Almost every Easter and Christmas, Jesus makes the headlines. We see him on the covers of Time or Newsweek, “Did Jesus Exist?”; “What Do We Really Know about Jesus?”; “The Myths of Jesus”; or “Who Was Jesus?” You can also find the story of Jesus as a regular topic in the primetime lineup of the History and Discovery channel in shows like “Bible Secrets Revealed” or “Jesus – the Lost Years.”
What all these have in common is that they approach the truth of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. Scholars with impressive credentials cast doubt over the New Testament gospels and offer new versions of the story of Jesus. After reading these stories or watching these shows, we are often left wondering, “Can we really know whether the story of Jesus as told in the Biblical gospels is true?”
WHAT MAKES A STORY TRUE?
Who is telling it?
The four gospels bear all the marks of eyewitness accounts. In the first century, as in our day, a mark of a true story was whether the story was told by someone who actually participated in the events and knew the people that he or she was writing about. Though there is some debate over the exact dates, scholars of all stripes agree that all four gospels were written before the end of the first century (55-90AD). This means the stories were written and circulated during the time when the witnesses of the events were still alive.
In fact, one of the main tests that the early Christians used in determining the reliability of these stories was whether they could be traced to an eyewitness testimony of an apostle (a leader of the early Christian community appointed directly by Jesus). Each of the four gospels was either written by or endorsed by one of the apostles. As the last of the apostles and eyewitnesses was nearing death, the need arose for the true story of Jesus to be written down and preserved.
Why are they telling it?
It is often argued that the gospels cannot be trusted because they are telling the story with an agenda – that the reader ought to believe in and follow Jesus. This assumes two things: 1) That it is possible to tell the story of extremely controversial events from an entirely neutral stance and 2) That the people who honored and worshipped Jesus would intentionally misrepresent the truth about him to further their position or influence.
Let’s look at the first assumption. Modern historiography acknowledges the impossibility of a purely objective viewpoint. So we must ask, what first century witness would we most trust to pass on the truth about Jesus? Based on what we know about the transmission of oral history and the Jewish discipline of students memorizing large portions of their rabbi’s teaching, who was better equipped to record the truth about Jesus than his disciples?
Now let’s address the second assumption. The gospels themselves are full of evidence that the early Christians did not propagate a version of the Jesus story for their own benefit or self-interest. All four gospels portray the 12 disciples as weak, failing, and slow to understand Jesus. It would not make any sense for a movement to portray its key leaders in such a negative light – unless these things were true and unless their main motivation was not to validate their leadership or position but to represent the story accurately.
Do the stories match up?
It’s often claimed that the gospels have irreconcilable differences. It is true the gospels tell the same story from different perspectives and that sometimes these accounts are hard to reconcile. But the more remarkable feature of these four stories is their essential unity.
What would we prefer: 1) That the stories told by different authors and in different places match identically, word for word; or 2) That the authors corroborate the same core elements of the story of Jesus but in the unique words and styles of each author? If the same story were told in the same words with no difference in style, wouldn’t this be evidence of a fabricated story or a later editing? Though sometimes difficult to reconcile, the four unique portraits of Jesus in the gospels actually support the truth of Jesus’ story.
Do we have the original versions of the story?
The amount of early manuscripts we have of the each of the New Testament gospels compared to all other ancient historical accounts is unparalleled.
If we deem the New Testament to be historically inaccurate, then we have to disregard every other ancient text as well, since all others have significantly less early manuscripts available. In addition to early manuscripts, we have enough quotations of the gospels from the early church leaders to almost reconstruct the entire text of the gospels. This evidence leads us to conclude that once the gospels were completed and distributed, the written stories were passed down faithfully and without corruption.
- Aren’t there other gospels with different versions of the story of Jesus?
Response: There are other writings with the title ‘gospel’ but none were written as early as the New Testament gospels. The most popular of these—the gospel of Thomas—is actually not a story but a collection of sayings. In addition to being written later (and not by Thomas), this writing adapts the teachings of Jesus to fit a belief system called “Gnosticism.” Thomas and other Gnostic gospels extract Jesus from his Jewish worldview and reinvent him as a Greek philosopher.
- Isn’t it true that Jesus never claimed to be God but the church made this up later and wrote it into the gospels?
Response: Why would Jewish monotheists (the disciples and Paul) make up Jesus’ claim to divinity when their message would have been so much more palatable if they stayed with the supposed truth that Jesus did not make any claim to deity?
- Is the story of Jesus mentioned in any other writings outside of the gospel?
Response: Yes, later Greco-Roman historians such as Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Julius Africanus refer to some of the key points of the story of Jesus including his life, death by crucifixion, and lasting influence.
- How do we know the early Christians didn’t conspire to present something mythical as truth?
Response: In order for the Jesus conspiracy theorists to be right, the original disciples, other eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the early Christian leaders all had to knowingly misrepresent the truth about the person they gave up everything (often their very lives) to follow.