The Christian faith is centered on Jesus. But not just any Jesus, the Jesus of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Christians believe the four Gospels are the earliest and most accurate accounts of Jesus’ life. But what reasons do we have for trusting the four Gospels?
Before we begin, here’s a word of caution: I am not attempting to show that every word in the Gospels is perfect, true, and inspired by God. That would be impossible to demonstrate. The question I am seeking to answer is, Are the Gospels reliable? Or more specifically, Is the general presentation of Jesus in the Gospels trustworthy?
Reasons to Distrust the Four Gospels
Some people confidently answer, “No, the Gospels can’t be trusted” then state one or more of the following reasons:
- The healing and miracle stories sound fictional.
- The four Gospels seem to contradict each other in various places.
- The wording in the four Gospels has been changed so much that we no longer know what was originally written.
- There’s no evidence that the four Gospels are historically accurate.
Reasons to Trust the Four Gospels
That may seem like an imposing list but the reasons to trust the Gospels are equally, if not, more imposing. Here’s a list of eight reasons to trust the Gospels.
1. The four authors convey the same basic message about Jesus. Why is that such a big deal? Think of it, if you had four people tell you the same basic story wouldn’t you tend to believe it? While each Gospel gives different details of the life of Jesus, they all essentially tell the same story. That story is focused on:
- a first-century Jew named Jesus,
- who lived in Israel,
- taught about God’s kingdom,
- gathered a group of disciples to himself,
- performed miracles,
- got into trouble with the religious authorities,
- was sentenced to death for blasphemy,
- was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
- and three days later rose from the dead.
All four Gospels agree on those facts. While there are differences in detail between the Gospels, they are minor differences compared with their major similarities.
What else would you expect to find in accurate reports of the same event or person? Major similarities and no differences in detail? That would mean someone was copying. Major differences? That would mean someone was fundamentally wrong. The four Gospels give us what we would expect to find from accurate reports: major similarities and minor differences. (On whether the minor differences are contradictions or merely incidental variants see the talk given by Mike Licona, starting at 21:09.)
Perhaps an analogy will be helpful. Many have compared the Gospels to portraits. Like artists deciding what to include in their paintings, the writers selected individual stories of Jesus carefully and purposefully to create a composite depiction of Jesus (see Jn. 20:30-31). That means we should be focusing primarily on their overall portrait of Jesus and not their details. And the only way to do that well is to step back a few feet from the painting and take in the big picture. For example, try reading each Gospel in its entirety without taking long breaks. (The authors did not break up their Gospels with chapter and verse divisions. Those were added more than a millennium later.)
2. Many of the details in the Gospels sound true to life. Hold on, before you think that’s a weak argument. Consider this: The genre of realistic fiction is a modern invention so to claim the Gospels belong in that genre is a stretch. (See C.S. Lewis for support.) (For those with a naturalistic worldview, I know the miracle stories in the Gospels do not sound true. The best I can do is to refer to the abundant evidence for miracles from all over the world found in Craig Keener’s two-volume book Miracles.) Here are a few details that show the Gospels have what some call “the ring of truth.”
- First, the Gospels record embarrassing details about the disciples. If someone shares an embarrassing story with you, do you think they made it up? Why would someone invent something that makes them look bad? Among scholars who sift ancient documents for truth, this is known as the criterion of embarrassment. Embarrassing details about the disciples include accounts of their frequent failures to obey, trust, and understand. Here’s a list of six items to support that point from the Gospel of Mark. First, the disciples fail to trust Jesus during the storm and Jesus rebukes them in this way: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mk. 4:40). Second, after Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying loaves of bread for thousands of people, Mark writes, “they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6:52). Third, Jesus rebukes Peter in the harshest of terms saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” (8:33). Fourth, when the disciples saw people bringing little children to Jesus, they rebuked them. But Jesus responded to his disciples with indignation, “Let the little children come to me” (10:14). Fifth, when the disciples were commanded to pray they fell asleep (14:37). And sixth, during Jesus’ trial before the high priest, Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times (14:66-72). These stories not only sound true to life, but it’s difficult to explain why the Gospels contain such stories if they didn’t really happen. Why would Christians make themselves and their leaders look so bad? And why would they preserve those stories in writing?
