Can We Trust the Four Gospels to Tell Us the Truth About Jesus? (Part 1 of 3)

Why should we consult these four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) and no others?

If you’re suspicious of the four Gospels because they were accepted and used by the church so early and so widely, keep in mind that this is not the established, government-supported, corrupt church of the Middle Ages. The early church, before Constantine, was known for its loving community, sacrificial concern for one another and for the needy around them and willingness to face social rejection and persecution for their faith in Jesus, which was officially illegal until the year 313. This church had no buildings, no social standing, no prestige. They did have the four Gospels and they knew they were reliable, having been handed down to them from the direct followers of Jesus and their close associates in the first century.

 

If we want to know the truth about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, where can we turn? Of course, the proper Christian answer would be to read the four Gospels that are in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. But do we have good reason for doing this, other than simply saying that this is what Christian churches have been doing and recommending for centuries?

To answer this question, we need to answer three related questions:

1. Why these four Gospels and no others?
2. Don’t these Gospels have lots of errors in them?
3. What about the contradictions between these Gospels?

So, first and foremost: Why should we consult these four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) and no others?

Certainly there are a number of other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life from the ancient world that are not included in our New Testaments. These even bear the names of close followers of Jesus: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Nicodemus, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Gospel of Phillip, etc. Why not read all of these other Gospels and let them guide our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth?

Well, the short answer is that we have only four Gospels which reliably date to the first century, to sometime within a generation or two of the life of Jesus. Those four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All of the others date from the mid-second century (150 or later), over 100 years after the life of Jesus. This means that, even though they bear the names of the close followers of Jesus, they could not have been written by any of these people or any of their immediate students or followers.

Think about it: If you want to know about someone from history, is it better to read an account written 30-50 years after his life by someone who knew him personally or had the opportunity to interview those who knew him personally or a source from 120-150 years after the life of the person, written by people who neither knew him personally nor were able to directly interview those who did know him personally?

Scholars believe the first Gospel account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to be written down was the Gospel of Mark, written by a man named John Mark, who was a close associate of the Apostles Peter and Paul. It was likely written in Rome between the years 55 and 62, within 35 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In fact, all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) were probably written before the year 65, before the deaths of Peter and Paul (~67). So we have three Gospels which tell basically the same story and which all date from within 40 years of the life of Jesus, at a time when numerous eye witnesses were still alive to verify or refute the information contained in them.

John’s Gospel was likely written later, though it is hard to date. John outlived all of the other Apostles, probably dying sometime in the mid-to-late 90’s. He may have written his Gospel in the early 90’s, which places it maybe 60 years after the life of Jesus, but since John had been a close follower of Jesus and eye-witness to His life, John’s Gospel should be considered as a reliable source. It is significantly different from Matthew, Mark and Luke, probably because those Gospels had been in circulation for years and John was writing things that were not in those other, readily-available Gospels.

Not only are the four Gospels of the New Testament by far the earliest and closest to the life of Jesus, but these Gospels are the ones quoted and referenced by the early church leaders, who led the church while it was still illegal and dangerous to do so, hundreds of years before Emperor Constantine. All four New Testament Gospels were widely accepted by the churches and read in them, taught by them and referenced by church leaders in their letters.

If you’re suspicious of the four Gospels because they were accepted and used by the church so early and so widely, keep in mind that this is not the established, government-supported, corrupt church of the Middle Ages. The early church, before Constantine, was known for its loving community, sacrificial concern for one another and for the needy around them and willingness to face social rejection and persecution for their faith in Jesus, which was officially illegal until the year 313. This church had no buildings, no social standing, no prestige. They did have the four Gospels and they knew they were reliable, having been handed down to them from the direct followers of Jesus and their close associates in the first century.

Other helpful resources on this topic:
Myths About the Lost Books of the New Testament
10 Misconceptions About the New Testament Canon

In our next two posts, we’ll take a close look at these four Gospels to answer these two questions:
2. Don’t these Gospels have lots of errors in them?
3. What about the contradictions between these Gospels?

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.