An Introduction to Evidence for the Authenticity and Reliability of the Gospel Accounts
By Cary Weisbaum.
This brief paper can only touch the surface of the evidence for the authenticity and reliability of the Gospels. For the interested party desiring more, I would suggest starting with some of the sources in the References section. In particular, Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict is comprehensive and possesses a large bibliography to other works. For easy reading, his More Than a Carpenter is an excellent overview of the evidence for the truth of Biblical Christianity. For a readable, scholarly look at the reliability of the New Testament documents, see The New Testament Documents, by F. F. Bruce. More than anything, I refer the reader to the documents themselves.
There is historical evidence for the authenticity of all of the New Testament. This paper will be limited in its scope to the Gospel accounts, as these accounts form the core of the narrative regarding the Person of Jesus Christ and the events that transpired surrounding him in the first three decades of the first century. It is my conviction that the outside historical evidence can lead a person to consider the claims of the truth about Christ, but that it is the documents themselves that are the most compelling evidence. It is the actual reading of these documents that compels one to become convinced of their truth and genuineness. For the serious seeker, it is insufficient to peruse occasional passages throughout the Gospels and make a judgment. Too many argue for the a priori impossibility of the Gospel accounts being true, having never read their contents. When one does so, one begins to see the non-contrived historical nature of the accounts, as well as a nature of teaching and organization suggestive of an origin greater than of ourselves. As the Scripture says, “So then faith [comes] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” 1
When we speak of authenticity, we are looking at such matters as the dating and authorship of the Gospels being what they claim to be. Reliability refers to the trustworthiness of the witnesses and their accounts of the events they claim to have seen. Evidence of divine origin is related to this, for if the writers’ witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ is reliable, then the claims made by him are true. Included in those claims is that the Holy Spirit, whom we call the third person of the Trinity, would remind the disciples of all that Jesus had said and would teach them all the things they needed to know. 2 The Gospel accounts, then, would be the product of God working through men. The nature of the accounts themselves is also evidence of reliability, if in their content and teachings they bear the stamp of divine origin.
In approaching the historical evidence for authenticity, it is necessary to look at the historical record impartially. One must consider the Gospel accounts as one would look at any ancient document. 3 It is not proper, nor will it lead to truth, to assume that the accounts are biased because they are “religious” in nature. First, this assumption is based on a false distinction prevalent today between the secular and religious; whether an event is true is to be tested in reality. Second, the fact that the Gospel authors were close to the events that they describe and therefore came to believe in them does not disqualify them; rather it gives them extra credence in their witness to these events. 4 One cannot arrive at truth by affirming the documents to be “religious” and assuming that they are therefore unreliable; they must be tested on their merits alone. In general, to get at the truth, one cannot approach this subject from an epistemologically or historically skeptical position. Absolute knowledge is not possible, but real knowledge is. The evidence must be weighed. One must come to a conclusion from the whole weight of the evidence.
Finally, one cannot assume an anti-supernatural bias. If one starts with the assumption that there is not a God who can do miracles, one cannot look objectively at the historical evidence and testimony. It is better to reserve judgment and consider the testimony of history.
The Testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures
We will start in our examination of the Gospels with the Old Testament documents’ testimony to the New Testament writings. It is well accepted that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was in existence in the first or second century before Christ. This document translates the Hebrew Scriptures, therefore validating their existence well before the time of Christ. Included in these Scriptures that go back to the second millennium B.C. are multiple prophecies about the very events the Gospel writers claim to have witnessed. These prophecies are very specific. A son would be born to us in Bethlehem (Micah 5) who would be human but also God Himself in the flesh (Isaiah 9). This man would be crucified (Psalm 22), would die for our sins, be buried, and raised from the dead (Isaiah 53). This man, on the cross, would be offered vinegar to drink, his garments would be divided by lot, and not one of his bones would be broken. Further, this man would be a Messiah, an Anointed Prince, and would appear before the destruction of the second Temple (in 70 A.D.) Since the Gospel writers claim that all this and more was specifically fulfilled, we are dealing in their accounts with either truthful testimony, a deliberate deception, or a mythology that developed later about the Person of Christ. One must examine the evidence and decide which it is.
The Testimony of History
Sources from church writers as well as outside historians support the historicity of the Gospel events as well as the early dating and genuine authorship of the documents.
