What Do Historians Think of the Gospels?

Are the gospels reliable as historical accounts? In an earlier post I wrote that the gospels are unique ancient documents. They are not written primarily as historical accounts by professional historians. Instead they are the collected stories, memories and experiences of the community of Jesus Christ’s disciples. Therefore we treat them as the documents they are: memories, anecdotes and stories of faith. On the one hand this type of story is not a professional, cross referenced academic work. Someone looking for that type of work may be disappointed. On the other hand, it is more like folk history. This is a legitimate form of historical record keeping. It is simply a different form of historical record keeping than that written by a single historian.

Let’s compare the two types of history. Let’s say we wanted to know the history of Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. You could go to the professional historians who would give you an academic account of events of the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the publication of Ben Franklin’s almanac etc. This would be a reliable account. However, you could also do folk history. You could gather the diaries and scrapbooks of ordinary people. You could go to the family reunions that still take place and ask old people what stories their grandparents and great grandparents used to tell about the good ole’ days. You could collect genealogies from these family reunions. The stories that would be best remembered would be the remarkable stories–the time great grandad was run over by a horse and wagon and survived or the time cousin Henry married a native American woman.

Both types of historical research are valid and give us accurate reports of what took place in the past. However, the data and the method of gathering the information is very different. Arguments can well be made that both types of historical research are extremely detailed and accurate and arguments can be made that both types of historical research are biased, inaccurate and incomplete. Grandma’s family tree–kept meticulously and double checked by referencing all the relatives would be very accurate documentary evidence. Cousin Sally’s scrapbook with dates and ticket stubs and photographs and captions would be a very accurate form of history. Oral history in the community can also be very accurate–with people remembering very clearly the dates and personalities involved. One only has to visit a close-knit community like the Mennonites or Amish to realize how accurate and precise such community folk histories can be. On the other hand, one only has to read any highly politicized “professional historian’s” book to realize that they are most often biased in the extreme.

The Jewish context of the early church was just such a community. Not only were they close-knit, but they had a long tradition of oral history and word by word memorization of oral history–as recounted in my earlier post. So a good historian takes up all these forms of historical data and sifts them and organizes them. Granted that the gospels are not modern, scientific historical works, but closer to folk history–are they worthless? What do the professional historians make of the gospels? Read more.



About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://www.treesforlunch.blogspot.com JD Curtis

    William Lane Craig cites Grant in this brief demolition of John Shelby Spong’s assertions in this 2 minute video re: so-called ‘inconsistencies between the four gospels’.

  • http://www.treesforlunch.blogspot.com JD Curtis

    Whoops, here’s the link

  • Korou

    None of this is evidence that the supernatural events related in the Bible actually occurred. If you knew of any historians who said that the evidence of history confirms the resurrection, that would be something. As it is, this is something that has to be left to Christian apologists.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      There is sufficient evidence for the resurrection for it to be reasonable to believe, and a good number of honest, straightforward books that examine the evidence. However, you do not have the capability to consider the evidence objectively. Your negative bias is too strong.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      So, Korou, do you now accept that historians do consider the gospels to be useful historical documents?

      • Korou

        Why Dwight, I have never denied that the gospels have accurate details in them about the place that the stories they are set in, and perhaps famous figures from the time.
        Of course, so does Harry Potter.
        Of course, these historians don’t have anything to say about evidence which proves that a man came back to life.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          The evidence for the resurrection is compiled not only by the gospel writers, but by numerous historians in books which are available most anywhere. If you continue to be curious about this matter I encourage you to study the Shroud of Turin in addition to the other evidence. The evidence may not prove the resurrection, but together there is enough evidence to not only make belief in the resurrection reasonable, but to force the non-believer to come up with alternative explanations which are more credible. So, for example, while the Shroud of Turin may not be absolute proof of the resurrection, those of us who are inclined to believe in the authenticity of the relic are correct to ask non believers what other explanation there would be for it. So far there has been no credible scientific explanation offered. However, I don’t expect you to embark on such a study. I don’t think you have the capability to make an objective study of the evidence because of your negative bias.

          • http://houseofcantor.blogspot.com John Cantor

            Shroud of Turin!?!? Oh my Gwynnies. That thing was painted in the fourteenth century. The guy that discovered the pigment got kicked off of the investigating team and sworn to secrecy. But he didn’t keep quiet.

            Or at least that’s what I have read from the skeptic’s dictionary online…

            McCrone analyzed the shroud and found traces of chemicals that were used in “two common artist’s pigments of the 14th century, red ochre and vermilion, with a collagen (gelatin) tempera binder” (McCrone 1998). He makes his complete case that the shroud is a medieval painting in Judgment Day for the Shroud of Turin (March 1999). For his work, McCrone was awarded the American Chemical Society’s Award in Analytical Chemistry in 2000.

