The Bible came up in conversation the other day.
Didn’t I know, I was asked, that the gospels were written a hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ? Why on earth would I believe the gospels were true?
It’s a fair question, so it’s essential to know that compelling evidence for gospel historicity is available to anyone interested, at least in fairness, in giving a contrary argument its due.
I was raised by a pastor with a graduate degree in religion from a secular university and a Master of Divinity from a seminary known for its theological liberalism.
Conversation about skeptics’ views on scripture accompanied the meat and potatoes my mom served us for Sunday dinner every week during my teen years, when I was keen to know whether or not there was anything solid behind the faith I’d taken for granted as a child.
My dad was as well.
He pursued his studies with a special interest in historical theology. He didn’t he want to accept the claims of secular or religious scholars without checking out their data.
My father appreciated C.S. Lewis’ insights into gospel reliability, especially his essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” from the collection Christian Reflections. He often quoted Cambridge New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd. But when it came to the documents themselves, his favorite biblical scholar was the University of Manchester professor of biblical criticism and exegesis F.F. Bruce. He’d often flip through one of Bruce’s books in response to some point that had come up in his studies.
It’s a rare advantage to have a dad like that, and he handed off many of his favorite texts to me over the years. Later I would discover books written for a wide audience that gathered much of the same evidence. The one I’ve found most helpful is Dr. Brandt Pitre’s The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Case for Christ.
Pitre summarizes his studies at Vanderbilt (where he came to accept the reigning skeptical view) and his doctoral work at Notre Dame (where he studied the documents themselves, even learning Coptic to read the Gospel of Thomas in the original).
Curious to see the alleged anonymous gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John essential to “late dating” proponents, a professor challenged Pitre to look into the matter for himself. His discovery?
The anonymous gospels don’t exist: “The only way to defend the theory that the gospels were originally anonymous is to ignore virtually all of the evidence from the earliest Greek manuscripts and the most ancient Christian writers,” he asserts.
The Case for Jesus is worth its price for its chapter on the dating of the gospels alone, summarizing the main theories around sources for the synoptic gospels and a comparison of their style to ancient Greek and Roman biographies as opposed to Greek and Roman myths.
But if you’d like a look at the evidence in a nutshell, you can do no better than historian Gary Habermas’ “human timeline.”
Using recent data from biblical scholars on all sides of the atheist/liberal/conservative continuum, Habermas establishes the death of Christ as between A.D. 30 and 33. With this as his starting point he walks up and down an invisible line, placing in comparative time the historical evidence for the gospels using only research by secular or religious liberal scholars.
As I watched this lecture, I couldn’t help but think of my dad.
He had worked through his doubts in the university and liberal seminary decades ago and argued similarly when his seminary professors challenged his belief in the Resurrection. I remembered in particular the way my father expounded on the authenticity of the letters of Paul and what they offer those who doubt the gospels. Habermas goes there too.
Since we’re approaching Easter, now is a perfect time to ponder these things, and Habermas makes it easy.
But why not “just believe”?
The earliest Christians were instructed to know the reasons for the hope that was in them. They weren’t told to simply believe without checking out the facts.
Habermas distills them for us.
Watch as he walks across his “human timeline” using dates skeptics agree on.
Then note they way he applies the critical consensus on the gospel texts to the baseline date for the Crucifixion (and thus the alleged Resurrection) of Christ.
When you do that, you see that the gospel of Mark, by the most skeptical reasoning possible, was written only 30-45 years after the events occurred. Matthew comes within 50 years, Luke 55 and John at 65 years later.
Impressive as that is (it’s centuries earlier than other uncontested ancient writings and well within the time frame we accept for modern biographies), the witness of St. Paul is even more compelling.
The harshest critics may dispute the authorship of the gospels, but they still grant as authentic at least 6 of Paul’s letters. Even the famed Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan accepts 7 of those as “certainly from the historical Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, [and] Philemon).”
St. Paul was a passionate convert to Christianity who believed himself to have met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, but he does not urge mere “belief” when defending the faith he was jailed for preaching.
Paul was martyred in Rome in 63 A.D. (some 30 years after Christ’s death). Every letter he wrote that is accepted by skeptical scholars as authentic was written within 30 years of the Cross. But here’s the thing:
What Paul received from eyewitnesses to Christ (which by the latest dating possible is still within 6 years of the Cross) is precisely what the gospels contend, whatever date any particular scholar wishes to assign them.
Consider Paul’s glowing defense of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, written around 25 years after Christ. “I gave you what I was given,” he says.
Given by whom? And when? The answer takes us 3 to 6 years from the event itself. Here’s a summary:
- Paul became a Christian 1-3 years after Christ died.
- He went to Jerusalem 3 years later (Galatians 1:18), which at the latest would have been within 6 years of the Cross.
- Paul preached what he received from Peter and James, the brother of the Lord: that Christ died, was buried, was raised, appeared to Peter and then to more than 500 at the same time, most of whom were still living and could be interviewed; then he appeared to James and then to all the apostles. That means the early material from which the accounts of the Resurrection were written was given to Paul remarkably close to the events themselves.
- Many witnesses were still alive at the time and Paul doubtless had spoken to some of them personally during the three trips he made to Jerusalem. He wanted to know the facts outside his personal experience, as any reasonable person would. And that means that the material in 1 Corinthians 15, written in stanzas that indicate an early creed, had to have been written between 1-5 years before Paul received it. That takes us right to the earliest days of the Christian community.
As Habermas paces his timeline, all the while citing the toughest critics as his sources, we end up only 1-3 years from the Resurrection.
Paul received the details recited in the gospels from those who were there, not from an anonymous community who developed the story a hundred years later to maintain its authenticity.
It’s reasonable, then, to hold that the gospel accounts of the Resurrection record what the earliest Christians believed and were jailed for. You have to watch the lecture to absorb it all.
“St. Paul was well aware that many people thought that the Resurrection was a hoax, a myth, or an inspiring but exaggerated story,” notes Fr. Damien Ferrence:
He wrote the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians with such people in mind.
Sure, we’re free to reject what the gospels tell us or blow them off with “late date” speculation.
But to take them seriously is to contemplate the one human being who defeated death and who calls us to the heart of the God whose image he is, the image of Love itself.
There’s good reason to accept the invitation.
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If you enjoyed this post you might also like Galileo’s Daughter Meets God and the Astronomers: Where Faith and Science Confront Infinite Mystery.
I’ve just begun watching The Chosen, the crowd-funded TV series loosely based on the gospels that some of my friends have been praising for the past year. The Chosen is a creative wonder, linking imagined scenes with the biblical narrative, opening up the story in captivating ways Season One is free right now if you have Amazon Prime.
Have I missed your favorite book on gospel historicity? I’d love to hear from you!