Are the Gospels Accurate Historical Books?

         The core of the Christian faith rests on the foundation of four ancient biographies of Jesus' life. If these Gospels are accurate historical records of Jesus' life, their faith in Jesus is fully rationalized and in fact, all opposing beliefs become irrational. If Jesus rose from the dead as the Gospels claim, this validates his claim to be the Son of God. If Jesus taught the things attributed to him by the Gospels, faith in him is the only way to attain eternal salvation and all other ways lead to eternal separation from God. It is with a great urgency that I ask you to read on and examine my claims regarding the Gospels. I have studied this topic intensively and believe what I say to be of the utmost importance. I believe that the time of their writing, archaeological findings, ancient historical writings, and intelligent evaluation of the known facts should weigh heavily on your decision whether to take the Gospels at their literal word or reject this interpretation. Please give these thoughts objective consideration. To simply ignore the issue would be comparable to sitting on railroad tracks and ignoring warnings of a coming train. The question is- are these warnings valid?

When Were the Gospels Written?

         One of the first considerations to be taken into account when evaluating the testimony of a witness is how well they preserved their information. As time elapses memories fade and the information offered is less accurate. Copies of copies of copies usually end up with variances from the original. If the men who wrote the Gospels did so soon after the death of Christ, the information may be considered more accurate as long as they were written with sincere intent to preserve history concerning the life of Jesus. Then the question arises as to whether these original manuscripts were preserved in future copies. I will attempt to address these concerns in the following essay.

         When were the Gospels written? I believe all four were written no later than 70 AD. Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, and Luke 21:6 of the coming destruction of the Jewish Temple (that occurred in 70 AD), while John leaves this out entirely. Would not the writers of the Gospels have included this as proof of Jesus' prophecy had they been written after 70 AD? Would not they have placed emphasis and highlighted the completion of this prophecy? Surely John would have included this prophecy and its completion as well. In 64 AD a great fire broke out in Rome during the reign of Nero. Nero blamed this fire on the Christians living there and persecuted them greatly. As the historian Tacitus wrote in 115 AD...

"Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome... Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind."

Several key points should be noted from this passage. First, there was an immense multitude of Christians living in Rome by 64 AD. Suetonius, another Roman historian mentions Christians (denoting at least an amount significant enough to be mentioned) in Rome by 49 AD in his book The Twelve Caesars. Has any legend grown up so fast, so convincingly, and so far as to inspire "immense multitudes of believers" within 32 years of the legend's origin? These Christians must have had written documents detailing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Otherwise, how could they study his teachings? Would not they request written documents? How could they commit their lives to a mere rumor or legend with meager evidence and no written works to study? Numerous eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were still around even in 64 AD who could have easily set the record straight had these Christians been proclaiming known lies about the life of Christ. We know of no such opposition. Furthermore, the Gospels (assumed written before 70 AD) would have gone through the same scrutiny. Surely any book written this early that contained faulty portrayals of Christ would have been exposed and thrown out before thousands were meticulously copied by the hands of those who could find no fault in them. Thus the Gospels being written at this early date would have gone under intense scrutiny and survived to convince thousands upon thousands of people to take them up as accurate and reliable historical books.

         We may say with confidence that these Gospels have remained constant throughout their existence. The earliest piece of the Gospels we know of was likely written before 50 AD, which is from Scroll 7Q5 and contains parts of Mark 6:52-53 (Jeffrey 130). Another fragment of John chapter 18 exists that was written sometime between 100 AD and 150 AD (Strobel 61). There are 306 partial or full New Testament manuscripts dated at approximately 350 AD. There are 5,664 New Testament manuscripts in Greek written in the 9th century or later (63). In addition there are 8,000 to 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts and a total of 8,000 manuscripts in Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian (63). The total number of ancient manuscripts in existence today comes to roughly 24,000. This number is unprecedented in all ancient literature. The way these manuscripts were copied was by hand in a process where errors could have easily occurred. Yet these copies were remarkably close and only few variances exist. Spelling or word order accounts for the great majority of these variances, which are inconsequential to the meaning of the passage (64). Clearly no major discrepancies have been observed within these manuscripts and therefore one may assuredly conclude that the message of the Gospels has not changed in any significant way whatsoever since they were written.

         Some scholars today insist that the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) were derived from a hypothetical collection of sayings of Jesus called 'Q' compiled by an unknown author in an unknown place at an unknown time. There is absolutely zero archaeological and historical evidence supporting this conclusion. It takes more faith to believe in this interpretation than that the Gospels were written as separate, agreeable, historical accounts written soon after the life of Jesus. Yet this theory is taught as fact in the Universities across the nation. There is no excuse for ignoring the solid evidence for the accuracy of the Gospels and teaching very questionable theories such as Q (as well as J,P,D,E for the Old Testament!) as facts without doubt in schools. There is little merit in teaching them at all.

Do the Writings of Ancient Historians Agree With the Gospels?

         There is a good amount of ancient extra-Biblical writing that confirms or supports portions of the Gospels. I will briefly address a few of those writings here. I would first like to mention the acts of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Is there any hint in these writings that Jesus was anyone other than a normal person with no supposed supernatural abilities? Josephus, a well respected Jewish historian, wrote this in his Antiquities of the Jews:

"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works- a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day" (18.3.3).

This is an excellent support of the Gospels' portrayal of Jesus from a devout Jewish historian. This passage is important in that it confirms that Jesus did exist, that Jesus was known as a doer of "wonderful works", that Jesus was condemned to crucifixion under the reign of Pilate at the suggestion of principal Jews, that Jesus appeared to his disciples on the third day after his death, and that Christians were alive and well at the time of Josephus.

