Are the New Testament Gospels historically reliable accounts of Jesus?
Before we can answer this question, it will be necessary for us to think about what we mean by the term “historically reliable.” When can a document be regarded as “historically reliable?”
Does it have to be without any errors? If we answer “yes” to that question, we will have to regard all ancient literature as being historically unreliable. How about only a few errors? What kinds of errors are allowable? Moreover, historians are unable to verify much of what is reported in a history or biography. How does this impact historical reliability? Do we allow artistic license and, if so, to what degree?
Historical reliability is not to be confused with other terms commonly used by Christians to describe the Bible, such as “divinely inspired,” “infallible,” and “inerrant.” If historians required a biography or history to be any of these in order to be regarded as historically reliable, no secular historical literature, past or present, would pass the test.
Historians have various tools they use to assess whether a report is “true.” These tools are by no means magical in their nature, but rely on “common sense principles” such as the following:
- I want to have adequate certainty that our critical text — that is, the earliest text scholars can reconstruct in its original language based on the best manuscript evidence — is essentially what the author wrote.
- I want elements of the report to be corroborated by other independent sources, if possible.
- I will give additional value to unsympathetic sources that provide corroboration.
- I will give additional value to sources that are early and written by eyewitnesses.
- I will give additional value when a source reports something that would have been embarrassing to the author or the cause he favors, since it speaks to the matter of the author’s honesty.
- When appropriate, I will consider various hypotheses that attempt to account for the data and weigh them using criteria of inference to the best explanation (e.g., having greater explanatory scope and power; being less ad hoc; being more plausible).
Using tools such as these, historians can establish certain elements in reports as being “true” with varying degrees of certainty. They assist us with specific items in an account, rather than taking the entire biography or history into consideration.
It depends what we mean by the term “historically reliable”
So, what do we mean when we claim that a text is “historically reliable”? This becomes a fuzzy matter, and especially so when speaking of ancient history writing, since the finest ancient historians — Greek, Roman, and Jewish alike — were committed to accurate reporting, while also being committed to writing quality literature for the reader’s benefit and enjoyment. And that often meant reporting in a manner that was flexible with the details.
As a result, authors would often displace events from their original context and transplant them in another in order to highlight a point, transfer what one person said to the lips of another (in order to simplify, compress, and conflate stories for economy and to intensify the drama), and craft peripheral details when they were unknown to the writer in order to reflect how things had most likely occurred (e.g., Sergius Catiline’s final speech to his army in 62 BC, before being completely annihilated by the Roman armies).
Sallust and Tacitus would do these things and are regarded today as some of Rome’s best historians. In my mind, the historical literature they penned is historically reliable because they did these things without intentionally distorting “truth” to the point they were rewriting history and reporting things differently than they had essentially occurred. As my friend Beth Shepperd at Duke writes, “Just because a text makes use of literary devices does not mean it should automatically be classified as literature rather than history. After all, history is by nature narrative in format and must use the conventions of solid and lively prose composition to convey the past.”
We moderns often report in the same way. The movie Apollo 13 (1995) has been praised for its commitment to historical accuracy. Notwithstanding, director Ron Howard took artistic license throughout the movie, incorporating narrative devices similar to those of ancient historians. For example, when the actual Apollo 13 spacecraft ran into multiple difficulties that resulted in the astronauts’ having only a ten percent chance of surviving, flight director Gene Kranz and his team at Mission Control never gave up and produced solutions that brought the astronauts home safely. Kranz’s firm assertion “Failure is not an option!” became an unforgettable tagline for the movie. However, the real Kranz never uttered those words. Instead they were assigned to him by the scriptwriters to epitomize the attitude and approach of the Mission Control team led and inspired by Kranz. That’s good writing and it’s an accurate portrayal of Kranz and his team, though not in a precise sense.
This sort of device is employed on occasion in history writing and, in my view, does not render the historical literature in which it appears as historically unreliable, as long as we have the understanding that what we are reading was intended to convey a general picture of the events, an accurate gist of the people and events described. Ancient historical writing often involved sacrificing precise reporting for a bit of artistic license in order to communicate truth as understood by the author. Of course, artistic license has its limits and some authors went so far that we should say some of the literature they wrote was historically unreliable.
It is also worth considering that, since we may plausibly suppose that the conventions for writing history 1,000 years from now will differ from our own (e.g., no allowance for loose paraphrasing, abbreviating, compressing, or conflating), it would be unfair for those future historians to regard history writing in the early twenty-first century to be historically unreliable, since we do not have the same standards for writing as they will. We could, but have chosen not to.
Similarly, ancient history writers could have reported on people and events that were relatively contemporary to them using the extent of precision appreciated by us moderns. But almost all of them, even the finest among them such as Sallust and Tacitus, chose not to. In fact, Quintus Asconius, who wrote in the age of Nero, appears to have been the lone exception.
So, I propose that, to a large though not absolute degree, we must think of historical reliability in light of the literary conventions belonging to the historical genre of the era in which is was written. Accordingly, ancient historical literature should not be judged by modern conventions that demand an almost forensic accuracy, since the conventions adopted by the former did not require it. This does not mean the author could not have included a small number of legendary stories. It means that a large majority of what is being reported is true. For example, Suetonius is regarded as one of Rome’s finest historians. We may regard his Twelve Caesars as historically reliable, in spite of the fact that he is occasionally indiscriminate in his use of sources and occasionally reports legendary stories.
So, we may say that an ancient source — and I’m referring to a primary source — is historically reliable when the following conditions have been met:
- We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail. (See the six tools above that historians use for this.)
- We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous.
- 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.
- 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.”
Do the Gospels make the cut for being “historically reliable?”
With this view of historical reliability in mind, we will now take a look at the Gospels:
1. We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail.
Many items in the Gospels comport with existing knowledge pertaining to the geo-political backdrop in which they are situated. Richard Bauckham has shown that when ancient documents and epigraphical data from inscriptions on ossuaries, tombs, statues, etc. are considered, the names mentioned in the Gospels and Acts are not only common names of Palestinian Jews in that period and not belonging to Diaspora Jews, they also appear with roughly the same frequency in the Gospels and Acts that we find in the extrabiblical data. At the very minimum, this suggests all of the Gospel authors and/or the sources from which they drew were well-acquainted with Palestine in that period.
