How accurate are the gospels? 18


An interesting thread opened up on the JREF forums when a devout believer who calls himself 154 started a thread entitled “Why do you hate Jesus?”. Many folks politely pointed out several issues that the poster needed to seriously consider and also explained that the JREF skeptics were not secret believers who hated Jesus (which is what his question implied), but rather had given the topic much examination and had come to a conclusion not to his liking. Alas, 154 had no interest in a real open debate, whenever snookered, he would revert to simply quoting bible verses and highlighted the supposed words of Jesus in big bold red letters. He might of course have considered it real debate, but bible spam is not in any normal universe a debate.

It did however all bring up a couple of points that I felt might be appropriate to blog about. I don’t intend to give a long detailed analysis, that would take a complete book, but will instead examine a couple of popular myths.

First up, are the gospels a contemporary account of what happened?

I’ll strive to avoid my own personal opinion and will simply aim for facts and also the consensus arrived at by scholars who have extensively examined this. So, what is the oldest gospel fragment we have? The earliest fragment of the New Testament is the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, a piece of the Gospel of John. Dating it is very challenging, the best that can be done is to suggest sometime between 117 CE and 138 CE on the basis of the script used. Now, what this means is that there is no physical evidence for anything earlier, so we are left with are the opinions of scholars who spend a lifetime studying such matters. The oldest date they can come up with is 60 CE for Mark. There is consensus that this was the first gospel, however since it contains mistakes concerning Galilean geography and customs the author was clearly not a native to the area. If you would like to do more research on the technical details, start here.

So, if 60 CE is the oldest possible date, then that means that a lot of time passed between the events and their documentation. The gospels are not a contemporary account. Do you remember what you did last Tuesday? I don’t, but what about what you did on a Tuesday about 30 years ago? Thats the period of time we are talking about here and thats the degree of accuracy we a are being asked to depend upon.

OK, lets ask one further question, are the gospels accurate reliable historical accounts of what happened? There is much evidence to suggest that they are not. Let me give you a simple but very dramatic example, if you look at the gospel of Matthew Ch27 v51-53 it reads as follows:

51And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

In the above text, some very dramatic and notable events are described. We not only have an earthquake, but we are also told that a whole host of individuals rose from the dead and went walkabout. So, apart from Matthew who else describes all this? Nobody, not one mention is found anywhere else. None of the contemporary Jewish chroniclers deemed it worth mentioning. An earthquake is very dramatic, as is the dead rising, so that fact that no other reference is found very strongly points to the conclusion that it is fiction and not factual.

What about Jesus himself. the gospels tell us how he went about healing the sick, raising the dead, and causing the blind to see. Once again, outside the gospels, there is not one single credible contemporary reference. The events described should have been front page news, but apparently nobody noticed.

There is a famous reference to Jesus in the writings of Josephus, but I find that has a few issues. First he was not a contemporary, Josephus was not even born until 37 CE, and secondly the reference is considered by many to be a fake and believed to have been inserted at a far later date into the text. Many early Christian writers who were familiar with his works do not appear to know about this reference at all. It can be argued that the original text did refer to a wise man, but without the mention of all the miracles.

Often you find that other non-Christian writers are mentioned such as Pliny the Younger, but he was born in 61 CE and so the gospel of Mark is older than him. Also you have Tacitus, but once again not born until 56 CE. So neither of these famous writers are witnesses to the actual events.

There are some who assert that Jesus never existed and is a complete myth. I don’t find that credible either. The most credible view is that there was in all probability a historical individual who did gather a small following and was then executed. Then after his death, the idea went viral and rapidly spread and evolved and was enhanced with stories of miracles and divinity being later additions. Belief is an amazingly powerful psychological mechanism, there are numerous modern examples such as the Mormon belief as triggered by Joseph Smith. That specific modern example where we still have access to the facts allows us to see how ordinary humans can drum up a following and convince successive generations that something supernatural happened.


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18 thoughts on “How accurate are the gospels?

  • Dogukan

    What about the Jewish Talmud about a man called Yeshu and his disciples and sorcery and etc. Did you mention that source ? Take a look if you did not. Thanks.

    • Dave Post author

      Wow, this is an old posting from over 7 years ago. So yes, I’ve considered the Talmud.

