The Gospel truth about Jesus Christ
An examination of the writing, dissemination, and credibility of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
I wish God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader had been around 10 or 20 years ago when I taught a comparative religion course at the University of Texas at Austin. In it Kenneth Richard Samples compares Krishna, Confucius, Muhammad, and the Buddha with Christ and shows a big difference: Other extraordinary religious leaders were still broken and far from divine, yet Christ claimed to be God and showed through His life and resurrection that He is. God among Sages is written in a way that could pass muster at secular colleges, unless professors are bigoted against any book that doesn’t attack Christianity.
Samples, a senior research scholar with Reasons to Believe (the old-earth creation ministry headed by Hugh Ross), is also an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University in Los Angeles. God among Sages, a runner-up for WORLD’s 2017 Book of the Year in Accessible Theology, examines the strengths and weaknesses of pluralism and tolerance, and notes that historic Christianity “consistently resists and defies all attempts to homogenize and mythologize its central truth claims.” In the following excerpt, republished here with permission of Baker Books, Samples reviews the writing, dissemination, and credibility of the Gospel accounts. —Marvin Olasky
The Historic Trustworthiness of the Apostolic Witness to Jesus Christ
Oral Tradition Stage
The earliest period of gospel proclamation by the apostles was characterized by oral preaching and teaching and can be referred to as the stage of oral tradition. This period roughly covered the time between the first Easter and the composition of the first Gospels around the time of the deaths of the leading apostles Peter and Paul in the Neronian persecution (c. AD 30–68).
The classical world was an oral society that communicated by the spoken word. Long before the printing press was invented, writing in the ancient world was arduous and costly. Learning consisted largely of passing down stories from one generation to another. Such a world demanded a good memory. Textual scholar Craig Blomberg explains:
The ancient Jewish world (and to only a slightly lesser extent, the Greco-Roman world around it) was a culture that prized memorization skills highly. Rabbis were encouraged to memorize the entire Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), plus a sizable body of the oral laws that grew up around them. Elementary education, mandatory for many Jewish boys from ages five to twelve or thirteen, was entirely by rote memory; and only one topic was studied, the Bible.
Teachers in this premodern culture used poetic expression to help their disciples remember instruction. Jesus was no different. He undoubtedly repeated his various parables on many occasions during his public ministry, and at least some of his teachings were given in poetic form to help listeners remember them. Thus, in the oral-tradition period of the apostolic age there was little danger of Jesus’s words and deeds being lost. On the contrary, the details of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were recalled and proclaimed daily by Christianity’s first preachers and evangelists.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that erroneous information about Jesus and the newfound faith was spread during this early oral era. What sorts of checks and balances existed to counteract false instruction? Consider two points.
First, the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem (Peter, James, and John) could and in fact did confront and squelch false or misleading information about Jesus and replace it with accurate information (see Acts 8:14; 11:1–3; 15:1–2; 21:17–25). Second, during the apostolic age, plenty of critics of the new Christian movement could easily have served as a corrective to false testimony. For example, if the apostles’ stories did not cohere, the critics could point out the contradictions. Both of these correctives served to keep the initial oral tradition (preached message) about Jesus from becoming corrupted through multiple transmissions (imagine the children’s game telephone).
According to ancient Judaism, disciples so revered their teachers that they took great effort not to miss a single detail of instruction. It is therefore quite reasonable to conclude that the apostles, during this initial oral tradition stage, were able to ward off any possible widespread misrepresentation. Thus, the church in its earliest period was able to preserve reliable historical information about the person, nature, and work of Jesus Christ.
The first couple of decades of the apostolic church era saw the Christian faith spread rapidly through word of mouth. And as Michael Green reminds us about the apostles, “Their priority was not writing books but making disciples.” However, when the firsthand eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life began growing older and/or faced possible death via martyrdom, preserving the apostolic witness through the permanence of writing became a necessity.
