Licona Responds to Ehrman on New Testament Reliability

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

In my Major Statement, I discussed what it means to say something is “historically reliable.” Since this dialogue involves a historical rather than a theological matter, we cannot privilege the Gospels a priori over other historical literature of that period on the grounds that Christians regard them as being divinely inspired and authoritative. Those positions must be argued for theologically or even philosophically.

However, historical arguments cannot prove the Gospels are divinely inspired and authoritative. Thus, whatever criteria apply to biographical and historical literature of the period in which the Gospels were written likewise apply to the Gospels when attempting to assess whether they are historically reliable.

I then suggested that an ancient primary source is historically reliable when the following conditions are met:

  1. We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail.
  2. We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous.
  3. We have reason to believe the author intended to write an accurate account of what occurred notwithstanding his use of compositional devices appropriate for the historical/biographical genre and the occasional appearance of errors and legend.
  4. We have no good reasons to believe more than a very small percentage of stories reported by an ancient author are false.

Accounts meeting these criteria may be regarded as historically reliable in terms of presenting an accurate gist of what occurred. The overall account is “true enough.”

I then argued that the Gospels meet this standard, that Bart's “Five Strongest Arguments” that the Gospels are NOT historically reliable do not hold up under critical scrutiny, and that the historical data suggest Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and appeared to others, injecting significant plausibility into the miracle stories about Jesus told by the Gospel authors. I will now review what Bart argued in light of my case for the historical reliability of the Gospels.

With the majority of biblical scholars who read the Gospels as historians, Bart acknowledges that “the Gospels certainly do contain historically important information about Jesus, especially when it comes to the very broad outlines of what he said, did, and experienced.” This is not an acknowledgment of historical reliability, but it's a place to start. Bart then provides seven major contentions for why he thinks the Gospels are historically unreliable accounts of Jesus. I will assess them in this Response.

1. The Gospels contain stories that cannot be historically accurate

Bart provides the example of John differing from Mark in the details of the day and time at which Jesus was crucified. Mark narrates it to have occurred at 9 am on the morning after the Passover meal had been eaten, whereas John narrates it to have occurred just after noon and only hours before the Passover meal was to be eaten.

Now, I have already touched on this in my Interview. With a number of scholars, my suspicion is that John has artistically adapted his passion narrative to underscore theological points he regarded as being true: Jesus is the burnt offering for our sins and our Passover lamb. Was Jesus actually crucified? Yes. Did it occur during Passover week? Yes. Was John responsible for introducing a new teaching that Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins? No, since Paul and other literature in the New Testament, all of which were probably written prior to John's Gospel, make the same claims (Rom 8:3; 1 Cor 5:7; Eph 5:2; Heb 9:26; 10:10–14; 13:11–12; 1 Pet 1:19). So, John does not distort the “truth.” However, if I'm correct, he crafted his passion narrative with some artistry in order to present the “truth” of who Jesus is more clearly to his readers.

John is not unique to make such a move as a biographer/historian. Sallust was one of Rome's finest historians. In fact, the famous first-century rhetorician Quintilian wrote that readers needed to be well-advanced in their literary studies in order to appreciate Sallust properly (Institutes of Oratory 2.5.19). Accordingly, it is of interest to observe Sallust displacing speeches to different occasions in order to increase drama in the story or to illuminate a person's character quality more clearly, such as when he postdates Catiline's threat to destroy Rome to November 8, 63 BC, when it had actually occurred during the previous July (Conspiracy of Catiline 31.9) and when he predates Catiline's speech to his supporters to June 1, 64 BC, when it had actually occurred a year later (Cat. 17.1; 20.1; see, also, Cicero, Pro Lucio Murena 50).[1]

And consider this story about Julius Caesar. Plutarch, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio report how Caesar once wept while at the statue of Alexander (Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar 11.1–3; Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 7; Cassius Dio, Roman History 37.52.2). When asked why he wept, Caesar answered that he was now the same age Alexander was when he had finished conquering the world, while Caesar had yet to accomplish any deed of great importance. Suetonius and Dio place the event in Spain during Caesar's quaestorship in 69–-68 BC. Plutarch also locates the event in Spain, although he places it immediately after Caesar's praetorship, which ended six years later in December 62. Since Alexander was 30 when he invaded India during his final campaign, and Caesar was 31 or 32 when quaestor and 38 when his term as praetor expired, the timing of the event is more at home in the context described by Suetonius and Dio. Experts think Plutarch has displaced the story and transplanted it in a period when Caesar's quest for power had become all-consuming. Now, if Plutarch can alter the year in which Caesar wept in order to emphasize Caesar's ambitious character, John could alter the day and time of Jesus's crucifixion to symbolize the sacrificial quality of Jesus's death and be well within the bounds of the literary conventions under which both operated.

