18 Reasons Why the Gospel Writers Gave us True History about Jesus
"The historical Jesus only said 18% of the words the gospels claim he did."
-Dr. Scott DeGregorio, Professor of History, University of Michigan-Dearborn
“Why would the apostles lie?...If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got out of it was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!”
-Dr. Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College
Today’s university students should not be surprised to encounter professors who are skeptical about the supernatural aspects of religion. This is especially true concerning the Bible and its supernatural truth claims such as those attributed to Jesus. The Bible’s New Testament opens with four books called gospels which focus on an extraordinary figure named Jesus whom they say was a miracle-worker who was ultimately crucified then raised from the dead. Those gospels include Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in that order. With significant details they portray this Jesus as a supremely good man who said very strange things about himself and his relationship to God. Indeed, if the writers of the gospels gave us true history, Jesus was not only a good man but the ideal man. He claimed to have eternal origins and the very authority of God himself. But that is precisely the all-important question: Did they tell the truth? In other words, are the gospels true? Do they really give us an historical account of this Jesus upon whom Christianity is founded? Are the gospels good history, or are they so embellished as to consign them to mythology or historical-fiction? Skeptics like Dr. Scott DeGregorio ascribe to the latter view, as do many other scholars such as the well-known Bart Ehrman of UNC Chapel Hill. But in the opposing corner, a host of Ph.D. historians and other kinds of scholars confidently assert that the gospels are true history and present an accurate account of the risen Jesus who claimed to be the prophesied Messiah, Savior and Lord, etc.
Dr. Scott DeGregorio is a history professor at UM Dearborn. The courses he teaches include The Bible as Literature, Jesus and the Gospels, and an Honors Seminar in which the trial of Jesus is one of four historical episodes in focus. Have you had him for one of these courses? In recent years I have had a fair number of conversations with students who have, and sadly none of their reports have been encouraging. Every student described how Prof. DeGregorio disparages the New Testament’s four gospels as non-historical legend, or fiction, in an unbalanced way, and allows for little dissension from Christians in class. Some of these students also shared that they were afraid to challenge Prof. DeGregorio for fear of their grades. Recently I was sitting in the University Center with yet another such student, but I didn’t know it at first (nor was I ‘fishing’ for this information). As we were chatting I routinely asked the student about the progress of classes which s/he was not reluctant to do. Eventually this student willingly shared about his/her experience with Prof. DeGregorio. The student was troubled by Prof. DeGregorio’s statement above and other ones like it. As with other students, s/he was struck with the professor’s intellectual bias and skepticism against the gospels. Ok, everyone has their opinions, but why can’t even a skeptical professor such as Dr. DeGregorio be more balanced by fairly presenting the historical evidence on both sides, I ask? There is another worthy perspective presenting the reasons why the gospels' historical narrative is credible and which his students should be allowed to hear. I have bullet-pointed some of these reasons below, with more to come. I have also challenged Dr. DeGregorio to debate with me on this subject if he will accept.
In the following segment of this multiple-part article I put forth reasons why the four gospels’ portrait of Jesus is both credible and beyond compare through the lenses of historical analysis. The Jesus that has been Christianity’s central focus of reasoned faith and worship for two millennia is true. Here is my initial argument for why, with more to come.
18 Reasons (so far) that the Four Gospels Should be Trusted as Historically Truthful about Jesus:
1. The portrait of Jesus given in the New Testament’s four gospels, Acts, and letters is principally historical and can be reasonably analyzed and substantiated through an historical lens.
2. A predominant reason that (non-Muslim) people reject the gospels’ portrait of Jesus is due to a presupposition against miracles and the supernatural. For Muslims it is mainly the crucifixion. This position is biased intellectually and historically (but it requires a different argument).
3. There is enormous historical consensus that Jesus was crucified. (In general, only Muslims reject this fact, but not mainly for historical reasons.)
4. The crucifixion of Jesus was consistent with Old Testament theology and the messianic motif (e.g. his suffering and death, etc.).
5. This fact invites belief in other notable qualities ascribed to him in the Old Testament (e.g. divinity and kingship). This fact invites belief in other notable qualities ascribed to him in the Old Testament (e.g. divinity and kingship). The Hebrew scriptures (OT, Tanakh) create an unmistakable messiah motif or profile/role that expects and enjoins someone in the future with those qualities to fill.
6. Many Jewish men besides Jesus were crucified for “rebellion” in Roman Palestine. Why would the Christian community pick this particular executed man to promulgate? It was due to his additional qualities and deeds (i.e. messianic consistencies and fulfillments). Jesus fit the profile that no one else ever had or would.
