Are the Gospel Accounts Historical?
By Merle Hertzler
It is difficult to convince a skeptic that God wrote the Bible, so many Christian apologists try a different tack. Their goal is to convince unbelievers to first accept that the gospels are historical. Once this is agreed to, they argue that this historical Jesus--who is said to have risen from the dead--must therefore be God, and that the sayings attributed to him in the gospels should therefore be taken seriously. They argue that this Jesus taught that the scriptures are God's word, so therefore we need to accept them as God's word. But I must stop them at their first point. Are the gospels historical? Certainly many passages in the Bible do represent historical fact, but what about the story of Jesus? I question if it is historical, for there are many problems with the four gospels and the book of Acts.
A big problem is the lack of early confirmation of Jesus outside of the New Testament accounts. Would not the world want to talk of such a man? Earl Doherty sums up the problem this way:
The non-Christian witness to Jesus is anything but supportive of his existence. Until almost the end of the first century, there is not a murmur of him in the Jewish or pagan record. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived until about 50 CE and wrote of unusual sects like the Therapeutae and the Essenes, has nothing to say about Jesus or Christians. Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian who wrote in Galilee in the 80s (his works are now lost), is reported later to have made no mention whatever of Jesus. Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) collected data on all manner of natural and astronomical phenomena, even those which were legendary and which he himself did not necessarily regard as factual, but he records no prodigies associated with the beliefs of Christians, such as an earthquake or darkening of the skies at a crucifixion, or any star of Bethlehem. The first Roman satirist to scorn a sect which believed in a crucified Judean founder who had been a god was not Martial at the end of the first century, nor Juvenal in the first half of the second century, but Lucian in the 160s. Reports of Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher of the early second century who preached universal brotherhood to the poor and humble masses, record no knowledge on his part of a Jewish precursor. Nor does Seneca, the empire's leading ethicist during the reign of Nero, make reference to such a figure. Other historians of the time, like Plutarch and Quintilian, are equally silent. (from http://www.jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/postscpt.htm )
Why do no secular historians note that Herod killed all babies up to two years old in Bethlehem? Jesus supposedly did many miracles and preached to many. Nobody outside of the small religious group seems to have noticed. (For an offsite discussion of the supposed testimony of the historian Josephus, click here).
Matthew 27 tells us that, at the death of Jesus, many dead people came out of their graves and appeared to many. This must surely be the greatest miracle ever! Can you imagine it? Surely people must have been talking about it. Yet, no historian mentions it. None of the other gospels mention it. Did they not notice that many were seeing dead people walking? Interestingly, the book of Acts records the difficulty the apostles supposedly had in trying to convince the people of that city that Jesus had risen from the dead. Why was it hard to convince people of a resurrection? If you had just seen your grandfather rise from the dead, and your neighbor reports that he has seen his dear departed Aunt Mary and her great-grandfather, would it be hard for you to believe that Jesus also had resurrected that week? If Matthew was correct, many at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost had just seen one or more of the many dead people that had just presented themselves to many in Jerusalem weeks before. But the disciples in the book of Acts, as Luke tells the story, don't even mention it. They ignored their strongest argument. They seem to be unaware that this mass resurrection happened. Why? Apparently when Luke wrote the book of Acts, he had never heard of the story written in Matthew. So, in his account, the disciples act as though it never happened.
Somebody might argue that many events do indeed appear in more than one gospel. Does this count as confirmation? I think not. The problem is that the later gospel writers copied from the first gospel. For instance, the book of Matthew contains 90% of the verses in Mark. Often, Matthew is a word for word replica of Mark. If a student were to turn in a term paper that repeated 90% of the sentences in another student's term paper from the previous year, wouldn't you suspect that he had copied? The same thought occurs to scholars when they read Matthew. It appears that he copied Mark, with alterations as he saw necessary, and with additions such as the birth story and the Sermon on the Mount. So if Matthew repeats something that is found in Mark, that is not independent confirmation.
Scholars tell us that Matthew and Luke probably had a copy of Mark in front of them as they wrote their books. And so Matthew and Luke agree with Mark on many things. But that is not independent confirmation. When we get to the events that Mark does not mention, such as the birth and the post-resurrection appearances, we find virtually no agreement between Matthew and Luke. The Christmas story in Matthew and the story in Luke have virtually nothing in common. And then there is the book of John. This book is very different from the other gospels on almost every detail until we get to the crucifixion. But when we get to the crucifixion, it matches much of Mark and uses some of Mark's format, causing many scholars to think that John was using Mark as a source here. So we have accounts that were copied from other accounts at some places, and that fail to confirm each other where the writers were not directly copying. This does nothing to verify what was written.
A second problem is that the gospels were written some time after the events they record. Mark is generally thought to have been written after 70 AD, and the rest of the gospels were written later (see sidebar). Can we expect them to give an accurate record of events that happened 40 or more years earlier? Suppose you would try to accurately write down a conversation that took place 40 years ago (if you are old enough to remember that far back). Can you remember exactly who said what to whom 40 years ago? I doubt it. Everyday I run into people who can't remember what I told them last week. If we humans have difficulty remembering what was said last Tuesday, can you be certain that a 40-year-old memory is correct? So it seems that at least some of the details may be wrong. Are you sure that Jesus said everything that the gospels attribute to him? Are you sure he made the claims about the scriptures that you read that he made?