We know that places mentioned in the Gospels actually existed (e.g., Capernaum, Bethsaida, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, Arimathea). We know that several of the people mentioned in the Gospels actually existed during the period they are placed (e.g., Augustus, Tiberius, Herod, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, John the Baptist, Jesus). The same cannot be said for the Gospel of Barnabas, which is a forgery written by a Muslim probably sometime in the first half of the fourteenth century. Chapter 3 of the Gospel of Barnabas states that Jesus was born during the reigns of Augustus and Herod … and while Pilate was governor. But Pilate did not become governor until AD 19, after Augustus and Herod had died. Moreover, since Jesus was crucified in either AD 30 or 33, he would only have been 11–14 years old or even younger at the time if the Gospel of Barnabas were correct. This suggests that either the author of the Gospel of Barnabas or his source was historically unreliable.
Historical anachronisms can provide clues pertaining to the date of composition. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. AD 110) mentions Pilate as a “procurator” when, in fact, Pilate was a “prefect” as reported by Philo (Legatio ad Gaium, 299) and the Pilate Stone found in Caesarea (L’Année épigraphique, 1963, no. 104). The title was probably changed from “prefect” to “procurator” in that region during Claudius’s reign (AD 41–54). So, we can know that Tacitus wrote after that period. A worse anachronism is found in the Gospel of Barnabas. The year of Jubilee occurred every 50 years (Lev 25:11–16). Around AD 1300, Pope Boniface VIII decreed that the year of Jubilee would now occur at the turn of every century, which amounts to every 100 years. However, after Boniface died, Pope Clement VI returned the year of Jubilee to every 50 years in 1343. Therefore, it is of interest that chapter 82 in the Gospel of Barnabas states that the year of Jubilee is every 100 years. This suggests the Gospel of Barnabas was probably written between AD 1300–1343 or perhaps even later if the author did not get the memo that the date had been changed back to every 50 years. So, it’s not even close to being a primary source.
The Gospels contain no historical anachronisms. In fact, they show awareness of a practice that was later abolished. The standard Roman practice was to leave the crucified on their crosses for days while they died a slow and painful death. Afterward, the victims were usually given a dishonorable burial in a shallow grave where scavengers and insects would feed off their corpses. The Gospels show no awareness of this standard practice. That is because the Romans allowed an exception with Jerusalem and permitted crucified victims there to be removed from their crosses and given a proper burial before sunset. This practice continued until the late 60s (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4:317).
A number of items about Jesus reported in the Gospels are corroborated by non-Christian (unsympathetic) sources of the same period, such as Tacitus, Josephus, Lucian, and Mara bar Serapion. These sources inform us that Jesus was called the Messiah, had performed deeds that astonished crowds, had both Jewish and Gentile followers, had a brother named James, was crucified by Pontius Pilate in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius at the instigation of the Jewish leadership.
We may likewise consider Christian sources. Most scholars regard the Gospel of John to be independent of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and think the Beloved Disciple mentioned in John’s Gospel was the eyewitness source for much of the information contained in John. Thus, John often provides a corroborating source.
On a few occasions, Paul’s letters provide data that corroborate corresponding items in the Gospels (e.g., the Eucharist sayings, Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and a number of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to others).
As Bart said in his interview, most historians of Jesus employ a number of criteria of authenticity they learned in graduate school, which are “simply rigorous formulations of what almost everyone would agree is common sense.” He then mentions the criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment, and historical plausibility. When these criteria are employed in reference to traditions about Jesus in the Gospels, there are numerous other items about Jesus that result and that most scholars regard as being historically certain. Those interested can read in detail about specific items in any of a multitude of books that focus on the historical Jesus, written by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, John Meier, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, and others. And Bart has written a short book on the topic geared toward a popular audience.
2. We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous.
Although nothing amounting to a consensus, a significant number of modern New Testament scholars, perhaps even a narrow majority, agrees with the early church tradition that Mark’s primary, though not necessarily exclusive, source was one of Jesus’s closest disciples — Peter — while a certain majority of scholars agrees that Luke’s primary sources were Paul (with whom he had traveled), others who had known Jesus, and perhaps an early source scholars call “Q” (short for the German word Quelle, meaning “source”). A majority also agrees that John’s primary source was an eyewitness — one of Jesus’s disciples — for much of the information in that Gospel.
The majority of scholars can be wrong and often have been. I only mention the majority here, because I am limited by space. If the majority of scholars is correct on these matters, it would be difficult to think of superior sources for those Gospel authors to use! We also wouldn’t have reason to think they were indiscriminate in their use of sources. And since there is enough ancient testimony to establish that their sources, Jesus’s disciples, were willing to suffer and die for their message about him, those sources must have believed what they were teaching. I discuss this at length in chapter three of my book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010).
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.
The majority of New Testament scholars now hold that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography. They are not ancient novels. Biography was meant to provide us with a historical portrait of the main character. This observation is limited in its value, since biographers varied in their commitment to reporting accurately and some tended to paint literary portraits that were more positive of their main character than the person actually was in life — sometimes far more positive — and they sometimes included fiction. Notwithstanding, biography was a historical genre that was both respected and abused by various authors.
Plutarch wrote more than 60 biographies, of which 50 have survived. After writing several that featured people who had lived relatively close to his own time, Plutarch turned to writing biographies of two earlier figures, Theseus and Romulus, the legendary kings of Athens and Rome. In the introductory comments of his Life of Theseus (1.1–3) he wrote:
In the writing of my [previous] Parallel Lives, having traveled through the time that is accessible to probable reasoning and which affords a basis for historical matters, I might well say of the earlier periods [of which I am about to write], “What lies beyond are invented marvels and majesties, a land where poets feed, and where confidence and clear knowledge are absent.” … May myth be purged from the stories, which will submit to and receive the appearance of history.
Plutarch goes on to ask his readers to be charitable while reading the ancient tales from which he was unable to purge mythical elements. Plutarch acknowledges having to craft his narratives of Theseus and Romulus while using his imagination to create a degree of historical verisimilitude because the events he will go on to narrate are so far removed from his own time that they were written by poets rather than historians and, therefore, contain a significant amount of myth. Although the Life of Theseus and Life of Romulus may contain some events that had actually occurred, as a whole, they are historically unreliable.
What is here of interest to us is that Plutarch distinguishes how he wrote these two Lives from how he wrote his other Lives, for which he possessed much better sources. He asks his readers to recalibrate their expectations. They cannot expect historically reliable accounts of Theseus and Romulus. However, things were different when Plutarch wrote his Lives of Cicero, Lucullus, Cato the Younger, Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Brutus, Antony, and Sertorius in c. AD 100–120, since he was writing only 150–200 years after the main characters had died. Therefore, readers may have far more confidence in the “truth” of those Lives, since he has both a superior quality and quantity of sources.