7. Not only did the gospel writers affirm these qualities, but also did Paul the Apostle (although he resisted these conclusions). Paul testified to Jesus’s crucifixion as a fact of history, and very few (except Muslims) disbelieve him on this score. Why did he pick this Jesus to promulgate? And why was it possible? It was due to Jesus’s coherence with messianic motifs (as well Paul's dramatic vision of the risen Jesus).
8. After Paul’s conversion, in one sense he had only to connect the Old Testament’s “messianic dots” to match Jesus with the prevalent OT profile. As a latecomer that’s what he did, and so did the other New Testament writers. Except for the death and resurrection it was an easy match.
9. In his letters that generally predate the four gospels (50-58 AD), Paul testifies to Jesus’s resurrection, thus corroborating it as an historical event in the gospels.
10. The resurrection of Jesus is credible because it is the best explanation of the historical facts. (More material in support of this claim forthcoming.)
11. If that is the case, then we should believe it on historical grounds (and abandon any allegiance to point #2 we may have). If the resurrection reasonably occurred it was an event of history; then miracles are possible and we should allow for them as such.
12. If #11 is true (the resurrection of Jesus happened) then miracles happen, and none of the other miracles reported in the gospels should be ruled out a priori. They should be considered as any other events they report.
13. If #11 is true, then Paul and the gospel writers told the truth about it. (More on how we can know the gospel writers told the truth forthcoming.)
14. If #11 is true, then they also told the truth about Jesus’s crucifixion as well as his predictions of both (e.g. Matt. 16:21, 17:9, etc.) regardless of what other details of their accounts may seem discrepant.
15. If #11 and #12 are true—i.e. the gospel writers told the truth about the most important and hard-to-believe event—then their accounts should be granted historical credibility (or at least plausibility) on all other events and details that they report.
16. But there are other means by which to verify the gospel writers’ facts: When examined for their historical accuracy, the gospels include a great many historio-geographical details that are verifiable by the tools of historians such as Sir William Ramsay—which were often unnecessary to include if they were not true. For example, the writers include more than 30 historically confirmed people in their writings. (Click here for more information on this.)
17. There are four gospels in the New Testament, not only one. This fact is both an asset and a problem to their historical believability. On one hand they corroborate each other such as on the occurrence of the crucifixion/resurrection and many other events and details. On the other hand they do not.
18. In comparing the four gospels there are apparent discrepancies in some of their details. The import of the details varies with respect to the primary Jesus portrait, or narrative, but they are unquestionably in the gospel texts. But wait! If the gospels were “legends” made up by their Christian writers, wouldn’t the church have made sure to eliminate them? Yes, of course.
19. This fact presents challenges, to be sure, but it also lends itself to their historical authenticity. Why would the Christian community include four independent gospels with some seemingly discrepant details? Why indeed if the main body of content related to Jesus were not authentic and true. i.e. if the portrait of Jesus in the gospels were mere legend or theology? Answer: They would not. They would have chosen only one gospel to eliminate the apparent discrepancies between them. This points to their truthfulness.
20. Considered by ancient standards, the date range of the four gospels (37-100) relative to the events they describe (the life of Jesus) is superior to other specimens of ancient literature (e.g. Homer, Plato, Herodotus). This fact alone suggests something qualitatively different about them:
a) Even during a period of oral tradition, their subject (Jesus) was deemed worthy of committing to writing within only decades of his ‘departure’, within their respective lifetimes or shortly thereafter.
b) Therefore, the writers wrote the gospels during the lifetime of their contemporaries who would (collectively) know the truth about their accounts of Jesus enough to hold them accountable and refute the details of their accounts if necessary.
c) They would not have had to play the notorious “telephone game”. By the standards of an oral-tradition culture as first-century Palestine was, 5-65 years was hardly a challenging timespan for the gospel writers to internalize, preserve and recall the vivid details of the events and teaching of Jesus, even without notes. (Click here for more information: Oral Tradition.)
d) Even by our current standards of print culture, that timespan would not be too long for many of us to clearly remember and recall indelible events and discourses from our own life experiences. Even now you can clearly remember events and conversations from your childhood.
Matthew: 37 to 100 ad/ce
Mark: 40 to 73 ad/ce
Luke: 50 to 100 ad/ce
John: 65 to 100 ad/ce
*The earliest dates are conservative, the latest are liberal.
Preliminary Conclusion: The historical portrait of Jesus in the gospels is true, not legend or myth.
Updated on 11/5/18. More material to be added.