The Veracity of the Gospels

The Core Curriculum of Columbia University’s liberal arts college unifies the student body through the shared experience of studying a canon of major Western texts, among other requirements. In humanities classes required of every Columbia College attendee, educators often dismiss the Bible, and specifically the Gospels of the New Testament, as historically unreliable and fraught with contradiction and error. Questionable historicity and copying practices are listed as reasons why students should not believe that the Gospels give us a legitimate view of Christ. As a Bible-affirming Columbia College student, I became fascinated by the discussion and cynicism surrounding the words of Jesus. The voices of those deprecating the Bible led me, and certainly many others before me, to wonder if our biblical view of Jesus matches the Man who walked the earth some 2,000 years ago.

Why does it matter if our view is correct? The answer is in the license skeptics give themselves by discrediting the Gospels. Without the authority of biblical legitimacy, anyone is free to believe in any Jesus they wish without intellectual or moral repercussions. He can become whatever the reader wants Him to be, whether that be a sin-tolerant Savior, a “good teacher,” or any other misnomer modern readers have given Christ. We need to know that the real Jesus is a concrete figure whose words in the Scriptures cannot be equivocated upon, or else the very fabric of Christianity is dubitable. Therefore, we must all ask ourselves: can we trust the four Gospels to give us an accurate representation of the real Jesus? Bible-believing apologists give us ample reason to believe that we can.

Some who deny the Gospels’ infallibility do so simply based on the incredible events that mark almost every page. They are leery of believing that a human being healed a blind man with the touch of a muddy finger or that He raised a man from the dead by simply calling for him to come out of his grave. This reasoning is understandable— those events are rarely, if ever, seen today— but that very point speaks to the accuracy of the stories presented in the Gospels. Indeed, there were witnesses to Jesus’ miracles who had a chance to dispute accounts written about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but the stories held up because the witnesses refused to deny any of the happenings.

Scholars who affirm and deny the veracity of the Gospels agree that the book of John was written within 70 years after the death of Christ, and the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were finished and circulated within 30 years of the crucifixion.[1] These works, then, could have been called into question by anyone of that time, but they were not. In fact, the apostle Paul, a former critic of Christianity himself, refers to an appearance the resurrected Jesus made to “five hundred brethren at one time” and then adds, “most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.”[2] Why does he make this statement? The scholarly Jewish writer is essentially challenging skeptics to find a living witness who would deny the happenings of the Gospels, because he knew how unabashedly he or she would defend the truth.

Many of those eyewitnesses defended that truth until their dying day. The author of Hebrews makes an allusion to a “cloud of witnesses”[3] when he names some of the heroes of faith, many of whom were martyrs. The number of individuals that we know of from both biblical and non-biblical texts who chose to die rather than recant Christianity is staggering. Eyewitnesses die for their faith in the book of Acts and in several reliable secular histories, like that of Judean historian Josephus. Among other grotesque demises, they are crucified,[4] slashed to death with lances,[5] and stoned,[6] but their trust in what their eyes have seen trumps their desire to live life itself. Josephus said of them, “Those that loved Him at the first did not forsake Him; for He appeared again alive to them on the third day.”[7] This may be the single greatest argument for the validity of the Gospels—that so many eyewitnesses to the life of Christ sacrificed their own lives to preserve its integrity. If the Jesus they died for is not the Jesus of history, those martyrs are a miserable lot indeed.[8]

The most fascinating part of the martyrdom accounts is that they are juxtaposed historically with an account of the first skeptics of the gospel: the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman state. The guards at Jesus’ tomb discovered that His body was no longer there and immediately knew they were guilty of a capital crime. Roman soldiers received the death penalty if they lost that which they were guarding, so their lives were in peril. However, instead of dying for the truth, they lived on for a lie. The religious leaders bribed them to explain that the untrained disciples had snuck past the sleeping soldiers, rolled away a stone that weighed multiple tons, and made off with the body, all without waking the guards.[9] It was a ludicrous account, the idea that twelve laymen from Galilee could overcome sixteen able and equipped warriors from Rome. Yet despite the lie of the soldiers and the dismissal of Christ’s resurrection in Jewish synagogues, the truth stood firm because of the courageous souls who chose the Jesus of the Gospels over their earthly existence. Faced with hundreds of martyrdoms, doubters of the veracity of the Gospels are left to abandon the argument that the miraculous events described in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are simply too incredible to be true. They must resort to criticizing the texts themselves and not the accounts they portray.

One of these textual problems posited by skeptics is the inconsistency in certain parts of the Gospels. I interviewed Dr. Darrell Bock, a well-respected author of several scholarly journals and books about the reliability of the New Testament, and asked him about this argument against the veracity of the Gospels. He counters the claim with an analogy. “Suppose you ask my wife and me about the details of our courtship,” he opines. “I will remember things that she won’t, and she will remember things that I won’t. Different things stand out to different people.”[10] This thought is echoed by the writers of the Gospels. Each author wrote his book to a distinct audience—Matthew to Jews, Mark to Gentiles, Luke to intellectuals,[11] and John to all searching for a Savior. Some of them contain extra details that others do not, and some stories in parallel Gospels have different figures and non-identical quotations, but nowhere is there a contradictory theological or doctrinal point. None of them say things in direct disagreement with one another, meaning that the Gospels are, on the whole, consistent.