By the dates most widely accepted by modern scholars, the Gospels were written within only 35–65 years of the events they purport to describe. So, we have a reason to anticipate the Gospel authors had little need for the extent of conjecturing Plutarch employed when writing about people who had lived in the distant past or even when Philostratus wrote his Life of Apollonius of Tyana in the early third century, which was about 125 years after the death of its main character.
When the Gospels were written, especially the Synoptics, people were still alive who knew “what really happened.” In fact, about a decade before Mark is generally believed to have been written, Paul mentions several appearances of the risen Jesus to others, including an appearance to more than 500 people at one time, and adds that most of them were still alive. Paul was suggesting those eyewitnesses were available should anyone wish to hear directly from them about the appearance.
Mark contains a curious item that could suggest he intended to relay an accurate historical accounting. He tells us Jesus was unable to carry his cross far due to the excessively harsh treatment he had already received. So, the Roman soldiers who were leading him off to execution conscripted a man from Cyrene named Simon who had two sons named Alexander and Rufus. Scholars have noted this could well suggest these sons were known by some of Mark’s readers, either personally or indirectly (15:21). In that case, Mark’s readers would have already been familiar with the story and known of its truth. And as Craig Evans has suggested, there’s a good chance we have found the ossuary of Alexander, the son of Simon of Cyrene. So, there are a few instances in the New Testament literature in which the author includes an item his readers would have probably known whether what he had written was true, rendering it less practical for the author to lie.
It is also worth observing that we do not have any accounts of Jesus as early as the canonical Gospels that present a portrait of Jesus essentially different from those painted by the canonical Gospels. We cannot rule out that conflicting reports existed at that time. However, if they did, they were probably identified as spurious by the apostles in the Jerusalem church — those who had actually been with Jesus — and faded from circulation. Since Paul’s gospel message had been certified by the Jerusalem leadership to be what they were preaching (Gal. 2:1–10), reports about Jesus in the apocryphal Christian literature (all of which were written later than the canonical Gospels) that differ essentially from what we read in Paul’s letters are rightly regarded as spurious.
Similar to most of the ancient historical literature, there is much in the Gospels about Jesus that historians cannot verify, because we don’t have corroborating material (or because some of its content is theological in nature). However, historians can often observe how an author uses his sources. Classicists believe Plutarch used only Dionysius of Halicarnassus for his Life of Coriolanus. By comparing Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus with what Dionysius wrote of him, we can get a good idea of the sort of freedom Plutarch could exhibit when writing biography.
We can do something similar with two of the Gospels. A large majority of New Testament scholars hold that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources — their favorite source, in fact. So, by carefully comparing how Matthew and Luke use Mark, we can get a good idea of the sort of freedom Matthew and Luke could exhibit when writing biography. Sometimes, they use Mark verbatim. Sometimes, they paraphrase him. Sometimes, they adapt him. While some New Testament scholars tend to make a big deal out of adaptations by Matthew and Luke, they are actually quite minor in nature, while maintaining the gist of what occurred. In fact, when one considers other historians and biographers who wrote very close to the time of the Gospel authors, such as Plutarch, Philo, and Josephus, and compares how they use their sources, one is struck far more by the similarities between the Gospels than their differences. For, when Matthew and Luke use Mark and the Q material, they stick to their sources far more closely than most other ancient authors do with theirs. And if the Q source never existed, then we are probably observing Luke using Matthew for that material. That Matthew and Luke refused to diverge much from their sources could suggest that they held those sources in high regard. Such respect for their sources comports with the majority view that Mark and Luke made use of eyewitness sources — Jesus’s disciples.
In all, our four Gospels were written in a genre that had history in view, and quite close to the events they purport to describe. They were written for readers who, in certain instances, would have known better if the authors were not reporting accurately. While relying on sources — some were the same, some were different — all four Gospels present a similar portrait of Jesus as God’s uniquely divine Son who came to bring God’s kingdom, offer salvation, was crucified, then rose from the dead. This is how Jesus was remembered by the early Christians who based their literary portraits on sources who had known him. Where possible, we observe two of the Gospels staying very close to their sources, which is what we would expect if those sources were those who had walked with Jesus. All of this suggests the Gospel authors intended to write accurate accounts about Jesus.
4. We have no good reasons to believe more than a very small percentage of stories reported by an ancient author are false.
When approaching the Gospels purely as historians and not making any theological assumptions, we cannot rule out that some of the stories in the Gospels contain legend or embellishments. But if we also bracket theological and philosophical assumptions that rule out miracles a priori, there no reasons to think that some of the stories in the Gospels never occurred.
Are the Gospels historically reliable accounts of Jesus? Yes. Does being historically reliable require that everything reported by the Gospel authors occurred precisely as described? No. Does it mean the authors could not have included a small number of legendary stories, embellishments, or errors? No. It 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 Gospels paint literary portraits of Jesus that are “true enough.”
When it comes to the spiritual truths in the New Testament, these cannot be confirmed using the tools available to historians, any more than those same tools can confirm the existence of black holes. Thus, we cannot say those items are historically reliable or historically unreliable. Nevertheless, that does not prohibit historians from deciding on the historical elements in a narrative. For example, although historians are incapable of confirming that Jesus’s death atones for sin, they are able to confirm that Jesus died by crucifixion.
Addressing Bart Ehrman’s Five Strongest Arguments that the Gospels are NOT historically reliable
The above is my conclusion pertaining to the Gospels as a whole. But I want to address what Bart listed in his Interview as the five strongest arguments for thinking the New Testament presents a historically unreliable account of Jesus.
1. Miracles aren’t affirmed on historical grounds
First, Bart contends that, even if miracles occurred in the past,
“[T]here is no way to establish that they happened using the
historical disciplines. … Historians simply have no access to
supernatural activities involving the actions of God. Only theologians (among
the scholars) have access to God. Theologians can certainly affirm that God has
done miracles, but they are affirming this on theological grounds, not
I disagree and think this is easily answered. First, Bart’s argument would, at best, thwart attempts to establish the historical reliability of the New Testament pertaining to Jesus. But it would not establish it as historically unreliable. It would only mean historians are incapable of answering the question, which is all he is claiming. Second, there are numerous events historians can establish with adequate certainty, while remaining unable to confirm the cause of those events. For example, on June 13, 1886, King Ludwig II and his physician were both discovered dead in Lake Starnberg. The cause of their death is shrouded in mystery. However, this uncertainty does not prohibit historians from concluding they both died on June 13, 1886. Similarly, historians can, in principle, look at the data, weigh hypotheses, and make a judgment pertaining to whether an alleged miraculous event occurred without making a judgment pertaining to the cause of the event.
