The Gospels—History or Myth?
AROUND the world the story of Jesus of Nazareth—a young man who changed the course of human history—is woven into the fabric of society. It is part of people’s formal and informal education. Many consider the Gospels to be the fountains of timeless truths and adages, such as, “Let your Yes mean Yes, your No, No.” (Matthew 5:37) Indeed, the Gospel accounts may have been the basis for lessons that your parents taught you, whether they were Christians or not.
For millions of sincere followers of Christ, the Gospels have provided the description of the man for whom they have been willing to suffer and die. The Gospels have also provided the basis and inspiration for courage, endurance, faith, and hope. Would you not, then, agree that it should take irrefutable evidence to dismiss these accounts as mere fiction? Considering the immense influence that the Gospel accounts have had on human thought and behavior, would you not demand convincing proof if someone wanted to cast doubt on their authenticity?
We invite you to consider a number of thought-provoking questions regarding the Gospels. See for yourself what certain students of the Gospels think about these issues, even though some of them do not profess to be Christians. Then you can draw your own informed conclusions.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
◆ Could the Gospels be a masterful invention?
Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, says: “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John ‘marketed the Messiah’ to make him conform to Christian doctrine that evolved after the death of Jesus.” While the Gospels were being written, however, many who had heard Jesus’ sayings, had observed his deeds, and had seen him after his resurrection were still alive. They did not charge the Gospel writers with any form of fraud.
Consider the death and resurrection of Christ. Not only do the Gospels contain reliable accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection but so does the apostle Paul’s first canonical letter to Christians in ancient Corinth. He wrote: “I handed on to you, among the first things, that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, yes, that he has been raised up the third day according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that he appeared to upward of five hundred brothers at one time, the most of whom remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep in death. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; but last of all he appeared also to me as if to one born prematurely.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Such witnesses were custodians of historical facts regarding the life of Jesus.
The inventiveness alleged by modern critics is not found in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Rather, it appears in documents of the second century C.E. So certain unscriptural narratives about Christ were produced when an apostasy from true Christianity was developing among communities alienated from the apostolic congregation.—Acts 20:28-30.
◆ Could the Gospels be legends?
Author and critic C. S. Lewis found it difficult to view the Gospels as mere legends. “As a literary historian I am perfectly convinced that whatever the Gospels are, they are not legends,” he wrote. “They are not artistic enough to be legends. . . . Most of the life of Jesus is unknown to us, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.” It is also interesting that although noted historian H. G. Wells did not claim to be a Christian, he acknowledged: “All four [Gospel writers] agree in giving us a picture of a very definite personality; they carry the . . . conviction of reality.”
Consider an instance when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples. A good legend maker would likely have had Jesus stage a spectacular comeback, deliver a momentous speech, or be bathed in light and splendor. Instead, the Gospel writers simply describe him as standing in front of his disciples. Then he asked: “Young children, you do not have anything to eat, do you?” (John 21:5) Scholar Gregg Easterbrook concludes: “These are the sorts of touches that suggest a genuine account, not myth-building.”
The accusation that the Gospels are legends also stumbles on the strict rabbinic method of teaching that was in fashion during the time of the writing of the Gospels. That method adhered closely to learning by rote—a memorizing process using routine or repetition. This favors the accurate and careful rendering of Jesus’ sayings and works as opposed to the creation of an embellished version.
◆ If the Gospels were legends, could they have been compiled so quickly after the death of Jesus?
According to available evidence, the Gospels were written between the years 41 and 98 C.E. Jesus died in the year 33 C.E. This means that the accounts of his life were put together in a comparatively short time after his ministry ended. This poses a tremendous obstacle to the argument that the Gospel narratives are mere legends. Time is needed for legends to develop. Take, for example, the Iliad and the Odyssey by the ancient Greek poet Homer. Some hold that the text of those two epic legends developed and became stabilized over hundreds of years. What about the Gospels?
In his book Caesar and Christ, historian Will Durant writes: “That a few simple men should . . . have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.”
◆ Were the Gospels later edited to fit the needs of the early Christian community?
Some critics argue that the politics of the early Christian community caused the Gospel writers to edit the story of Jesus or add to it. However, a close study of the Gospels shows that no such doctoring took place. If Gospel accounts concerning Jesus were altered as a result of first-century Christian intrigue, why do negative remarks about both Jews and Gentiles still appear in the text?