Examples of other respected historians of that era engaging in chronological displacement could also be provided. The point is that John was not unique in altering chronology on occasion to make a point. Did the events occur? Yes. Did they occur at the precise time narrated in the four instances I noted? No. Were the truths they highlight invented? No. The stories are “true enough.” And we certainly get an accurate gist of what occurred.

2. The traditional authorship of the Gospels is mistaken

Bart argues that the titles we read at the beginning of the four Gospels were added only later, were only the opinions of the scribes who added them, and “for well over a century scholars have realized that these opinions are almost certainly wrong. The followers of Jesus were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee; these books, however, were written by highly educated and well trained Greek-speaking elite Christians living in cities in other locations. They were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and do not ever claim to be.”

Bart's statement could have been nuanced for much greater accuracy. The author of John's Gospel claims to have been an eyewitness, having seen and heard many of the things about which he reported (John 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–3). It is probably true that scribes later added the titles at the beginning of the Gospels attributing them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Of course, we'll never know, because we don't have the original documents to examine. But it's probably true, because the very earliest extant manuscripts that include the beginnings of the Gospels lack the titles. However, the omission of the author's name was not an unusual practice. The literature written by Plato, Plutarch, Lucian, and Porphyry are every bit as anonymous as the Gospels. But this by no means suggests that we have no idea who the authors were.

I also agree with Bart that the Twelve disciples, or at least most of them, were probably uneducated Aramaic-speaking peasants. Would any of them have received training sufficient to write a Gospel, all of which possess many signs of being written by skilled authors? Perhaps Matthew. But it's unlikely that fishermen would have. And more and more scholars have been coming to the conclusion that residents of Palestine may have been quite conversant in Greek. What Bart did not acknowledge, however, is that Mark and Luke were not from the Twelve. As I mentioned in my Major Statement, early church tradition tells us that Mark received much of his information directly from Peter while Luke received his information directly from Paul and from other eyewitnesses. This tradition is early and without any dissent. In fact, even a slight majority of modern scholars accept the traditional authorship of the Gospels of Mark and Luke.[2] The majority of scholars likewise hold that the Gospel of John is largely based on testimony from one of Jesus's disciples. So, it's not as though Mark, Luke, and John are the recipients of stories about Jesus that had been passed between a few hundred people before they heard those stories for the first time. Their sources were eyewitnesses who had personally experienced Jesus.

Moreover, any of the Gospel authors could have made use of a scribe or secretary (the academic term is “amanuensis”) to write under their supervision. Paul often made use of a scribe, as did Cicero and Brutus, even though they were highly educated. A scribe's involvement could range from taking simple dictation to providing light-to-major editing. Thus, objections that the Gospel authors were neither eyewitnesses nor had received their information from eyewitnesses — that is, objections that are based on arguments from anonymity and illiteracy — are misguided.

3. Stories of Jesus changed as they were orally circulated for years before being included in the Gospels

Bart asks,

Suppose you were supposed to write down a speech you had heard a while ago. Suppose it was a speech delivered by a presidential candidate last month. If you had no notes, but just your memory — how would you do? Or suppose you wanted to write down, without notes, Obama's first State of the Union address? That was only seven years ago. How would you do with the first “State of the Union” address delivered by Lyndon Johnson? My guess is that you wouldn't have a clue.