Let’s look at it from a different angle. Let’s suppose that I’m lecturing somewhere and some terrorists interrupt the event, come up on stage, and behead me for saying Muhammad was a false prophet. While the commotion was occurring, some audience members dial 911. When sirens announce the approaching police, the terrorists flee. An hour later, while audience members are being interviewed by police and members of the media outside of the auditorium in which my headless corpse still lies, a strange thing occurs. A moment later, I walk out of the auditorium with head attached and in perfect health! Everyone is stunned and ask what has happened, to which I answer that God has sent me back to tell everyone the Christian message is true. I then begin calling out the names of a few audience members, one by one, and tell each that, while I was in heaven, I spoke with one of their family members who had died and who has sent a message to them. I then provide the names of those family members and messages, messages that contain accurate information I could not have known otherwise. A physician then approaches me and checks my vitals.
There is no question that such an event would be a miracle and would probably require an act of God. But the physician has no access to God using the methods of her discipline. So, if we were to follow Bart’s principle, the physician could not affirm that I was alive, since only theologians have access to God! You can see how this approach fails, since the physician could certainly affirm that I was alive, but could not affirm that God was the cause of my miraculous return to life. In a similar manner, historians can look at the data, formulate hypotheses which they then weigh using criteria of inference to the best explanation to see which best explains the data. If the Resurrection Hypothesis does a better job of fulfilling those criteria than competing hypotheses, the historian can affirm that Jesus rose from the dead, while being unable to affirm that God was the cause of Jesus’s miraculous return to life (although he could suggest God is the best candidate for the cause). So, one is free to suggest there is not enough evidence to confirm that Jesus rose from the dead or that there is a better hypothesis than one stating that he rose. But, in principle, there is no good reason for why historians cannot investigate a miracle claim.
2. We have no historically reliable account of Jesus
Bart’s second argument for his position that the New Testament provides a historically unreliable account of Jesus is “there are things related in the Gospels that did not happen as narrated.” He says that I agree with this. I suppose he’s referring to my positions that John probably changed the day and time of Jesus’s crucifixion and that the saints raised at Jesus’s death were probably added by Matthew as special effects (Matthew 27:52–53). I lean toward those interpretations and think they resulted from John’s and Matthew’s use of literary conventions in use at the time they wrote.
As I explained earlier in the Interview portion of this Dialogue, I think John made the edits to emphasize the theological points that Jesus is the burnt offering for our sins and our passover lamb. I also explained there that Matthew makes a similar move in his genealogy in order to emphasize Jesus’s Davidic ancestry. So, my view is that Matthew may have placed the saints raised at Jesus’s death in his narrative in order to emphasize that Jesus’s death had cosmic, even divine, significance. This literary device was certainly not unique to Matthew, but was also used by Greek, Roman, and Jewish historians (I explain this in depth in chapter 5 of my book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach).
And the biographical genre of that day allowed authors to craft their narratives in order to communicate truth more clearly. I don’t at all find this to be a challenge to the Gospels being historically reliable. It has been said that 9/11 was an “earth-shaking event.” Of course, that’s a figure of speech. Let’s suppose some historians are reading about 9/11 a thousand years from now and come across statements by a few people in 2001 saying the events of 9/11 were “earth-shaking.” They look at records from around the world of any major earthquakes occurring on September 11, 2001, and do not find any. They should not rule statements describing the events of 911 as “earth-shaking” to be historically unreliable.
3. & 4. Contradictions in the Gospels
Bart’s third and fourth arguments appeal to contradictions in the Gospels. Now, this is a matter for which I’ve devoted the past seven and a half years to research. I have a book on the subject that is being published later this year. In my opinion, when we read the Gospels in view of the compositional devices used by some of the very finest biographers and historians of that era, most of the contradictions melt away, including most of those cited by Bart. Space limitations will only allow me to deal with a few.
Bart asks how many women went to the tomb. John only mentions Mary Magdalene, while the others mention multiple women. Of all the compositional devices I observed Plutarch employing, literary spotlighting was the most common. When you go to a theatrical performance, there are times when the lights go out and a spotlight shines on a certain actor. You know others are present on stage because you just saw them only two seconds ago. But you can’t see them now, because the spotlight draws your attention exclusively on a single actor. In his resurrection narrative, I think John is shining his literary spotlight on Mary and is aware of other women present. All you have to do is look at the verse in the text that follows and you’ll see that Mary ran back to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple, “They have taken the Lord and we don’t know where they have laid him!” Who’s the “we”? It’s doubtful that it’s the two male disciples, since they weren’t at the tomb. Also notice that Peter and the Beloved Disciple respond by running to the tomb and checking it out. However, when we read the parallel account in Luke, he only mentions that Peter ran to check the tomb (Luke 24:12).
Now look 12 verses later, when Jesus is talking with the Emmaus disciples. Luke says they were kept from recognizing Jesus and told him that their women friends had gone to the tomb that morning, discovered it empty, and were told by angels that Jesus had risen from the dead. They added that when the women informed them of this, “some of those with us” went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said (24:24). In 24:12, Luke only mentioned Peter. But it’s obvious that he knew of others in 24:24. Luke was shining his literary spotlight on Peter in 24:12. This may also be the reason why Mark and Matthew mention one angel, while Luke and John have two. The former may be shining their literary spotlight on the angel making the announcement. Again, this device is the one I observed being used more than any other by Plutarch. I provide a sampling of other compositional devices in two lectures you may find on my website.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not form a committee for the misleading of future historians. They wrote biographies of Jesus and made use of the literary conventions appropriate for that genre. They were not writing legal briefs. So, it’s a mistake to judge biographies as though they were legal documents, and then assert the Gospels make poor witnesses who would fail miserably in court. In most instances by far, the differences in the Gospels aren’t contradictions when read in view of compositional devices that were part of standard literary practice in that day. There are a few differences that remain for which I have no explanation. But even these usually do not alter the overall gist of the stories in which they appear.
