Can the Gospels be trusted?

By Dan Barkman

Many questions are often raised regarding the reliability of the Gospels in the Bible. Why were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John written so long after Jesus' ministry? Who were these authors, and how can we be sure that they were in a position to know what really happened in the life of Jesus? Did they witness every event they narrate? Who were their sources of information? How did they know the details of specific conversations of which they were not privy? Volumes could be written addressing each of these questions. However, we will discover that despite years of assaults on their credibility, it is still reasonable to believe that the authors of the four Gospels had access to reliable biographical information about Jesus, and that information has been faithfully transmitted to us over the centuries.

The Gospel of Mark

Most New Testament scholars hold that Mark was the first Gospel written. This is by no means certain, but it is a popular position right now. According to the 2nd century church father Papias, Mark essentially functioned as a secretary for the apostle Peter and received much of his Gospel's material from him. This passage from Papias is no longer extant but has been preserved for us in the writings of the 4th century church historian Eusebius:
"Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who had adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely" [1].
Moreover, Mark's narrative has been shown to contain several internal indications of Peter's influence [2]. Given that this work was likely completed prior to 70 A.D., within one generation of the events it records, the likelihood of legendary embellishment impinging on the central facts of this document is implausible.

The Gospel of Luke

Luke tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (Luke 1:1-2). It is probable that one of the written sources that Luke was referring to was the Gospel of Mark. Mark's Gospel would be seen as an invaluable source for Luke since much of it was essentially coming from the viewpoint of the apostle Peter—an eyewitness to many of the events narrated in the Gospel of Mark. Of course, Luke had additional sources, probably both written and oral, at his disposal. He knew the apostle Paul, who had consulted with and whose doctrine was endorsed by, the Jerusalem apostles Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:9). This makes it unlikely that Luke had no access to the deeds and teachings of Jesus. As F.F. Bruce has noted:
"Again, Luke seems to have spent two years in or near Israel during Paul's last trip to Jerusalem and detention in Caesarea (cf. Acts 24:27). These years afforded him unique opportunities of increasing his knowledge of the story of Jesus and the early Church. On one occasion at least, he is known to have met James, the brother of Jesus; and he may have seized other opportunities of making the acquaintance of members of the holy family" [3].
Luke explicitly mentions meeting James in Acts 21:18. Being the son of Mary, James surely had access to stories of Jesus' infancy and virginal conception, events that played an integral part in Luke's Gospel (Luke 1-2).

The Gospel of Matthew

Good arguments have been made over the years that the apostle Matthew, the tax collector, is the author of, or the chief source behind, the Gospel of Matthew. If this is correct, Matthew himself would have personally seen and heard many of the events that are narrated in this work. Matthew would still rely on earlier written or public oral traditions as well. The hypothetical "Q" document, if it existed, could have been one of Matthew's sources [4].

The Gospel of John

Who was the "Beloved Disciple" of our fourth Gospel? Can we be confident that John, son of Zebedee, was the author? Internal evidence suggests that the author was a Jew, involved with fishing, and a Palestinian native—all traits consistent with Johannine authorship. He seems to have been personally close to Jesus and to have witnessed some of the events that he narrates (e.g., John 19:35, etc.). In the latter part of the 2nd century, the church father Irenaeus of Lyons claimed that the apostle John was the author. This reference is significant given that Irenaeus had met the Apostle John's personal student, Polycarp. Other early sources, such as Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, etc., state that John was the author. In fact, the patristic sources are almost unanimous that John was the author of the Gospel bearing his name—a doubtful scenario if the Son of Zebedee was not, in fact, the author.

When There are No Witnesses

Access to eyewitness testimony does not guarantee that all the events recorded were historical. Challenges are often levied against the credibility of specific Gospel episodes in which there are no other witnesses. For example, Matthew 4:1-11 narrates a dialogue between Jesus and Satan. Who was present to hear this conversation? While it is plain that Matthew mentions no third party witnesses to this epic conversation, there is no reason why Jesus Himself could not have informed Matthew or his source(s) about it later. It is hard to imagine Jesus not retelling the story at some time to His disciples during His earthly ministry!

What about Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel? More than likely, she had no problem remembering the event decades after the fact. I'm sure it would be difficult to forget! Though it was a short conversation, Mary would have no problem recalling the conversation many years later. Other questions arise from Jesus' experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. Who was there to witness the specifics of Jesus' prayer to His Father? There is nothing in the text to suggest that Peter, James, and John were so far away from Jesus that they couldn't have heard His prayer. Again, though, there is no reason why Jesus Himself could not have recounted this story to His disciples after His resurrection.

While questions remain regarding the sequence and timing of the four Gospels of the Bible, reasonable arguments continue to convince many that the four evangelists had access to—and were able to successfully transmit to us—accurate historical material related to the Jesus of history.

1. Eusebius, Church History 3.39.15-16
2. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 155-182
3. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) p. 39
4. "Q" or the "Q Document" is a hypothetical collection of Jesus' sayings that may have pre-dated the four canonical Gospels. "Q" comes from the German word, Quelle, meaning "sources". However, there is no hard evidence that this document ever existed.

Image Credit: GFreihalter; "Katholische Pfarrkirche St. Valerius, Skulpturen der vier Evangelisten"; Creative Commons

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Published 10-31-12