            ~from http://www.skepdic.com/shroud.html

            Besides, I’m an artist; I’ve always been skeptical of that thing because the proportions are not quite human. They are, however, concurrent with the state of portraiture at that time.

          • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

            You need to read further. McCrone’s findings were discredited because the red ochre and vermillion he said he discovered nobody else could find, and all conclusive findings about the image itself attest that there are no pigments, no brushwork and no permeation of the cloth by any pigment. The image is scorched on the surface level of the cloth. No one has been able to replicate the image on the cloth using either modern or medieval techniques and no solution has been given for the riddle that the image is actually a photographic negative. Supposedly inconsistent physical proportions have been shown to be consistent with the way the shroud was wrapped over the body. Here is criticism of McCrone’s work: http://www.shroudofturin4journalists.com/painted.htm

  • Hominid

    Longnecker asserts, ‘[The gospels] are the collected stories, memories and experiences of the community of Jesus Christ’s disciples.’ He’s either ignorant or lying. The gospels are no such thing. They are fictions written by unknown authors long after Jesus was claimed to have lived.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      The assertion was based on documented evidence from professional historians. What was your assertion based on?

      • Korou

        Well, for a start it is an admitted fact that the gospels were written thirty to ninety years after the event. That’s a very long time. Imagine how you would feel if the first accounts of the moon landing, for example, we’re written from memory between the beginning and the end of the twenty-first century.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          The gospels were compiled thirty to ninety years after the events from earlier eyewitness sources. The references to both historical and so called “mythological” elements in the gospels recorded in the epistles of St Paul–dated from the mid 40s–which in turn quote earlier creedal statements are completely consistent with the later compiled gospels. Textual criticism of the New Testament uses not only the gospels themselves, but the entire New Testament–as well as extra canonical documents and non-Christian documents.

        • Andy s

          Korou – do you believe Mohammad is a real historical figure?
          And, what does “admitted fact” mean? Are you trying to say the dating of the original manuscripts is settled? Who did the admitting to this fact?

  • Julie

    As a woman, I am fascinated by the fact that all four gospels are in agreement stating that the initial witness to the Resurrection was a woman. Why, if the gospels are fabricated, were they written this way, since women were not even allowed to testify as witnesses at that time? Wouldn’t this have made the accounts less likely to be believed? If the gospels were written 100 years later as Korou has guessed, why not use any name since that person would no longer be alive to refute it? For me, just the fact that women were even used at all as witnesses gives credence to the gospels.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      In my post today on How do We Know the Gospels Are Historical I explain the different criteria for assessing the authenticity of the story. What you have observed is the ‘criterion of embarrassment’. It would have been embarrassing to the early Christians that a woman was the first witness. A woman’s testimony was considered unreliable. You are correct. If the story were fabricated decades later they would have tightened up the story and had a man as the first witness.

  • Glenn Juday

    Here is another way we know the gospels are historical. The gospels claim that Capernaum was the town where Jesus was based during the time of his public ministry in Galilee. “And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea…” (Matthew 4:13). Jesus stayed at Peter’s house, and the story of the calling of the Galilean fishermen is recounted in the gospels.

    Recent archeological and historical research has identified, with high confidence, Peter’s house, much of the village of Capernaum of the Second Temple period, and an ancient synagogue. At the archeological site the antiquities are managed by the Franciscan Custody. The national park around the antiquities site is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Why the confidence in the authenticity of the site?

    With essentially the entire village site exposed at least in outline, it was clear that Capernaum was a small town. There was only one main first century fishing residence/business (net fragments, stone net weights, etc.) on the site. At that site, as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website describes it:

    “The floor of one of the rooms was covered with white plaster and its walls were adorned with plaster painted with geometric patterns and colorful flowers. Apparently as early as the first century, the building served as a gathering place for the first Christians (Judeo-Christians). Discovered at the site were 173 plaster fragments bearing inscriptions, mostly in Greek. Some, like “our Lord; “the Nazarene,” “the greatest of all” and “Simon,” attest to the existence of a Christian community.”

    The indications are that these are mid first century inscriptions and paintings. Now, imagine if some group of fabulists had invented any aspect of the story of Peter and his family’s relationship to Jesus and tried to impose it on this village – taking over the space for the main business in the village, introducing blasphemous words and veneration, etc. Instead the material culture we find is perfectly congruent with what is known from just the times claimed. Here is evidence of the exact details of the gospels. And at the time there are no documented riots or condemnations from the authorities other than – those precisely described in the gospels.

    This is only one of many, many more verified sites in the Holy Land. Considering the evidence presented by these sites, we must conclude that many skeptics are reactionary – considerably behind the times, not conversant with the latest science. If they want to deal with this subject with intellectual integrity, they have a lot of catching up to do.

  • Julie

    John Cantor – Oh, how dreary, to be such a pessimist that you believe everything you need to know about life can be learned on the skeptic’s dictionary online! Perhaps you should expand your sources.