Now, I’m confident that I’m correct about compositional devices and differences. But let’s say that I’m wrong. What then? The presence of contradictions between accounts does not justify the conclusion that all of the accounts are historically unreliable. When survivors of the Titanic disaster were later interviewed by British and American agencies, their testimonies contradicted one another. For example, some said they saw the Titanic break in two before it sank, while others swore that it went down intact. How could they have been mistaken on that point? It was the most terrifying night of their lives. They were in lifeboats gazing intently at a very large ship that was over 800 feet long and lit up. They heard screams from those on it who were about to die, many of them friends, family, and colleagues. So, how did they make a mistake on whether the ship went down intact? I don’t know. But no one cited the contradicting testimonies and concluded that the Titanic didn’t sink! Some of the testimonies were mistaken but not all of them. And the difference concerned a peripheral detail that didn’t change the essence of the story. Those hearing their testimonies still got an accurate gist of what had occurred overall.
Similarly, virtually every last one of the differences in the Gospels concern peripheral details. There are no Gospels that report that Jesus was not crucified or that he did not die as a result or that the tomb was occupied by Jesus’s corpse, either because he had risen spiritually or had not risen at all.
5. Temporal distance between alleged events and documentation
Bart’s fifth strongest argument for the historical unreliability of the Gospels pertaining to the life of Jesus is that, during the decades that transpired between the events and when they were described by the Gospel authors, the stories circulated by word of mouth and changed in the process. Since Bart’s book on memory has not yet been published, I cannot comment on his arguments. Nevertheless, oral tradition is a matter that has received a great amount of scholarly attention during the past half century.
Remember, though, that there is good evidence that Mark received a significant amount of information about Jesus directly from Peter, that Luke received his information directly from Paul and others who had known Jesus, and that John’s Gospel 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!
Memory can indeed be a tricky thing at times. Nevertheless, it is often quite reliable. In the Introduction to his book Forged (HarperOne, 2011), Bart tells the story of being 14 years old and having his dad ask him if he had been smoking. Bart says he lied and denied that he had. He then writes the following about his dad’s response: “His face softened, almost to a smile, and then he said something that stayed with me for a long time — forty years, in fact. ‘Bart, I don’t mind if you sneak a smoke now and then. But don’t lie to me.’” Bart can remember something that occurred 40 years ago. Are those the precise words his dad uttered? Maybe not. Is it possible that his dad uttered those words, not in Bart’s room but that he had called him into another room where he had the discussion with Bart? Maybe. Either way, Bart has an accurate gist of what occurred. And the time that elapsed between that event and when Bart wrote Forged is about the same amount of time that elapsed between Jesus’s life and when Mark wrote his Gospel.
I have confidence in the accuracy of certain recollections of my own that go back 40 years and even longer. My grandfather took me to my first Major League baseball game on July 9, 1971. We sat in the mezzanine section on the first base side. I remember seeing a man wearing a French blue shirt sitting way over on the third base side and immediately next to the dugout of my beloved Baltimore Orioles and I wished we could sit there at a future game. The Orioles played the Cleveland Indians that evening. Jim Palmer pitched that game for the Orioles and our shortstop Mark Bellanger caught a pop up for the last out and sealed our 4–1 victory. That was 45 years ago.
A few years, ago I had a doctor’s office visit. As I walked through the waiting room to leave his office, my attention was drawn to one of the patients waiting to be seen. He was an elderly man wearing a baseball cap with a B-29 embroidered on it. Because I love hearing about WWII, I stopped, apologized for disturbing him, and asked if he had flown on a B-29 during the War. He said he had and immediately started telling me he had been stationed in the Pacific theater, on an island where the native women had a horrible odor he’ll never forget! And that was about 65 years prior to our conversation, right about the same amount of time that elapsed between Jesus’s life and when the final New Testament Gospel, John, was written.
Why is it that many of us can recall things accurately that occurred ten years ago or even much longer, while being unable to do so with much more recent events? It’s because the former often occurred in a context packed with emotion and/or personal importance and those recollections were burned into our memory, sometimes with vivid details. Do you recall where you were the moment you learned that planes had flown into the Twin Towers on 9/11? Do you remember what the weather like was that day? Many of us have firm recollections of those things. What was the weather like on 9/11 last year? Yeah, I don’t remember either.
Last year my wife and I viewed the TV series, Vietnam in HD (2011)>.Joe Galloway was interviewed in the first episode. Those of you who saw the movie We Were Soldiers (2002) will recall that Galloway was the combat reporter who was with Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his soldiers during the Battle of Drang River Valley. On one occasion during the interview, Galloway teared up while talking about his experience during those few days in battle, obviously still impacted by them although they had occurred decades earlier. Here’s a quote from Galloway that impressed me so much that I backed up the video numerous times until I had it transcribed:
“I left that landing zone X-Ray battlefield knowing that young Americans had laid down their lives so that I might live. They had sacrificed themselves for me and their buddies. What I was learning was that there’s some events that are so overwhelming that you can’t simply be a witness. You can’t be above it. You can’t be neutral. You can’t be untouched by it. Simple as that. You see it. You live it. You experience it. And it will be with you all of your days.”
Now ask yourself, if the events in the Gospels actually occurred and you had observed Jesus heal paralytics, the blind, lepers, and those who were demon-possessed, saw Him walk on water, confront the Jewish leaders, being crucified, then shortly thereafter saw him alive and well, would such an experience with Jesus have impacted you in a manner comparable to what Joe Galloway experienced?
This doesn’t suggest that all of our recollections of the past are accurate. Sometimes, we misremember things. We displace them and remember them as having occurred at a different time or location. Sometimes, we conflate events so that we remember what we said on one occasion as having been said on another. Sometimes, our memories embellish events that had truly left us amazed. However, when it comes to important matters, we usually remember the gist of what was said and what had occurred with a fair amount of accuracy, even decades later. This is why documentaries are made today featuring veterans from WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. It’s worth noting the Vietnam War ended about 40 years ago, on the outermost boundary of the time elapsing between Jesus and when Mark’s Gospel was written.
The Resurrection of Jesus
Now, let’s spend a little time considering the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels describe Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’s resurrection, leaving an empty tomb, shortly thereafter, and appearances of the risen Jesus to others. Space prevents a thorough examination, but we will take a look at some of the historical evidence favoring all three.