Dating of the Gospels
Some historians have placed the Gospel documents as written in the second century, although by the twentieth century most had placed them in the first century. 5 If very late dates are true, this is not supportive of reliable historical accounts, being too far removed from the events that transpired and indicative of authorship by pseudonymous writers claiming to be actual eyewitnesses. Conversely, if earlier dates are true, it is excellent evidence that the Gospel accounts are neither a fraud nor a mythology. People living at the time would not have believed accounts that were patently untrue according to common knowledge; the Gospel would not have flourished. The scholar F. F. Bruce points to the writers’ repeated claims to be “witnesses of these things” and writes, “Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.” 6 It is the same situation as if a rumor were circulating today that President Kennedy had risen from the dead. I was about 11 years old when the news of his death was announced, and I remember those events well. It is now 41 years later, and I would in no way believe it. Many did believe in the resurrection of Christ, and those who did not could not refute the reality of the empty tomb and no body to be found.
What is the evidence for the authorship of the Gospels earlier than the second century? First there is content. The level of detail of geography and culture and political conditions given by the Gospel writers is suggestive of an earlier authorship, and such details would not have been available to later writers. Charles E. Raven dates the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) before the year 70 based on content: “The general habit of placing the Synoptic Gospels in the period A.D. 70 –100 is inexplicable; for the evidence is weaker than the objections. They reflect a time before the scattering of the Palestinian Church and the dispersion of the local and conservative community, a time utterly unlike the age of experiment and syncretism which followed Nero’s persecution and the sack of Jerusalem.” 7
Second, there is the evidence that these Gospels were quoted and used at an early date. Clement of Rome flourished around the years 90 – 100 8; he was a disciple of the apostles, according to early church writers Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. He quoted from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, supporting both that these documents were circulating in his time and that the authors were indeed as claimed. Ignatius (c. 70 – c. 98/117) was bishop of Antioch and knew the apostles well. He wrote seven epistles quoting from Matthew and John, as well as other New Testament writings. 9 Polycarp (c. 70 – c.155/160), a disciple of John, quotes the Gospel of John before the year 117 A.D. 10 Time must also be allowed for the writing, manual copying, and dissemination of the documents. 11 From this and much more evidence, conservative scholars assign first-century dates.
Some of this conservative dating is as follows. Everett Harrison places Matthew from 70 –80, Mark from 50- 60, Luke in the early 60’s, and John from 80 –100. 12 F. F. Bruce dates Matthew shortly after 70, Mark c. 64 – 65, Luke shortly before 70, and John, c. 90 – 100. 13 Professor Richard Riss associates the dates with particular events in history: Mark during the reign of Claudius from 41 –54 when Mark and Paul were in Rome; Luke during Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea from 58 – 60; Matthew in the Greek translation from 60 – 70; and John while he was in Ephesus from 85 – 90. 14 John A.T. Robinson concludes that all the Gospels were written before the year 70 A.D. 15
Authorship of the Gospels
If the writers of the four Gospels were eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Jesus, or close associates of eyewitnesses, this would be strong evidence for the reliability of the documents they wrote. The names given to the Gospels by church tradition reflect their authorship, and there is strong evidence of the accuracy of the tradition. The Gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew, a Jewish tax collector in Palestine who became a disciple of Jesus. The Gospel of John was written by John, a fisherman who also became a disciple. The Gospel of Mark was written by Mark, an associate of the disciple Peter. The Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, a physician and historian and associate of the Apostle Paul. (Paul’s claim to eyewitness status was that he saw, by direct revelation, the resurrected Messiah Jesus after his ascension into heaven.)
Historical sources support Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as being the authors of their Gospels. One source is Eusebius, the church historian who wrote his Ecclesiastical History around 325 A.D. 16 He quotes Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons in Gaul and flourished around 175 – 195. 17 Irenaeus speaks of being a student of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was in turn a disciple of John. In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus says the following: “Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews (i.e. Jews) in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure (i.e., their death, which strong tradition places at the time of the Neronian persecution in 64), Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His breast (this is a reference to John 13:25 and 21:20), himself produced his Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.” 18 Here we have a disciple of a disciple of John confirming the authorship of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (It is as if I were relating how my father told me that my grandfather told him that such and such a thing had happened; there would be a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of my material, with only two degrees of separation). Some additional evidence for each book follows.