Is this a good analogy to suggest the early Christians were unable to recall Jesus's teachings accurately? How many times have you heard President Obama's first “State of the Union” address? Once? And that would have been seven years ago. So, Bart is correct in his implied conclusion that none of us would recall it accurately, if we can recall it at all. Now let's consider Jesus's teachings. For somewhere between one to three years, Jesus's disciples traveled with him from town to town, hearing him teach on what was probably nearly a daily basis. We wouldn't expect for Jesus to preach a new sermon in every village and town. Instead, we would expect that he had a dozen or so sermons that included teachings he would adapt to his particular audience. As other talented teachers would do, Jesus crafted his teachings in manners that would facilitate remembering them, such as parables and hyperbolic language. Ever heard of the prodigal son or Jesus's statement that unless you hate your parents, siblings, wife, and children, you cannot be his disciple? As his disciples traveled with him, they would have heard his teachings over and over and over and over and over and over and over. Then they would have discussed them with Jesus. Then Jesus sent them out, two-by-two, to spread those teachings throughout more villages and towns. While they were out, they could correct one another. Then they returned to Jesus and debriefed him on their activities. As disciples of other religious or philosophical teachers would do, they probably ran what they had taught by Jesus to ensure it was an accurate representation of what he had taught them. Then they traveled with him again and heard him teach the same things. You can see quite easily that this process would facilitate the ability of Jesus's disciples to recall what Jesus had taught and to do so even decades later. So, Bart's analogy of attempting to recall President Obama's “State of the Union” speech is not even close.

A ton of research has been conducted on oral tradition during the past century and the resulting literature on the subject is vast. Those interested in reading a short and fair summary may find it in the recent book by Eric Eve, Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition (Reprint ed.: Fortress Press, 2014). Most experts on that topic now agree there was a minor degree of flexibility with which stories were retold. The core of the story had to be preserved and it was only peripheral details that could be altered. So, it is not as though stories of Jesus were passed from an original eyewitness to a man who “told his wife, based on what he heard from a business associate who had heard stories from his neighbor who once had a cousin who was married to someone who had known an eyewitness.” And after all of this, the story reached a final form that made it into the Gospels. There's no doubt stories about Jesus were also passed in an uncontrolled manner. But the passing along of oral tradition did not occur this way. And remember, there are good reasons for holding with most scholars that Mark, Luke, and John are based on the eyewitness testimonies of those who had been with Jesus.

Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition

4. Discrepancies in the Gospels are evidence the stories were changed (or even invented)

As I wrote in my Major Statement, most of the differences in the Gospels aren't contradictions when read in view of compositional devices that belonged to the standard literary practices of that day. Consider the first example Bart provided: Jesus raising Jairus's daughter. In Mark 5:21–43, Jairus's daughter is alive when he asks Jesus for his help and then some come from Jairus's house and inform him of her death while he and Jesus are approaching. But in Matthew 9:18–26, she is already dead when Jairus asks Jesus for his help. Bart referred to this as one of the “irreconcilable differences among the Gospels.”

Yet this difference is very easily reconciled. As he does elsewhere, Matthew compresses the story (see also the stories of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11:12–14, 20–26 / Matt 21:18–22 and healing the centurion's servant in Matt 8:5–13 / Luke 7:1–10). Compression was a compositional device employed on a regular basis by historians in Jesus's day. I provide several examples of compression and other compositional devices in my book scheduled for publication this fall, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford University Press, 2016).[3] But here's one:

Earlier in this Detailed Response, I make mention of the conspiracy of Catiline. Once the conspiracy was made known to the consul Cicero and the Senate, actions were taken to crush it. In his Life of Cicero (19.1–22.2), Plutarch narrates the arraignment of the conspirators Lentulus and Cethegus as though occurring on one day (December 3), and their punishment determined and carried out on the next. However, in his Life of Caesar (7.3–5), Plutarch narrates the summons of Lentulus and Cethegus before the Senate, the discussion of their punishment, and their executions all being carried out as though on the same day. In reality, their arraignment took place on December 3 and their punishment was determined and carried out on December 5, with a different discussion occurring on December 4. Plutarch compresses the story some in Cicero and even more in Caesar.

Does compressing a story render it historically unreliable? As I offered in my Major Statement, it depends what we mean by “historically reliable.” If we require every detail to be an accurate reflection of how an event actually unfolded, then compression cannot be allowed. But if we require the account to be an accurate gist of how an event actually unfolded, compression can be allowed.

Compressing stories was not a practice unique to ancient authors. Anyone who is married today knows there's a difference between the guy and girl versions of a story. Generally speaking, girls like details — and lots of them! They want to know what happened, when it happened, why it happened, how it happened, who was there, what they said, what they were wearing, and even how they felt about what had happened! Guys generally like to get to the bottom line quickly and often have little patience for details that may not be relevant. They typically feel free to adapt the details a little in order to abbreviate a story or make a point clearer. That's why many of us guys have had the experience of relaying a story over the phone to a friend only to have our wives in the background saying, “You know it didn't happen that way! And you forgot to tell him about…” Now when this occurs, we guys aren't trying to distort the story and deceive our friend. It's usually the case that our friend would prefer to be spared from having to hear all of the details and instead just get what's relevant to them. Does that render “unreliable” those of us who adapt some details of a story slightly in order to abbreviate and highlight certain points? In my opinion, it does not. We must be careful not to define “historical reliability” so narrowly that no literature can make the cut. Otherwise, the term serves little purpose. In my Major Statement, I proposed a definition of historical reliability and four criteria for identifying when literature is historically reliable that can be applied to all historical literature and without privileging the Gospels.