Jesus’s Burial by Joseph
We may first observe that Jesus’s burial by Joseph is plausible. It is often claimed that the Romans left the bodies of crucified victims on crosses for a while in order to let scavengers, such as birds, insects, and dogs, feed off the corpses before throwing them into a common pit. This was the standard Roman practice throughout most of the empire. However, the Romans made an exception in Jerusalem, apparently in order to pacify the Jews. Josephus reported that the Romans allowed those crucified to be removed from their crosses and buried prior to sunset. This practice continued until AD 68 (Wars, 4:317). Since Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in either AD 30 or 33, the Romans would have allowed him to receive a proper burial prior to sunset.
We may also observe that Jesus’s burial by Joseph is attested by multiple independent sources. Although Matthew and Luke may have drawn upon Mark for their burial narratives, most scholars think John is independent of Mark. And if, as most scholars believe, Mark and John received a significant amount of their information from Peter and another of Jesus’s disciples, respectively, then their claims that Jesus was buried by Joseph becomes even more likely.
Early critics of the Christian movement offered a few explanations to counter the claim that Jesus had been raised. Matthew tells his readers that the story the disciples had stolen Jesus’s body “was spread widely among the Jews and continues to be even to this day” (Matt 28:15). Notice that the Jewish leaders did not deny the tomb was empty, but instead explained how it came to be. And this may be one of those items Matthew’s readers — who were Jews — would have known to be either true or false. Around AD 150, Justin Martyr reports that the Jewish leaders were still spreading the same story (Dialogue with Trypho, 108), and around AD 200 Tertullian informs us that some were asserting that a gardener at the tomb had relocated Jesus’s body so visitors to the tomb would not destroy his lettuce patch by trampling on it (De spectaculis, 30). Curiously, these explanations offer alternatives for why the tomb was empty. We are not aware of any early critic who claimed Jesus’s body had remained in the tomb for some time, or that the empty tomb narratives in the Gospels were invented and were false because Jesus had actually been thrown into a common grave — not even from Celsus and Porphyry, who were perhaps Christianity’s most bitter critics of the second century.
Another evidence for Jesus’s empty tomb is that it passes the criterion of embarrassment, which Bart called “Rule two” in his Interview. If a statement or report contains information that would more than likely damage its credibility, it has a reasonable chance of being true. For example, in Mark 8:31–33, Peter rebukes his master Jesus for telling them he is about to be killed. Jesus answers by rebuking Peter, calling him “Satan” and saying he was not set on God’s interests. Now, if you were going to invent a story, why would you cast your leader in such an embarrassing manner, rather than building up his credibility? All four Gospels mention that Jesus had brothers. Two of the Gospels tell us those brothers did not approve of Jesus’s ministry. His unbelieving brothers came to get him in Capernaum because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21, 31). When Jesus is rejected by his hometown, Nazareth, he tells them “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown, and among his relatives, and in his own household” (Mark 3:21, 31). And John 7:5 plainly states “not even his brothers believed in him.” Why would an author invent such stories? If Jesus could not convince his own brothers, who knew him well, why should I believe him? It’s more likely that these embarrassing accounts of Jesus are true.
So, it’s noteworthy that the primary witnesses to the empty tomb were women. Equal rights for women would not come until nearly 2,000 later. So, the view of women in antiquity was not what it is today in Western culture. We read in the Talmud, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than entrusted to women” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah, 3.4; 19a) and “Happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 82b). Although women were allowed to testify in legal matters, it was a last resort, when no other witnesses were available. Josephus tells us that a woman’s testimony was not to be admitted because of the levity and boldness of their sex (Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15), while the Talmud says a woman’s testimony was as worthless as one from a robber (Babylonian Talmud, Roš Haššanah, 22a). During the time of Jesus, the emperor Augustus ordered that women should always sit in the back rows and would not allow them to attend athletic events (Suetonius, Augustus, 44).
Given the low view of women in the first century, one would think that if the Gospel authors were inventing many of the details in their resurrection narratives, their primary witnesses for discovering the empty tomb would be people whom readers would regard as credible. After all, the task of convincing people Jesus had been raised from the dead was already difficult. So, why craft a narrative that would likely to invite additional scorn by creating primary witnesses whom people would tend to distrust? Why not use a credible male character, such as the Sanhedrist Joseph, who had buried Jesus and who was already in their narratives? The empty tomb narratives fulfill the criterion on embarrassment and appear to be generally reliable.
The Gospels are not our earliest reports on Jesus’s resurrection and his post-death appearances to others. Paul wrote before any of the Gospels were written and speaks of Jesus’s resurrection on several occasions in his letters. One of the most valuable of those occasions appears in 1 Corinthians 15.
In 15:1, Paul tells his Corinthian readers he will now remind them of the gospel message he had preached to them a few years earlier. He had run that gospel message by the pillars of the Jerusalem church — Peter, James, and John — to ensure it was also what they were preaching. And they gave him their approval (Gal 2:1–20). In 15:3–7, Paul provides that gospel message in the form of embedded oral tradition that mentions Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, and the appearances of the risen Jesus to others — oral tradition that is very early and almost certainly goes back to the Jerusalem apostles. So, Paul can write with confidence that this gospel message in 15:3–7 is what both he and the other apostles are preaching and is what his readers in Corinth believed (15:11). Because the oral tradition in 15:3–7 was merely an outline of a larger story, the Gospel authors who give us that story could be accused of “filling in the blanks.” But they did not invent the story.
Although Paul does not mention an empty tomb, he does think Jesus was raised physically. In 1 Cor 15:20, he says Christ is the first to be raised from the dead. That he is thinking in terms of a resurrection body rather than a mortal body is clear in 15:42–54. The resurrection of all believers will occur when Jesus returns (15:23). What happens to believers who die prior to Jesus’s second coming? According to Paul, their spirits leave their bodies and go to be with Jesus in heaven (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:21–24). When Jesus returns, their spirits will return with him to be reunited with their corpses that are then raised (1 Thess 4:13–17; Rom 8:11). So, Jesus was raised in the same manner believers will be. Believers will be raised physically. Therefore, Jesus was raised physically — at least that’s what Paul believed. And his belief in the nature of Jesus’s resurrection body is entirely consistent with the Gospels’ assertion that Jesus was raised physically, leaving behind an empty tomb.
So, we have good reasons for thinking that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his tomb, that his tomb was found empty shortly afterward by some of Jesus’s women disciples, and that his disciples had experiences shortly afterward that persuaded them Jesus had risen bodily from the dead and had appeared to them.