Written Letters Stage
While the oral tradition or preaching about Jesus continued, particular apostolic leaders (Paul, James, Peter, John, Jude, and the unknown author of Hebrews) penned the first New Testament books. These were actually letters (also called epistles) written to either various churches or individuals. Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books are letters, and they equate to approximately 35 percent of the New Testament’s content. The largest collection of New Testament letters came from the pen of the prolific apostle Paul, who is traditionally credited with writing thirteen epistles.
Alister McGrath provides a general time line for these early written letters, stating that “the New Testament letters … date mainly from the period 49–69, and provide confirmation of the importance and interpretations of Jesus in this formative period.”
Most of Paul’s earliest letters were written too early to have relied on a written Gospel. But as Blomberg states, “There are a dozen or so clear quotations or allusions to teachings of Jesus that the Synoptics would later record.” These letters thus play a critical role in connecting the earliest oral tradition period with the later written Gospel period in terms of the identification of Jesus and some of his basic teachings. The content of these letters helps illustrate a line of continuity and integrity of message that runs through the entire period of apostolic proclamation.
Written Gospels Stage
As important as the early apostolic letters were to the church for offering theological guidance and instruction to the faithful, a fuller written and thus more-permanent portrait of the unique life and teachings of Jesus Christ was needed. Writers provided multiple apostolic portraits in what became the four traditional or canonical Gospels of the New Testament—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Let’s briefly explore the Gospels by asking and answering six critical questions.
What Kind of Writing Are the Gospels?
The Gospels are different from modern historical or biographical writings. The authors did not intend to provide a strict chronology of Jesus’s life or to be comprehensive in telling everything Jesus said and did during his lifetime. Yet it is clear that the Gospels provide solid historical and factual information about the key events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. What they provide is an “interpreted history” by informing readers about the theological meaning and truth of the events described.
In regard to this mixing of history and theology, McGrath says that “biography and theology are interwoven to such an extent that they cannot be separated any more. The early Christians were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and their Saviour, and naturally felt that these conclusions should be passed on to their readers.”
Who Wrote the Gospels?
Unlike the New Testament Epistles, which were connected to their senders (with the exception of Hebrews), the manuscripts of the four Gospels were anonymous. However, the early church bore strong witness to who the authors were and insisted that the individual authors were in a strong position to report reliable historical information. A brief examination of each of the four canonical Gospels will illustrate this historical testimony concerning authorship.
Gospel of Matthew. From the earliest times in church history, the name Matthew (former tax collector turned apostle) was universally associated with this book. Strong ancient tradition stems from the church fathers Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (c. AD 60–130), and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. AD 125–202) that Matthew, one of the original twelve apostles, was connected to this particular Gospel. Other church fathers note Matthean authorship as well. No other name has been connected to this First Gospel, and no one challenged Matthean authorship until modern times.
Gospel of Mark. The early church unanimously agreed that John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas and associate of the apostle Paul, was the author of the Second Gospel in New Testament order. Church fathers Papias and Irenaeus testified that Mark’s Gospel reflected the eyewitness testimony of the apostle Peter. This early tradition conveyed that Mark took the basic preached message of Peter (the primitive church’s central preacher and an eyewitness) and arranged and shaped that message into the written Gospel of Mark. If Mark’s Gospel reflects Peter, then it makes sense that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels would show deference to Mark.
Gospel of Luke. Belief that Luke was the author of the Third Gospel, as well as a close companion of the apostle Paul, is well supported in church history (Irenaeus and others). Also, his authorship best fits the internal textual considerations. The author of Luke’s Gospel also wrote the book of Acts and had to have been a personal companion of Paul. These elements affirm that Luke, the physician, was the author of the Third Gospel. Though not an original apostle, Luke had access to all the principal apostolic figures, including Paul, Peter, and James (the brother of Jesus). Therefore, Luke’s Gospel relied closely on the accounts of these eyewitnesses.