The fact that the gospels were written after 70 AD made it difficult for anybody to disprove them after they were written. Imagine that you had picked up Mark's gospel 40 years after the life of Christ (assuming he had actually lived). Is there any way that you could have disproved it at that point? Further, why would you even want to bother? Would you have had time to disprove every myth that you heard if you lived back then? You simply would not have had time to do that. The world was full of irrational ideas. Kooks and quacks were everywhere. So we have no reason to believe that the gospel story was ever seriously challenged by anybody who lived in Palestine at the time of Christ.
Fourth, we don't know who wrote the gospels. None of these authors identifies himself. Who were they? Were they honest? Did they have first-hand knowledge or accurate sources? We don't know. The first record we have of anybody clearly associating the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with these books was Irenaeus in 180 AD, a century and a half after the reported events. Is it possible that he was mistaken or made up the names of the authors? This was a long time after the events reportedly happened. So we really have no reliable early evidence of who wrote the gospels. If we do not know the authors, how do we know they can be trusted? (We continue to use these names for the authors of the gospels by convention, but nobody knows what their real names were.)Fifth, the accounts contradict each other. For instance, Matthew 1:16 tells us that Jacob was Joseph's father. But Luke 3:23 says that Eli was his father. Luke tells us that Jesus saw his disciples on Easter and told them to not leave Jerusalem until Pentecost. The book of Acts--probably by the same author as Luke--continues the story and says that they stayed in Jerusalem. But Matthew says that they went to Galilee, many hours away. Which book is correct? Acts 1 tell us that Judas bought a field with the betrayal money and then fell headlong and died. But Matthew 27 tells us that Judas threw the money down in the temple and then hanged himself. Which is correct? Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph made a special trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth. But Matthew tells us that Jesus' family fled to Nazareth because they were scared of Herod. Would they need danger to make them want to return to their hometown? To Luke, it would have been natural to return to the hometown of Nazareth after the trip to Bethlehem was over. But Matthew needs a reason for them to move to Nazareth. It appears that Matthew knew nothing about Nazareth being the original hometown. So the accounts conflict.
Sixth, the accounts are often implausible. If I told you a bird just flew by, you might believe me. But if I told you a horse just flew by, you would not believe me. If the event is implausible--horses don't fly--then we want really good evidence before we believe it. That is the problem with the gospels. Much of what they record is implausible. Should we not be skeptical unless we have very clear evidence of the implausible?
For instance, in John 8 we find Jesus having a conversation with the Jews. The conversation goes back and forth. Now how could Jesus converse with a crowd? Notice how the crowd responds in John 8:52-53 :
Now wait just one minute! How can a crowd give such a detailed response? Did they speak in unison? Does anybody believe that such a conversation happened? Perhaps this passage is nothing more than a literary device. Perhaps the author was writing a drama years later, and made up this conversation to compare Jewish thought with Christian thought. It seems implausible that such a conversation ever took place between Jesus and a crowd of people. The author must have made it up.
Many other things seem implausible. How could a star lead the wise men to a particular building? Look up at the night sky, and tell me which building those stars are over. And as they move along as the night progresses, how can they continue to point to the same building? But Matthew tells us a star stood over the building where the baby Jesus was, and that it guided the wise men to this exact building. Can you understand how some people would think that this is not reasonable? Is it likely that many dead people got out of their graves and appeared to many? Is it really plausible that a swarm of demons would leave a man and enter a herd of pigs, causing the pigs to all stampede into a lake and kill themselves?
Shall we automatically reject the gospels, simply because they claim miracles and unusual events? Not necessarily. If the accounts were verified in many other sources, if the authors were well known to be reputable men that were eyewitnesses or had reliable sources, if they gave independent accounts that verified each other, if we had no reason to believe the documents were altered later, then, even though they seem implausible, we would need to consider the claim. But when we combine the doubtful nature of the sources, with the implausibility of the claims, it is natural to doubt them.
A seventh problem is that we do not know what was changed in the gospel texts after the original writing. The four gospels were apparently never widely distributed until more than 100 years after Christ, for other early documents seem to be unaware that the gospels existed. The gospels were apparently confined to a small group of communities during that time. What changes were made to them in that period? We do not know, and probably never will know. Could there have been major changes? I think so. We do not know who had custody of these books before the end of the second century. We do not know if any effort was made to keep them unaltered. But we have reasons to suspect that some people were changing them.
In fact, the book of Matthew appears to many to be a doctored version of the book of Mark. As we have seen, it contains much of the book of Mark with changes. In effect, Matthew took the liberty to rewrite the book of Mark as he saw fit. You may claim that God authorized him to do this. But how do you know he was authorized? And how do you know that other unauthorized people did not change Matthew or Mark later on? Perhaps they altered these books, and the originals did not survive. How can we be sure that the versions that were passed down to the church are correct?
What really happened? The gospel accounts were written too late by unknown authors with unknown sources, they conflict with known history and contradict each other, and they are often implausible. They were kept in unknown custody for years. Can you understand why some of us think they cannot be trusted as accurate history?
Copyright Ó Merle Hertzler 2002, 2004, 2006. All rights reserved.