This is where the sixth criterion for verifying the “truth’’ of a report mentioned earlier comes into play: When appropriate, I will consider various hypotheses that attempt to account for the data and weigh them, using criteria of inference to the best explanation (e.g., having greater explanatory scope and power; being less ad hoc; being more plausible). I conduct this task in depth in chapter five of my large book on Jesus’s resurrection, in which I consider the most popular hypotheses offered by today’s scholars.
Given space limitations, I will comment on what is the most popular alternative to the resurrection hypothesis:
In my opinion, Gary Habermas is the foremost authority on the topic of Jesus’s resurrection. For decades, Gary has kept track of what scholars who have written on the topic have to say. At present, his bibliography consists of approximately 3,500 academic journal articles, essays, and entire books written in French, German, and English from 1975 to the present. Gary has said that, although the hallucination hypothesis was popular about a century ago, it soon came to be rejected for a number of reasons. However, it has seen a resurgence among scholars during the past 30 years or so.
Sometimes the experiences of Jesus’s disciples are referred to as “hallucinations.” But very often they are referred to as “visions.” In order to avoid any confusion, a vision can be either objective or subjective. An objective vision is an experience of something or someone that is real. If Jesus appeared to me in an objective vision and spoke to me, the event may not occur in space-time, but it actually was the case that a living Jesus had appeared and spoken with me. A subjective vision exists only in the mind of an individual and has no external reality. It’s a hallucination or perhaps a dream. If Jesus appeared to me in a subjective vision and spoke to me, it was not in reality that a living Jesus had appeared and spoke with me. Instead of calling the appearances “hallucinations” or “visions,” they are sometimes referred to as “ASCs” for something experienced within an “Altered State of Consciousness.” But this is nothing more than a hallucination.
The hallucination hypothesis suffers from several devastating problems. A lot of research on hallucinations has been conducted during the past century and longer. To my knowledge, the most comprehensive recent treatment of the subject is a book titled Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception, by Andre Aleman and Frank Larøi (American Psychological Association, 2008). Drawing upon more than a century of research conducted by themselves and many others, the authors of this book provide a treasure of information for those wanting to know more about hallucinations.
Hallucinations occur in different modes. You can see something that isn’t there (visual), hear something that isn’t there (auditory), smell something that isn’t there (olfactory), taste something that isn’t there (gustatory), feel something that isn’t there (tactile), or have a sense of motion that isn’t actually occurring (kinesthetic). Most hallucinations occur in a single mode. In other words, you may experience a visual hallucination of a deceased loved one, but you won’t also hear them. But those who suffer from schizophrenia and some people on drugs sometimes experience hallucinations in multiple modes in which they see, hear, and feel something.
Most of us will experience one or more hallucinations during our lifetime. Remember when you first got a mobile phone and set it to vibrate to notify you when someone had sent you a text message or an email? Remember when you had a false alarm, thinking you felt your phone vibrate to notify you, but when you looked at it, there were no new text messages or emails? That’s a tactile hallucination. Have you ever had a dream of falling and it woke you up? That’s a kinesthetic hallucination. One does not have to be mentally ill in order to experience a hallucination.
The type of person most likely to experience a hallucination is a senior adult who is grieving over the loss of a loved one. Multiple studies have revealed that approximately 50 percent of people in that class will experience a hallucination of their loved one. By far, the largest percentage of those hallucinations will be a sense that their loved one is in the room, although they do not sense them in any other manner, such as seeing or hearing them. Only approximately seven percent of people in this class experience a hallucination in which they see their loved one.
Hallucinations are similar to dreams in that they occur in the mind of an individual and have no external reality to them. Years ago, I lived in Virginia Beach. Since half of the Navy SEALS are stationed in that area, I had the privilege of meeting many of them and even befriended several. SEALS are some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Their physical abilities and mental toughness are truly enviable and go beyond what I would have thought to be humanly possible.
There are several steps candidates must successfully complete prior to becoming a SEAL. One of the first steps is to complete “Hell Week.” This week begins on a Sunday evening and end Saturday morning. During that week, candidates are subjected to conditions that test their physical and mental toughness to their outermost edges. Most do not make it through the week and drop out. Candidates get only about 3–5 hours of sleep during the entire week — not every night but the entire week. Due to the sleep deprivation, a significant number of the candidates experience hallucinations during the week. Many told me they had experienced a hallucination during an exercise called “Around the World” in which small teams in rafts row to a buoy in the ocean, then return. The team finishing first gets to sit out the next race and rest.
One SEAL told me he thought he saw an octopus come to the surface and wave at him. Another told me he thought he saw a train coming toward them. When he warned the others of the approaching train, they told him there are no trains running on the Pacific Ocean! But they were unable to convince him. So, he rolled out of the raft to avoid being hit by the train. Another SEAL told me about a guy who was in his raft who began swatting his paddle at something in the air. When asked what he was doing, he answered he was trying to hit the dolphins that were jumping over their raft! What’s of interest is that no one else saw the octopus or the train or the dolphins. They were all in the same frame of mind. And many of them were experiencing hallucinations. Yet, pointing out what one was seeing did not lead others to see the same things. That’s because hallucinations are private experiences in the mind of an individual. They are neither contagious nor collective. And some people are not prone to hallucinate. If you’d like to read more on what Hell Week is like, check out the book SEAL of God (Tyndale House Publishers, 2012), written by my friend Chad Williams.
Now consider what we have with Jesus’s disciples. The earliest extant report of Jesus’s resurrection appearances includes three group appearances: Jesus appeared to the Twelve, to more than 500, and to all the apostles. Moreover, the appearances to the Twelve and to all of the apostles were perhaps to 100 percent of those present.
With these things in mind, we can notice several problems with the hallucination hypothesis. First, the 100 percent of Jesus’s disciples who had a visual experience of the risen Jesus is a far greater percentage than research shows occurs with those most prone to experience a hallucination: seven percent of those grieving over the loss of a loved one. Second, we have three appearances to groups, although we have seen that group hallucinations are extremely rare if not impossible. Third, hallucinations do not account well for the appearance of the risen Jesus to the church’s enemy, Paul. Paul was certainly not grieving over Jesus’s death. He had believed Jesus was a false prophet and a failed Messiah. And now Paul was trying to destroy the movement Jesus had started. So, a risen Jesus would have been the last person Paul would have expected or wanted to see. Fourth, over thousands of years, many people have experienced visual hallucinations of their deceased loved ones and continue to do so to this day. About three months after my mom died, my dad experienced a visual hallucination of her one night. But hallucinations of our deceased loved ones do not lead those having the hallucination to think the person’s grave is now empty. So, if the appearances of Jesus to his disciples were merely hallucinations, there is little reason to think they would have concluded he had been raised physically. Fifth, hallucinations do not account for the empty tomb. After all, if Jesus did not rise from the dead and the appearances were merely hallucinations, Jesus’s corpse would have remained in Joseph’s tomb.