Gospel of John. The most likely author of the Fourth Gospel is the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, affectionately referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26). The details of this Gospel bespeak an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’s life. John was not only one of the original twelve apostles but also part of the inner circle, being present at Jesus’s transfiguration, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion. John was also a firsthand witness of the resurrected Christ (John 21:20). The church father Irenaeus supported John’s authorship.
Solid support from the early church fathers exists for the traditional authorship of the canonical Gospels. The statements from Papias and Irenaeus particularly bear significant weight because of their close proximity to the original first-century apostolic leadership. Given that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) did not carry the name recognition of the central leaders of primitive Christianity (Peter, James, Paul), Blomberg asks a probative question: “Why would Christians as early as the second century ascribe these otherwise anonymous Gospels to three such unlikely candidates if they did not in fact write them?” In other words, the traditional authorship of the three Synoptic Gospels provided by the early church fathers bears the ring of truth.
When Were the Gospels Written?
The testimony of certain church fathers (such as Irenaeus) and the timing of major events in the first century that influenced primitive Christianity have led a growing number of New Testament scholars to conclude that the Synoptic Gospels were likely written in the early 60s, if not earlier. For example, none of the Gospels mention noteworthy events that transpired between AD 60 and 70. Three such events were (1) the persecution of Christians instigated by the Roman emperor Nero (c. mid-60s); (2) the martyrdom of three of the early church’s central leaders: James, Peter, and Paul (c. AD 62–66); and (3) the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman military leader Titus (AD 70). Since none of these momentous events, all of great interest to Christians, are mentioned in the Gospels as having happened, it is very plausible that the Gospels were already in existence. In fact, the Synoptic Gospels report Jesus’s prediction of some of these catastrophic events in the Olivet Discourse.
If the three Synoptic Gospels were written in the early 60s and John’s Gospel sometime between the 70s and the 90s, then the written Gospels appeared only thirty years after the events they report and describe. This gap is amazingly short compared to other historical cases in antiquity (see, e.g., table 6.5). Such a short period means that people could still examine the accuracy of the claims made in the Gospels. Green notes, “No books in all the world’s literature have been subjected to such thorough and persistent scrutiny over a period of hundreds of years, as the Gospels.”
“No books in all the world’s literature have been subjected to such thorough and persistent scrutiny over a period of hundreds of years, as the Gospels.” —Michael Green
Were the Authors of the Gospels Eyewitnesses of Jesus’s Life?
The Gospel writers claimed either to have been with Jesus themselves (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24–25) or to have relied closely on the words of those who walked and talked with him (Luke 1:2). As we saw earlier, the unanimous testimony of early church history is that two of the Gospels were written by Jesus’s original disciples (later called apostles), Matthew and John. The other two Gospels, Mark and Luke, relied on and closely reflected the testimony of the apostles Peter and Paul and others. Thus, good historical and textual reasons exist for concluding that the apostles either wrote the Gospels themselves or were the guiding source behind them.
Since the Gospel Writers Openly Mixed History and Theology, Does This Negate Their Objectivity as Biographers?
It is true that the Gospel writers were not without convictions about the events they recorded and described. But in reality, there are no truly unbiased reporters of fact, and all history is interpreted history. As Blomberg states, “In the ancient world, there was virtually no such thing as dispassionate history.”
Still, holding convictions about the truth does not rule out one’s ability to write reliable history. A person can be passionately engaged in a movement and yet retain the ability to write with accuracy about that movement. Sometimes active participants feel a deep obligation to be careful and evenhanded. A source therefore can be committed and correct simultaneously. Consider theologian and New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s assessment: “The testimony of the eyewitnesses was precisely the kind of testimony that was valued by ancient historians—that of involved participants, people who could convey something of the reality of the events from the inside.”
Were the Authors of the Gospels Interested in and Capable of Preserving Reliable History?
The writers intended to convey and were capable of conveying historical and factual information about Jesus. Each was either a direct eyewitness himself or relayed direct eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus. Either way, each was fully conversant with the facts surrounding Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection and thus capable of communicating trustworthy history. Further, since the Gospel writers reported and described events within a generation of their occurrence and since they relied on early oral and written sources, the credibility of their message is strong.
