Saturday, September 08, 2007

Was It Meant to Be History?

A depiction of Luke writing his gospelBy Nathan Busenitz @

In this article, we will consider a third reason why the NT gospels should be considered trustworthy sources regarding the life of Christ.

3. The NT gospels are written in such a way that indicates they were intended as historical.

Luke makes the purpose of his gospel clear at the very beginning. He wrote it so that his readers might know “the exact truth about the things” related to the life of Jesus (1:4). John makes a similar assertion at the end of his work, emphasizing that he was the one who testified “to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). In this regard, Luke and John are representative of all four gospel writers; each was committed to presenting Jesus in a way that was accurate and true. “History is important to the gospel writers. Their report of history in Jesus’ life required accuracy. Their accuracy provides us with a sure foundation for our trust in the redeeming message of the gospel.” [1]

Unlike other apocryphal accounts of Christ’s life, which are “clearly legendary” and often “so unreal and pointless that they can immediately be seen to be of a quite different character from the New Testament accounts of Jesus,”[2] the New Testament gospels were written to be reliable accounts of what actually happened. Their motivation for doing so would have been both theological and evangelistic. From a theological perspective, they would never have wanted to bear false witness against Jesus, the one whom they worshipped and served.

From an apologetics standpoint, they would have deeply desired their message to be believable. Since the events of Jesus’ life were well-known to the people of that day, especially in Israel (cf. Acts 2:22; 26:26; cf. 1 Cor. 15:6), the gospel writers needed to represent the facts correctly. As Donald Guthrie points out, “An intention to lead people to faith in Jesus as Messiah and as Son of God is hardly likely to be furthered by an account of Jesus which was not closely related to the historical facts.”[3]

It follows, then, that the gospel writers’ approach to the historical data was intended as accurate. The number of historical details they include (such as social customs, geographical locations, and the names of political figures) further suggests a desire to deal with factual data in a responsible and straightforward manner. For example, consider the twenty one allusions to historical events, geographical places, and political positions in Luke 3:1–2:

In the fifteenth year (1) of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (2), Pontius Pilate (3) being governor (4) of Judea (5), and Herod (6) being tetrarch (7) of Galilee (8), and his brother Philip (9) tetrarch (10) of the region of Ituraea (11) and Trachonitis (12), and Lysanias (13) tetrarch (14) of Abilene (15), during the high priesthood (16) of Annas (17) and Caiaphas (18), the word of God came to John (19) the son of Zechariah (20) in the wilderness (21).

In just two verses, it becomes clear that Luke’s goal was to convey that which was tied to historical fact. This is in keeping with his stated purpose for writing (Luke 1:4).

The style of the gospels further supports this conclusion. They are written in straightforward and sensible manner, giving the reader no reason to doubt the sincere motives of each author. Along these lines, the gospels include details that are embarrassing to the writers (and the other apostles), indicating that they were more interested in seeking the truth than in making themselves look good (cf. Matt. 17:16; 26:30–35; Mark 8:33; 9:32, 34; 14:40, 51, 66–72; Luke 18:34; John 12:16).

Consider the way the gospels are written—in a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings. . . . The goal of the gospel writers was to attempt to record what had actually happened.[4]

On a side note, we might add that the apostle Paul also understood that unless his faith was based on real history, it was an empty faith (1 Cor. 15:12–19). His love for Christ (1 Cor. 16:22; 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 6:24), loyalty to Christ (1 Cor. 4:1; 2 Cor. 4:5; Gal. 6:14), and accountability to Christ (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 14:10; 1 Tim. 6:13–16), motivated him (like the other apostles) to preach a gospel that was true (cf. Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5–6; 1 Tim. 2:3–7). (As we will see below, Paul’s depiction of Jesus was in perfect harmony with that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)

Finally, it should be noted that the gospel writers, as well as all of the apostles, faced intense persecution for the gospel message they proclaimed (John 15:18–25; Acts 5:40–41; 2 Cor. 11:23–28; 1 Pet. 4:12–16). According to church tradition, both Matthew and Mark were martyred for their faith. Though Luke and John were probably not martyred, many of the other apostles were (including Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, Bartholomew, Thaddeus, Philip, Simon, and Thomas). It is hard to believe that the writers of these gospels and their fellow Christians would have endured such hardship for that which they knew was only a myth.

The point here is that the authors of the biblical gospels intended their material to be accurate and historically trustworthy. To be sure, they had theological and apologetic concerns too. But, as we have seen, those concerns would not have mitigated against historical accuracy. On the contrary, they would have made truthfulness all the more necessary.

In our next post (on Monday) we will consider whether or not the gospels actually demonstrate themselves to be historically accurate. In other words, did the writers achieve the historical accuracy for which they were aiming?

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[1] Thomas D. Lea, “The Reliability of History in John’s Gospel,” JETS 38/3 (September 1995), 402.

[2] John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1999) 227.

[3] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1996), 345.

[4] Craig Blomberg as cited by Lee Stroebel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 40.

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