- Second, the Gospels record embarrassing details about Jesus. Jesus was accused of being out of his mind and demon-possessed (Mk. 3:21-22), unable to perform mighty works in his hometown (Mk. 6:5), ignorant of the end time (Mk. 13:32) and to top it all off, killed on a cross. Think of it, the hero of the story dying as a common criminal. Finally, Jesus’ resurrection contains an embarrassing detail. At a time when the witness of females wasn’t valid, women were the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10; Mk.16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-11; Jn. 20:11-18). If you were fabricating stories to promote the Christian faith it’s very unlikely that you would include these embarrassing details because they make your leader look weak or questionable.
- Third, the Gospels are full of incidental details that seem to come from eyewitnesses. Incidental details are descriptions of minor items that don’t contain significant meaning in the story. For example, “green grass” (Mk. 6:39), “an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard” (Mk. 14:3), a young man running away naked (Mk. 14:51-52), “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mk. 15:21), and 153 large fish (Jn. 21:11). While these details don’t carry any significant meaning, they sound like eyewitness information.
- Fourth, the names of people recorded in the Gospels correspond with what we know about ancient names used in Israel from other sources.
- Fifth, the names and descriptions of places in the Gospels correspond with what we know about ancient Israel from other sources. (For support for these last two points see the lecture given by Peter Williams.) Points four and five show that the authors can be trusted to convey accurate information about personal names and geography.
3. The Gospel writers claim to be conveying accurate information.
- Mark begins this way, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” (1:1).
- Luke begins, “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. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (1:1-4)
- John writes, “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (19:35).
Of course, anyone can claim anything but this point means that we can discard the idea that the Gospel writers were attempting to write fiction. By adding this point to the previous point we arrive at this conclusion: The Gospel writers claim to be telling the truth and they sound like they’re telling the truth.
4. The New Testament documents (of which the Gospels are a major part) have the strongest manuscript evidence of any documents in ancient literature. There are more than 5,700 Greek copies of the NT or parts thereof and specifically more than 2,000 copies of the Gospels. These copies are both more numerous and closer in time to the original writings than any other work of ancient literature. These two characteristics of the Gospel manuscripts enable us to be confident of the original wording in most places.
5. Archaeological discoveries support the historical accuracy of details in the Gospels. Archaeology is the study of the remains of ancient civilizations. While archaeology gives us a window to the past, it’s limited because it can’t reproduce events, only a relatively small number of remains have been discovered, and the remains have to be interpreted. With the limitations of archaeology understood, we can say that this field of research has been favorable to the Gospels. While the list of discoveries is constantly growing, here are a few items worth mentioning.
- Pontius Pilate inscription, discovered in Caesarea in 1961. The reconstructed inscription reads, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”
- First-century synagogue in Capernaum discovered in 1968 (cf. Mk. 1:21).
- Remains of a first-century crucifixion victim found in 1968 in an ossuary (bone box) with the name Yohanan on it. An iron nail with olive wood was embedded in the ankle bone. Yohanan’s legs were crushed which corresponds with John 19:31-32.
- Sea of Galilee boat discovered in 1986 at the bottom of the lake and dating to the time of Jesus.
- Caiaphas’ ossuary (Jn. 18:14) discovered in 1990 and dates to the time of Jesus. The words, “Joseph, son of Caiaphas” were inscribed on the side.
- Coins with the names of the Herod family—the kings who ruled in Israel during Jesus’ lifetime.
- Nazareth home discovered in 2009 and dates to the time of Jesus.
6. Ancient authors support the basic account of Jesus’ life as found in the Gospels. First, we know key details about Jesus and his followers from sources outside the New Testament. Second, none of the information we learn from writers outside the New Testament contradicts anything in the four Gospels. To support those points I’ve listed four quotes from ancient authors along with a list of details they contain about Jesus and/or the early followers of Jesus under each quote.
