Can we trust what the Bible tells us about Jesus?
We have many good reasons to trust the Biblical accounts of Jesus (that is, the four gospels) as historically reliable documents.
The Purpose of the Gospels
Dr Paula Gooder explains that while the Gospels were written to persuade, they are also historical documents.
JOHN DICKSON: Can we talk then about one of the key parts of the Bible, the Gospels, that obviously tell us about Jesus…what are the Gospels? What genre do they fit into? And I guess what’s behind my question is – are they too theological for them to tell us anything factual?
PAULA GOODER: I would say absolutely not. What’s really interesting about the Gospels is that they are very hard to tie down. If you go into New Testament scholarship, people spend hours and hours and days and days discussing precisely what are they. Are they history? Are they narrative? Are they biography? There’s all sorts of different suggestions about precisely what the gospels are. So what the gospels are trying to do are to tell the story of this person Jesus Christ, who lived in Palestine in the first century. And so what they do is they combine lots of different elements. So they do tell us about the life of this person Jesus and it is quite easy to see that there are elements of that which are demonstrable, you can verify that there are certain elements of Jesus’ life which are absolutely historical. But what they’re also trying to do is not just tell us who this person was, but actually why he was important. Each one of the Gospels from their own perspective are trying to communicate something to us about why the author of that gospel thinks that this Jesus, Jesus Christ who lived in Palestine in the first century, is important to their readers and therefore, I would argue, also to us.
JOHN DICKSON: Is that the point where they become untrustworthy though, because ‘I really want you to believe how important he is’ and that’s where the fibs come in, the exaggerations come in?
PAULA GOODER: Well, you might want to call them fibs or exaggerations, or you might just want to call them rhetoric or persuasion. The whole point about the gospels is that they’re there to persuade you of things. If you look at Luke’s Gospel, right at the start of Luke’s Gospel, he says ‘I’m going to tell you this story, so that you will know that this is true, so that you will be able to believe in this person.’ John also is very clear why he’s telling you the story, he wants to persuade you of something. And I would say that pretty much all speech, everything that we say and write is trying to persuade you of something or another. So I’d say not fibs, but persuasion, and we do that all the time, don’t we? When we’re saying something, we’re always trying to persuade people of things. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it does mean that they have that kind of persuasive power behind them. The challenge for each one of us is, do we want to be persuaded or not?close
Oral Tradition: a reason to trust the gospels
Darrell Bock argues for the trustworthiness of oral tradition.
SIMON SMART: You sometimes hear people question the gospels on the basis that they were written down decades after Jesus’ death, but you’d want to say something about the oral tradition in response, wouldn’t you?
DARRELL BOCK: I sure would. Sometimes people compare it to a story of Chinese whispers, or we call it the telephone game, where you tell a story at one end and it gets passed from person to person and by the time it gets to the end it’s very different from the way it started. That’s the model that sometimes came out of form criticism in the 1930s. But that’s not the only model that’s at work in the ancient world, that Kenneth Bailey, someone who was a missionary to Bedouins, who lived in an oral culture in the last century. He reported how they passed on material and he said that it was in an informal but controlled way. Informal meant that there weren’t official storytellers, anyone could tell the story, but the controlling part was that there were elders or senior people who if the story drifted too much from what the story was would correct the storyteller and keep an eye on it. And that’s exactly the kind of model that we see in the early church, we have the apostles who knew Jesus and were part of his ministry very early on overseeing the tradition. And so we get stories that have some flexibility in detail just like how a couple might tell their courtship and mention different details but at the same time there is the gist of the story that is the same. That’s what we see in the gospels, that variation and yet that consistent core and that’s probably what drives the way orality worked in the first century. So it’s not as wild and free-floating as Chinese whispers.
SIMON SMART: But it’s a difficult thing to get your head around for a modern person, isn’t it? That there is actually a great degree of accuracy in the way these things are passed down when they’re not written down.
DARRELL BOCK: Yeah that’s true, and I actually like to use my 3-year-old daughter as an illustration of this. My 3-year-old daughter lived in a world of orality before she learned to read and write at the age of 5. And so I used to read her stories that had rhymes in them about Jesus and Nicodemus and that kind of thing, and I’m a little bit of a devious dad, so every now and then I would change the rhyme and change the story. And whenever I would do that she would get perturbed and say ‘Daddy that’s not the story’ because she knew the story. So when you tell the story well enough and it means something to someone, they’ll know what it’s like. Another analogy I like to use is when people gather round after someone has died and they’re telling the story about what they remember about the person in a group, what you often get is one person will tell of an incident and maybe a sibling was there at the same event and they’ll add in their own details, so there’ll be details that’ll be varied, but the story will be about the same person and the same characteristics of the person, that kind of thing. So I actually think we do this, there are places where orality works in our world, but we don’t think about it very often cause our world isn’t oral at all, we’re either verbal or digital.
SIMON SMART: I hear you say that you can be confident that the gist of the story is there. Is the gist of the story enough to sort-of base your whole belief system on though?
DARRELL BOCK: I think the gist of the story is the key point, and the key point of the story is did they get fundamentally who Jesus claimed to be right. The emphasis of the New Testament is that Jesus is unique, so, did they miss that one, did they go wide…the point is that they would have been on the mark, they would have known basically who Jesus was and what he was saying about himself. So to claim that he was just a prophet, when he was going around saying ‘No, I’m at the centre of God’s program, I’m the anointed one, and God’s going to exalt me’; the gist of the story means they get those categories right.
