In this post I want to defend the four gospels. I want you to see that their evidence is significant. But more importantly I want to encourage you to read the gospels, and let them defend themselves.
Objection: ‘We don’t have the originals’
We refer to the original text as an autograph. It is true that we don’t have the autographs of any of the four gospels. However we can be confident of knowing what those autographs contained.
To start with, we have a great deal of manuscript evidence. For example, there are over five-thousand Greek manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament, dating from the second-century to the time of the Reformation. Compare that to the seven manuscripts of Plato’s ‘Tetralogies’ that date from at least 1,200 years after its composition.
Two interesting examples of New Testament evidence are the John Ryland’s Fragment (a few verses of John’s Gospel, and dating from around 120 A.D.) and the Chester Beatty Papyri (containing major parts of the New Testament, and dating from around 200 A.D.).
Added to the manuscript evidence for the New Testament documents are the 32,000 citations of the New Testament in the writings of what are known as the pre-Nicaean fathers (they were church leaders writing before in the time period before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.). From their writings alone we can be clear about what was contained in the New Testament originals.
When I was a young Christian I read a book by Professor F. F. Bruce of Manchester University entitled, ‘The New Testament Documents – Are they reliable?’ In this he states that ‘The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.’
Objection: The gospels are full of errors
When I say that I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible I mean that I believe that there were no errors in the originals. However, there are variations in the manuscripts. These variations are the results of mistakes made by those who were copying the manuscripts. No one is keeping this a secret. Open any copy of a modern Bible and you will see footnotes that inform you of variations in manuscript evidence. The vast majority of these variations are extremely minor, and no doctrine of the church is altered by such a variant in the text.
Writing of the Bible as a whole, one systematic theologian writes, ‘For over 99 percent of the words of the Bible, we know what the original manuscript said ... In the small percentage of cases where there is uncertainty about what the original text said, the general sense of the sentence is usually quite clear from the context’ (Grudem).
There are also some places where it can seem difficult to reconcile various accounts of the same event. So when I was speaking on this topic at the University of Limerick Christian Union someone asked me about Judas’s death. The account in Matthew and that in Acts is not an easy match. Similarly, aspects of the resurrection account don’t fit comfortably together. However, if writers like Matthew and Luke were aware of each other’s accounts, then clearly they do not see any contradictions, and if they are entirely independent of each other, then we have added historical weight to what they were saying.
The fact that the accounts can be reconciled with each other, but that they don’t always smoothly do so, is clear evidence that the writers have not colluded in their story. They are telling the same story from different viewpoints. Kel Richards tells of a police-officer who looked at the evidence for the resurrection from the gospel accounts and so was struck by how authentic they sounded that he was brought to faith.
One of the interesting things about the gospels is that if you were making this story up you would not make it up like this. The text is full of marks of authenticity. For example, in a Jewish court of law the evidence of a woman was not permissible, so you would not have had women as the first eye-witnesses of the empty tomb. Similarly, Peter apparently is the source of Mark’s gospel, but Peter comes across as spiritually slow on the uptake, and even denies Jesus (I would have made myself look better). Also, in a chauvinistic society, Luke records that the ministry of Jesus was financially dependant on a bunch of women. And, Jesus is portrayed as being too weak after his flogging to carry the beam of his cross--he has to be helped by Simon of Cyrene (who Mark tells is the father of Alexander and Rufus—who his readers seem to know).
When someone points to a problem text in Scripture remember that they are presenting you with something that Christians have been aware of for centuries. As Wayne Grudem points out, ‘the Bible in its entirety is over 1,900 years old, and the alleged "problem texts" have been there all along. Yet throughout the history of the church there has been a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture ... Moreover, for these hundreds of years highly competent biblical scholars have read and studied these problem texts and still have no difficulty in holding to inerrancy.’
Objection: They were only myths that weren't meant to be taken as history
But maybe the writers never meant us to take their work seriously—maybe they were writing legend or myth. Luke claims to have carefully investigated his gospel so that he could give an accurate account, and John (19:35) claims to have been an eyewitness. Remember that John was a Jew who would have believed that inventing a hoax messiah would have been an act of blasphemy that would have excluded him from God’s kingdom. The apostles all endured lives of hardship for what they claimed about Jesus!
The time lag from event to legend is too short. Legends cannot be created in the time frame of eyewitnesses to the events. Neither do the gospel accounts read like legends. C. S. Lewis was the writer of the Narnia books. He was also a Professor of Literature in Oxford. He writes, ‘I have been reading legends and myths all my life. I know what they look like. I know they are not like this.’
Objection: What about other gospels?
This sort of objection has become popular since the Da Vinci Code. However, these so-called gospels should not worry you. It can easily be shown that the four gospels we have were in circulation in the second-century and recognised as having unique authority. However, none of the alternative gospels were written in the first-century, have a very different feel to them, and can be attributed to unorthodox Christian off-shoots.
Listen to the description in of the resurrection in the Gospel of Peter. The soldiers guarding the tomb ‘saw three men come out of the tomb, two of them sustaining the other one, and a cross following after them. The heads of the two they saw had heads that reached up to heaven, but the head of [Jesus] that was led up them went beyond heaven.’
One of these other gospels is the gospel of Peter, which was written in the second half of the second-century. Unlike the four gospels it is completely otherworldly—with moving crosses, and a Jesus who has a head that reaches beyond heaven. It reflects an accommodation to the Greek mind, that didn’t like the physical, and so created an ethereal Jesus. It is consistent with the thoughts of the Gnosticism that was an influence at that time.
I could mention the evidence for Jesus and the early Christian movement from non-biblical sources, like the Jewish historian Josephus or the Romans Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. J. P. Moreland writes, ‘No historian I know of denies that Christianity started in Jerusalem just a few weeks after the death of Jesus in the presence of friendly and hostile eye-witnesses.’
I could also point to the internal consistency of the Bible. Many have read the books of the Bible (written by over forty authors over 1,500 years) and been amazed that it seems to have unifying threads.
However, I want to finish with words from the Bible translator J. B. Phillips. He writes, ‘The New Testament, given a fair hearing, does not need me or anyone else to defend it. It has the proper ring of truth for anyone who has not lost the ear for truth.By all means defend the lion, but more importantly let that lion lose to defend itself. This book has the fingerprints of God on it. If you have never read one of the four gospels as an adult I can guarantee you that you will be surprised by what’s in here.