Are the Gospels Reliable?
Before answering this question, one might want to consider what is meant by the word “reliable”?
In one sense, the individual might want to know if the words that exist in the documents are authentic and accurate. Can we know that the words we find in the Gospels today are the same words that were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John especially when we do not have the originals? Haven’t they been translated hundreds, if not thousands of times over the years? Sure mistakes and errors have crept into the text rendering it unreliable and inaccurate.
In another sense, the individual might want to simply know if the content (the words) are true. Did the events recorded actually happen? Is what is written true?
So, when faced with the question of reliability there are essentially two questions that need to be dealt addressed: (1) Is the content authentic and accurate? and (2) if so, Is the content true?
Is it Authentic and Accurate?
In order to judge authenticity and accuracy, there must exist some criteria by which these can be measured. One way to go about this is, as J. Warner Wallace points out, to ask questions of the authors:
- Was the witness truly PRESENT to see what he or she claims to have seen?
- Has the witness been HONEST and ACCURATE over time, or did his or her account change over time?
First, the gospels read as if they are eye-witness accounts and not as if they are made up stories. They give a lot of historical detail around people, places, and events. There is enough variance in them to dismiss the charge of collusion, and yet enough sameness in them to see that four authors were writing the same story from four perspectives. Furthermore, the accounts are written early and there is internal coherence among them along with external, non-Christian support for them. Finally, there is a strong “chain of custody” between when the authors wrote and what was passed on through the fourth century, but even more amazing is how stable the copying process has been until our present day.
Is it True?
However, just because the right words exist, does that mean that they are true? Did what they write really happen? Again, J. Warner Wallace has some helpful questions for us to consider:
- Can the statements and claims of the witnesses be VERIFIED in some way?
- Does the witness possess a BIAS that would motivate him or her to lie?
The statements can and have been verified in numerous ways through other disciplines like archaeology and corroborating historical accounts from extra-biblical sources. Moreover, any evidence that we have regarding the disciples and their lives show them to be honest, upright, and humble individuals that did not lie about what they saw and experienced. In fact, they went to their deaths because of their steadfast refusal to deny their experiences.
The gospel writings (and the entirety of the New Testament for that matter) have been investigated more rigorously and thoroughly than any other ancient set of documents. Because of the challenges to its authenticity, accuracy, and trustworthiness, skeptics have unwittingly helped the cause in defending the gospels because their skepticism has been the motivator to amass such mountains of evidence in support of the gospels claims. No other ancient set of documents has been so thoroughly supported through evidence than the gospels and it continues to stand up to scrutiny as more evidence is discovered.
- See “Chapter 4: Test Your Eyewitnesses” in J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity (2013).
- The following questions are taken from J. Warner Wallace’s Rapid Response: “The Gospels Are Reliable” article dated December 14, 2016.
- See “Chapter 8: Respect the ‘Chain of Custody'” in J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity (2013).