Given space limitations, I cannot address all of the differences Bart raised. What I want to make clear is that a very large majority of the differences in the Gospels are best explained in view of the compositional devices employed in the writing of ancient historical/biographical literature; those prescribed in the extant compositional textbooks written by Theon, Hermogenes, Quintilian, Aphthonius, and others, and those we can infer from observing patterns in how the same author using the same sources reports the same story writing around the same time but does so with differences. Accordingly, while Bart is correct that “small details matter a lot in many parts of our lives” such as a fingerprint in a murder investigation, differences in details — such as those created when Matthew compressed the account of Jesus raising Jairus's daughter — do not in the least prevent us from getting an accurate gist of what occurred.

Synopsis of the Four Gospels, Revised Standard VersionI have spent a fair amount of time reading Plutarch during the past seven and a half years. Initially, I intended to work with a few of my colleagues at Houston Baptist University and create a synopsis whereby readers could view how Plutarch tells the same story in two or more of his Lives. One does this by arranging the stories side-by-side and line-by-line. A reader can then see, for example, how Plutarch tells the story of Pompey's death in his Pompey, Caesar, Cato Minor, and Brutus. Readers are already able to conduct such an exercise in comparison with the four Gospels in Synopsis of the Four Gospels (Revised ed.: American Bible Society, 2010), edited by Kurt Aland. I identified 36 stories appearing in two or more of Plutarch's Lives for the sake of comparing. After a while I realized that a synopsis focusing on those 36 stories would not allow me to do a line-by-line comparison. The reason is Plutarch followed the literary conventions of his day, paraphrasing using the techniques prescribed in the compositional textbooks and inferred by how he and historians such as Sallust, Tacitus, Josephus, and others of that era altered details. Although my research had the objective of focusing on the differences in the Gospels, I ended up being struck as much, if not more, by the verbal similarities between a lot of the content appearing in them. It's almost as if Matthew and Luke often “copied-and-pasted” from material they shared in common. I did not observe Plutarch engaging in this practice. Of course, I'm not the first to make this observation. Gerald Downing made a similar one 35 years earlier, having spent a considerable time reading Josephus, and concluded:[4]

It is not the divergencies among the synoptists [i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke] (or even between them and John), in parallel contexts, that are remarkable: it is the extraordinary extent of verbal similarities. The question is, Why were they content to copy so much? rather than, Why did they bother to change this or that? The procedure is not however mechanical, and there are considerable divergencies. But it has to be recognized that the relationship may betoken a much greater respect, one for the other, even than Josephus' for Scripture.

On a regular basis, the Gospels stay closer to their sources (e.g., Mark, Q material, however it's understood) than Josephus and Plutarch do to theirs. This could suggest, as Downing suspects, that the authentic Jesus tradition possessed extraordinary value for the Gospel authors. And that compelled them to take fewer editorial liberties than was typical for that day.

It is also worth noting that, in all but a very few instances, the differences in the Gospels appear in the peripheral details. Nevertheless, I do not deny that some of the differences are larger. As Bart observes, one such difference concerns John's greater emphasis on Jesus's identify as God. And when one reads Jesus's words in John's Gospel, he “sounds” differently than he does in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In fact, the more time one spends reading John's Gospel and the letter of 1 John in Greek, the more convinced one becomes they were written by the same author because the vocabulary and grammar are so similar. I've come to the conclusion that Jesus sounds so differently in John's Gospel because on a regular basis, John has freely paraphrased Jesus's teachings and recast them in his own words. John may even portray Jesus stating explicitly what in reality he had implied in his teachings and as we read them in the Synoptics. This is the view, in fact, of almost all scholars on John, including theologically conservative ones. John may have done this in order to state Jesus's teachings in a manner that is theologically clearer or simpler than we find in the other Gospels. But Jesus's teachings in John were not new.