      The word “Talmud” is a term that describes a religious text that is central to Rabbinic Judaism. There are various collections and so the specific text we are interested in is also sometimes referred to as the Babylonian Talmud, because that one is the one that is usually cited, but we should also be aware that there are other collections. It is in essence a collection of the teachings and opinions of thousands of Rabbis, that was originally an oral tradition, but with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE things changed and so they started to write it all down.

      So are there references to Jesus in the Talmud?

      Yes, but they are seriously problematic. Various scholars who are subject matter experts on the topic of the historical evidence for Jesus, such as Bart Ehrman, and also Mark Allan Powell have made the observation that these references are not contemporary, but instead are quite late – several centuries after the supposed events to be precise – and so they are simply not credible historical references to Jesus at all.

      If indeed, such references were accepted, then once again it is a package deal. Generally specific references are embraced as “evidence” and other more embarrassing references are discarded, but if this is indeed deemed a reliable historical source, then you either accept all the references or none, you don’t get a pick the bits that align with a belief, and discard other bits because they conflict with that same belief.

      To illustrate what I’m getting at, one specific name for Jesus in the Talmud is as “Son of Panthera”. It is a story about an individual who brought witchcraft out of Egypt, and was referred to as “Jesus, the son of Panthera”. Who is Panthera? Apparently he was supposedly a Roman who seduced Mary. Is this a literal truth? Probably not, but that is not the point, the key issue here is that – if those who accept the more palatable references to Jesus as factual, then they would need to also embrace this as well because that is the background context for those other references.

      Given that this was all written down many centuries after the supposed events, none of it is credible, and it is more probably a direct attack upon the rise of the Messiah claims for Jesus and is an attempt at a rebuttal. The New Testament Greek word for Virgin is “parthenon”, and so naming Jesus as the son of Panthera, is clearly a pun on that, and is a primitive form of satire that attacks the virgin birth claim by implying that he was the product of adultery and not divinity.

      So yes, there are references to Jesus in the Talmud, but they are not historically reliable. Most scholars do not deem such references to be independent historical evidence that Jesus actually existed, but instead view such references as a reaction to the rise of Christianity.

  • knhav1

    Some 400 years before crucifixion was invented, both Israel’s King David and the prophet Zechariah described the Messiah’s death in words that perfectly depict that mode of execution. Further, they said that the body would be pierced and that none of the bones would be broken, contrary to customary procedure in cases of crucifixion (Psalm 22 and 34:20; Zechariah 12:10).
    Again, historians and New Testament writers confirm the fulfillment: Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross, and his extraordinarily quick death eliminated the need for the usual breaking of bones. A spear was thrust into his side to verify that he was, indeed, dead.
    **
    (Probability of chance fulfillment = 1 in 10 to 13th power)**

    • Dave Post author

      Claim 1: Psalm 22 predicts the crucifixion
      Answer: Nope. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/09/failed-prophecy-psalm-22/

      Claim 2: Zechariah predicts the crucifixion
      Answer: Nope. The verse in John is an inaccurate quote, leaving out the word “me.” This is problematic for assuming the verse refers to Jesus: The “me” is the one who is pierced, while the “him” is the one who is mourned for. Jesus cannot be both and fulfill the prophecy. Furthermore, the context of Zechariah 12 is of an invading army, not a Messianic prophecy of Jesus.

      I do agree that there is a general consensus amongst scholars that the crucifixion happened, but it is far more reasonable to anticipate that the precise details, as laid out within the Gospels, were manufactured to align with religious expectations, and so the “chance fulfilment” is not chance at all.

  • krierm89

    ok, so you mention Tacitus but did not reference Josephus who was born in 37CE who is not a Christian he was Jewish. In his set of 20 books called Antiquities of the Jews and War of the Jews which were finished sometime before his death detailed the accounts see the web page http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Josephus.html. In the words that were found on Pilot, he accounted for the events of the people coming out of their graves and were saying “the LORD, The LORD great and mighty is he” see the web page https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/fathers/view.cfm?recnum=1894. Bare in mind these were written and proven. If they were all written by Tortulian or other 2nd and 3rd century leaders, I might question the authenticity. As for the earth quake in 33AD day of crucifixion, Dr. Stephen Austin wrote about the earth quake basing its credibility on the sediment where the dead sea scrolls were found in Qumran see the web page http://www.icr.org/article/greatest-earthquakes-bible/.

