The principal evidence for the reliability of the Gospels has been presented in previous lessons. There we showed that the Gospels were actually written by men who knew Jesus or Jesus' apostles. But since many opponents of Christianity have alleged that the Gospels contain false stories which the apostles fabricated for personal gain or for furtherance of the Christian cause, we must review all the evidence that the Gospels are not only authentic, but also trustworthy and true.
The circumstantial evidence supporting the reliability of the Gospels is of five kinds.
- When the Gospels were written, many in the church could remember what Jesus actually said and did.
- The early church consisted mainly of people steeped in Jewish tradition.
- The early church was severely persecuted.
- Believers were scattered throughout the empire at an early date.
- Rather than renounce their faith, many leaders of the early church accepted suffering and martyrdom.
Presence in the Church of Many People Who Remembered the Facts
Modern critics believe that the Gospels offer fanciful reconstructions of Jesus' career, reconstructions that make Him a larger and greater figure than He was in life. To soften their deprecatory estimate of the Gospels, some critics offer two excuses for these reconstructions. They say that early believers needed to invent new stories and sayings because they had meager information about the real Jesus; also, that the fictional life of Jesus which they collectively created was pious exaggeration rather than deliberate lying. But we have seen that the Gospels were written within a generation or two after Jesus' death. Thus, if the Gospels were indeed fiction rather than history, their untruthfulness would not deserve either excuse. Within the church at that time were many relatives of Jesus and many of His former companions. These people certainly retained extensive memories of His life and ministry. Moreover, these same people certainly knew whether a particular saying or story was authentic, and if they allowed any falsehood to enter unchallenged into the witness of the church, they participated in foul deceit, not in mere exaggeration.
Consider how preposterous it is to suppose that the Gospel story is contaminated by lies. Lies could have circulated as truth only if everyone who had been close to Jesus had joined in dishonestly approving them. But surely, in this group there were some men of integrity who would have opposed falsehood. Surely, any attempt to distort historical facts would have caused dissension. But surviving records yield no hint of such dissension during the ten or twenty years after Jesus' death—the period when the traditions preserved in the Gospels were taking root as orthodoxy. Throughout this period, the church retained the loyalty of its founding members, produced no schisms, and grew rapidly.
Some critics who scorn belief in the supernatural nevertheless concede that the Gospels cannot be dismissed as lies or as reconstructions of a forgotten past. But they still insist that the early church replaced the historical Jesus with a fictional character of their own devising. They suppose that although the early church remembered what Jesus had really done and said, religious fervor and communal loyalty persuaded the faithful that the evolving Jesus of faith, the Jesus whom the Spirit revealed through vision and prophecy, was more real than the Jesus they had known (1). So, according to these critics, the Gospels are pious self-delusion. But to suppose that the early church substituted imagination for memory retrojects onto first-century Jews a characteristic fault of modern man. It is modern man who, for the sake of some pleasing new ideology, is willing to rewrite known history.
The earliest Christians were not historical revisionists, but tradition-bound Jews. They had acquired from their religious heritage an unquestioning certainty that the ancient words of Scripture were absolutely, inviolably true. They had learned from childhood that to be a devout Jew meant to listen carefully to the teaching of the rabbis and to commit that teaching to memory, without adding or subtracting even a single word. The Masoretes, the Jewish scribes who later transmitted Scripture through the Middle Ages, were so zealous to avoid mistakes in their copying that they checked themselves by counting verses, words, and letters (2).
Any reader of Josephus can see that in the two and a half centuries before A.D. 70, the Jews guarded their religious tradition with an unshakable and often fanatical conservatism. In 4 B.C., during the reign of Herod the Great, two rabbis and their scholars tore down a golden eagle that he had erected over the gate of the Temple because they regarded this emblem as a violation of the Second Commandment, the commandment against graven images. About forty of the conspirators were burned alive as punishment (3). Similar disturbances were a regular occurrence.
With his deep reverence for sacred tradition, the Jewish Christian would have been no more disposed to alter the Gospel story than to change the Old Testament. Thus, the Jewish leaders of the church would not have invented stories about Jesus to suit their own personal interests or to promote the growth of the church. Rather, they would have carefully stayed within the limits of what they themselves believed to be the truth. Their reverence for the exact letter of received knowledge is often voiced by the apostle Paul, himself a Jew.
And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2
Jesus' own teaching on the immutability of sacred tradition would have served to check imaginative reconstructions of His life and ministry.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
. . . The scripture cannot be broken.
The strange heresies and writings that emerged later in church history came primarily from non-Jewish elements in the church.
The traditions underlying the Gospels were widely circulated in Jerusalem at a time when the facts of Jesus' life were remembered even by many enemies of the church. It was also a time when the church was vigorously opposed and harassed by the authorities. If these authorities had found any glaring falsehood in the Gospel story being told and retold throughout the city, they would have used it effectively to discredit the burgeoning new religion. When vying with powerful enemies for public favor, the church would not have spread fanciful and easily disproved stories about Jesus. Therefore, the intense persecution of the early church is another circumstance guaranteeing the reliability of the Gospels.
We have no evidence that any early enemy of the church disputed its account of Jesus' ministry. Even His miracles—indeed, even the empty tomb—were never questioned. The apostles insisted in their public proclamations that the wonderful works of Jesus were common knowledge (Acts 2:22; 10:37). It was by upholding undebatable evidence of the supernatural that the church grew at a prodigious rate despite persecution.