Bart argues that the authors of the Gospels and the early Christians before them changed the traditions and that sometimes the changes not only involved small items but also fundamental ones. As an example, he tells of how John's Gospel portrays Jesus as almost always explaining who he is — God, motivating his opponents to have him put to death for blaspheming — whereas we rarely observe Jesus talking about himself in the other Gospels, but instead observe him proclaiming God's kingdom.

What is striking is that in precisely none of these sources or Gospels does Jesus make the exalted claims for himself that you find in John. You will not find these claims in Mark, Q, M, L, Matthew, or Luke.

Bart then concludes that the best explanation for this “is that Jesus did not actually say such things. . . . When Jesus says these things in John, it's because John is putting these words on his lips.”

While it may appear to the modern reader that John has spent far more time on Jesus's identity than the other Gospels do, when we consider that the Gospels are ancient biographies and the primary objective of that genre was to illuminate qualities of the main character, we find Mark telling us consistently throughout his Gospel that Jesus is none other than God in some sense. (Recall my comments on Mark toward the end of my Interview.) So, John's portrait of Jesus is by no means new or unique. Indeed, before any of the Gospels were written we find the same view of Jesus that John presented also being presented by Paul whose gospel message had been confirmed by the Jerusalem apostles Peter, James, and John (Gal 2:1–10). So, what Paul was preaching about Jesus's identity is also what the Jerusalem apostles were preaching.

Consider the following items:

Notice that these teachings have clear parallels in John's Gospel. And when we add that Mark likewise presented Jesus as being God in some sense, we observe a coherent portrait of Jesus presented by all of them, although some of their emphases differed. Although Jesus did not come right out and say “I am God” in any of the Gospels, but came close to doing so in John, the other Gospels, starting with Mark, tell us who he is by narrating Jesus's acts, which are said in the Old Testament to be deeds only God can do (again, I refer you to the end of my Interview for specifics).

5. They occasionally tell stories that are historically implausible

Bart provides the example of the differences between the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. In my opinion, those narratives include the most difficult and profound differences in the Gospels. As my friend Jonathan Pennington writes,[5]

Despite our conflation of all these events at the annual church Christmas pageant, these stories do not in fact overlap at all. If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person.

Here I must acknowledge that I don't know what's going on and have no detailed explanations for these differences. I think one can provide some plausible solutions. But I admit they are speculative. In my research pertaining to the most basic compositional devices in ancient historical/biographical literature, I did not observe any devices that readily shed light on the differences between the infancy narratives.

However — even though, as I say, I don't know what's going on here to cause the differences — let's just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario. Matthew and Luke both agree that a Jewish virgin named Mary who was engaged to a Jewish man named Joseph gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The early Christians all knew this much. However, little else was remembered about this event. So, Matthew and Luke added details to their account to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus's birth, a type of midrash. I'm not saying this is what Matthew and Luke did. I don't know what's going on with the infancy narratives. However, if this occurred, we would have to take the matter of genre — midrash — into consideration and recognize that the historicity of the details outside of the story's core would be questionable, while the core itself could stand. After all, with such differences between the accounts in Matthew and Luke, one could reasonably argue that the core is attested by multiple independent sources.

But even with the puzzling infancy narratives, the overall historical reliability of the Gospels in their entirely would not be called into question. Why do I say this? My wife Debbie is a precise person. She wants to relay a story to others accurately and with all of the details in their proper order — the girl version. So, after nearly 29 years of marriage, I know she is a reliable source when she gives me a report about something that happened. Now, let's suppose Debbie reads a post on Facebook about the discovery of an otherwise unknown document written by the first century Roman historian Velleius Paterculus who claims to have witnessed Jesus performing a miracle. She finds the post fascinating and “Shares” it, with the introductory comment “This is exciting news!”, while not knowing the report is entirely false. Does that mean I should now regard Debbie as an unreliable source? No, because in a large majority of matters I know her to be reliable, even if not infallible. Now, if Debbie made it a habit to post urban legends, she would be an unreliable source.

Moreover, as I discussed in my Major Statement, we have very good historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, which adds plausibility to the miracle accounts in the Gospels, including Jesus's virgin birth. After all, if Jesus rose from the dead, a virgin birth would be child's play (pun intended). And most scholars hold that Jesus performed deeds that astonished crowds and that both he and his followers regarded as miracles and exorcisms. Although historical investigation may not be able to determine whether these were genuine miracles and exorcisms, that Jesus rose from the dead adds significant plausibility to the conclusion that they were genuine.