Bauckham comments on the fullness of the Gospel writers’ story about Jesus: “The four Gospels all tell a continuous narrative about the historical person Jesus, beginning either with the outset of his public career or with his birth, continuing until his death on a Roman cross, and ending with accounts either of the discovery that his tomb was empty or of his appearances after death.”
This brief exploration of the three stages of apostolic proclamation indicates that the apostolic leadership of the early Christian church preserved and conveyed reliable historical truths about Jesus Christ.
Credible Extrabiblical Evidence for the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ
Solid historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ can be found in both classical and Jewish sources. Although some critical scholars continue to question certain aspects of these works, overall these non-Christian references serve an important function in corroborating the basic picture of Jesus Christ found in the New Testament. Yet it should be noted that these sources are limited and far inferior to the rich resources about Jesus’s life and works that are found in the New Testament Gospels.
Let’s look briefly at sources outside of Scripture that mention directly or indirectly the historic person of Jesus Christ.
Three Roman authors mention Jesus Christ. Following are their names and dates, and the titles of their writings in which Christ is referenced. A summary of what their comments reveal about Jesus Christ and early Christianity is also provided.
Tacitus (c. AD 56–c. 120), Roman historian, Annals (c. AD 116). Cornelius Tacitus, who is considered one of the very best Roman historians, mentions Christ when writing about the great fire in Rome (AD 64) during the time of Emperor Nero. According to Tacitus, “Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts [flagitia], whom the crowd called ‘Chrestians.’ The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”
Historian and librarian Lawrence Mykytiuk notes that “Tacitus’s terse statement about ‘Christus’ clearly corroborates the New Testament on certain historical details of Jesus’ death.” According to Mykytiuk, Tacitus’s reference confirms four specific truths about Jesus Christ:
1. Jesus was connected with the historic Christian title Christus (Christ).
2. Jesus the Christ was recognized as the founder of the first-century Christian movement.
3. Jesus Christ was reported to have been executed under the authority of the Roman governor of Judea Pontius Pilate.
4. Jesus’s execution under Pilate took place during the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
Suetonius (c. AD 70–c. 140), Roman historian, Life of Claudius (c. AD 120). Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus cites Christ in his biographical writing about Emperor Claudius. In Life of Claudius, Suetonius states that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.”
Suetonius is describing a protest situation in Rome (c. AD 49) in which Emperor Claudius expelled certain Jews from Rome because of their complaints about Chrestus (most likely a reference to Christus or Christ). Suetonius seems to have mistakenly thought that Christ was actually present in the crowd doing the instigating. The response on Claudius’s part seems to correspond with what is recorded in the book of Acts: “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome” (18:1–2).
Suetonius’s reference illustrates that (1) Christ was the leader of a distinctive group within Judaism at about the halfway mark of the first century; (2) the Christian movement, with its central belief that Jesus was the Messiah (Greek: Christos), still provoked tension within the Jewish community; and (3) the Christian movement had reached the city of Rome.
Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–c. 113), Roman administrator, Epistles X (AD 112). In correspondence with Emperor Trajan during the early part of the second century, this man, known as Gaius Plinuis Caecilius Secundus, describes early Christian worship services in which Jesus was worshiped as God. Pliny’s letter testifies that “they had met regularly before dawn on a determined day, and sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god.”
New Testament scholar Robert Van Voorst explains the significance of Pliny’s comment about the early Christians: “What is related about Christ confirms two points made in the New Testament: first, Christians worship Christ in their songs (Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20; Rev. 5:11, 13), and second, no Christian reviles or curses Christ (1 Cor. 12:3).”
This reference supports the view that the primitive Christian church had a high Christology and worshiped Jesus Christ.
From God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader by Kenneth Richard Samples. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. © 2017 by Reasons to Believe. Used by permission.
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