Early Scattering of Believers
Among the thousands converted at Pentecost were people who had come to the feast from far-flung corners of the empire (Acts 2:9-11). Within a year or two, in about A.D. 35, the authorities martyred Stephen and commenced a general persecution of the church (Acts 8:1). Believers then scattered throughout Palestine and the adjoining regions, including Phoenicia, Antioch, and Cyprus (Acts 11:19). The apostles themselves soon began to travel their separate ways (Acts 8, 10-12; 1 Cor. 9:5). When Paul visited Jerusalem in about 50, he had already founded churches throughout Asia Minor (Acts 11:27-15:4; Gal. 2:1-10).
The first entrance of Christians onto the stage of secular history was in about 49, during the reign of Claudius. Suetonius, writing in about 120, reports that Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome on the grounds that they were making constant disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus (4). No doubt the account is garbled. The historian has wrongly given the name as Chrestus rather than Christus, and has wrongly blamed the disturbances on the party of Christ. The likely truth is that in Rome, as in many other cities, the introduction of Christianity had been greeted with violent opposition, especially among those Jews who regarded any innovation as apostasy. The Jews who left Rome at this time included the Christians Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul met at Corinth (Acts 18:1-2).
By 64, Christians were again numerous in Rome. After the city was swept by a horrible conflagration, rumors that Nero himself had started the fire so that he could rebuild the city more to his liking were widely believed. For fear of losing public order, the government frantically sought ways of suppressing these rumors. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, writing in about 116,
So far, the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the seashore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess. Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man (5).
The many who were killed perhaps included Peter and Paul.
Why is the early scattering of the church a circumstance guaranteeing that the Gospels are history rather than fancy? Because, to earn the status of authoritative writings, the Gospels had to satisfy not only a small religious clique in Jerusalem; they had to win the approval of Christian enclaves throughout the empire. Imagine what would have happened if a Gospel had been issued that contained many sayings and stories never heard previously. The church as a whole would have cast it aside as dubious and perhaps fraudulent. But when each of the four canonical Gospels was issued, churches everywhere accepted it. Why? They must have believed that it was fully, unquestionably true. The main part of its contents must have agreed with what they had heard before, from the apostles and other witnesses of Jesus' ministry. And any new information must have aroused no suspicion of falsehood. The churches would have viewed new information as credible only if (1) it was consistent with the rest of the Gospel story, (2) it was of secondary importance, (3) it was verifiable by surviving eyewitnesses, and (4) the writer was an unimpeachable source, with apostolic authority.
Willingness of the Apostles to Undergo a Martyr's Death
The first Christian to die for his faith was Stephen, one of the original seven deacons of the church in Jerusalem. He was stoned to death after a trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin in about the year 35. In 43, Herod Agrippa executed the apostle James, who had been the third member of Jesus' inner circle along with Peter and John. James was killed "with the sword"—that is, he was beheaded (Acts 12:2). The next major figure in the early church to suffer martyrdom was James, brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. In 61, during the interim of three months between the death of Festus and the arrival of a new Roman governor, the high priest Annas took the opportunity to attack the church. He arrested James and some others and delivered them to be stoned (6). Several independent traditions affirm that both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome (7). Many scholars believe that they were victims of Nero's fierce onslaught against the church in 64 (8). It is probable that Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified (9). Legend with a possible basis in fact remembers that Peter was crucified head down at his own request because he did not regard himself worthy to die in the manner of Christ (10). According to church tradition, another nine of the original twelve apostles were also killed (11).
Tradition alleges that John was the only apostle to die a natural death, though only after much persecution (12). Among the torments he supposedly endured was to be boiled in oil (13). But the traditions concerning John are probably unreliable. False stories about him were circulating even while he was alive (John 21:23). The earliest writer to speak of John's fate is Papias, mentioned earlier, who states that John was killed by the Jews (14). Any doubt that Papias is correct is resolved by Jesus' own comments concerning the future of James and John.
20 Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.
21 And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.
22 But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.
23 And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.
The question that must be asked is this. Would men go to a martyr's death, ordinarily a death as shameful and cruel as the authorities can devise, for the sake of a lie? If the apostles knew that the Christian message was false—that Jesus had not done and said the things they ascribed to Him and that He had not risen from the dead—would they have continued to affirm this message even unto death?
After deep reflection, Blaise Pascal, the great French polymath of the seventeenth century, answered as follows:
The supposition that the apostles were impostors is very absurd. Let us think it out. Let us imagine those twelve men, assembled after the death of Jesus Christ, plotting to say that He was risen. By this they attack all the powers. The heart of man is strangely inclined to fickleness, to change, to promises, to gain. However little any of them might have been led astray by all these attractions [that is, had any of them been moved even slightly by these attractions away from fidelity to the conspiracy], nay more, by the fear of prisons, tortures, and death, they were lost [that is, their conspiracy could not have succeeded] (15).
Another cogent response to the question was penned by the famous nineteenth-century lawyer Simon Greenleaf, whose Treatise on the Law of Evidence is generally regarded as a seminal contribution to modern jurisprudence.
The great truths which the apostles declared, were that Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through repentance from sin, and faith in him, could men hope for salvation. This doctrine they asserted with one voice, everywhere, not only under the greatest discouragements, but in the face of the most appalling terrors that can be presented to the mind of man. Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. . . . The laws of every country were against the teachings of his disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience and unblenching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact. If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error (16).
Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson ask, "Who would die for a lie?"—a simple but apt formulation of the question crucial to deciding whether the Gospels are reliable (17).