Following are the opinions of two modern scholars about the reliability of the Gospels.
“Why was the tomb supposedly empty? I say supposedly because, frankly, I don’t know that it was. Our very first reference to Jesus’ tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard that it was empty. How would he know?”
—Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar and professor of religion.
“The so-called Gospel of John is something special and reflects . . . the highly evolved theology of a Christian writer who lived three generations after Jesus.”
—Geza Vermes, scholar and historian.
The testimony of these two scholars is representative of a growing chorus of intellectuals, including even some biblical scholars, who deny the central claims of the New Testament. It seems like the Bible is on trial, and the prosecution is winning!
Today, many religious leaders openly question the reliability of the New Testament and, specifically, the accounts of Jesus’ life. And it’s not just the intellectuals and celebrities who call themselves atheists. Today, more and more people consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious” and express considerable doubt as to the accuracy of the Gospels. Increasingly, it’s fashionable to declare oneself to be skeptical of the claims of any religious text. Noted atheist and author Richard Dawkins says that “the Bible should be taught, but emphatically not as reality. It is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality.”
We expect such criticisms from people like Dawkins, but when we hear it from an evangelical biblical scholar, it can be a little unnerving.
That’s why the numerous books by Bart Ehrman, with such titles as How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee and Forged, have caused quite a stir. Ehrman, who says he was raised as a fundamentalist, now calls himself an agnostic. He has especially focused on the development of early Christianity. His particular field of study is textual criticism, which examines the various early manuscripts, seeking errors and inconsistencies, in order to, if possible, eliminate all errors and produce a text most closely representing the original text.
His work has led him to conclude, among other things, that Jesus was not considered divine until nearly 200 years after His death (remember that time period!), and that the Gospels could not have been written by the men whose names they bear. Ehrman doesn’t consider the New Testament, and specifically the Gospels, to be an accurate depiction of Jesus’ life or of the beliefs of those who actually knew Him. He says, “Our best sources about Jesus, the early Gospels, are riddled with problems.”
Coming from someone who was initially a believer and who has made serious study of the issues, this can be pretty unsettling. To those who disagree with him, who still believe the New Testament to be reliable, he warns, “People almost always find what they expect to find if they allow their expectations to guide the search.”
The reliability of the New Testament is being tried in the court of public opinion. We’re all members of the jury, and at first glance, it appears the prosecution is winning.
How do we uncover the truth of the matter? The events described in the New Testament took place nearly 2,000 years ago. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John themselves are long gone. We can’t cross-examine them, nor can they defend their testimony. Can we believe them or not?
If this were a TV mystery or a detective show, we’d look for an investigator who specialized in cold cases. And as cases go, this one is really cold. In a plot twist worthy of such dramas, it turns out that there is such a fellow already on the case—a real-life homicide detective. His name is J. Warner Wallace, and he has 20 years of experience solving cold cases. In his book Cold Case Christianity, he tackles the case head on. Unlike Ehrman, Wallace began as an atheist, but instead of a scholarly approach, he brought the tools of his trade to bear.
Reading the works of Ehrman and Wallace is a fascinating study in contrasting approaches. Ehrman began his study believing the Bible to be inerrant; that is, without errors of any kind. As a textual critic, it was his job to find errors in manuscripts—and find them he did. In fact, he found so many that he essentially did not believe in the truth of the documents at all.
Wallace, on the other hand, began as a total nonbeliever, but he approached the Gospel record as he would any cold case, as he would the testimony of witnesses recorded long ago that had been passed down through many generations. Scholars and critics, focusing on errors and inconsistencies, found the documents wanting. Wallace, with his police background, didn’t care whether the witnesses were without error in every detail. Instead he wanted to know whether their testimony was reliable. Did what they said present a convincing case for the critical claims of Christianity?
The first question Detective Wallace asked of any witness testimony was whether he or she was indeed present at the scene of a crime. He declared, “Before I could ever take the Gospels seriously as eyewitness accounts, I needed to decide where they fell on this timeline. . . . The closer they appeared to the life and ministry of Jesus, the more seriously I could consider their claims.” Unless the Gospel accounts originated with witnesses who were actually present during the events they described, there would be no point in going further.
Although many scholars claim that the Gospels were written as much as two centuries later than the events described, when Wallace examined their testimony, he found convincing evidence that they were in fact based on firsthand witness accounts. For one thing, none of the Gospels mentions the siege of Jerusalem or the destruction of the temple, which took place in A.D. 68–70, yet several Gospel accounts show Jesus predicting these very events. Had they already happened, it would have been to their advantage to mention them, but they did not. In Detective Wallace’s mind, this indicates to him that the Gospels were written prior to A.D. 68. Wallace also noted that not a single New Testament book mentions the deaths of either Peter or Paul, which took place around A.D. 65 or 67. Altogether, Wallace collected 11 pieces of evidence in support of “an early dating for the Gospels. The gospel writers appear in history right where we would expect them to appear if they were, in fact, eyewitnesses.” In short, they were there.
Next Wallace examined what investigators call the “chain of custody.” In working with a cold case, Wallace had to make sure that the evidence that was passed on to him was confirmed at the time and that it had been passed down reliably. For example, the apostle John taught Ignatius and Polycarp, who in their own writings affirmed the major claims of the Gospels, including the divinity of Jesus. Ignatius and Polycarp taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus, and Hippolytus brings us to about 200 years after the Crucifixion, just about the time when Ehrman suggests that the idea of Jesus as God originated. Wallace shows a similar chain of custody for the apostles Paul and Peter. So he has three separate chains, any one of which refutes the claim that these teachings originated at a much later date.
Wallace examined claims that the apostles were lying—that they made up their testimony about Jesus’ resurrection, His miracles, and so on. He found that they had no motivation to lie. To the contrary, their insistence on the truth of their claim caused them persecution, suffering, and want. He concluded, “The apostles were free from ulterior motives.”
Examining the testimony of the Gospel writers, Ehrman and other scholars find the inconsistencies disqualifying. Wallace found just the opposite: “Every case I handle is like this; witnesses seldom agree on every detail. In fact, when two people agree completely on every detail of their account, I am inclined to believe that they have either contaminated each other’s observations or are working together to pull the wool over my eyes. I expect truthful, reliable eyewitnesses to disagree along the way.”
There’s much more to the book, as Wallace, the cold-case detective, meticulously marshals the evidence, weighs the testimony, and examines alternatives, building his case for Christianity. When he has finished, he says, “We’ve examined the four important areas that jurors must consider when determining the reliability of eyewitnesses. The most reasonable inference is that the gospel writers were present, corroborated with each other, and were accurate and unbiased. If this is the case, we can conclude with confidence that their testimony is reliable. We’ve done the heavy lifting needed to determine the reliability of these accounts; we’ve been diligent and faithful as jurors, and have considered the evidence. It’s time to make a decision.”
Fellow members of the jury, what say you?