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''You Can't Trust The Gospels. They're Unreliable.''

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''You Can't Trust The Gospels.  They're Unreliable.''

“You Can’t Trust the Gospels. They’re Unreliable.”

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The Christian has no way to refute skepticism about the unique claims and deeds of the historical Jesus without first establishing that the texts that record his claims are generally reliable. If the Gospels are fictitious, then a defense of Jesus’ self-understanding and unique role in salvation will also come under fire. So what follows are a few points to keep in mind when discussing the Bible’s historical reliability.1 

First, the Christian doesn’t need to start a discussion with a skeptic assuming that the Gospels are “sacred writings” or “inerrant.” He only needs to argue that they purport to be historical and that they can be shown to be reliable for historical purposes. The Christian can challenge the skeptical inquirer: “Treat the Gospels just like you would any other historical document. Subject it to the same criteria. Treat it just like Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Josephus’ Jewish Wars, or Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome. If you accept them as generally accurate, on what basis would you discount the reliability of the Gospels?” My experience has shown that few skeptics have assessed the Gospel accounts in this light. When I have talked about the testimony of Jesus in the Gospels, I have been told that certain esoteric or “secret Gospels” should be preferred over the canonical ones. Some of my Muslim friends have recommended the Gospel of Barnabas as the “real”—read, “Muslim”—Jesus. Others have placed more confidence in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas or the New-Age Akashic records. When I have asked why they prefer these documents to the Gospels, they never furnish me with any good reasons to reject the Gospels’ reliability. (This isn’t to say that some critics won’t attempt reasons for accepting such books, but it is a common tendency not to.) Rather than asking which historical hypothesis has the best explanatory power or is most plausible or how it fares in comparison to its rivals,2 most skeptics, if they don’t reject all such documents, place far greater confidence in spurious or dubious sources than they do in the Gospels.

Let’s examine just one of these alleged sources for the life of Jesus in detail—the Gospel of Thomas. The media-alluring Jesus Seminar has wrongly presumed the Gospel of Thomas as a legitimate source of information about Jesus, being dated, we are told, at a.d. 50. This early date, however, is wholly unwarranted. No evidence supports a date earlier than a.d. 150.3 Also, while one-third to one-half of the sayings in Thomas do have parallels in the Gospels, many of them are unorthodox sayings that reflect the “Gnostic” heresy. (Full-blown Gnosticism was a second-century phenomenon that had to do with salvation through enlightenment for an elite few. It emphasized the goodness of the spirit and the badness of the material or physical.) Now if Thomas were really written as early as a.d. 50 and authentic, at least some of these Gnostic sayings would have been found within the four Gospels. But what is apparent is that the Gospel writers are cited by Thomas, not vice versa. Moreover, Thomas lacks any historical narrative—a typical omission of second-century Gnostic texts, which weren’t concerned with God’s acting in history.4

Another claim that brings the Gospels under fire is the alleged anti-Semitism some Jewish scholars claim to find in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John’s references to “the Jews.”5 They take negative references at face value but at the same time overlook passages that speak positively of the Jews (for example, Jesus is “a Jew” [John 4:9] and salvation is “of the Jews” [John 4:22]), or they minimize or explain away passages that reveal Jesus’ remarkable identity claims,6 asserting that such passages are being put on Jesus’ lips by the early Christian community.7 As we look at the New Testament, however, we simply see no racial hatred. Jesus himself was Jewish, and he gathered a group of Jewish followers who would found the church in Jerusalem and contribute to the New Testament. The point of tension is not race but theology, and it arose between Jews, not between Gentile Christians and first-century Judaism.8

Another consideration is that the skeptic, in all likelihood, may be convinced that the Gospels offer us accurate historical information in some areas—such as archaeologically confirmed buildings or towns, but he may out-of-hand reject the idea that miracles—such as the Resurrection—can potentially explain other historical data. But this issue goes beyond the matter of historical evidence and shifts to the worldview one will allow. If a person rejects belief in God and the possibility of miracles outright, then no amount of evidence will persuade him to believe otherwise. “A dead man just doesn’t come back to life,” the skeptic assumes. So God’s existence and, consequently, the possibility of God’s interruption of the natural order, must be answered before that skeptic will entertain miraculous explanations.9

Second, if the New Testament is textually flawed and unreliable, then it can be argued that every other book in antiquity is also unreliable. In numerous discussions with Muslims, I have been told that we can’t trust the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The original Gospel text had become so corrupted over the centuries that the true message of Jesus was distorted.

The only problem with this allegation is that it is wholly unjustified. In the first place, only 1 to 3 percent of the Gospel text is open to any charge of distortion at the hands of copyists. Only in a minute portion of Scripture are we uncertain as to what the original said. In other words, virtually all of the original text of the Gospels is recoverable.10

In the third place, the New Testament boasts manuscript support vastly larger than any work of antiquity—close to 5,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments.11 For instance, we accept the authenticity of Thucydides’ historical work (460–400 b.c.) even though we have only eight manuscripts and a few papyrus scraps.12 Typically, with many of the works of antiquity—Thucydides, Caesar, Tacitus, Sophocles, or Euripides—we have gaps of hundreds or even over a thousand years from the time of writing to the earliest extant manuscripts,13 yet these texts are generally presumed authentic. By comparison, the gap between the writing of the New Testament books and the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament we possess is far narrower. Take, for instance, the famous John Rylands papyrus fragment of John 18:31–33; 37–38, which dates to around a.d. 140; the manuscript was written only fifty years after John wrote his Gospel. This is just one of many such examples. So from a textual point of view, the Gospels are excellent, reliable ancient documents.