    • Dave Post author

      The letters you link to concerning Pilot are generally recognised as fraudulent.

      Josephus, wrote Antiquities of the Jews in AD 93 … and as best as I can tell, does not mention dead people rising up … ever, in any of his writings.

      I really can’t believe that you are seriously citing a creationist website as “evidence” that an earthquake really did happen in AD 33. The ICR folks seriously believe that planet earth is only a few thousand years old and are not a credible source for anything.

  • steve

    When you say that the writers had to rely on memory of 30 years ago that is not true. Jewish tradition was that these stories were verbally recited and remembered. So if you keep repeating what happened on a Tuesday 30 years ago then you have more chance of remembering more detail. Not just that you talk as what was remembered was like an everyday event like what you had for dinner or something. These were great events to the Christians so they were important.

    The other thing is we dont know if some of these things were written down in fragments here and there as well. Also consider when they held the Nuremberg trials for the 2nd world war much of this was done many years later. Some trials were held as longs as what we are talking about or even longer. But they accepted the testimony of these people. They remembered and spoke like it happened yesterday. When the events are important they can be seared in your mind.

    • Dave Gamble Post author

      // Jewish tradition was that these stories were verbally recited and remembered. //
      There is no actual evidence that this is what was going on here. Outside of Mark’s gospel, which is the earliest written account of the life of Jesus that we have, there is nothing, not one single independent historical reference to anything at all.

      To borrow your reference to what happened in the second world war, there was a mountain of contemporary eyewitness accounts that confirmed it all, it did not come as a complete surprise to anybody, and nothing hinged on the verbal account of just one lone individual.

      If indeed jesus was healing the sick and giving sight to the blind, it is all rather odd that outside of the gospel claims nobody appears to have considered it to be something to take note of. There are plenty of contemporary historians who did record things in great detail, except when it comes to jesus, for that there is nothing at all, not one word that is actually credible.

      I understand that you need to believe and want to believe, and are for cultural and emotional reasons are driven to believe, but the lack of any evidence is still something that needs to be seriously considered.

  • John Shores

    …nobody noticed

    This is the problem that I have as well. The Orthodox view is that everything hinges on the resurrection. If that is not an historical fact then the faith is baseless.

    If you are god and the most important event in all of human history has just occurred, wouldn’t you make sure that, I dunno, Caiaphas and the other jewish leaders got to chat with Jesus post-res or that Jesus would show up to Pilate and make sure that one of these Romans made a record of the event?

    Why scurry off into the sky? Why not stick around for a couple more years, traveling to all the places you had been preaching for the previous 3 years and showing off your wounds to prove that it was all true?

    Why sneak off and leave it to a dozen uneducated guys who no one will ever take seriously to get the word out?

    And, you know, being god you might want to be sure that the whole thing was documented on the spot and that those documents were protected so that later generations would have something substantial to base their faith on.

    The whole thing is so poorly managed that the only rational conclusions are that:

    1. god is completely incompetent

    2. god intended for all of the chaos that has engulfed the church for 2,000 years to happen

    3. it’s entirely made up

    • AJD

      Something substantial must’ve caused people to flock to Christianity and cause it to spread like wild fire. Thousands of people went to their death peacefully for a lie.? You can explain this away all you want but if God is real he doesn’t have to place himself in the confines of reasoning that your so called mind can understand. If there is a God and he did this he doesn’t have to play by your rules. You are wrong about the importance of word of mouth and recitation as a way to keep history. In an age of no communication technology most cultures in antiquity relied on just that. And they were very good at it. Just because the gospels weren’t actually put to paper (or should I say papyru) until a particular time in history doesn’t mean that the records and stories weren’t circulated much earlier than that before someone educated for around to writing it down. People’s of antiquity did not take the art of writing things down as seriously as we do because they couldn’t rely on the fact that there were always people educated in their society that could do so. People of antiquity also did not trust written records as much as memory because the written records could be lost. They didn’t think the way we do. This is the major problem in people trying to understand historical figures. They apply the cultural context and mindset of our current time and that is erroneous. Many scholars agree that the early church creeds which made their way into the writings of Paul in Roman’s and other NT writings were circulated as early as days or months after the dates we think the cruxlcifixion happened. I think you need to study a little more with an open mind rather than gathering facts that support your already predisposed opinion.

