Are the Gospels trustworthy as history? Did the stories they tell about Jesus really happen? Christianity is a historical religion, a faith that’s based on allegedly historical people and events, so the question of historicity is fundamental to our faith. If the Gospels relate historical fact, then our beliefs stand on some pretty firm ground; however, if they relate fiction, then we have a very big problem.
So how do we answer these questions? How can we determine if the stories the Gospels tell are really true? From a purely historical perspective, we cannot have absolute certainty about this (that is impossible in history), but there are a few things at which we can look to see if they are reliable, a few clues that can tip the scale one way or another. Let’s now take a look at some of those clues and see what they can tell us about the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels.
Historicity and First Century Judaism
Let’s begin with the nature of the first-century Judaism. Christianity grew out of Judaism, and the whole point of the Gospels is that Jesus Christ is the climax and goal of the story told in the Old Testament. Now, Judaism (both in the first century and in the Old Testament) was a historical religion. It was based on past events that supposedly happened in history, and the Jews were expecting certain future events to occur in history as well (like the coming of the Messiah). As a result, it would not have made much sense for a group of first-century Jews to just make up things that never happened. The prominent New Testament scholar N. T. Wright explains this point well in his book The New Testament and the People of God:
[T]he fact that the evangelists believed themselves to be bringing the story of Israel to its great climax, the turning-point from which at last the long history of the world would change course, means inescapably that they believed themselves to be writing (what we call) history…History was where Israel’s god must act to redeem his people…If we are to think Jewishly, and to see the evangelists as doing so too, we cannot but conclude that they intended to refer to Jesus and his historical ministry.1
If they were telling the story of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s history, there is every reason, over and above biographical curiosity, why they would have intended that their stories should have a clear historical referent.2
Granted, this doesn’t prove anything, but it does provide us with some evidence that the Gospels are reliable. Telling stories that never happened would have been counterproductive to their entire enterprise; it would not have made any sense for them to make up a Messiah or to tell fake stories about some random first-century Jew. As a result, we have good reason to believe that the evangelists were trying to write history. However, this raises a question for us: even if they wanted to write history, would they have been able to do so?
Historicity and Anonymous Gospels?
I argue that the writers of the Gospels most likely wanted to write history. Let’s look at one reason why. The Gospels are traditionally attributed to Matthew (an Apostle), Mark (a close companion of the Apostle Peter), Luke (a close companion of the Apostle Paul), and John (an Apostle), but modern scholars often reject these traditional attributions. There a few reasons for this stance, but one of the main ones is that the texts of the Gospels never actually name their authors. Nowhere do the Gospels come out and tell us who wrote them, so many scholars today claim that the Gospels are anonymous documents that were later attributed to specific (but, most likely fictional) authors.3
However, this skepticism is unwarranted. First, even though the Gospels never identify their authors within the texts of their stories, every complete ancient manuscript of the Gospels that we possess today is titled “The Gospel According to…” We don’t have any complete copies that are actually anonymous; they all contain the names of their supposed authors. Consequently, the claim that they were originally anonymous is really just an educated guess; it is not supported by any of the manuscripts we possess.4
Moreover, if the Gospels were originally anonymous, we would expect to see speculation and argumentation about their authorship in the early Church, but we don’t. Already by the early second century, we see Christian writers confident that these Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and nobody disputed that. There were other biblical works whose authorship was disputed, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, which does not name its author either in its text or in its title, in contrast to the Gospels. Since we see the exact opposite of what we would expect, if the Gospels were originally anonymous, we have good reason to believe that they were not. 5
Not the Obvious Choices
And that’s not all. While John, one of the three Apostles in Jesus’ inner circle (along with Peter and James), was an obvious choice to whom to attribute one of the Gospels, the other three authors present no basis for a likely, arbitrary attribution. Matthew was an Apostle but not a prominent one, and Mark and Luke were not important figures in the New Testament at all. Simply put, if the early Church wanted to attribute the Gospels to people who would lend them an air of authority, they made some pretty bad choices. Instead, the most likely explanation for the traditional attributions is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really did write the works that bear their names.
Now, two of these men were Apostles, and the other two were close associates of Apostles (Mark was an associated of Peter, and Luke was an associate of Paul), so they were definitely in a good position to write accurate history about Jesus’ life and preaching. Because of all this, we already have some good reasons for believing that the Gospels are historically reliable even before we look at their content. Both their nature as first-century Jewish documents and the likely identities of their authors attest to this. However, that is only half the story. Next, we have to look at what the Gospels actually say and see if their content gives us any further clues about their historical trustworthiness.
Historicity and Embarrassing Stories
To begin, let’s look at a few texts in the Gospels that the evangelists would have considered potentially damaging or embarrassing. For example, we can look for stories or sayings that seem to denigrate Jesus. If the Gospel writers simply made their stories up, they would not have included such events, but if they were trying to write accurate history, then they would have simply recorded the facts as they actually happened, regardless of how much they might seem to contradict their own beliefs.
When we look at the Gospels, we find that all four of them do in fact include such details. For example, Mark 6:1-5 says that when Jesus returned to his hometown, he wasn’t able to perform many miracles there because of the people’s disbelief. This event seems to cast doubt on Jesus’ power to work miracles, so it clearly fits this criterion. The fact that Mark chose to include it despite its potential for embarrassment shows that he was genuinely concerned about the facts as they historically happened, not just about made-up stories that simply supported his own theological agenda.
The other Gospel writers did the same thing. We find little bits and pieces that seem to belittle Jesus in Matthew 27:46 (when He cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross), Luke 3:21 (when Jesus is baptized, an event that could imply that Jesus needed to repent and be cleansed of His sins), and John 14:28 (when Jesus says “The Father is greater than I”). All four Gospels show that their authors were interested in relating events as they actually happened, even when those events were potentially damaging or embarrassing.
Historicity and What the Gospels Don’t Say
Next, we can look at what the Gospels don’t say. That may sound a bit odd, but bear with me. The New Testament tells us that the most pressing theological issue facing the first Christians was the incorporation of Gentiles (non-Jews) into the Church. More specifically, it was the question of whether or not Gentile converts had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law.6 Now, if the evangelists were simply making stuff up, we would expect them to include some stories or sayings of Jesus that touch on this issue.
But they don’t. Jesus sometimes hints at the future inclusion of Gentiles in the Church, but he never says anything about whether or not they need to be circumcised or follow the Jewish Law. This shows once again that the Gospel writers were interested in histortcal facts, in what actually happened. They did not simply invent stories or sayings of Jesus to fit their needs or to further their own theological agendas; instead, they recounted things that actually happened.
Summary: Reasons to Trust the Historicity of the Gospels
Admittedly, we’ve only scratched the surface of this issue, and there is a ton more we can say about the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels, but from what we have seen here, we can be confident that our faith does have a solid basis in history. We have good reason to believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are largely accurate and that the Jesus they depict is in fact the real Jesus who lived and preached 2,000 years ago.
1) N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 397.
2) N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 399.
3) For example, Udo Schnelle, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 240; E P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989), 6, 13.
4) Curtis Mitch, “Introduction to the Gospels,” in The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament, ed. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, xv-xxiii (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), xvi; D A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 140.
5) Curtis Mitch, “Introduction to the Gospels,” in The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament, ed. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, xv-xxiii (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), xvi, n. 2; Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 391-392.
6) St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is all about this , and the Council of Jerusalem, the first Church council in history, was called to discuss this very issue (Acts 15:1-21).