Can We Trust the Gospel Writers?

Last week’s blog was the first in a series wherein I’ll attempt to clear the air regarding the authenticity of what the New Testament says of Jesus. In the course of having a discussion about Christianity with my agnostic daughter a few years back I came to realize there’s a massive amount of misinformation and confusion floating around concerning God’s revelations about Christ and His Holy Word in general. Too many like her accept rhetoric as fact. Yet her poignant questions made me aware of how little I knew about the Bible and that dearth of knowledge was severely hampering my ability to respond to her intelligently. My guess is I have plenty of company in that leaky boat so I decided to seek out and share the bottom-line truth about the Gospels. Turns out there’s a lot of solid data and logic-based conclusions available that all believers should strive to store in their brains so as to be better equipped to defend their faith against the attacks of secular society and the devil’s lies that have thoroughly corrupted it. The previous essay tackled (successfully, I hope) the who and when aspects surrounding the Gospels. Now it’s time to explore/examine the why.

 

The impression I got from my daughter was this: She believes the folks who hung out with a charismatic fellow named Jesus 2,000 years ago thought he was the coolest dude they’d ever encountered. Bar none. He was such a swell guy that, after he was unjustly murdered by the oppressive Roman regime (at the urging of paranoid Jewish leaders), they huddled together and decided to make up all kinds of fantastic claims about him – including the outrageous fib that Jesus was the God of the entire universe in the flesh! Not only that but they were so incredibly proficient at what they set out to do for their dearly departed friend they hoodwinked billions of people into actually believing their fabricated stories. In other words, when it comes to developing hoaxes, that tiny group of sly geniuses were (and still are) the undisputed world champions of all time! From the Christian point of view that scenario is so preposterous it’s beyond absurd but to non-believers somehow it makes perfect sense because the alternative is to accept that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. If we inform a person who shares my daughter’s viewpoint they’re simply being stupid we won’t exactly be displaying the patience or tender love of Christ so it’s important we be gentle, take some time and, hopefully, persuade them to reconsider their position using good old common sense and verifiable facts.

 

It must be emphasized first that the authors of the Gospels were determined to record the truth about Jesus and nothing but. The Book of Luke begins with a declaration of honest intent not unlike prefaces to other trusted-as-reliable historical and biographical works of antiquity. He writes, Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you… so that you may know for certain the things you were taught (Luke 1:1-4). The response may be, “Well, goody for Luke! Did any of the others do the same?” The answer is no, but it’s reasonable to assume Matthew and Mark had the same goal. John did make a proclamation, just not as implicitly. His contained more of a theological slant: “…These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31). What can’t be overlooked is the obvious similarity in the profound message being conveyed in the four Gospels. Of course there’s going to be a theological spin involved but if it doesn’t flow from a stream of historical accuracy it won’t stand up to scrutiny. All four are written in a sober, responsible fashion and they included giving warranted attention to details. What’s not in them is wild, otherworldly, hard-to-swallow mythological fantasizing one finds in so many other ancient writings. Thus it’s difficult to conclude the authors of the Gospels were attempting to do anything other than relate what really occurred.

 

The next inquiry from a skeptic might be, “Okay, but was it what really happened or is it just what they think really happened? Weren’t they so sure Jesus was returning before next Tuesday they considered absolute accuracy moot?” This is another instance where commonly-held but false assumptions get in the way of truth. Most of Jesus’ teachings presuppose a lengthy amount of time passing before the day of His return to earth dawns. On top of that, it’s wise to remember that Christianity arose out of Judaism, a religion that endured 800 years of unrelieved anticipation waiting for the prophesized Messiah to arrive. Yet the followers of the prophets still meticulously recorded and preserved precisely what they said and did. It makes sense the disciples of Jesus would do the same for their beloved Lord. “But,” one may object, “Since the early church was convinced the Holy Ghost was speaking through the writers isn’t it conceivable that distinguishing between what Jesus said and what the authors were being ‘told by the Spirit’ is pretty much impossible?” Not! The writers were aware of the situation and went out of their way to avoid confusion. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul deliberately separates his “inspired” words from the utterances of the historical Jesus. In the book of Revelation John does the same thing. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul instructs the church on how to apply tests to identify genuine prophesying from false teachings. Still, the best argument against contamination is what isn’t found in the Scriptures. There were, as one would expect, a myriad of controversies that arose in the early church after Jesus’ ascension. Any of the writers could’ve claimed that Christ appeared to them and dictated new regulations about circumcision, divorce, speaking in tongues, the “Gentile problem,” etc. to clarify things. But that didn’t happen. Not one of them said they were relating what Christ had personally told them. They could have but they didn’t because they were dedicated to remaining true to their task.