Skeptics of the New Testament’s integrity most often attack it based on the number of times it has been copied from the original. Because Christianity was relegated to the catacombs and other secret meeting places until the fourth century, more than 200 years passed before the Scriptures were openly circulated. Critics compare the process to a game of “telephone,” in which a message passes by whispers from one player’s ear to another’s to another’s in a line until the final message is compared to the original. Unless the players paid meticulous attention to providing a word-for-word replication of the initial message, the final phrase would say something very different from the phrase used at the beginning of the game. This analogy works very well for doubters, but a closer look reveals it does not match the real story.

After Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, Bible-believers came out of the woodwork all over Europe and Asia Minor, and each congregation brought out their own set of Scriptures which had been copied from original manuscripts. Popular Christian apologist Frank Turek notes stunning similarity in the writings. “There are more than 6,000 handwritten Greek manuscripts that have been found from all over the ancient world. And when you take [the texts] and compare them, we can reconstruct the original to more than 99 percent accuracy… And the less than one percent affects no significant Christian theology.”[12] No other text from the pre-printing press era comes anywhere close to that level of accuracy or volume. For example, the campaigns of Julius Caesar, which were written about 100 years before the Gospels, exist in a less than a dozen early manuscripts. The tonnage of the New Testament’s copies equal 50 times that of Caesar’s, and historians generally accept our modern copy of Caesar as the work of his actual hand.[13] To consider the writings about Jesus Christ as unreliable while affirming the records of Julius Caesar is, frankly, a double standard. Scholar F.F. Bruce puts it this way: “It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.”[14]

If a history exam prompted its students with the question “who is Caesar,” a correct answer would include details from a few manuscripts. These ancient writings would reflect what historians have found and proclaimed as proper descriptors of an actual man named Julius Caesar, a man who made reforms in Rome and conquered much of western Europe for his burgeoning empire. He is defined in the minds of people who study him as the individual depicted in the few manuscripts about him we have. The original copies of these writings total less than three percent of the Gospel texts we possess. So why do skeptics not give the Jesus Christ of the Gospels the same credence as the Julius Caesar of Roman texts? Why do they ignore the myriad of eyewitnesses who died to preserve the story, regardless of how unbelievable some of the miracles were? And why do they cite inconsistencies in the Gospels that are not really inconsistencies at all? It is because the answer to the question “who is Jesus” matters much more than the answer to the question “who is Caesar,” or any other question that a person could ask. If the Gospels give us an accurate depiction of Christ, the answer to the question “who is Jesus” has eternal implications. Jesus says time and again that He is deity[15] and that what He says matters.[16] The Jesus of the Gospels demands a response. Every individual must decide what to do with this Christ, whether to reject Him as a liar or lunatic, or to accept Him as Lord.[17] Each soul’s choice will have life-altering ramifications. Our modern copies of the Gospels answer the question of who Jesus is with astounding veracity. We all must determine for ourselves whether we will take that Christ or leave Him.

 

1 From a personal interview with Dr. Darrell Bock, Ph.D., conducted on March 7, 2015.
2 1 Corinthians 15:6, ESV.
3 Hebrews 12:1.
4 Charles Herbermann, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), 471.
5 Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume XII (New York: Bartleby. com, 2010), Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
6 William Whiston, The Works of Flavius Josephus,Vol. II (Philedelphia: J Crigg, 1827), 122.
7 Ibid., 45.
8 Paul, who eventually became a martyr himself, notes this in 1 Cornithians 15:12–22.
9 This story is recorded in Matthew 28:11–14.
10 From the same interview with Dr. Bock.
11 Like a Greek patrician named Theophilus, to whom Luke formally addresses the letter in Luke 1:1.
12 “Frank Turek Responds: Has the New Testament Been Copied Too Many Times?” Cross Examined YouTube.com, 20 Jan. 2015), Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
13 Geisler, Norman and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 226.
14 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 9–10.
15 Matthew 26:63–66, Mark 14:62, Luke 10:22, and John 8:58 are just a few examples.
16 Consider the parable of the sower in Luke 8, or the wise man and the fool in Matthew 7.
17 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952), 41.

 

Titus Willis (CC’18) hails from a West Virginia town of 2,000, which is about the size of his class at Columbia, or about 0.02% of New York City’s population. He wouldn’t trade his family or the life he’s led up to this point for anything. He would like to use CC&C as a means for projecting the truth of Christ to Columbia’s campus.

Photo credit: Kopfjaeger from morguefile.com.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,