Fourth, as we do with other historical documents, we should assume the Gospels are reliable unless there are reasons to believe the contrary.14 Some scholars make a curious assumption about New Testament documents—namely, that they are unreliable unless this can be shown otherwise through independent corroboration. They assume distortion and error unless shown the contrary. But this approach leads to historical skepticism. Other works of antiquity, we noted, aren’t handled in this way.15 The proper approach to studying ancient documents for the purposes of writing history is to assume accuracy and truth-telling unless we are led to believe otherwise. That is, we should accept them at face value unless those sources or individual writers have something about them that makes them inherently suspicious.

The appropriateness of this approach seems obvious. In our everyday conversations, for example, we assume people are telling us the truth. If someone introduces himself to me as “Jeff,” I don’t ask to check his birth certificate or driver’s license. I take for granted he is telling me the truth. We seldom presuppose a skeptical approach. If we assumed that everyone were lying until it could be proven otherwise, then there would be no point in lying! In a court of law, we presume innocence until guilt is proven, laying the burden of proof on the skeptic. The bare fact that a purportedly historical document can’t be verified by another text shouldn’t disqualify that document.

Deflating “You Can’t Trust the Gospels. They’re Unreliable.”

  • Without assuming that the Gospels are “holy books” or “inerrant,” they can be shown to be reliable for historical purposes.

  • Ask the person who rejects the Gospels’ historical reliability, “On what basis do you reject their general accuracy?” If someone favors an unorthodox “Gospel” of Jesus (such as Thomas) over the canonical Gospels, ask why.

  • If the New Testament is textually flawed, then so is every other work of antiquity. To the contrary, these manuscripts are quite reliable.

  • Typically, we assume historical documents are reliable unless we have good reason to doubt them. Why should this procedure be reversed—making biblical texts false until proven true?


1. A concise, first-rate defense of the New Testament's reliability is Craig L. Blomberg's essay, ''The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,'' in William Craig, Reasonable Faith, chap. 6. See also an expanded argumentation in Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1987). [Back to text]

2. For a discussion of criteria of historicity, see C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: University Press, 1984). William Lane Craig discusses these in his chapter ''Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?'' in Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 143-146. [Back to text]

3. See John Meier's discussion of The Gospel of Thomas in A Marginal Jew, 1:123-141. For a concise argument, see Craig L. Blomberg, ''Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?'' in Wilkins and Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire, 22-25. [Back to text]

4. On the status of Thomas, see Craig L. Blomberg, ''Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?'' 22-25. [Back to text]

5. For example, Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Interchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 11. Jesus' tone sounds more like that of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isa. 1:4, 10; Amos 5:21-24) than an anti-Semite. [Back to text]

6. D. A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1984). [Back to text]

7. See Carl F. H. Henry's comments in ''The Identity of Jesus of Nazareth,'' Criswell Theological Review 6 (1992): 92. [Back to text]

8. D. A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus, 288-292. [Back to text]

9. Stephen T. Davis discusses this matter in ''Can We Know That Jesus Rose From the Dead?'' Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984): 147-159. [Back to text]

10. For extensive documentation of this, see Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989). See also Craig Blomberg, ''Gospels (Historical Reliability),'' Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992): 292. [Back to text]

11. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: ''The actual number of New Testament manuscripts in existence today is probably closer to 5,000'' (74). [Back to text]

12. See F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1960 repr.), 16. [Back to text]

13. Ibid., 14-20. Note the comparative chart in Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life Publishers, 1972), 48. [Back to text]

14. Some of these thoughts are developed further in Stewart Goetz and Craig Blomberg, ''The Burden of Proof,'' Journal for the Study of the New Testament 11 (1981): 39-63. [Back to text]

15. Taking a mediating position between the historical skeptics and those who assume a text's reliability until proved otherwise, Craig Evans claims that the burden of proof rests on all who argue a case (''Authenticity Criteria in Life of Jesus Research,'' Christian Scholar's Review 19 [Sept. 1989]: 30-31). However, perhaps it is helpful to distinguish between the strategic and the ideal approaches. Strategically, we may need to take Evans' perspective since a number of critical scholars don't assume the Gospels' historical trustworthiness. This would show that we can argue from their starting point and still arrive at a conservative conclusion. On the other hand, the more consistent method is the ideal approach since applying Evans' approach to other ancient texts would wipe out large amounts of ancient history from our textbooks. We would have to resort to a total agnosticism about purportedly historical documents if we assumed they were inauthentic unless proved otherwise. Thanks to Craig Blomberg for his comments through personal correspondence, 7 August 1996. [Back to text]


Excerpted from:
"True For You, But Not For Me" by Paul Copan
Copyright 1998, Paul Copan
ISBN: 0764220918
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

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''You Can't Trust The Gospels. They're Unreliable.''
First posted: Oct. 29, 2001
Copyright: Bethany House Publishers. Used by Permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
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