      • Dave Post author

        // Something substantial must’ve caused people to flock to Christianity and cause it to spread like wild fire. //
        Popular does not equate to something being true … there are 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet, does that make Islam true?

        // Thousands of people went to their death peacefully for a lie.? //
        Thousands of Muslims have been doing exactly this.

        // You can explain this away all you want but if God is real he doesn’t have to place himself in the confines of reasoning that your so called mind can understand. //
        Are you trying to use reason to argue against the very idea of reason? (I think I just broke my irony meter)

        // Just because the gospels weren’t actually put to paper (or should I say papyru) until a particular time in history doesn’t mean that the records and stories weren’t circulated much earlier //
        … and how exactly can you verify any of this? How do you test it and confirm if it is actually true and is not simply wishful thinking?

        // Many scholars agree //
        Can you cite just one and put forward an actual reference?
        Assuming you do find one, what is the prevailing consensus amongst scholars, and can you cite a reference that confirms it?

        // I think you need to study a little more with an open mind rather than gathering facts that support your already predisposed opinion. //
        Are you seriously claiming that you do not have a predisposed opinion?

    • AJD

      Josephus and Tacitus were the only credible ones of the time. Josephus although a Jew was writing for the Roman’s so it wouldn’t have been in his best interest to support any information that would’ve made the Roman’s look bad. And this would’ve. The Jewish ruling body of the day would do everything they could to explain away any possible hint of Jesus being anymore than a criminal or a madman. Yet the belief spread like wild fire. Even in the face of horrible death by the hands of the Roman’s or expulsion from the temple by the Jews. David is reaching here. He has obviously not done his homework in a comprehensive manner. Maybe he could provide us some references from the scholars that he claims all say that Josephus account of Jesus was doctored up. From what I’ve seen the majority believe that the text is credible minus some additions they believe may have come later. But most agree his account of Jesus a Wiseman was crucified by Pilate and whose followers thrive to this day is authentic. Of course if Josephus did believe the accounts he heard about the miracles or even about rising from the dead it wouldn’t have been prudent to write it down since he was working for the Romans. It wouldn’t have made his boss look very good.

      • Dave Post author

        // Josephus and Tacitus were the only credible ones of the time. //

        Josephus has two small references (Books 18 and 20), that was published in AD 93, almost 30 years after the earliest Gospel. Both references are highly dubious, I’m happy to explain exactly why if you wish.

        Tacitus wrote what he wrote in AD 116 long after the events and was not an eyewitness, he simply reported the claims related to him. He was a member of the Quindecimviri scares faciundis, a council of priests whose duty was to supervise foreign religious cults in Rome, and that is the source for his information here. He is simply writing down claims relayed to him. If you wish to take what he says as accurate, He did write that Christianity is “a most mischievous superstition … evil … hideous and shameful” … so would you happily dismiss that, and yet accept the other part of his reference as accurate? How does that work?

  • Dave Gamble Post author

    // Does it make any difference to you if he existed or not. // – Yep it does, its the different between fact and fiction, you can find love and humanity without such deception.

    Yes you can be free of all religions and still believe in a supernatural diety, but when not one jot of evidence for such an entity exists, why cling to a delusion.

    Evolution has selected us to believe in other agents, there is nothing supernatural going on. Our ancestors who listened to grass moving and assumed wind when it was a predator were lunch. Those who assumed predator when it was the wind, survived.

    You can be a rational decent moral and loving human without recourse to fictional supernatural entities.

  • Luiz Aguilar

    Does it make any difference to you if he existed or not. So why bother. When you really study the teachings of Jesus with an open mind, you find love and humanity. Religions have their own agenda, not to find the true or to give accurate account of facts. As any human organization, Religions care for its own continuity and growth by gathering as many followers as possible. As an intelligent thinking human being, you can get free of all religions and still believe in God, this is a natural instinct to all human beings, including you. Maybe you just are too busy to pay attention, but it is guaranteed that you also can find a way to be closer to your soul any time you care.