The historical Jesus: The Gospel accounts

Samuel McComb helps us to understand the significance of the historical reliability of the gospels when he writes,

Christianity is a historical religion. By this we mean not merely that it has entered into the history of the world, and that its career can be traced, stage by stage, but rather that it is rooted in certain historical events, is built on facts open to scientific investigation. The Christian religion issues from an actual, historical person who was born, lived and taught, and suffered and died. Now the New Testament contains the story of this person, tells how he acted and spoke, how he conceived of God, of man, of himself, of human destiny: tells also how his followers understood him and came to construe life and the world through him. In other words, the great value of the New Testament lies in this, that it describes the creative period in Christianity, the actual founding of the religion. And within the New Testament, we are here concerned mainly with the gospels.1

I’ve taken some time to consider the historical basis for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The historical evidence for Jesus as a real person cannot be debated with much intellectual integrity. The Christian faith, however, is not content with affirmation of Jesus’ existence. Christians must do business with Jesus as he is presented in the four canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The historical reliability of the Gospels is frequently called into question, but there is in fact very good reason—other than “blind faith”—to accept the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Tim Keller suggests three reasons that we should seriously consider the testimony of the Gospels.2

The timing

Keller’s first argument is that the timing of the Gospels is far too early for them to be legends. They were written, at the very most, sixty years after Jesus’ death. The epistles were written even earlier. This means that these written accounts were circulated within the lifetimes of some who had been eyewitnesses to Christ’s ministry (cf. Luke 1:1–4).

A strong case can be made that the names mentioned by the Gospel writers (e.g. Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21) were mentioned because they were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry who were still alive at the time of writing, and who could testify to the reliability of the written records. Of course, it was not only Jesus’ eyewitness followers who were still alive, but also many who opposed his ministry (religious leaders, government officials, etc.).

This is important, because it is difficult to imagine that a highly sensationalised account of Jesus’ ministry would take hold within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. Surely someone would have contested the reliability of the accounts being circulated. Surely someone would have countered these accounts with their own writings.

The content

Keller’s second argument is that the content of the Gospels is far too counterproductive for them to be legends. It is sometimes contended that the Gospel accounts were written by early Christian leaders to promote their policies, consolidate their power, and build their movement. This is almost ludicrous.

If the writers of the Gospels wanted to promote their policies, why did they not fabricate Jesus speaking directly to the issues at hand? For example, the book of Acts and the early epistles show that the question of Gentile circumcision was at the forefront of theological discussion in the early years. Surely the easiest way to deal decisively with this matter would be to fabricate Jesus speaking to the issue. But the Gospel accounts nowhere portray him as doing so.

What would have been the strategy in portraying Jesus as being crucified? Crucifixion was reserved for the most heinous criminals, and anyone reading of Jesus being crucified would immediately have concluded that he must have committed criminal activity. And what about the frequent knuckle-headedness of the apostles? They are consistently portrayed as dim-witted cowards who failed their master and argued amongst themselves for seniority. Why portray Peter, one of the church’s greatest early leaders, as denying Jesus? The Gospel accounts portray a very human picture of Jesus and his early followers, hardly one that is embellished in order to promote a particular worldview.

The literary form

Keller’s third argument is that the literary form of the Gospels is too detailed for them to be legend. Ancient fiction, he notes, is very matter-of-fact. When seemingly insignificant details are mentioned in a text—Jesus resting his head on a pillow or the disciples catching exactly 153 fish—you can be sure that that text is intended to be historical narrative. The only reason that little details like this would be included in an account is because an eyewitness recalled them and asked for them to be included.

World-class literary critic, C. S. Lewis, noted of the Gospels:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage … or else, some unknown writer … without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.3

And so the timing, the content and the literary form of the Gospel accounts all militate against them being or containing legend. The most logical conclusion is that these were accounts written by eyewitnesses, or disciples of eyewitnesses, reporting the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as it actually happened. As such, his claims must be taken seriously, and everyone reading these accounts must do business with God in Christ.

  1. Samuel McComb, “Can the Gospels Be Trusted?” The Biblical World, vol. 30, No. 5 (November 1907), 346.
  2. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God; Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 103–13.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 155.

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