Additional information regarding the authorship of Mark is given by Eusebius when he quotes Papias, c. 60 – 130, who was bishop of Hierapolis and a disciple of the Apostle John. Papias was said to be a “hearer of John” by Irenaeus 19. In Eusebius, Papius quotes the Elder, possibly another disciple of John, but probably John himself, as saying “Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he [Peter] mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ; not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he [Peter] mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, nor to include any false statement among them.” 20
Additional evidence for the authorship of Matthew is also provided by Eusebius quoting Papias quoting the elder John (probably John), “Matthew compiled the Logia in the “Hebrew” speech [i.e. Aramaic], and every one translated them as best he could.” sub>21 The word Logia literally means oracles 22, and may refer to the Gospel of Matthew itself in an earlier Aramaic version (the extant one is Greek), 23 or to an early compilation of the Lord Jesus’ sayings used as source material for the Gospels. 24 The word “translated” can also be rendered as “interpreted”. 25
In addition to the quote from Irenaeus above, evidence for the Gospel of Luke being written by Luke draws from his companion work, the Acts of the Apostles. Both are formatted as an orderly account of the events they address. The styles are closely related. Acts makes references to a former account of all that Jesus did and taught. The two are clearly the work of one author. As to the identity of the author, the book of Acts contains many “we” passages in the midst of “they” passages that place the author with the Apostle Paul on various occasions. By a process of elimination of candidates who traveled with Paul, the remaining candidate who could have written Acts, and thus also the Gospel of Luke, was Luke. 26
In addition to the initial quote by Irenaeus, several fragments support John as the author of his Gospel. One is a prologue that was added to the beginning of the book at the end of the second century to defend against the heretic Marcion, and is thus called the anti-Marcionite prologue. It says, “The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John when he was still in the body, as a man of Hierapolis, Papias by name, John’s dear disciple, has related in his five Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, as quoted in The New Testament Documents, p.32 The New Testament Documents, p. 35 In addition, the Rylands Fragment is a fragment of a copy of the Gospel of John dating to about 135 A.D. It was found in an isolated area in Egypt, and thus it must have taken several decades before that time for the Gospel to be copied and circulated as far as this place. This argues not only for the early dating of John, but also the authenticity of its authorship. 28
Outside Historical Evidence of the Gospel Events
Historians outside of the church provide data that supports the authenticity of the events recorded by the Gospels, and so, indirectly, supports the authenticity of the documents. They are of interest, but should be considered as of secondary value compared to the documents themselves 29 and the primary church sources supporting them.
Some of these include 30:
1) The Roman historian Tacitus says “Christus…suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate”
2) The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of Jesus and his crucifixion under Pilate. The exact wording of the passage is disputed, but probably some form of it is genuine.
3) Josephus also speaks of Jesus as the brother of James and speaks of James’ martyrdom
4) Josephus speaks of John the Baptist, a major figure in the Gospel records.
5) Pliny the Younger, a roman administrator, writes to the Emperor Trajan about the Christians in the year 112 and indirectly confirms their worship of Jesus as God.
6) The Jewish commentary, the Talmud, in the passage Sanhedrin 43a, says “On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged”. Although the Talmud
wrongly accuses Jesus of sorcery, it acknowledges the fact of his miracles.
7) Lucian of Samosata, a second-century critic of Christianity, acknowledges Christian worship of the man Jesus.
8} Heretical groups such as the Gnostics of the second century acknowledge Jesus and use the Gospels as a starting point.
The Testimony of The Gospels Themselves
It is valid to consider internal evidence from the Gospel records themselves. Do they appear contrived or authentic? Are they consistent? Do they appear to be real testimony of eyewitnesses, or the writings of authors distant from the events described? These are the kinds of questions we must ask to arrive at a reasonable conclusion concerning their reliability. These kinds of things are not subject to deductive analysis or scientific verification, and yet they are knowable.
When I read these documents, I find that the narrative flows very naturally. In each case, I get the sense of a person describing events that they have seen, or events that have been closely related to them. John, for example, describes his reaction to Jesus over the years he walked with him: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” 31 In concluding the writing, he says “This is the disciple who testifies of these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” Mark, who wrote down the reminiscences of Peter (also called Simon), speaks as one who has heard the events from a participant. For example, in a down-to-earth touching passage where Simon’s influence shows through, Mark says, “But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them”. 32 The Gospels record many such very real details that would not be included in documents contrived for some sheer doctrinal purpose.
