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.



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