This is part five of an article series asking Are the Gospels Reliable Sources. The whole series can be read here. The bibliography for these articles can be seen here.
‘So the New Testament Gospel writers couldn’t possibly have got right the details that they get right … unless they had eyewitness knowledge or knowledge from eyewitness sources.’Professor Simon Gathercole: Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Cambridge.
So far, the Gospels’ sources and genre have been examined. This article will look at the content itself to see whether or not it appears to be reliable. There are three general points that suggest the Gospels themselves are accurate historical sources; these are Gospel geography, Gospel names, and undesigned coincidences.
The Gospel writers knew their geography. This may not appear to be very important or useful, but it is. It proves that the Gospel authors were close to the events they were describing and that they knew what they were talking about because they got the periphery details right. In the modern day we are used to having the internet, books, or people who are well-travelled who can give us detailed information about what a place is like. This was not the case two-thousand years ago. All four of the New Testament Gospels have a range of geographical references and locations, from big cities to small towns, all over Judaea and the surrounding area, some of which are unique to each Gospel, meaning that they could not have just copied off each other. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all reference Jerusalem, a big city, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke also mention Bethany, a small village. John alone includes some of the other villages, such as Aenon, Cana, and Ephraim. We do not know of any sources that mention all these places and if they did exist, going to the effort of reading through them to find out geographical details about small villages would be far beyond the remit of any ancient historian. The authors must have either been to the places themselves or been told the accounts with a very high level of detail.
The Gospels also have a very good understanding of topography. The Sea of Galilee is only thirteen miles long, but those who lived around it would have seen it as a sea, as they were unfamiliar with the actual ocean. Fifteen of Mark’s seventeen references to the Sea of Galilee call it ‘the sea’. One of the two other references occur when Jesus is heading back from Tyre and Sidon, which were on the Mediterranean, meaning that the Sea of Galilee had to be distinguished. If Peter, a Galilean fisherman, was the source behind Mark’s Gospel, this is what you would expect. In contrast, Luke, who was from Antioch near the Mediterranean, only refers to the Sea of Galilee as a lake, likely because he would not have seen it as a sea.
The Gospels also get traveling information correct. They all know that you go up to get to Jerusalem, which is seven hundred and fifty meters above sea level. They also know that you go down to get to Jericho, which is over two hundred and fifty meters below sea level. They also know that you would go down from Cana to Capernaum, as the lowest of the candidates for Cana is four hundred meters above Capernaum. In the same way, Luke describes going down from Nazareth to Capernaum. The Gospels know that the tiny village of Chorazin was on the way to Bethsaida, which to our knowledge they could not have found out from any literary source. They also know that there are two main routes between Jerusalem and Galilee. They also know that Gethsemane, which means ‘Oil Press’, is on the Mount of Olives, and this is not pressed to make a point, it is an understated detail. None of these prove that the stories about Jesus are true, but they show that the Gospel writers had reliable information and that many of the secondary details, which are most likely to be lost in transmission, are true or highly plausible.
The other thing the Gospels accurately contain is the proportion of individual Jewish names. Studies have shown that the most popular male Jewish name at the time was Simon. The most common male Jewish name in the Gospels is Simon. The second most popular male Jewish name at the time was Joseph. The second most common male Jewish name in the Gospels is Joseph. The fourth most popular male Jewish name at the time was Judah. The fourth most common male Jewish name in the Gospels is Judah. Furthermore, the Simons often have ways of distinguishing between themselves, for example Simon Peter, Simon the Leper, and Simon the Zealot. In the same way there is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Mary was the most common female name at the time. This is what we would expect if the people in the Gospels are real and are a representative demographic of the Jewish people.
There is also very good knowledge of Jewish culture, botanical information (such as knowing that sycamore trees grow in Jericho when they do not grow in the rest of Israel and the northern Mediterranean), tax systems in the different parts of Israel, and local languages and customs. All these show that the Gospel authors knew Israel very well and that a lot of the small details had been retained in the time between Jesus’ life and when the Gospels were written. If this was the case it is likely that the important biographical information was also retained.
The Gospels also contain undesigned coincidences. This argument was first put forward by John James Blunt and has been taken up by Lydia McGrew and Peter Williams. It highlights where things match up in the Gospel accounts that were not intentionally planted by the authors. They are small details which in one account do not amount to much but match up with other small details in different accounts. An example is the miracle when Jesus fed five thousand people with two small loaves of bread and five fish. Mark says that there were many people around, so Jesus and the disciples had to go somewhere quieter, but he does not say why. John mentions that this miracle took place shortly before the Passover festival but does not mention large crowds. The Passover festival was when many pilgrims went to Jerusalem, which would explain the large crowds. John explains Mark without meaning to. At the same event, John says that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread nearby. Philip’s brother Andrew responded to Jesus with him. Earlier on in the book of John, in a completely different context, John mentions that Philip was from Bethsaida, and Luke says that the miracle took place near Bethsaida. Jesus was asking someone with local knowledge and Andrew, who was also from Bethsaida, joined in the response. There are many more such instances in the Gospels, and they suggest that we have accurate complementary accounts of the life of Jesus.
All these small and peripheral accurate details suggest historical accuracy in the Gospel accounts. They are insignificant enough that they are unlikely to be deliberate plants, and many would be extremely difficult to research or guess correctly. They are the sort of thing typical in accurate eyewitness accounts. They are another problem with the arguments of scholars like Robyn Faith Walsh who argue that the Gospels were composed in Roman literary circles. If this was the case, then it would be almost impossible for them to get the details in the Gospels correct. If the Gospels could get these details correct, how much more likely is it that they also got the less specific information in the Gospels correct?
Written by Alex Smith