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Christ is risen

You can trust the Gospels—and you should

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Christ is risen
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Western Christians who take the Bible seriously have long recognized that they are a patronized minority. While recognizing that faith is a matter of the heart, we still wince at the tired accusation that it requires us to shut down our minds. Even if they climb the academic ladder to become accomplished historians, classicists, or Biblical scholars, evangelicals are regularly reminded that believing Jesus really rose from the dead is simply not, well, cool. 

In light of this, some scholars have been motivated to see how strong of a defense they can build using only the material their atheist opponents will give them. This inspired the development of the popular “minimal facts argument” for the resurrection, which relies just on those “facts” that even liberal scholars will grant. But rhetorically appealing as this approach seems on the surface, a closer examination reveals its severe limitations. At best, skeptical scholars grant no more than the possibility that Jesus’ disciples were sincerely mistaken, based on some unspecified experiences of what they thought was the risen Jesus. As for the gritty, fleshy details of those experiences as we find them in the Gospels, those are taken to be legendary accretions.

Fortunately, the Christian doesn’t need to try to prove the resurrection with one hand tied behind his back. He just needs to read the Gospels with fresh eyes.

Many of us are familiar with C.S. Lewis’s famous trilemma: If the Gospels are authentically recording Jesus’ teachings, then either He was a liar, or He was a lunatic, or He was Lord. We can make a similar argument for the disciples’ credibility, provided the Gospels and Acts are a true record of what they claimed. It’s highly implausible that they would risk death for a story they knew to be false, or that they would all be struck with the same particular kind of insanity.

Most scholars recognize this, which is why they tend to concentrate their attacks on the framing premise: that these texts reliably preserve the disciples’ original testimony. But Christians have a deep well of evidential resources here. Some provide external corroboration of the Gospels’ general reliability, and some come just from the texture of the testimony itself.

A pithy way to sum up external evidences is that the Gospel writers get hard things right, in an age when you couldn’t readily research the geography, politics, and customs of a time and place not your own. Today, we can cross-check the Gospel writers with other sources and find them remarkably surefooted.

Examining the Gospels alone, we find numerous internal “tells” of their reliability.

Matthew is fluent with the names and values of Roman currency in the early first century, like a denarius (a day-laborer’s wages) or a stater (enough to pay taxes for Jesus and Peter). Luke keeps up with the ever-revolving doors of Palestine’s dual political leadership. John is organically familiar with the lay of the land, like the fact that one goes downhill to get from Cana to Capernaum, or that the Sea of Galilee was also known as the Sea of Tiberias. The Gospels also preserve many small details about Galilean subculture, including the fact that Galileans are mocked for their accent. Readers can find many more examples like this in Peter Williams’ short book Can We Trust the Gospels?

Examining the Gospels alone, we find numerous internal “tells” of their reliability. Two Gospels will often interlock casually with each other, the way we would expect between independent truthful witnesses. The writers also frequently pause to add unnecessary details, which we expect in unpolished memoir, not polished fiction. For instance, when Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty, we’re told precisely how His graveclothes were folded and separated. Time and again, where fiction would be artful, the Gospel accounts are artless. My mother Lydia McGrew’s book Testimonies to the Truth is an engaging introduction to these and many other lines of evidence (as are her other critically noted works).

She also discusses how the personalities of key characters are unified across all four Gospels—most compellingly, the character of Jesus Himself. One sometimes hears critical scholars talk knowingly about the more human “synoptic Jesus” versus the elevated, superhuman “Johannine Jesus.” But the Jesus who weeps over Jerusalem in Luke 19 is the same Jesus who weeps at Lazarus’ grave in John 11. The Jesus who sarcastically rebukes His enemies in Matthew 23 is the same Jesus who asks for which of His good works they want to stone Him in John 10. In Matthew, He claims power to forgive sins. In John, He cries out for water. In all four Gospels, we see the same mind, the same man: sharp and gentle, vulnerable and authoritative, completely human and completely divine. 

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life,” Lewis famously wrote of the Gospels. “I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.”

Too many people think they already know what they’re looking at when they look at the stories of Jesus. But if you’ve already decided what you’ll find, then you’ll miss the treasure buried right under your nose. Christians have been given a great treasure. All we have to do is bring it out and share it with the world.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a math Ph.D. and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.


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