         There is a supernatural darkness mentioned in the passion narratives of the Synoptics (John left out the details of the crucifixion and therefore the darkness as well) as Christ was crucified on the cross (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44). This was for a long time thought to be an impossibility by the skeptics. Yet ancient historians have written about this as well. Julius Africanus alludes to a work of the historian Thallus who in 52 AD wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Africanus wrote this "Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun ... unreasonably, as it seems to me." Paul Maier wrote this in his book Pontius Pilate (referring to the darkness at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus)

"This phenomenon, evidently, was visible in Rome, Athens, and other Mediterranean cities. According to Tertullian ... it was a "cosmic" or "world event." Phlegon, a Greek author from Caria writing a chronology soon after 137 AD, reported that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e. 33 AD) there was "the greatest eclipse of the sun" and that it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e. noon] (identical to Gospels claim of darkness during the sixth hour) so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea."

Clearly, these ancient historians add great credibility to believing in the events described in the Gospels especially those surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ.

Does Archaeology Support or Conflict with the Gospels?

         Archaeology apart from the discovery of ancient manuscripts, which I have already discussed, is rather limited. In a sense it is a question and answer type affair. For instance one may ask "Is it reasonable that a census requiring families to return to their hometowns should be put into effect?" It is here that archaeology comes into effect. A certain Egyptian document details such a census in 104 AD. While this certainly does not prove the validity of this type of census in Israel, it enhances the validity of the Gospel story of the birth of Jesus. There are hundreds of such question and answer type challenges, yet the Gospels have checked out in every minor detail. There have been no disproving finds against the Gospels, in all cases archaeology has endorsed them as accurate historical books. This in itself is quite remarkable and enhances the validity of the books greatly. Simply spitting out all of the evidences, what they mean, and how they endorse the Gospels is not something I would particularly enjoy doing - if you want to read about them I recommend looking to other writers (you may check my bibliography for titles). I would, however like to briefly mention to the skeptics that the existence of Nazareth has been confirmed as well as the slaughter of children in Bethlehem as described in the Gospels (Strobel 102-105). These are two of the most recent and initially serious attacks against the Gospels.

         I would also like to mention what I believe to be the single most intriguing artifact that baffles scientists today. This artifact is the Shroud of Turin, which first was on recorded public display in Liley, France in 1357 (Jeffrey 114). This is apparently the burial cloth in which Jesus was buried in which is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matthew 27:59; Mark 16:46; Luke 23:53, 24:12; John 19:40, 20:5-7). The Shroud of Turin is a cloth that is fourteen feet, three inches long and three feet, seven inches long (pictures and a wealth of additional information on the shroud may be found here). On the cloth a yellowed image of a crucified man in the state of rigor mortis (which is a state that the body is in two to three days following death) bearing all the wounds (crown of thorns, flogged, speared side) that Christ suffered according to the Gospels. No one has as of yet determined what could have possibly caused the image (other than the supernatural act of resurrection), and no one has been able to duplicate the image even with sophisticated equipment. There are actual bloodstains on the cloth in addition to the yellow image. The image and the bloodstains combine to form a perfect picture of Jesus that is anatomically, medically, and physically perfect in its details. Although the image is somewhat difficult to see close up with the naked eye, it is vividly shown in photographic negative overviews. Scientists have spent thousands of hours studying this cloth, yet all they have come up with is that they don't know how this image came to be today and much less how anyone in the fourteenth century or earlier could have forged it. Intricate details such as the pollen types and the tiny grains of dirt on the cloth indicate that it spent considerable time in the Middle East, specifically Jerusalem. The type of weave used to make the cloth was identified as from the first century. Faint, almost invisible to the naked eye, yet perfectly formed images of plants and herbs native to Israel (specifically from around Jerusalem and Jericho) have been found on the shroud which reinforces the probability that the shroud is genuinely from Israel. A 3D analyzer tested the cloth and results showed that there was absolutely no possibility it was painted. The image of coins apparently minted in honor of Pontius Pilate circa 32 AD were detected on the eyes, in accordance with first century tradition. The cloth was radiocarbon dated to be from 1260 AD to 1390 AD, yet scientists have thrown this dating out because of a bioplastic coating on the piece tested, carelessness in the actual dating process, and the likelihood that they tested a damaged piece of cloth. To sum up the argument for the cloth, no one has been able to scientifically explain its qualities. How anyone would have and employ more advance methods of creating such a forgery in the Middle Ages than we do now, and would go to such lengths as planting pollen and dirt in the cloth as to deceive scientists hundreds of years in the future is beyond me. I view this cloth as a striking evidence for the resurrection of Christ and accuracy of the Gospels. I don't see how it could be a forgery. Even if I am somehow mistaken and it is, that still would not discredit the Gospels. I encourage you to research the subject for yourself and come to your own conclusion or accept mine as valid.

What Does this Mean to Me?

         I believe that the evidence I have given here places the Gospels accurate beyond all reasonable doubt, but what now does this mean? Two things and I'll keep it short. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." -John 3:16-18. Believe in Jesus, accept Him as your Savior. Place your faith in Him. Take Him at His word in His Gospels. You will receive eternal life. It is waiting if only you receive it. He has already paid for your sin with His own blood on the cross. He loves you. He died for you. Christ is the only way, [speaking] "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life: no man comes to the Father but through Me." -John 14:6. Please think about these evidences. Search for the Truth, and you shall find it. Continue to think about what you've read. I urge you not to leave your seat until you know your eternal destiny is secure.