Monday, September 10, 2007

The Gospels as Reliable History

The Gospels as Reliable HistoryBy Nathan Busenitz

Last week, we began looking at ten reasons we can trust the New Testament gospels. Today’s post highlights the fourth reason in that list.

4. Fourth, the New Testament gospels were not only intended to be historically reliable (as we saw in point 3). They actually are historically reliable.

It is not enough to demonstrate that the gospel writers intended to be accurate. Good intentions are simply not enough. After all, “some fictitious narratives are couched in the guise of history, and many careful historians fail to achieve their objectives of complete accuracy.”[1] We must therefore go one step further and ask whether or not the gospel writers were successful in their attempt to be accurate. In other words, do the gospel accounts actually prove to be historically reliable?

If the gospels are to be considered part of the inspired Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17), coming from the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20-21), they must be marked by accuracy and truthfulness (John 17:17; cf. 2 Pet. 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-4). Moreover, in the particular case of the apostles, Jesus promised that the Spirit would help them remember the details of His life. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; cf. 14:17). This means that Matthew, Mark (in consulting Peter), Luke (in also consulting apostolic sources — cf. Luke 1:3-4), and John all had the Spirit’s help in remembering the teachings of Jesus (cf. John 2:22; 12:16). According to the promise of Jesus, the Spirit would guide them in the truth (John 16:13), truth that necessarily included the historical reliability of their collective testimony.

Luke’s gospel is a case in point in this regard, since he repeatedly lists names, places, and other verifiable details which can be tested for accuracy (Luke 1:5; 2:1-3; 3:1-3; Acts 5:36; 11:28; 18:2, 12: 25:1). As we noted earlier, “throughout his work Luke sought to demonstrate the truthfulness of what he recorded by tying the events to universal history.”[2] Significantly, two millennia later, Luke’s account has repeatedly survived the attacks of skeptics and detractors. “Attempts to impugn Luke’s reliability have constantly been made, but most of these have been rendered futile by light from the monuments of antiquity and the archaeologist’s spade.”[3]

On the other hand, archeology has repeatedly vindicated Luke’s careful research (in both his gospel or in Acts). Such confirmations include: the census at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:1-3); Herod’s Temple and winter palace (Luke 1:9); the proconsul of Paphos named Serigus Paulus (Acts 13:6-7); the relationship between Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 14:6); the district of Macedonia (Acts 16:12); Artemis’ temple, statues, and altar (Acts 19:27-28, 35); the Ephesian theater and Golden House of Nero (Acts 19:29; 25:10); the two ways to gain Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28); the nature of the provincial penal procedure (Acts 24:1-9); the manner in which one could invoke one’s Roman citizenship (Acts 25:18); the nature of being in Roman custody (Acts 28:16); and the conditions of being imprisoned at one’s own expense (Acts 28:30-31).[4] In Acts alone, “Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities and nine islands without an error.”[5]

Time and time again, we find that “Luke is a first-class ancient historian. . . . He is not careless, nor is he a fabricator of events.”[6] In the words of famed archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, “His statements of fact [are] trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense.”[7]

Of course, the motivation behind Luke’s concern for accuracy was not primarily historical. As noted before, it was both theological and evangelistic. In the words of New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall, “Luke was a historian because he was first and foremost an Evangelist: he knew that the faith which he wished to proclaim stands or falls with the history of Jesus and the early church.”[8] Others agree:

Luke was not only a reliable, objective historian, which is clear from his striking agreements with the historiography of Josephus, but Luke was also concerned with the infallibility of the facts. Luke wanted to describe the development of early Christianity. But he wanted above all to eliminate doubt as to the accuracy of the things that had been fulfilled, that is, the saving work of Christ, and desired to give assurance to Theophilus and his other readers regarding events in Christ’s life.[9]

It’s not surprising, then, that Luke’s accounts “have now been recognized as first-class historical writings”[10] by historians and archaeologists. “This means that Luke is fully trustworthy as a historian of the life of Christ. Therefore to read the third gospel is to encounter the authentic, historical Jesus.”[11]

Along with Luke, the other gospels also prove to be based on historically verifiable facts. As New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg explains, “In every case it has been concluded that an even-handed treatment of the data does not lead to a distrust of the accuracy of the gospels in what they choose to report.”[12] While some modern historians may sometimes wish the gospel writers had given more historical data, or more precise details about the events they recount, the bottom line is this: Their testimony to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ can be trusted.

Like Luke and the other synoptic gospels (of Matthew and Mark), John’s gospel also provides its readers with numerous references to testable data like geography and chronology.

These have been demonstrated to be highly accurate, particularly in light of modern archaeological discoveries: the five porticoes of the pool of Bethesda by the Sheep Gate ([John] 5:2), the pool of Siloam (9:1-7), Jacob’s well at Sychar (4:5), the “Pavement” (Gabbatha) where Pilate pronounced judgment on Jesus (19:13), Solomon’s porch (10:22-23), and so on.[13]

This is in keeping with John’s emphasis on truth throughout his gospel (John 1:14, 17; 3:21; 4:23-24; 5:33; 8:32, 40, 44-46; 14:6, 17; 15:26; 16:13; 17:17, 19; 18:37, 38; 19:35). He too would have been deeply concerned with presenting Jesus (“the way, the truth, and the life”–John 14:6), in a reliable way. In the words of one scholar:

The author claims to have been a true witness, that is an eyewitness of Jesus. In his first letter he said that he and his fellows had “heard,” “seen” and “touched” the “word of life” (1 John 1:1-2). His claims are extensive and specific. The alternatives are simple. Either the writer was the truthful eyewitness he claism to have been, or, as [some liberal scholars] believe, he was not.[14]

John’s concern for geographical places (cf. John 1:28; 4:5; 10:23; 11:18; 19:17, 20; 21:1), chronological details (cf. 1:29, 35, 43; 2:1, 12; 4:43, 52; 5:1; 7:1; etc.), cultural beliefs and customs (cf. 4:9, 27; 5:10; 7:22-23, 49), and eye-witness testimony (cf. 1:14; 21:24), demonstrates that he (like Luke) was also concerned with tying his witness to testable history.[15] When the details of his account are tested, they “take us, alongside that of the others [Matthew, Mark, and Luke], to the Jesus of history who remains an integral part of the Christ of faith.”[16]

The gospels, then, continually show themselves to be not only theological treatises, but historically reliable documents as well. Their historical trustworthiness (along with the rest of the New Testament) is “confirmed time and again by external evidence. . . . [T]o the unbiased observer, little doubt can be cast on the statement that archaeology has confirmed the historical reliability of the New Testament.” [17]

* * * * *


[1] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 234.

[2] R. H. Stein, Luke (NAC), introduction.

[3] Merrill F. Unger, “The Role of Archaeology in the Study of the New Testament,” BSac 116 (April 1959), 155.

[4] John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, 288. Also:

[5] Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 47.

[6] Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, BECNT, 13.

[7] Ramsay, Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 222.

[8] I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, 52.

[9] Nicholas M. van Ommeren, “Was Luke an Accurate Historian?” BSac 138:589 (January 1991), 70–71.

[10] Clifford Wilson, Rocks, Relics, and Biblical Reliability, 114.

[11] Marvin Pate, Moody Gospel Luke Commentary, 27.

[12] Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 234–35.

[13] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 219.

[14] Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, 72.

[15] Cf. Thomas D. Lea, “The Reliability of History in John’s Gospel” JETS 38:3 (September 1995), 387–402.

[16] John A.T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament, 94.

[17] J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135.

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