Are the Gospels Reliable Sources? Part One: ‘Who is This Man?’

This is the first part of an article series entitled: Are the Gospels Reliable Sources. The entire bibliography for this series can be found here.

‘Jesus of Nazareth was arguably one of the most significant men ever to have lived.’

Fundamental to Christian belief is the Incarnation, the idea that God became human in one historical person, a man who lived at a definite time (the early first Century C.E. in a definite place (Galilee). Christianity then is grounded in a historical person, and historical research can help to bring the human Jesus to life.’

Professor Helen Bond: Professor of Christian Origins, Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh.   

Although rarely thought about in the twenty-first century global north, the question of ‘who was Jesus Christ?’ is perhaps one of the most important questions that can be asked. Regardless of any individual’s personal religious belief (or lack thereof), the movement he started fundamentally changed culture and is the reason the world is the way it is today. If what his followers believe about him is true, then everything revolves around him. It is worth examining whether the sources about his life are reliable, and what can be reasonably said about the Nazarene preacher who lived 2000 years ago.

The four New Testament Gospels, our main sources for the life and death of Jesus, will be examined as historical documents for the purpose of this series. They will be examined as examples of eyewitness testimony, compared to Greco-Roman biographies, and the reliability of their content will be examined. After this the question of ‘why four Gospels?’ will be raised, as they are compared to the apocryphal Gospels, and it is asked whether the Gospels as we have them now are the same as the Gospels that were originally written. These articles cannot cover or explain everything, and will only really scratch the surface, so if readers are interested in looking into this in more detail, the bibliography linked to the series would be a great place to start. There are responses and debates amongst scholars regarding many of the arguments I make that there is not enough space to cover. 

The four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John are traditionally attributed to Jesus’ disciples: Matthew the tax collector, and John, son of Zebedee. Luke and Mark are attributed to Luke and John Mark, members of the early Church just after its founding, and according to other books in the New Testament, companions of the apostle Paul. However, the authorship and dating of the Gospels are debated amongst scholars. Matthew is often placed in the 70s CE, though sometimes in the 60s and 80s. Mark is mostly thought to have been written between 60-70 CE. It is also likely that Luke was written in the 60s CE. John was likely written in the 80s or 90s CE. Nonetheless, there are scholars who place the Gospels earlier and later than the dates here.

Since the eighteenth century, scholars have engaged in historical criticism in order to study the historical Jesus and have come to conclusions about the reliability of the Gospels. According to I. Howard Marshall, historical criticism is ‘the study of any narrative which purports to convey historical information in order to determine what actually happened and is described or alluded to in the passage in question.’ There have been three main ‘quests’, or periods, in the search for the Historical Jesus. The first quest was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where ‘excessive rationalists’, such as Hermann Reimarus (posthumously published by G.E. Lessing), and H.E.G. Paulus, tried to separate the ‘Historical Jesus’ from ‘the Christ of faith.’ David Friedrich Strauss went even further and argued that most of the Gospels’ content was mythological. The excessive rationalism of the first quest led many scholars, most notably Rudolf Bultmann, to conclude that nothing could be known about the Historical Jesus.

There was a period of around 50 years where the little scholarship that took place was dominated by pessimism, and it was largely argued that nothing could be known about the Historical Jesus. Some people refer to this as the ‘no quest’ period. The second quest (also known as the new quest), began in the 1950s. Some of Bultmann’s students concluded that he had gone too far, and that some things could be known about the historical Jesus. However, they shared his sceptical assumptions, including that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses and were theological rather than historical texts, and consequently concluded that only a few basic things about Jesus could be known from the Gospels. The Jesus Seminar, followed in the footsteps of the second quest and famously voted with beads on the reliability of each passage. They believed that very little in the Gospels is reliable. The proponents of the second quest don’t often distinguish between canonical and non-canonical Gospels, treating them as equally historical texts. This would be reasonable, except that the non-canonical Gospels are sometimes given preferential treatment and clear differences in style, dating, and authorship between the canonical and non-canonical Gospels are ignored.

