June 25, 2007
Establishing the Gospels’ Reliability
I noticed that in many of your debates and articles, you put a lot of stock and faith in the Gospel narratives. I do consider myself a Christian but have a big doubt. How do we really know if those Gospel narratives are really all that reliable? Sure, they are historical, but are they true or not? I could write a paper about how big foot, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus came to my house and watched TV with me, then thousands of years later people stumble upon my documents and consider them to be true. The discovers of the ancient Joe documents then say, "Well, we consider it truthful because there are about 26,000 complete copies and fragments of these ancient documents that have been found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Plus, there are only about 680 copies of the Odyssey by Homer, which makes the Joe narratives completely reliable." Sure, they are historical but, definetly not true. What makes the Gospel narratives truthful and not fake? If I can get this question answered, I can finally have faith that God has truly risen Jesus from the dead, and know that I will go to heaven. If you or maybe one of your assistants can answer this question, that would help me alot. Thank you.
I’m glad for your question, Joe, because it surfaces a number of misconceptions that are widely shared by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Your fundamental question is: how do we know that the Gospel narratives are historically reliable? You correctly observe that that question is not to be answered by appeal to the abundance and age of the manuscripts of the Gospels. The idea that the abundance and age of the manuscripts of the Gospels is evidence for their historical reliability is a misconception fostered by popular Christian apologetics. It’s true that the New Testament is the best attested book in ancient history, both in terms of the number of manuscripts and the nearness of those manuscripts to the date of the original. What that goes to prove is that the text of the New Testament that we have today is almost exactly the same as the text as it was originally written. Of the approximately 138,000 words in the New Testament only about 1,400 remain in doubt. The text of the New Testament is thus about 99% established. That means that when you pick up a (Greek) New Testament today, you can be confident that you are reading the text as it was originally written. Moreover, that 1% that remains uncertain has to do with trivial words on which nothing of importance hangs. This conclusion is important because it explodes the claims of Muslims, Mormons, and others that the text of the New Testament has been corrupted, so that we can no longer read the original text. It’s awe-inspiring to think that we can know with confidence that when we pick Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, for example, we are reading the very words he wrote almost 2,000 years ago.
But, as you say, that doesn’t prove that what these documents say is historically accurate. We could have the text of Aesop’s fables established to 99% accuracy, and that would do nothing to show that they are true stories. After all, they are intended to be fables, not history. People in the future would say something similar about the Joe narratives, no matter how many copies existed.
Now, as you point out, the Gospels are intended to be history. That is the import of your comment that the Gospels “are historical” even if they are not true. That is to say, the Gospels are of the literary genre of historical writing. They are not of the genre of mythology, fiction, or fable. This is an extremely important insight. Something of a consensus has developed within New Testament scholarship that the Gospels are closest in genre to ancient biographies ( “Lives,” as they are called, as in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans). Though differing in certain respects from modern biographies, such as lack of concern with strict chronology, ancient Lives did have a historical interest in presenting truthfully the life of the subject. That will make them very different from a deliberate fiction, such as you envision being written by yourself. The Gospel writers were trying to write a historical account about real people, places, and events (just look at Luke 3.1-3).
So were they successful in getting the facts straight about Jesus of Nazareth? There are two ways to get at that question. One way would be by assessing the general credibility of the Gospel accounts. Take a look at my article on this site under “Popular Articles” entitled “The Evidence for Jesus” for five lines of evidence supporting the general credibility of the Gospel records of Jesus’ life.
The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.
It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”
In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.
What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:
(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.
(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.
(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.
Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.
I’m convinced that we can. Indeed, it’s shocking to me how much of Jesus’ life can be established, including his radical personal claims, his crucifixion, his burial in a tomb, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and his disciples’ coming to believe suddenly and sincerely that God had raised him from the dead. Take a look at my book Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossways, 1994) for detailed argument. We therefore have quite solid reasons for believing in Christ on the basis of the historical facts preserved about him in the Gospels.