They do not appear contrived at all. The authors admit their own foibles, rather than trying to cover them up. Mark is very possibly the young man who fled at the arrest of Jesus. Peter, the man behind Mark, gives to Mark the very real account of his denial of Jesus and how he wept when the cock crowed and he realized what he had done. Far from trying to cover up the weaknesses of their group, the writers expose their failures in faith, the infighting that cropped up, and the disciples’ fleeing after the crucifixion of their Lord. They admit their initial unbelief at the resurrection of Jesus. And they honestly relate the testimony of the women as the first witnesses, contrary to what a contriver would have done in a culture where female testimony was considered immaterial. They in fact touchingly describe how the women who followed Jesus were the faithful ones who remained at the foot of the cross.
The accounts are consistent, and yet show the variations in point of view that would be expected of true testimony. When witnesses sit down and conspire together to give testimony in court, the testimony invariably comes out stilted and repetitive from one witness to another. Here there is no need to contrive, for each person saw, or had related to him, the events and sayings of Jesus.
Many have claimed contradictions among the Gospels, but upon further study these prove to be only apparent. In the play “Waiting for Godot”, Samuel Beckett makes much of the fact that Matthew says both of the two robbers crucified with Jesus reviled him, 33 while Luke records one of the robbers as trusting in Jesus. 34 Beckett did not leave room for repentance and the grace of God, for even while on the cross, one of the robbers at first reviled the Lord, then changed his mind about his own sin and put his trust in Christ. The Pharisees rejected Jesus as Messiah in some part because they knew the Messiah would not come out of Nazareth; had they looked more deeply, had they wanted to, they would have discovered that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of the coming King. By looking more deeply, we can answer apparent contradictions, and can have a confidence that the documents are inherently consistent among themselves.
Details are given that are very consistent with authors familiar with Jerusalem and Palestine in the first century. The awareness of the governmental and high priestly structure, the descriptions of the Temple and its courts and the Pool of Siloam, knowledge of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish culture of the day, the physical layout of Galilee and Jerusalem and its streets, puts one in the times of Jesus as one walks through these Gospels. And in fact, it is essential to understand that the redemption of mankind was accomplished in a particular time in history, in a particular place, by a particular Person. No other faith in the world is so intimately tied to a person and the events surrounding him. Thankfully, God has provided four witnesses to testify to us of these things so that we can know the truth of them.
So what do we have? Four documents that were written soon after the events they describe, by people who were either eyewitnesses or close to eyewitnesses, and that speak clearly in an uncontrived manner about what they describe. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:30). I encourage those who would investigate these things to go to the testimony of the Gospels and consider their message.
1 Romans 10:17
2 John 14:26
3 The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 68
4 Ibid, p. 54, quoting Norman L. Geisler in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 381
5 “Date and Authenticity of the New Testament”, p. 59
6 The New Testament Documents, p. 43
7 C.E. Raven, Jesus and the Gospel of Love, p. 128, as quoted by Professor Richard Riss in the web piece
“Date and Authenticity of the New Testament”, p. 59
8 The Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 235
9 The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 44
10 “Date and Authenticity of the New Testament”, p. 64
11 A Survey of the New Testament, p. 256
12 The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 52
13 The New Testament Documents, p. 7
14 New Testament timeline
15 Redating the New Testament, p. 352, 353
16 Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 356
17 Ibid, p. 516
18 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, as quoted in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 54
19 Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 746
20 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, as quoted in The New Testament Documents, p.32
21 The New Testament Documents, p. 35
23 A Survey of the New Testament, p. 160
24 The New Testament Documents, p. 35
25 A Survey of the New Testament, p. 160
26 A Survey of the New Testament, p. 208
27 The New Testament Documents, p. 50
28 A Survey of the New Testament, p. 256
29 Norman L. Geisler in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 381, as quoted by The New
Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 55
30 The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, pp. 54 – 59
31 John 1:14
32 Mark 1:30,31
33 Matthew 27:44
34 Luke 23:41,42
Holy Bible, The New King James Version, c. 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.,
Bruce, F.F., The New Testament Documents, c. 1981, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids,
MI. and Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
Douglas, J.D., and Cairns, Earle E., Editors, The New International Dictionary of
the Christian Church, c. 1978, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI.
Gundry, Robert H., A Survey of the New Testament, c. 2003, Zondervan, Grand
McDowell, Josh, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, c. 1999, Thomas
Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.
Riss, Richard, “Date and Authenticity of the New Testament”,
Riss, Richard, New Testament timeline, New Testament Survey course, 2004,
Somerset Christian College, Zarephath, New Jersey
Robinson, John A.T., Redating the New Testament, c. 1976, Wipf and Stock
Publishers, Eugene, OR.