6. The resurrection narratives contain discrepancies

Bart says, “We want independent and supportive accounts that are completely consistent with each other. But when it comes to the resurrection narratives, that's not what we find.” He then points out several differences in them. I discuss all of these and many others at length in my forthcoming book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? But I'll deal with a few here.

I already addressed the matter of the number of women who went to the tomb in my Major Statement. Was the stone rolled away prior the women's arrival (Mark, Luke, John) or as they arrived (Matthew)? Matthew's account can certainly be read in a manner that the stone was rolled away prior to their arrival. Did they see a man (Mark), an angel (Matthew), two men (Luke), or two angels (John)? This is easily addressed. I addressed the matter of one or two persons in my Major Statement (see about the halfway point). Mark and Matthew are probably shining their literary spotlight on the angel making the announcement. Were the figure(s) human or angelic? This, too, is easily addressed. Mark 16:5 refers to the angel as a “young man dressed in a white robe,” while Luke 24:4 describes the angels as “two men in dazzling / lightning-like clothing.” It is more than obvious that Luke has angels in mind, since he goes on to call them “angels” (Luke 24:22–23). Moreover, white or shining clothing in the New Testament are often the mark of a heavenly visitation (e.g., Mark 9:3; Matt 28:3; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; 10:30. See also Dan 7:9; 2 Macc 3:26, 33; 2 En 1:4–11; Gos Pet 36, 55; Josephus, Ant 5:277).

Bart says it's not clear what happens in Mark's Gospel after the women discover Jesus's body to be gone from the tomb and hear the message from the angel that he has been raised from the dead. That's partially correct. As I stated about 80 percent of the way into my Interview, I lean toward the view held by many New Testament scholars that Mark did not intend for his Gospel to end with Mark 16:8. Rather, he was either unable to complete his Gospel due to sickness, imprisonment, or death, or Mark's ending was lost. Mark appears to be aware of the appearances. For on numerous occasions he narrates Jesus's predicting his imminent death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:27–28). On one of those occasions (Mark 14:28), Jesus informs his disciples that he will go ahead of them to Galilee after he has been raised. And in Mark 16:7, the angel at the tomb reminds the women Jesus had said this. Moreover, that the appearance tradition was known when Mark wrote is evidenced in Paul's letters. These were written prior to Mark and the traditions in 1 Cor 15:3–7 can be reasonably traced back to Jesus's disciples. And if Acts is correct (see Acts chapters 12 and 15), Mark knew Paul and had even traveled with him during one of his missionary journeys. So, it is very likely he would have been quite familiar with the appearance traditions Paul mentions. While we can only guess why Mark's Gospel doesn't mention the appearances, we can be quite certain he knew of them and believed they had occurred.

Bart points out that the resurrection narratives in Matthew and John have Jesus appearing to them over a period of days if not weeks, while Luke's narrative has Jesus rise from the dead, appear to all of the others, then ascend to heaven, all on the same day. Bart also observes that Luke contradicts himself at his ascension scene in Acts 1:3 by saying Jesus was with his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection and prior to his ascension. But this is also quite easily explained in view of the standard compositional devices of that day. Luke has obviously compressed his resurrection narrative. For in Acts 1:3 he knows Jesus had staid with them for a longer period. Why did he do so? Perhaps he was running out of space to write on his scroll. Luke's Gospel is the longest of the four. Perhaps he compressed his account to move the story along more rapidly for effect. Perhaps it was to place an emphasis on Jerusalem where the church leadership resided and from where the church would spread. One can only guess. We may not be able to know why Luke compressed his narrative. But it is quite obvious he has compressed it. Since compression was a common compositional device and is easily identified, are we really to regard Luke as an unreliable source and doubt the historicity of an event because he compressed his description of an event? Bart chooses to do so. But I am under no obligation to follow him on the matter. And those who do are required to take the same approach with virtually all ancient historical literature, at least if they are interested in being consistent. And in so doing, they deprive the term “historically reliable” of any practical meaning.

Bart says he wants “independent and supportive accounts that are completely consistent with each other.” Of course, that's what we all “want,” whether we are reading the Gospels or any other piece of ancient literature. However, we rarely get it. The question is whether the presence of differences disqualifies literature from being regarded as historically reliable. In my opinion, the answer is no, especially when we have in view minor differences such as those we observe in the Gospels (and the few major ones are not that big). If one of the Gospels had Jesus saying, “I'm not God,” “I'm not the Messiah,” narrate him living a fairly normal life then dying of sickness, or having been crucified, buried in a common grave, and not rising from the dead — then we could say at least one of the accounts was historically unreliable. But this is not at all what we have.

