Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted? Part One
by Vince Daugherty
For individuals to have a solid, reasonable faith, they must be able to trust the sources upon which their faith is based. For the Christian, he is staking his claim of faith in the historical figure of Jesus being the Christ. The overwhelming source for that knowledge and faith comes from the Bible, specifically the Gospels. In a world that seems difficult to trust news reports, people may also be skeptical of what is reported in the biblical text. Therefore, one critical question that must be answered is: Can the biographies of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John be trusted? One Bible scholar, Craig L. Blomberg, says yes! (Much of this article is drawn from Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, Chapter 1, “Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?”)
Because some people see “Christianity” as having evolved over the centuries, they will say it is impossible to really know what the historical Jesus was like or what He really said because historical facts get mixed with legend and/or myth. One way to put those criticisms to rest is to put the biblical biographies of Jesus to the test and see if they hold up to scrutiny.
Close Enough in Time to Be Accurate
If we take even liberal dates for the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they all come onto the scene within the first century AD. Blomberg says, “That is still within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around” (quoted in Strobel, 33). This is critical to the trustworthiness of those early biographies. Blomberg further states:
The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written … more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 BC, yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy. (33)
If a person can have confidence in the biographies of Alexander the Great, written four hundred years later, he should have that much more confidence in those biographies of Jesus written within sixty years of His earthly life.
We can get even closer to the earliest beliefs of the disciples when we look into letters of the New Testament. Remember, “the books of the New Testament are not written in chronological order” (Blomberg, 34). Paul began writing his letters in the AD 40s and 50s. Consider three passages:
… Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The following fundamental beliefs of Jesus are evidenced in this passage: (1) Jesus was equal with God; (2) Jesus came to earth to live as a man; (3) Jesus died on the cross; and (4) Jesus was exalted as Lord by God.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
The following fundamental beliefs of Jesus are evidenced in this passage: (1) Jesus is the image of invisible God; (2) Jesus was the means by which all things were created; (3) Jesus is the head of the church; (4) Jesus is the firstborn of the dead; and (5) Jesus made peace through the cross.
First Corinthians 15:3-8
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
The following fundamental beliefs are evidenced in this passage: (1) this statement was not original with Paul; thus, it must be older than when Paul wrote it; (2) Christ died, was buried, and rose again on the third day; (3) the resurrected Christ was seen alive by Cephas (Peter); (4) the resurrected Christ was seen alive by the other twelve apostles; (5) the resurrected Christ was seen alive by over five hundred brethren at one time, and some were still alive at the time of writing; (6) the resurrected Christ was seen alive by James; and (7) the resurrected Christ was seen alive by Paul.
Multiple hours could be spent with these passages, especially First Corinthians 15:3-8, contemplating the magnitude of the various sightings of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and the life-changing effect they had on those witnesses. Now, we can put the timing of these statements together. If Paul was writing in the AD 50s and referencing a creedal statement older than his own writing, it would be within ten years of the crucifixion of Jesus. The theology of Jesus from His earliest disciples was emphatic that they believed He was God come in the flesh, died on the cross, and rose again. While it is certainly true that modern beliefs and practices have evolved through the years, critics would be hard-pressed to claim the earliest accounts would have been unable to paint a valid picture of Jesus of Nazareth. These accounts were written early enough to be accurate, and if they were peddling false claims, those in opposition would have corrected the narrative.
Intended to Be Accurate
Did the New Testament biographers have the intention of telling the truth concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth? Luke stated at the outset of his Gospel:
Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Lk. 1:1-4)
Luke’s purpose was clear, “to write … an orderly account,” so that those who read it, “may know with certainty of those things” that had taken place pertaining to Jesus. In order to write it, Luke said he interviewed “eyewitnesses” who were present with Jesus from the beginning of these events. Luke presented not as myth, legend, or fantasy, but in a similar tone as other ancient, eyewitness-based biographies. Note also, in his Gospel, Luke stated there were others who were writing about the events of Jesus’ life.
Consider this purpose statement from John’s Gospel, “these [other signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:31). When reading this statement, there is the temptation to say John was biased. Sure, the Gospel writers certainly had a theological agenda they are promoting (i.e., belief that Jesus was the Christ), but does that necessitate them falsifying the data? Consider, as with most any writing, there is a purpose why the writer is recording something. Blomberg says, “Nobody [from the ancient world] wrote history if there wasn’t a reason to learn from it” (quoted in Strobel, 31). Later, Blomberg gives a powerful example from a more modern standpoint. Some of the best historians on the Holocaust are Jewish people.
… [I]t has been the Jewish scholars who’ve created museums, written books, preserved artifacts, and documentedeyewitness testimony.…Now they have a very ideological purpose—namely, to ensure such an atrocity never occurs again—but they have also been the most faithful and objective in their reporting of historical truth. (quoted in Strobel, 32)
Instead of a desire to embellish the facts of the Holocaust, they want the absolute truth to make the case. If I were trying to convince someone to change their entire world view (i.e., become a Christian), would I want that person to make a blind leap of faith or would I want that person to make a reasonable decision based on evidence? While there may be other details about Jesus’ life that are not written in the Gospels, the information selected was for a purpose (Jn. 20:30; 21:25). The Gospels did not give equal parts of focus to the different periods of Jesus’ life, but they focused on what was necessary for the lessons the Holy Spirit wanted their original readers to learn. The essential details for a Christian’s faith rest on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-3). From the Gospels, we find convergences on those details. It helps to have confidence, not blind faith.[To be continued.]
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.