Alongside the second quest emerges the third quest, which focuses on Jesus’ Jewish background, and tends to overall have a more optimistic view of the Gospels’ historicity. Not all third quest proponents have a conservative view of the Gospels’ reliability, but the current overall trajectory of New Testament scholarship, whilst not conservative, has a much higher view of the Gospels’ validity than three hundred years ago.  

Rudolf Bultmann, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt were two of the foremost form critics. Formgeschichte (translated ‘form history’, known as form criticism in English), advocated that the Gospels could be broken down into small chunks. These had existed as separate oral traditions until Mark, or the other Gospel writers, brought them together. It allowed the oral transmission of the Gospels to be properly studied for the first time. That the Gospel authors brought together ‘oral chunks’ is, I believe, undisputed. But the form critics went further and classified the Gospels as folk literature. It meant that they saw them as more useful for telling historians about the Early Church then Jesus of Nazareth. Bultmann used form criticism to try to trace the ‘origin and tradition history of gospel traditions.’ He believed there was a ‘pure form’ of each tradition that had been corrupted into the version in the written Gospels. Bultmann also tried to produce ‘laws of the tradition’ that governed this change and would allow him to establish which parts of traditions were earlier and reconstruct traditions that were too early to be written down.

The view that the Gospels were folk literature separated them from individuals and eyewitnesses and turned the Gospels into texts that had been shaped and crafted by the communities they were written in. However, in the decades since it was formulated, many scholars, perhaps a majority, have rejected form criticism; this is largely due to a much better understanding of how predominantly oral societies work. What has survived is the ‘impression of a long period of creative development of the traditions before they attained written form in the Gospels.’ Unless it can be proved on its own merits, this impression should be discarded as a remnant of an inaccurate understanding of how the Gospels came to be.

When scholars examined the Gospels in more detail, the ‘Synoptic Problem’ arose. It asks the question of how Matthew, Mark and Luke have many areas of strong similarity, but also areas of difference. A large amount of Mark can be found in Matthew and Luke; there are four proposed solutions. The first is independence, that because the Gospels are reporting historical events the similarities arise as they talk about the same events. However, the similarities between the Gospels are not just in events, but also in word order, which, considering that everything Jesus said had been translated from Aramaic to Greek, seems too specific for independence. The second, proposed by Augustine, the fourth-fifth century bishop of Hippo, was that Matthew was written first then Mark, then Luke. The issue with it is that the content of Mark suggests that it needs to have been either written first or last, as either he was used as a source for both Matthew and Luke, or he used them. The Two – Gospel Hypothesis places Mark last; however, Mark does not fit the mould of a summarizing Gospel. This is due in part to what he leaves out, including the infancy narrative- this would be expected to appear in some form if he is writing later. The most common view amongst scholars today is that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke. There are two sub-forms of this view, the four-source view, and the Farrer hypothesis. The four-source view is the most common. It posits that Matthew and Luke used Mark, and a now lost source called Q, where they agree on content that Mark does not mention. The Farrer hypothesis says that Q did not exist, and that Luke used Matthew as a source. The most popular view in contemporary scholarship is the four-source view, though the discussion is far from over.

In the twenty-first century, the old view that the Gospel of John could not be used to tell us about the historical Jesus has been challenged by a new wave of scholarship. The John, Jesus and History Project, whilst acknowledging the theological presentation of Jesus in John, has highlighted the history in his account. As Paul N. Anderson, one of the leaders of the project said, ‘the Fourth Gospel also possesses more mundane, topographical, and archaeologically attested material than all the other Gospels combined.’ They have argued, I think correctly, that both the de-historicization of John, and the de-Johnification of Jesus, are massively flawed.      

Many conservative and moderate evangelical scholars are challenging the old sceptical assumptions and making strong arguments for the reliability of the Gospels in the reconstruction of the Historical Jesus. For example, Richard Bauckham advocates that they are eyewitness testimony, Craig Keener and Michael Licona that they are historical-biographies, and Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Simon Gathercole, and Peter Williams argue that their content is reliable.

Written by Alex Smith


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