7. The resurrection narratives are implausible

Bart appeals to Matthew's report of some saints raised at Jesus's death (Matt 27:52–53), asserting that stories such as these “simply defy what we would think of as plausible.” I disagree. Plausibility is the degree to which a report is compatible with our background knowledge. Our background knowledge informs us that corpses do not come back to life when left to themselves, that is, by natural causes. If God raised Jesus from the dead, his corpse was not left to itself. And if God raised Jesus and if Jesus had raised others as the Gospels report (i.e., Lazarus, Jairus's daughter, and the widow's son), what's so implausible about God raising others at Jesus's death?

That said, I think an important question to ask is how Matthew intended for his readers to interpret these raised saints. It is not an easy question to answer and I have changed my view on the matter a few times. At the moment I lean toward thinking Matthew meant for the saints raised at Jesus's death to be understood in a non-historical sense and that he included them as literary “special effects” in order to highlight the fact that God's Son had died.

Jesus's death had cosmic, even divine significance. I base this conclusion on the observation of similar practices by Josephus and several other authors in the Greco-Roman world.[6] Moreover, there's a theological challenge to a literal interpretation. Were these saints raised in a resurrection body or in the same type of body in which they had died — similar to when Jesus raised Lazarus, Jairus's daughter, and the widow's son? If the former, then Matthew definitely contradicts Paul who wrote that Christ was the first to be raised from the dead with a resurrection body and that everyone else will receive their resurrection body when Jesus returns (1 Cor 15:20, 23). If the latter, these raised saints would need food, drink, and shelter. According to Matthew, they were raised Friday afternoon but did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus had risen on Sunday morning. Having been without nourishment for about 36 hours, they're hungry, thirsty, and homeless. What happened to them? They'd probably have some interesting stories to tell! Why is it that all of the other Gospels and nearly all of the earliest Church fathers who mention the darkness, the earthquake, and the tearing of the temple veil neglect to include the raised saints? To me, “special effects” is a more plausible understanding of how Matthew likely intended for his readers to interpret the saints raised at Jesus's death.

Based on what he regards as the implausibility of Matthew's report of the saints raised at Jesus's death, Bart writes,

Whatever is going on, almost certainly one thing that is not going on is a historically reliable report about what happened three days after the death of Jesus. . . . But if we concede that one part of the story is probably not reliable, what is to stop us from thinking that other parts are not reliable either?

In answer, I don't think making use of a literary device renders a story unreliable. Let's suppose a thousand years from now a historian is reading an eyewitness report that says, “I was in New York City on 9/11 and can tell you the events of that day were truly earthshaking.” So, the historian checks the seismic reports from September 11, 2001, discovers there were no noticeable earthquakes in North America on that day, and concludes the eyewitness report she had just read is not historically reliable. Now, let's say that same year another historian studies literature written in the early twenty-first century and discovers people living in North America at that time had an idiom whereby they often described hugely significant events as “earthshaking.” Would the latter historian be justified in saying the former historian made a mistake and that the use of such an idiom does not render the eyewitness report as historically unreliable, since it was not intended to be understood in a literal sense?

If Matthew did not intend for his readers to understand the raised saints in a literal sense, should this “stop us from thinking that other parts are not reliable either?” I'll rephrase the question: If Matthew did not intend for his readers to understand the raised saints in a literal sense, why should we think he meant for those same readers to understand Jesus's resurrection in a literal sense? To answer this question, we need only look at what the earliest Christians were claiming about Jesus's resurrection. Our earliest source is 1 Corinthians, where Paul discusses the recent resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers. The message he and the apostles were preaching was Jesus's death, burial, resurrection, and appearances to numerous people and groups (15:3–8, 11). Paul says Christ was the first to be raised in a resurrection body and will be followed by believers when he returns (15:20, 23). If Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is worthless, our sins have not been forgiven, believing loved ones who have already died are gone forever, and we as believers are to be pitied above all others (15:17–19). Paul, in fact, goes on to tell his readers that if we are not going to be raised, there are no reasons to endure persecutions for following Christ. Instead, we should party hard today for tomorrow we die (15:32)!

