Can We Trust These Ancient Storytellers?
Christians view the Bible as the true and inspired word of God, which it is. In the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — we learn details of the incredible ministry of Jesus. Not intended to be strict biographies, these detail-rich texts are interpretations by four individual authors, which they penned for specific audiences, to evoke specific images of Jesus.
Per the Zondervan Academic blog:
“The Bible’s four Gospels paint four portraits of Jesus. While each gospel follows Him on the same journey, they recount it a little differently. They had their own methods, styles, purposes, audiences, and (probably) sources — making each portrait of Jesus uniquely valuable.”
How fortunate are we, as modern Christians, to be able to read all four perspectives together. Let’s take a closer look at the Gospels, to see where they are similar and where they differ, as we answer a common question asked by Christians: “Can I trust what the Gospel writers tell us about Jesus?”
What Are the Gospels?
The Gospels narrate the life history of Jesus. The first three Gospels are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels.” The word “synoptic” comes from the Greek word synoptikos, which means “able to be seen together.” These Gospels share similarities in how they tell the story of Jesus — often shared in the same order, and even with the same wording. Yet it’s clear that the Book of Matthew was written to a Jewish audience, Mark to a Roman audience, and Luke to a Gentile audience.
John, the last Gospel to be written, offers more symbolism than the synoptics, as well as a more reflective perspective. John adopts a “post-resurrection” point of view, for example. Bible.org puts it this way: “While we see the events through his eyes, we are carefully guided to see the events of Jesus’ life not as John saw them when they happened but as he now sees them. We understand more of the significance of the events described from the position the writer now holds than an eyewitness could have understood at the time the events took place.”
Of the four Gospels, Mark is the earliest text. It was likely written between AD 55-70, around the time the disciple Peter was martyred. Matthew was written between AD 50-70, and Luke around AD 60. A confirmation of the date of Matthew’s writing comes from an external source: a report by Irenaeus, a second-century church father, who wrote that Matthew composed his gospel “while Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel and founding the church in Rome.” The only time we know that Peter and Paul were together in the capitol of the Roman Empire was the early to mid-60s. The exact dating of John’s gospel is unknown, though commonly thought to be around AD 90.
As Zondervan Academic notes, over 90 percent of the Book of John is unique; it contains material not found in any of the other three Gospels. In contrast, 93 percent of the Book of Mark appears in either Matthew or Luke—but a lot of what’s in those Gospels isn’t included in Mark. To see this for yourself, check out the online Harmony of the Gospels guide by Blue Letter Bible. It clearly outlines, via a Scripture-linked table, which topics are found in each Gospel. It’s a handy research tool.
Understanding the Gospels
The common message of the Gospels, of course, is that Jesus came as God in the flesh. The Gospel writers never deviate from that message, yet each writer chose to highlight information he thought important to share.
The book of Matthew, for example, emphasizes Jesus’ role as the Messiah and the “King of the Jews.” Mark focuses on Jesus as a powerful miracle worker and servant. Luke portrays Jesus as the Son of man who highly values each person. And John emphasizes Jesus as both man and God, accessible to anyone who will choose to follow Him. Each writer uses phraseology and imaging that their contemporaries would have found familiar. As Gleason Archer states in his book Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, it’s akin to each Gospel writer choosing specific angles from which to take snapshots of Jesus.
The Gospel writers also were writing to people already familiar with Jesus. This is why they don’t spend time chronicling every detail of Jesus’ life—though we modern Christians surely wish they had. We have no clue, for example, whether Jesus was an early riser or a night owl; whether he preferred meat to vegetables; or what He personally thought about many topics. So when we ask, “WWJD?” we often don’t have a definitive answer.
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: our wondering why the early Christians didn’t write down the life and teachings of Jesus — and why it took so long (25+ years after Christ’s death) for the Gospels to be written.
One obvious reason: Jesus’ followers assumed that He would return soon to establish His new earthly kingdom, thus making written records unnecessary. We have to remember that the oral tradition was common during Jesus’ lifetime; people were used to sharing information in this manner.
As Nick Peters writes on his blog, “In fact, it’s a common question often asked to apologists when speaking about Jesus that ‘If all this really happened, why did they wait so long before they wrote it down?’ It’s a good question, but it’s also one that can be quite simple. Oral tradition was free, quick, reliable, and it reached everyone who understood the language. Writing meanwhile was expensive (Writing Galatians by today’s standards could cost about $500 and let’s not forget the delivery of the manuscript so think about how much a whole Gospel would cost), slow, not seen as being as reliable since the person who wrote the work was not there to teach about it often, and it would only reach those who could read or have it read to them.”
The Gospels do not provide a straight journalistic record. The Gospel writers don’t collectively claim to be offering eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life. But did they simply make up stuff? No. They were held in check by that fact that people were already familiar with Jesus; eyewitnesses who would have called them out.
Imagine a modern historian attempting to rewrite the history of crooner Elvis Presley. If he tried to assert that Elvis lacked talent, had no impact on the world, and didn’t accomplish much, we would laugh at him! Why? Because we know so much about Elvis, from both being eyewitnesses to his life and the mountains of material written about him.
Trusting the Gospels
Do we know for sure who wrote the Gospels? No. But John was one of Christ’s twelve disciples. As such, he personally witnessed the events he wrote about. Luke, a friend of the apostle Paul, may not have been an eyewitness, but he made careful use of the eyewitness accounts of others. Mark’s gospel includes preaching by Simon Peter, another of the disciples who had a front-seat seat at Jesus’ ministry for three years. Matthew, a tax collector, can be counted a reliable scribe, as he was both literate and accustomed to keeping detailed records. The early church was unanimous in their acceptance of Matthew as the author of the book that bears his name.
The Gospel writers had excellent credentials to write their texts: they had intimate, verified knowledge of Jesus’ ministry, and each possessed the skills to correctly record the facts of Jesus’ ministry.
It is common today for critics — and even some confused Christians — to assert that the Bible can’t be taken literally or seen as trustworthy, because of apparent discrepancies and differences. Sorry, but that’s just a convenient excuses. The Bible has proven itself reliable over centuries, despite human error made by its writers and scribes that transcribed it.
History reliably confirms the Gospels. Jesus promises us that when we diligently seek Him, we will find Him. Let’s put in the work!
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s updated and revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true.
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.