 

Inevitably another retort will be something along the lines of “If the Gospels were penned at least 30 years later how can we know the facts didn’t get distorted along the way? I’m lucky if I remember what I had for breakfast!” To answer that question it’s vital to establish context. To say things were downright primitive 20 centuries ago is an understatement. Books – scrolls of papyrus, actually – were rare. Therefore education of any sort on any subject was conveyed almost exclusively by word-of-mouth. Comparing what people did to communicate efficiently back then to the modern-day children’s game of “telephone” (where a phrase gets whispered from one kid to another in a line and the end result is usually hilariously convoluted) is ignorant. Any Rabbi worth his salt had the entire Old Testament memorized. Understand the whole culture was oral-oriented. Plus the majority of Jesus’ statements were originally set in the poetic forms employed in that age, making it much easier to keep them inviolate. So it’s no stretch to confidently state that Christians were able to pass along the teachings of their Master word-for-word. Now, did slight variations surface over time? Most likely they did. But in those days comprehensive communication of vital, unalterable points was imperative so the community at large had the right to interrupt and correct the speaker if he got off track. In fact, that goes a long way in explaining why the Gospels describe some events differently but are remarkably consistent in conveying the essential significance of Jesus’ original teachings and deeds.

 

The character of the Gospel writers should never be doubted. There’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever to indicate they were anything but men of unimpeachable integrity, virtue and morality. They were also literally putting their necks on the line for their beliefs. That aside, critics will almost always focus on what they view as contradictions so those must be addressed accordingly. Once again, context must be emphasized. Craig Blomberg said, “The Gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.” It’s ironic that if the Gospels were identical, accusations would’ve quickly arisen that a conspiracy concocted amongst the disciples to coordinate their stories had been agreed on and strictly adhered to as some kind of failsafe measure. So it’s sort of a Catch-22 thing, if you will. Simon Greenleaf, a law professor at Harvard, said of the Gospel writers, “There is enough of a discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them; and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction.” The classical historian Hans Stier promotes the idea that the presence of slight contradictions suggests credibility because fabricated accounts are reliably consistent and harmonious. He wrote, “Every historian is especially skeptical at that moment when an extraordinary happening is only reported in accounts which are completely free of contradictions.”

 

One particular contradiction is worth mentioning, though, because it gets brought up so frequently. It has to do with the discrepancies found in the genealogies of Jesus listed in Matthew and Luke. The answer is that it’s a case of multiple options. Be aware that Matthew’s reflects Joseph’s lineage while Luke’s reflects Mary’s. Joseph, as the adoptive father, would’ve been the court-recognized ancestor, something very important to Matthew but not so much to Luke. Both converge at a certain junction and both are connected to the bloodline of King David, anyway. The key word is legal. One’s legal lineage could become a hotly contested issue in Jewish culture when it came to estate heirs and it wasn’t unusual that unintentional (or otherwise) additions or omissions in the official records were made along the way. If you’ve ever tried to compile your family tree, even in this modern era of the internet’s open access to vast amounts of information, you’ve probably discovered the endeavor soon turns into a confounding maze of names, dates and places. In the case of Matthew and Luke I feel it’s safe to grant them the benefit of the doubt.

 

The hardcore skeptic may retreat to the handy “bias” objection and say something like, “Though the writers were no doubt sincere, they admitted they loved Jesus and were devoted to Him. To expect them to be ‘fair and balanced’ when it came to their Master would be nonsensical. They’d want to place Him in the best light possible, would they not?” While that’s plausible it’s just not the case. Here’s the deal: Jesus was no longer on terra firma so they had nothing to gain from their efforts except persecution, discrimination and even martyrdom. It’s not like they were going to collect royalties from book sales. Fact is, they would’ve been smarter to stay silent, deny any connection to Jesus, downplay any part they played in His ministry and try to quietly move on with their lives. But, because of their convictions, they declared the deity of Christ before all who would listen, even when it meant imprisonment and/or an agonizing death. Do you know anyone who’d willingly suffer torture for what they knew was a lie? I don’t.