“so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” Flavius Josephus (c. A.D. 37-100) – Jewish Historian
- Jesus was called Christ
- the brother of Jesus was James
- James and his companions were accused and stoned
“Christians . . . asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” Pliny the Younger (c. A.D. 63-113) – Provincial Governor
- Christians had the custom of meeting on a fixed day of the week before dawn
- During their meeting, they sang a hymn to Christ as to a god
- They committed themselves to live moral lives
“But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. 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.” Tacitus (c. A.D. 56-117) – Roman Historian
- Nero accused Christians for the fire in Rome
- Christians were hated
- The founder of the Christians was Christus (Christ)
- Christus was put to death by Pontius Pilate
- Pontius Pilate was the procurator of Judea during the reign of Tiberius
- The Christian faith began in Judea
- The Christian faith spread throughout the city of Rome
- An immense multitude of Christians in Rome were convicted
“The Christians . . . worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.” Lucian (c. A.D. 120-180) – Writer
- Christians worship a man
- That man introduced their novel rites
- That man was crucified
- That man, who was “their original lawgiver”, impressed on them that they are all brothers from the moment they convert
- Christians deny the gods of Greece
- Christians worship a crucified sage
- Christians live after the laws of the crucified sage
By analyzing what each non-biblical author said about Jesus and his followers we can conclude that nothing in their statements contradicts the record given in the Gospels.
7. A strong case can be made for the greatest miracle—Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Why did a group of staunchly monotheistic Jewish people in first-century Israel, start worshiping a man? And furthermore, why did they begin worshiping a man who was executed? There were other messianic figures who died and their movements ended. What was it about Jesus that propelled his movement to spread all over the Roman world after his death? The early Christians asserted the following: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32; cf. 3:15).
A skeptic must at least acknowledge that the first Christians claimed to have had experiences in which they believed they saw Jesus after his death and burial. And that leads us to the question, “Why did they make that claim?” It would have been odd for them to invent such a claim since it wasn’t a common first-century belief. Jews believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time (Jn. 11:24) and Greeks looked forward to the destruction of the body and the immortality of the soul. There was no concept of a single resurrection in the middle of history. (See N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God for support.) So what convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead?
A skeptical approach must also address the following pieces of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection:
- The empty tomb and why we don’t have early opponents of Christianity denying the empty tomb.
- The alleged appearances of Jesus to the disciples in a variety of places and times over a 40-day period (Matt. 28; Luke 24; John 20-21; Acts 1). (Listen to Peter Williams cite the various data.)
- The conversion of Paul who claimed to have seen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:8).
- The rapid spread of the Christian message throughout the Roman world without the use of violence and in a strongly polytheistic environment.
(For an in-depth analysis of the various alternative theories to Jesus’ resurrection see Peter Kreeft’s article.) If the greatest miracle of all took place, then lesser miracles such as multiplying bread and healing the sick are certainly possible.
8. Many people have claimed to have an encounter with Jesus that has transformed them for the better. Once again, anyone can claim anything so by itself this point is rather weak. However, as part of a cumulative argument, these testimonies need to be included. Many people, who have converted to faith in Christ, have claimed that it has made them more hopeful, honest, and generous. Some of these reports come from people who have had a dramatic encounter with Jesus such as in a vision or a near-death experience (for support see Keener’s Miracles and the experiences of Akiane Kramerik, Colton Burpo, and Ian McCormack) Kramerik’s story is interesting because she was very young and from a non-Christian family when she began seeing visions of Jesus. The key link to my overall argument here is that nothing in these reports contradicts what we know about Jesus from the four Gospels, rather they only seem to confirm Jesus’ reality, love, and power.
These eight reasons for trusting the Gospels are meant to be taken as a whole.
So what do you think? Do you trust Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
______________________________________________________________________________[For more details see the video Jesus of Testimony. Two insightful books on the reliability of the Gospels are Can We Trust the Gospels? by Mark D. Roberts and Is the New Testament Reliable? by Paul Barnett.]
 Josephus, Antiquities 20.9
 Pliny, Letters 10.96, trans. William Melmoth, rev. W.M.L. Hutchinson (Loeb, 1915).
 Tacitus, Annals 15.44
 Lucian, The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, vol. 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), 11-13.