luke, the accuracy of the narrative is easily explained. The writer was an eyewitness of most events following chapter 16, and for prior events he took his account from the lips of Paul. If Luke is a trustworthy historian in the Book of Acts, he must also be a trustworthy historian in the Gospel bearing his name.

The Gospel of John is likewise imbued with an accurate knowledge of circumstances. The author was obviously a Jew, for he had a thorough understanding of Jewish laws and customs (9). He was a Palestinian, for he had a good grasp of traveling routes and times (John 4:3-5, for example), as well as an exact recollection of many places, some of them quite obscure (10). These include Bethabara (John 1:28), Galilee (John 1:43 et al.), Bethsaida (John 1:44 et al.), Nazareth (John 1:45 et al.), Cana of Galilee (John 2:1 et al.), Capernaum (John 2:12 et al.), Judaea (John 3:22 et al.), Aenon near Salim, a place of "much water," an allusion to the many springs found there (John 3:23), Samaria (John 4:4 et al.), Sychar (John 4:5), Joseph's field (John 4:5), Jacob's well (John 4:6), "this mountain" in Samaria—that is, Mount Gerizim (John 4:20-21), the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2), the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1), Tiberias (John 6:1 et al.), the Mount of Olives (John 8:1), the treasury of the Temple (John 8:20), the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7 et al.), Solomon's Porch (John 10:23), Bethany (John 11:1 et al.), Ephraim (John 11:54), the brook Cedron (John 18:1), the garden where Jesus was arrested (John 18:1 et al.), the "palace" (better, "court") of the high priest (John 18:15), the door of the same court (John 18:16), Pilate's hall of judgment—literally, "the Praetorium" (John 18:28), the Pavement, or Gabbatha (John 19:13), the place of a skull, or Golgotha (John 19:17), the garden where Jesus was buried (John 19:41), and finally, the Sea of Tiberias—another name for the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1).

The author of John must have resided in Palestine before the wholesale destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for in describing certain buildings that were later obliterated, he notices specific details. For example, he says that the Pool of Bethesda had five porticos (John 5:2) and that Pilate held court at an outdoor platform called Lithostrotos in Latin and Gabbatha in Aramaic (John 19:13). Although these assertions have not been absolutely confirmed by archaeology, they have survived the critical knife, and today they are regarded as very plausible (11).

Furthermore, the author of John was most certainly a contemporary of Jesus, for as he sketches the political environment of the Crucifixion, he furnishes information missing from the Synoptics. He tells us that in the year of Jesus' death, Caiaphas, the high priest, shared power with Annas, his father-in-law (John 18:13, 24). Luke, the only other Gospel writer who mentions Annas, says only that he was a high priest along with Caiaphas (Luke 3:1; Acts 4:6). The additional facts that John supplies are corroborated to some extent by Josephus's history of the period. Josephus, the great Jewish historian active in the late first century, records that Annas was a high priest with no less than five sons who succeeded him to the same office (12). It is probable that he means "son" in a sense inclusive of son-in-law. The continuing prominence of Annas's family suggests that Annas himself indeed retained his title and his influence for many years after he formally vacated the office of high priest.

Footnotes

  1. Gospel of Peter 2.
  2. Acts of Pilate 1.5-6.
  3. F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 94.
  4. Ibid., 88-93.
  5. Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), 11.
  6. W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 4th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920), 222.
  7. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 5th revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 82-86.
  8. James Smith, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, with Dissertations on the Life and Writings of St. Luke, and the Ships and Navigation of the Ancients, 4th ed., revised and corrected by Walter E. Smith (repr., Minneapolis, Minn.: James Family Christian Publishers, n.d.), 61-284.
  9. Bruce, Documents, 49-50.
  10. Bruce E. Schein, Following the Way: The Setting of John's Gospel (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980); John A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John, ed. J. F. Coakley (London: SCM Press, 1985; repr., Oak Park, Ill.: Meyer-Stone Books, 1987), 52-53; J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, 3d ed., revised (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 414-415.
  11. Thompson, 360-361, 414; John Wilkinson, The Jerusalem Jesus Knew: An Archaeological Guide to the Gospels (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978; repr., Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1978), 95-104, 137-142; Robinson, 53-59, 267-268.
  12. Josephus Antiquities 18.2.1-2, 20.9.1.