 

Speaking of trying to make Christ appear better than He actually was, that argument holds no water at all. If that was their intent they would’ve been wise to keep some things out of the record altogether. Blomberg commented, “If I were inventing a religion to suit my fancy, I probably wouldn’t tell myself to be as perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, or define adultery to include lust in my heart.” I mean, why include what Mark 6:5-6 states about Jesus’s visit to Nazareth? He was not able to do a miracle there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed because of their unbelief…” Wasn’t Mark worried readers would take that to mean the Lord’s power had limits? Later, in chapter 13, he quotes Jesus as saying He didn’t know the day or hour when He’d return in glory, that only the Father knew that. Doesn’t that cast a shadow on Christ’s omniscience? Now, before you go jumping ship, take note of what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8 wherein he explains that God, as the human Jesus, voluntarily and consciously put restrictions on the independent exercise of His divine attributes. But wouldn’t it have been easier to just leave those verses out in the first place and avoid having to explain them? They could’ve edited out Jesus’s insistence on being baptized by John. And how about His crying out of My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46) while hanging on the cross? Didn’t they know these revelations would raise some pesky questions?

 

And what about their own dubious behavior? In Mark’s Gospel the apostle Peter is frequently portrayed as a petty waffler and he’s supposed to be the figurative rock of the church! We observe the disciples often totally misunderstanding what Jesus said or did. James and John almost come to blows over which one of them will sit nearest to the Master in the next world. Jesus has to stop, chastise them and remind them that the one who’s most willing to serve will be considered greatest. A lot of the time the apostles seem more like a cantankerous gang of self-centered, grouchy dimwits than Christian saints. John admits much was left out of the narrative. There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25). That indicates the writers were, by necessity, selective. This begs the question that if they didn’t feel at liberty to leave out the unflattering material about themselves or things that weren’t conducive to furthering their “cause” then how can critics claim they made it all up? And weren’t there educated, literate contemporaries who would’ve made it crystal clear that what the disciples were writing was just flat out wrong? Yet when we peruse what those who didn’t agree with them did write it’s somewhat revealing in and of itself. In some later Jewish writings Jesus is branded a sorcerer who led the country astray. Well, that implies Christ did some amazing things that defied natural or scientific explanation. They could’ve, instead, just written that Jesus didn’t do squat. But they didn’t. They unwittingly acknowledged that He performed what were considered by most as miracles.

 

Since the Christian movement began in the very place – Jerusalem – where Jesus preached, was executed, sealed in a tomb and then walked out resurrected from the dead it’s likely that the local populace would’ve known the apostles were distorting the truth and spreading exaggerated lies about their former leader. In the months immediately following the crucifixion the disciples were vulnerable to being harshly persecuted and punished. The whole movement was treading on thin ice. If the authorities could’ve rubbed them and their “Good News” out of existence by simply exposing them as frauds you can bet they would have. But they didn’t because they couldn’t. The citizens of Jerusalem knew something extraordinary had taken place in their midst, even if they weren’t sure what it was. Just putting out slanderous rumors and propaganda that Jesus’ followers were wicked charlatans didn’t work because the folks knew better. The government’s “official” story didn’t add up. The sky didn’t usually turn dark in the middle of the day. An earthquake rattling the region the moment Jesus breathed His last had to be more than coincidental. Certainly, hardcore Roman soldiers didn’t leave their post and scatter like terrified chipmunks from a gravesite. When 500 people said they saw Jesus live and in person after He’d been declared dead and buried they knew intrinsically the world would never be the same. Perhaps it was time to lend an ear to what His devotees were saying about Jesus being the promised Messiah. Their message had the unmistakable ring of truth to it. Not just a temporary truth, but a permanent one. Maybe those old prophets weren’t full of hot air when they predicted the Savior of mankind was on the way. Perhaps there was hope for a brighter future, after all.

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