Can we trust the biblical accounts of the life of Jesus?

The Problem

Can we trust any historical documents? We understand that it is just not possible for someone to write something that is not in some way biased. When we try to record something about history we discover that the way we view the world has an impact on what we write. So then can we ever trust anything (and hence the bible) to give us an accurate account of what happened? Didn't the writers of the books of the bible twist the meaning of what they wrote? Did the people who copied the bible by hand change what they copied to suit their own understanding of the world?

Summary of the answer

It is partly correct to say that no one can write history without bias. However this does not mean that some writers are more accurate than others or that we cannot find elements of reality within the writings. Not everything we say is wrong even if it may be biased.

Take the holocaust for instance. Do we give equal weight to those who say it did not happen as we do to those who say it did? Even though we understand the bias there are some things that we accept as being true either because of the weight of the evidence or because we have become convinced of the truth through some other factors.

The bible records the life of Jesus in the gospels. Four different books written by four different people. It seems very likely that three of them shared some common descriptions of the events but they are still individual accounts. We discover that these accounts are all written within the lifetime of those who witnessed the events and that they broadly agree with each other on the historical facts. The differences are not significant to any of the Christian claims about Jesus and most can be explained very simply. We also discover that there is very little evidence to support the claim that the gospels have been amended by subsequent editors and again where there is dispute about the claim there is never any threat to the Christian claim.

The gospels should be treated the same as any other historical document if we can ever hope to understand who Jesus is. When those documents are put to the test as historical documents it seems that they stand up to the test very well. As historical documents the gospels are very good.

Fuller answer

A look at the historical reliability of the gospels.

If we are going to trust what the Bible says about Jesus then we have to consider several things:

  1. Are the gospels historically accurate?
  2. What kinds of things are the gospel writers trying to prove?
  3. Do they agree with each other?
  4. How soon after the events was the New Testament written?
  5. Have they changed since they were written?
  6. What kind of record of the events are they?

Are the gospels historically accurate?

Do the gospels fit in with everything else that we know about the period?
For instance the gospels have a lot to say about the way the world was in Palestine in the time of Jesus. We know a fair bit about the way the world was back then from sources other than the Bible. If the gospels are accurate in the details about life at the time then it helps to confirm their historical reliability.

The simple answer is that they are very accurate about life in Jesus' time.
There are historical details of the period which have proven to be accurate. The portrait of life in Palestine in first century A.D. that we read about in the New Testament agrees with other sources of that time. The works of Josephus for example give details about the period that are also found in the gospels. This is itself is not conclusive proof but it is important proof when the historical accuracy of a document is being considered.

What kinds of things are they trying to prove?

Every writer has a bias, it is impossible not to. We need to know just how biased a writer was if we are to trust what they say. But being biased does not make you wrong.
Being biased does not make you wrong about things that happened, it is quite possible to be biased and yet still tell a story accurately.

But were the gospel writers so biased that they were willing to change the stories and perhaps add a few to make a point?
The answer is surprising to many (who assume that the gospel writers were the equivalent of gutter press reporters) because from the evidence we have it seems all the gospel writers were true to the material that they had. We know this for several reasons (many of which are on this page) but also because of the things they did not say. We know from other writings (some of them older than the gospels) that the church faced some very major issues about how Christians should live. Should Christians be allowed to eat pork and other foods that Jewish people were not? Should non-Jews who become Christian be made to become Jewish (e.g. circumcision etc)? These were big issues in the church at the time the gospels were written.

So then it is significant that the gospels say nothing about many of the big issues facing the church when the gospels were written. If you are writing a book to settle issues and you are willing to bend the truth to do so (as the gospel writers are often accused of being) it would be logical to add in information about the big issues that need settling. That these issues are not dealt with in the gospels is very strong evidence that the writers were determined to be true to the stories themselves. This is very strong evidence that they were as faithful as they could be to the historical Jesus. Far from being willing to manipulate the material they had they were determined not to do so.

Do they agree with each other?

If an historian is looking at documents to try and determine what happened then they are looking for agreement.
If the documents agree about the details then this makes a very strong case for their historical accuracy.

On all major points the gospels agree with each other.
It is true that there are differences in some details but these differences make no difference to the major points of the story of Jesus and they also help to prove the gospel writers trustworthiness. For instance if a group of witnesses to an event gave the exact same word for word description of an event would you trust it? Of course not, because everyone remembers different details about things. If those witnesses described an event with different perspectives then you would be happy that the event had taken place even if you couldn't get the exact details to match. If you are a fan of crime shows on T.V. then you are familiar with this idea. When people have something to hide and they have the opportunity to talk with each other they make sure that they tell the same story. When witnesses relate the same event but with different details remembered it makes the story much more believable.

