My name is Matthew. I’m a speaker and author with Josh McDowell Ministry. After you watch this video, feel free to leave a comment here or via my social channels, listed below. I’d love to hear from you and be a small part of your wrestling with these important questions about Jesus. I also invite you to subscribe to my channel!
History or Allegory? | Are the Gospels Reliable?
In this video I’m asking: Did the authors intend to record history? To be clear, I’m not asking whether or not they are lying. I’m asking if they want their readers to believe that the details they share about Jesus are real and accurate. Did they actually take place?
Nearly every scholar of the New Testament, Christian or not, would say yes. The Gospels authors expect their books to be taken as historical fact, not allegories or fiction. Luke is very explicit about this from the start:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John’s Gospel makes a similar statement near the end of his book. After writing about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, John writes: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Why did both assert that Jesus was the Messiah? Because they are convinced that Jesus really did all the marvelous things they recorded.
Real History, Purposeful Format
According to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, there’s an important piece of implicit evidence that can’t be overlooked. “Consider,” he suggests, “the way the Gospels are written — in a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writing.”
Open the Gospels to any page, and you’ll see what he’s talking about.
As an example, Matthew traces the lineage of Jesus back to Abraham:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Matthew attaches Jesus to a real family tree, and then says that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of a virgin birth. He doesn’t linger on the interesting details, like the angel. Rather, he lays out things in a plain, matter-of-fact fashion. Matthew’s style is what we can expect of someone speaking from a historical perspective.
We find another example in Mark 7. The text reads like a factual report of Jesus’ travel:
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
In the third chapter of his book, Luke also carefully details the life of Jesus in real time:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene — during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Trusting the Details
I think one reason people get tripped up on this questions about historical accuracy is because the Gospels have spiritual undertones, life lessons, and the occasional literary touch.
C.S. Lewis, a world-famous Christian writer and academic of literature, did a lot of work with allegory. In talking about the Gospel of John, Lewis notes: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text, there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”
Yes, the Gospels have an obvious theological agenda, and were written to strengthen and encourage the early church. But they’re still historical. Even literary parallels like Jesus reliving the ministry of Old Testament characters can be affirmed without denying the historical background. Especially if we are open to the idea that God chose to orchestrate history in this remarkable way.
In video 5 we’ll discuss whether we can trust the Gospel writers’ ability to accurately recall details. See you then!