With these things in mind, let’s weigh the hallucination hypothesis, using the criteria of inference to the best explanation.
Explanatory scope refers to the ability of a hypothesis to account for the facts being considered. The hallucination hypothesis could account for the burial by Joseph, but does not account for the empty tomb, the appearances of the risen Jesus to groups, and the appearance to Paul. So, the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t do well here.
Explanatory power is the ability of a hypothesis to account for the facts without forcing them to fit or without an excessive amount of ambiguity. Stated differently, if a hypothesis is true, we would anticipate having the sort of data that we have. Now, if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, what would we expect? Pretty much nothing. We wouldn’t expect Paul to convert. We wouldn’t expect any group appearances. We wouldn’t expect more than one or two of Jesus’s disciples to have experienced a visual hallucination of Jesus. We wouldn’t expect an empty tomb. We would expect that the early Christian movement would have been like all of the other messianic movements of that era when their messiah figure was killed: we would expect it to disband and for its followers go on with their lives elsewhere. But what we would expect if the hallucination hypothesis is correct is not at all what we get, and what we get is not at all what we would expect. The hallucination hypothesis has terrible explanatory power.
Ad hoc is a Latin term meaning “for this.” You’ve heard of an “ad hoc committee.” That’s when leadership improvises by forming a committee to address a certain issue that has come up. A hypothesis that is ad hoc contains certain elements of speculation. Now, all hypotheses contain a degree of being ad hoc. So, the “being less ad hoc” criterion states that the hypothesis that is least ad hoc is superior in this way. Some of those proposing that Paul experienced a hallucination of Jesus have to speculate how this would have occurred, since Paul was the polar opposite of someone grieving over Jesus’ s death. So, they propose that he had a falling out with the Jewish leadership or that he had a friend who had become a Christian or something along those lines. The problem with such proposals is there is not a scrap of evidence for them. Zero! Zilch! Nada! So, those hypotheses would have a rather large ad hoc element to them.
Plausibility is the degree to which a hypothesis is compatible with our background knowledge. Our knowledge about hallucinations informs us that visual hallucinations are experienced by a very small minority of those in the frame of mind to experience a hallucination, and that mass hallucinations are extremely rare, if not impossible. Accordingly, the hallucination hypothesis is not compatible with our background knowledge.
When we subject the hallucination hypothesis to strictly controlled historical method, we find that it fails — and fails badly! Now, let’s examine the resurrection hypothesis using the same method.
The Resurrection Hypothesis
The resurrection hypothesis accounts for the burial by Joseph, the empty tomb, and all of the appearances. So, it has great explanatory scope.
If Jesus actually rose bodily, we would expect an empty tomb and we would either expect or not be surprised to find that a number of people claimed to have experienced him afterward. One does not have to strain to fit in any of the facts to make the hypothesis work and there’s no ambiguity in the hypothesis, since it plainly states that Jesus was raised bodily/physically. So, the resurrection hypothesis has great explanatory power.
How is the resurrection hypothesis ad hoc? At the most, one could say it assumes God’s existence. Perhaps. But one need not make such an assumption. As discussed earlier, one could look at the evidence and conclude that Jesus was raised without being able to identify the cause of the event. Or one could conclude that Jesus was raised and do what scientists often do in positing a theoretical entity as the cause of observable phenomena. Scientists have never seen a black hole, a quark, a string, or a gluon. They posit them to explain the data before them. In a similar manner, historians could posit a theoretical entity — God — as the cause of Jesus’s resurrection.
Moreover, one need not merely assume God’s existence, since there is arguably rather good evidence for it, such as the complexity of DNA, which makes its spontaneous appearance highly improbable, and certain cosmological constants which suggest the universe was fine-tuned for life. Moreover, as I mentioned in my Interview, there are about 100 cases of well-evidenced Near Death Experiences, in which a person who had died by all accounts (e.g., flat EKG and/or EEG) claimed to have gone somewhere or seen and heard things going on they could not have possibly known but turn out being accurate, apparitions of the dead in which percipients received accurate information from the apparition they could not have otherwise known, and extreme answered prayer. The evidence for a supernatural component to reality is very strong and provides significant background knowledge suggesting there is a supernatural element to reality. For this reason, the resurrection hypothesis has little if any ad hoc element to it.
But isn’t the resurrection hypothesis implausible? Natural law informs us what goes on in our universe when it’s left to itself. We observe that a corpse does not return to life when left to itself and our understanding of the body informs us why that is the case. However, if God raised Jesus, his corpse was not left to itself and all bets are off, since natural law would not apply. And our background knowledge suggesting that reality includes a supernatural component could even lend a degree of plausibility to the resurrection hypothesis.
When the hallucination and resurrection hypotheses are both examined and subjected to strictly controlled historical method, the latter comes out on top by a significant margin. And this is not because we privileged the New Testament literature. It is because the resurrection hypothesis is far better at explaining the data than the hallucination hypothesis, when subjected to the same kind of historical method we would use to examine other hypotheses. And if Jesus actually rose from the dead, as the data suggest, doesn’t this inject a significant amount of plausibility into Gospel stories of Jesus’s performing miracles?
Why should we think the Gospels are historically reliable accounts of Jesus? For one, they fulfill the four criteria for historical reliability:
- We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail;
- We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous;
- 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; and
- We have no good reasons to believe more than a very small percentage of stories reported by an ancient author are false.
Second, we observed that Bart’s Five Strongest Arguments that the Gospels are NOT historically reliable do not hold up under critical scrutiny.
And third, the historical data suggest that 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.
The question of this Dialogue is not whether the Gospels are “divinely inspired,” “infallible,” or “without any error.” The question concerns whether they are “historically reliable” accounts of the life, work, teachings, and, more specifically, the resurrection of Jesus.
“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. They are historically reliable accounts of Jesus.
- Beth M. Sheppard, The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012); p. 98.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperOne, 2012); p. 2.
- Joe Galloway, Vietnam in HD (2011), “Episode 1: The Beginning: 1965–1965.”