As I mentioned about two-thirds of the way into my Major Statement, the responses of the early critics of Christianity suggest they were answering assertions by the Christians that Jesus's resurrection was an event that had occurred in space and time and that his tomb was empty. The critics replied that Jesus's disciples had stolen his body, that Jesus had faked his own death,[7] and that a gardener had reburied Jesus's body. Notice that the early Christians did not reply in turn, “Oh, you have certainly misunderstood what we are claiming. We don't mean to suggest Jesus's corpse was raised. No, no, no. We're just using the term ‘resurrection' to mean he is alive in heaven today! For he has appeared to us in dreams and visions.” That was certainly not their response. They instead responded by defending the truth of Jesus's actual bodily resurrection. Moreover, Paul's argument is — If Christ was not raised, we will not be raised. Therefore, the Christian life is not worth living — makes no sense if he meant for “resurrection” to be interpreted as a metaphor for Jesus's exaltation in heaven. So, while there are some good reasons for interpreting Matthew's raised saints in a non-historical sense, the same cannot be said in reference to Jesus's resurrection.


All of the historical/biographical literature written at the time of Jesus followed literary conventions that were standard practice for that day. With the possible exception of Asconius, none of the authors had an objective for writing with the degree of forensic precision we expect in modern historical/biographical writing. Indeed, even with the “realist versus postmodernist approaches to history debate” that has now been raging among philosophers of history for decades, there is a consensus today among them that historical writing has never been nor ever will be what Ranke sought: to narrate the past how it actually occurred (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Accordingly, when we think of what we mean by the term “historically reliable,” we must be careful not to define it so tightly that all ancient literature is deemed unreliable. To do so would be to deprive the term of any useful meaning.

In my Major Statement, I contended that the Gospels are historically reliable accounts of Jesus's life, teachings, and resurrection, since they fulfill the four criteria for historical reliability that apply to all ancient literature:

  1. We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence, though not necessarily in every detail.
  2. We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous.
  3. We have reason to believe the author intended to write an accurate account of what occurred notwithstanding his use of compositional devices appropriate for the historical/biographical genre and the occasional appearance of errors and legend.
  4. We have no good reasons to believe more than a very small percentage of stories reported by an ancient author are false.

I then argued that historical data, inside and outside of the Gospels, strongly suggest Jesus was raised from the dead and that this event injects significant plausibility into stories of Jesus performing miracles in the Gospels. Now, it's important to remember that this Dialogue concerns the matter of whether the Gospels are “historically reliable” and not whether they are “divinely inspired,” “infallible,” or “without error.” The latter three are theological terms and are different matters that require different discussions.

“Historical reliability” does not require that everything reported by the Gospel authors occurred precisely as described. Nor does it require that the authors could not have included a small number of legendary stories, embellishments, or errors. “Historical reliability” means that a large majority of what is being reported is true to the extent that readers get an accurate gist of what occurred. The account is “true enough.” The Gospels meet this standard. At minimum, they are historically reliable accounts of Jesus. And Bart's arguments to the contrary are not even near being strong enough to challenge this conclusion.


  1. References for the classical literature follow the Loeb Classical Library numbering system.
  2. To nuance this statement even more carefully for accuracy: While the majority of scholars hold that the author of Luke/Acts was a traveling companion of Paul and had received his information from Paul and the disciples of Jesus, there is no agreement on whether the author's name was Luke.
  3. I also provide several examples in the following two lectures: “Gospel Differences & Compositional Textbooks”; and “Why are there differences in the Gospels? Ancient biography, Plutarch, and the Gospels.”
  4. F. Gerald Downing, “Redaction Criticism: Josephus' Antiquities and the Synoptic Gospels (II),” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 1980, 3(9): 29–48; esp. 33.
  5. Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker Academic, 2012); p. 56.
  6. See Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010); pp. 548–53. For taking this position, I was scolded on the Internet by some ultra-conservative Christians. In response, the Southeastern Theological Review, Summer 2012, 3(1), provided several reviews of my book and had “A Roundtable Discussion with Michael Licona on The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Danny Akin, Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael Kruger, Michael Licona, and Charles Quarles)” that discussed the “special effects” interpretation I had proposed (71–98). This roundtable discussion [PDF] is available to view online (accessed March 5, 2016).
  7. I neglected to include this reason in my “Major Statement.” (See Origen, Contra Celsum 2.55.)

Join the Dialogue!

Share your thoughts in the comments section below …while the comments are still open!