The Truth of the Gospels
by Ben Lucas
I received the question today, ‘How do we know the Bible isn’t a story like Beowulf?’ The question came from a primary school child who had been learning about Beowulf that morning. It’s a good question though isn’t it? We were talking about the Gospels at the time and so we’ll limit our answer to the truth of the Gospels here as well. There are two points that are worth considering.
First, sources. The opinion of most people who study the Gospels is that Mark was written first (60s AD), followed by Matthew and Luke. Last came John. Most don’t think that John knew about the other three. Matthew and Luke also contain a lot of material that Mark doesn’t. Because of this the most common view is that Matthew and Luke used a book about Jesus that was at least as old as Mark. The bottom line is that there are three unconnected strands of tradition about Jesus. This means that where they agree they go back to a time earlier than the documents in which they’re written. This puts the basic facts of the Gospels within a few years of Jesus’ death (AD 30) when misrepresentations could easily have been corrected by eyewitnesses (i.e. ‘What do you mean resurrection, I’ve got his body here!’ Why did no-one do/say this at the time if Jesus wasn’t raised?).
Second, the Gospels contain some hard bits. This matters because if someone were to invent a religion and a book to go with it they wouldn’t put difficult to understand bits in it. In Mark 13.32, for example, we are told that Jesus doesn’t know the hour of his second coming. If you wanted to invent Jesus as a God after the fact then why would you make him say something which suggests he wasn’t all-knowing? The point is that there is nothing that feels ‘made-up’ in the Gospels.
So, we have undoubtedly very early tradition and we know that that tradition wasn’t changed or adjusted to make it smoother. Indeed, we know that the Gospels provide a very honest witness if they’re willing to say things that at first blush don’t seem to help their own case. Therefore, we know that the Gospels are faithful witnesses in what they tell us about who Jesus is and what he did. The amount of historical evidence for the truth of the Gospels is abundant, almost embarrassing when comparing it to other events in the ancient world.