A case in point is found at Matthew 6:5-7, where Jesus is quoted as saying: “When you pray, you must not be as the hypocrites; because they like to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the broad ways to be visible to men. Truly I say to you, They are having their reward in full.” Clearly, this was a condemnation of Jewish religious leaders. Jesus further said: “When praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations [the Gentiles] do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words.” By quoting Jesus in this way, the Gospel writers were not trying to win converts. They were simply recording statements actually made by Jesus Christ.
Consider also the Gospel accounts regarding the women who visited Jesus’ tomb and saw that it was empty. (Mark 16:1-8) According to Gregg Easterbrook, “in the sociology of the ancient Middle East, testimony by women was considered inherently unreliable: for instance, two male witnesses were sufficient to convict a woman of adultery, while no woman’s testimony could convict a man.” Indeed, Jesus’ own disciples did not believe the women! (Luke 24:11) It is thus most unlikely that such a story would have been deliberately invented.
The absence of parables in the epistles and in the book of Acts is a strong argument that those in the Gospels were not inserted by early Christians but were spoken by Jesus himself. Additionally, a careful comparison of the Gospels with the epistles reveals that neither Paul’s words nor those of other writers of the Greek Scriptures were artfully reworded and ascribed to Jesus. If the early Christian community had done such a thing, we should expect to find at least some of the material from the epistles in the Gospel accounts. Since we do not, we can surely conclude that the Gospel material is original and authentic.
◆ What about seeming contradictions in the Gospels?
Critics have long claimed that the Gospels are full of contradictions. Historian Durant sought to examine the Gospel accounts from a purely objective standpoint—as historical documents. Though he says that there are seeming contradictions in them, he concludes: “The contradictions are of minutiae [trivial details], not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ.”
Seeming contradictions in Gospel accounts are often easily resolved. To illustrate: Matthew 8:5 says that “an army officer came to [Jesus], entreating him” to cure a manservant. At Luke 7:3, we read that the officer “sent forth older men of the Jews to [Jesus] to ask him to come and bring [the] slave safely through.” The officer sent the elders as his representatives. Matthew says that the army officer himself entreated Jesus because the man made his request through the elders, who served as his mouthpiece. This is just one example showing that alleged discrepancies in the Gospels can be resolved.
What of the claims of higher critics that the Gospels do not meet the criteria of real history? Continues Durant: “In the enthusiasm of its discoveries the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies—e.g., Hammurabi, David, Socrates—would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed—the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial . . . No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.”
◆ Does modern-day Christianity represent the Jesus of the Gospels?
The Jesus Seminar has declared that its research on the Gospels is “not bound by the dictates of church councils.” But historian Wells realized that there is a huge gap between the teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels and those of Christendom. He wrote: “There is no evidence that the apostles of Jesus ever heard of the Trinity—at any rate from him. . . . Nor did [Jesus] say a word about the worship of his mother Mary, in the guise of Isis, the Queen of heaven. All that is most characteristically Christian in worship and usage, he ignored.” Therefore, one cannot judge the value of the Gospels on the basis of the teachings of Christendom.
WHAT IS YOUR CONCLUSION?
After considering the foregoing points, what do you think? Is there real, convincing proof that the Gospels are mere myth? Many find the questions and doubts raised about the authenticity of the Gospels to be shaky and unconvincing. To form a personal opinion, you need to read the Gospels with an open mind. (Acts 17:11) When you consider the consistency, honesty, and accuracy with which the Gospels present the personality of Jesus, you will realize that these accounts are definitely not a collection of fables. *
If you carefully examine the Bible and apply its counsel, you will see how it can change your life for the better. (John 6:68) This is especially true of Jesus’ sayings recorded in the Gospels. What is more, therein you can learn about the wonderful future in store for obedient mankind.—John 3:16; 17:3, 17.
^ par. 29 See chapters 5 to 7 of the book The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s? and the brochure A Book for All People. Both are published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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Evidence of Authentic Reporting
SOME years ago an Australian scriptwriter and former critic of the Bible confessed: “For the first time in my life I did what is normally a reporter’s first duty: checked my facts. . . . And I was appalled, because what I was reading [in the Gospel accounts] was not legend and it was not naturalistic fiction. It was reporting. First and second-hand accounts of extraordinary events . . . Reporting has a taste, and that taste is in the Gospels.”
Similarly, E. M. Blaiklock, professor of classics at Auckland University, argued: “I claim to be an historian. My approach to the Classics is historical. And I tell you that the evidence for the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ is better authenticated than most of the facts of ancient history.”
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“The evidence for the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ is better authenticated than most of the facts of ancient history.”—PROFESSOR E. M. BLAIKLOCK
Background maps: Based on a map copyrighted by Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est. and Survey of Israel.