But aren't all the stories found in the same book - the Bible?
It does not matter that the gospels are all part of the Bible because the Bible is simply a collection of documents (books and letters). Each book of the New Testament of the Bible (and certainly the gospels) were written independently of each other (even if we believe that some of the gospels used others as sources we still have to admit that they were written independently). Each account of the life of Jesus is an in dependant account they just happen to have been gathered together into the one bigger collection - the Bible.

How soon after the events was the New Testament written?

Based on the later dates that are offered for the gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke were all written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of what happened. John was written within the next generation after the eyewitnesses (i.e. the people who were told by the eyewitnesses what had happened). There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the gospels were written even earlier.

This means that if the claims they made were not accurate there are plenty of people around who could dispute them and yet there are no counter-gospels refuting what they say from this period.

This level of accuracy is unusual for historians. Suetonius is one of the main sources of information about the life of Julius Caesar (who died in 44 B.C.) and he writes about 155 to 165 years after Julius Caesar has died and yet the life of Julius Caesar written by Suetonius is considered to be pretty accurate. The gospel of Mark (most likely the first one written) was written around 35 years after Jesus was crucified.

The information before it was recorded by the gospel writers was passed around by memory. But, contrary to the way some portray the events, this is not one person trying to remember but lots of people in communities remembering the events. This is very different to the Chinese Whispers (or telephone game) played by children. This isn't one person whispering to another who then whispers it on but a community of people talking about events that they had witnessed. If someone introduced details from their imagination there were plenty of people to put them right - and they would have done so.

In the ancient world remembering information was much more important than it is today, and they would have been able to recall distant events much better than we can. Remember that most people did not write things down to remember them at this time but instead used their memory. It was possible for someone to hear a speech and remember it word for word years after. Also a community of people remembering is much more accurate than one person. Have you ever sat around with your family and tried to remember an event from the past? Anyone who says it wrong gets corrected. If we can still do this today then even more so in a world that relied on people remembering events accurately.

If we take a look at the other parts of the New Testament then we discover that some of them were written even earlier than the gospels and so we have writings about Jesus that are written just a few years after the crucifixion. This is remarkable for ancient history.

Have they changed since they were written?

This is a harder one to answer because the figures, when quoted as cold hard facts, are misleading - bear with me here. When Bible scholars talk about variations from one copy of a text to another this can refer to several things. The vast majority of the differences are down to things like adding a definite article to a name (e.g. adding 'the' to Jesus rather than just saying Jesus) and another difference is saying Jesus instead of he (when writers were quoting from a Bible passage and wanted to make it clear who was being spoken about they would change he into Jesus so it was clear), that kind of thing. In fact 70 to 80% of all variants are down to simple spelling differences, things like spelling John with one or two ns. Then there are variation that come from a tired scribe copying a word incorrectly which is easy to spot.

Now for the figures: there are around 200,000 variants in the text. However there are also around 30,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament that survive from antiquity (which accounts for the large number of variations where one changed word or an added definite article qualifies as a variation). This is a vast number of documents compared to other ancient documents that tend to have surviving copies in the 10's at best. This vast number of copies helps to make the variations sound more impressive than they actually are. The additions to the text of the New Testament amount to around 2% over fourteen centuries of copying. This is a remarkably small number.

Only about 1% of variants are meaningful and most of these are not significant in that they don't change anything important other than confusion over a word or two that don't change the message in any way.

But the most important thing is that none of the variations change any of the core messages of the gospels. In fact we have some pretty sophisticated methods that helps us reconstruct original documents that has proved to be very accurate. We can be very confident that we have as near to the originals as it is reasonably possible to get.

One of the problems that people (including a small number of Christians) sometimes have is that they see the Bible as being dictated by God and therefore they have to believe every dot should be accurate. However this is not how the vast majority of Christians has viewed the Bible. The majority (and certainly all main denominations) believe the Bible is inspired by God but written by people. It is infallible in that it is true in what it teaches not that every last dot of detail needs to accurate. At the end of the day the Bible is just a book - a very important book - but just a book. It is not God and must not be worshipped. If Christianity is true - and I believe it is - then Christians must be prepared to have their Bible scrutinised and not fall to pieces if anyone suggests a word might be misspelled.

That the New Testament has survived in its original form after all this time, with so many people copying it is nothing short of miraculous. The temptation for copyists to change texts to suit their own agendas is huge and it is amazing that this has not happened to the New Testament in any significant way.

What kind of record of the events are they?

Do the gospels treat the writers or the characters better than they should?
There is a tendency amongst those who make up history, or those who want to manipulate it for their own ends, to overplay the part that they have in it.

However the gospels are always very hard on the disciples - the very people who are accused of writing them for their own ends. In the gospels the disciples emerge as confused cowards not the super heroes we might expect if they were trying to create a wonderful image for themselves.

Conclusions

Any one of these things on their own would not be conclusive but when they are combined we get a picture of historical documents that can be trusted. They are very good records of history, even by today's standards. No matter what we think about what happened in Palestine in the first part of the first century we can be confident that the gospels are historically accurate accounts of what the writers believed happened.