SIMON SMART: Some people say it’s hard enough in relatively recent modern history to know what happened. Why can people be confident in the New Testament’s claims about what happened 2000 years ago?
DARRELL BOCK: Well, we have terrific textual evidence of what was written back then, that’s the first thing, so the text is solid. And the second thing is that this line of tradition from multiple witnesses is telling us very clearly what Christians believed about Jesus. Now a person can choose to believe that or not to believe that, that’s a judgment that you make about the content, but I don’t think you can challenge that this is what Christians believed about Jesus in the first century. That comes through the materials loud and clear. And it comes from so many different angles and so many different voices that it’s clear there’s a unity involved there in what they believed as a group.close
Can we trust the Gospels?
Lynn Cohick argues that we have good reasons to trust the Gospels despite not having the original manuscripts.
JOHN DICKSON: We don’t have any actual physical manuscripts from the first century, so there’s plenty of time for a character of Jesus to be written into these later manuscripts that we have, the so-called ‘copies’. And so, I’ve had it put to me that therefore you can’t really trust what they record. The physical manuscripts don’t go back to the first century.
LYNN COHICK: That would be true for an awful lot of our history, and we don’t hold other historical characters to that level of accountability. And I think that the other thing that that argument forgets is that there’s no inherent benefit to anyone making this up. This story did not win you friends and it didn’t give you influence. We have, for example, Pliny the younger writing a letter to Trajan I the early part of the second century talking about these two women who were slaves and who were ministers in the church, and they were beaten before he even asked them questions about this religion that they were following, an illicit religion not accepted by the Romans. I mean there’s just no benefit other than the joy that they found in what they saw as the truth of the gospel message.
JOHN DICKSON: Well, the kinds of sceptics that I sometimes deal with would say that even the letters of Pliny, we don’t have manuscripts from the period of Pliny, we have copies of those manuscripts that come from a century or more later in the case of Pliny’s letters, so none of it can be trusted.
LYNN COHICK: I wonder then how you know anything at all about the first century. I mean maybe you just walk away and say we can know nothing, but then do we know nothing of Julius Caesar? Do we know nothing of Cicero? Do we know nothing of the lives of the emperors that Suetonius writes or that Plutarch writes? Do we know nothing of those? I don’t think people would be happy with that, I think that historians are sophisticated enough to know the style and the sorts of things that people are talking about at that time and can discern something written at that time. So, I think for those and other particular reasons we could look at sources and details and all of that, but there’s just no question that Jesus was an historical figure.close
Why trust the Bible?
Amy Orr-Ewing outlines some reasons why she trusts the historicity of the Bible.
JOHN DICKSON: You’d describe yourself as a Bible-believing Christian, but why believe the Bible? There are so many lines of argument against the Bible – from historical, through to cultural, existential. Why do you trust this ancient document?
AMY ORR-EWING: For me there are lots of dimensions to answering that question. One of them would be historical. I think having investigated the source material for the Bible, the evidence overwhelmingly points us to (particularly with the New Testament) a text that is well-attested, for which there are multiple sources, and where there are disagreements among the manuscript tradition those are not hidden or swept under the carpet. In fact in every English translation that we would have of the Bible those are noted in the margin, so that a skeptical person can know this is not some kind of endeavor to pull wool over someone’s eyes, this is the historical document as it stands.
I think there is good evidence from outside the text that actually supports the historicity of the text, whether that be archaeological, or other writers from the same era mentioning the same things that the New Testament mentions. I think as well that evidence around kind of incidental details that are included in the text, like for example the personal names that people are called within the text, represent or overlap with name usage outside of the Bible. We can study those things, and rigorously ask questions like “Was this genuinely eyewitness material?” Or “Was it made up years later and does it have no reference to the culture at the time?” So historically I think there’s a very good argument to be made for the robustness of the text of the Bible.close
- As a class, play a game of Chinese whispers. Afterwards, discuss how much the original sentence changed over the course of the game.
- Brainstorm some reasons people might think we can’t trust the gospel accounts about Jesus.
Understand & Evaluate
Watch the videos.
- In small groups, with paper and markers, write down the objections to the historicity of the gospels mentioned in the CPX videos, and the answers to these objections given by those interviewed.
- Choose one of the following objections to the historicity of the gospels. With your small group, discuss the validity of this objection, and also some possible ways to answer it. Afterwards, present your findings to the class.
- “We can’t trust the gospels because they were written with the purpose of persuading people to believe in Jesus.”
- “We can’t trust the gospels because they were written down decades after Jesus death.”
- “We can’t trust the gospels because there are some inconsistencies between the accounts of the different gospel writers.”
- “We can’t trust the gospels because we don’t have the original manuscripts.”
Read Luke 1:1-4 and 1 Peter 1:16-18.
- What points do Luke and Peter make about the reliability of their accounts about Jesus?
- Does it seem like they cared about accuracy and reliability?
- Do you find their arguments convincing? Why or why not?
- Write short answers to the following questions:
- What do you think about the arguments of those interviewed in the CPX videos? Do you think they were valid?
- Which argument stood out to you the most?
- What questions do you still have about the historical reliability of the gospels?
- If the gospels are historically reliable, what implications might this have for the way we read them and how they impact our lives?