Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted? Part Two
by Vince Daugherty[Editor’s note: In Part 1 of this article, Vince brought out two main points of consideration; namely, (1) the Gospels were close enough in time to be accurate (as well as New Testament epistles that talk about the life of Jesus, Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Cor. 15:3-8); and (2) the Gospels were intended to be accurate. Consider now, in this final part, more evidence for the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Much of this material is drawn from Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, Chapter 1, “Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?”]
Included Accurate Flaws
Another interesting element to consider with the potential flaws in the biographies of Jesus is how the disciples are often portrayed. If I were producing a man-made account of my life, there would be certain details I would leave out that would undermine my readers’ confidence or would paint me in a negative light. This is not what we find in the Gospels. Jesus often rebuked His disciples for having “little faith” (Mt. 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). In other places, the disciples fought over who would be the greatest, or first, in the kingdom (Mt. 20:20-28). Blomberg says of the apostles, “They look like a bunch of self-serving, self-seeking, dull-witted people a lot of the time” (quoted in Stroble, 50). Also, the Gospel writers note that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. This is significant, for in the ancient world the testimony of a woman was not worth much. Why not leave out that detail and say that Peter, James, or one of the other apostles was the first to see Jesus? By not leaving out personally damaging details of the accounts or trying to cover up their own blunders, confidence is increased in the accuracy of what actually happened.
Other Sources Confirm
Another strong consideration is what other “news sources” had to say about Jesus, the man. It is one thing to find the perspective of believers, but what about those who may have stood in opposition to the faith? The first prevalent Jewish explanation for Jesus’ open tomb is that “His disciples came at night and stole Him away” (Mt. 28:13), yet this explanation confirms an empty tomb. Later, the Jewish Talmud called Jesus a sorcerer who led Israel astray, confirming His influence and even His miraculous ability. Strobel rightly points to another truth: the Christian movement started in Jerusalem, which was the center of the Jewish religion. How could a counter movement take hold in that location if the events were fabricated? All the Jewish (or Roman) leadership would have had to do was produce the body and execute the blasphemers. The movement would have been done! Rather, the advice from Gamaliel was where wisdom was found:
[K]eep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God. (Acts 5:38-39)
Not only has Gamaliel’s advice stood the test of time, but so also has the Gospel writers’ biographies! While the Gospel writers definitely had purpose to why they wrote, their testimony is still believable, trustworthy, and holds up against the scrutiny of the rational and honest skeptic.
No Originals; No Problem
A skeptic may contend, we do not have any surviving originals of the New Testament. That is true. However, this is not a unique issue with which to contend. One such response people ought to know is that we have a wealth of multiple copies. If there are a multitude of copies from various geographical locations that still align with each other, it helps us to be confident that the contents were faithfully copied. Also, the copies we do have are very close in age to the time of the originals. One scholar, Bruce Metzger, says:
We have copies commencing within a couple generations from the writing of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient text, maybe five, eight, or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest copy. (quoted in Strobel, 59)
Further, he states:
Even if we lost all the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we could still produce the contents of the New Testament form the multiplicity of quotations in [ancient] commentaries, sermons, letters, and so forth from the early church fathers. (quoted in Strobel, 59).
In a comparative study of other ancient works, the Bible has a mountain of copies compared to a minuscule number of copies of texts that are accepted as generally reliable. Compare the Bible to the historian Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome. Thought to be originally written in AD 116, “His first six books exist today in only one manuscript, and it was copied about A.D. 850” (quoted in Stroble, 60, emphasis VD). Josephus is another ancient historian whose nine copies of Jewish Wars, describing events from the first century AD, are from “the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries” (quoted in Stroble, 60). Compared to over five thousand copies of the New Testament, some of which are very old. The closest comparable ancient work of The Illiad only has 650 Greek manuscripts. Also, Homer is believed to have written the work in the 800’s BC, and the oldest copies we have are from the third century AD. The oldest fragments of the New Testament can be dated to before AD 150.
The multiplicity of copies can give the person of faith confident that the Bible we have today has been reliably preserved. Over five thousand Greek manuscripts and ancient translations into such languages as Latin, Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian bring the total to twenty-four thousand written evidence still in existence (Stroble, 63). Copies that are in various languages, geographic locations, and earlier and later dates make for an easy reliability test. An honest comparison with other ancient works that are accepted show the Bible has a wealth of corroborating evidence for us to have confidence.
When considering the historical accuracy of the New Testament biographies of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), one test to consider is what has been preserved in history. Have the biographies been reliably preserved? What does archeology have to say? Does it corroborate what the New Testament writers say or does it contradict their accounts? Every piece of evidence, honestly evaluated and scrutinized, harmonizes with what the Bible has revealed since it was originally recorded in the first century AD. Indeed, the New Testament biographies of Jesus have stood the test of time throughout the centuries! The Gospels can and ought to be trusted!
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.