What Do Historians Think of the Gospels?

The fact of the matter is, they come at the same events from the same place and time from very different perspectives and for very different reasons. The historian is not only interested in documents written by professional historians, but he gathers information from every source possible and assesses the reliability of these sources professionally and compares what he finds with what he knows from other disciplines an areas of research–all of which give him many pieces of the puzzle to build up the complete picture.

So what do professional, classical historians make of the documents of the New Testament? The question has been answered pretty comprehensively over at the ChristianCADRE blog. Here are some excerpts from the excellent article:

Michael Grant, a leading classical historian in his day, took the Gospels seriously as historical sources…concluding that from them “the main lines of [Jesus’] career and thinking and teaching can to some considerable extent be reconstructed.” Grant, The History of Rome, page 337. Grant also discusses Acts, stating that while it is not as reliable as Paul’s letters, “facts can also be derived from the Acts of the Apostles” and “the rest of the book contains a good deal of by no means unreliable historical material.” Ibid., page 344.

Grant also wrote a book entitled Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. It is an interesting insight into how a respected classical historian treated the Gospels. While Grant finds reason to doubt some details in the Gospel narratives, he accepts them as useful historical sources about the historical Jesus. Ibid., page 199-200. He had scorn for the Jesus Myth idea, writing, “if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.”

Moreover, some of Grant’s conclusions are supportive of Christianity’s most important claim. For example, Grant accepts the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb: “If we apply the same criteria that we would apply to other ancient literary sources, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.” Ibid., page 176. Finally, Grant found that much of contemporary Jesus studies was too skeptical of the gospel sources, saying that such scholarship “is too extreme a viewpoint and would not be applied in other fields.” Ibid., page 201.

Two other leading classicists also viewed the Gospels and Acts as useful historical sources: Robin L. Fox and A.N. Sherwin White. Fox, perhaps most famous for his book Pagans & Christians, is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and University Reader in Ancient History. An avowed atheist, Fox wrote a book about the Bible called The Unauthorized Version. Although critical of what he perceives as fundamentalist views of the Bible, Fox reaches some quite conservative conclusions, such as that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness and that Luke-Acts was written by a companion of Paul. Indeed, Fox accepts much of Acts as historical, and states, “I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey…. He had no written sources, but in Acts he himself was a primary source for a part of the story. He wrote the rest of Acts from what individuals told him and he himself had witnessed, as did Herodotus and Thucydides….” Ibid., page 210.

Sherwin-White was an eminent Roman historian at Oxford and member of the British Academy. One of his books, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, focuses on the earliest Christian documents’ relationship with the broader Roman context. Again and again he finds the New Testament documents to be worthy of a high level of trust. When it comes to Acts, for example, Sherwin-White states, “For Acts the confirmation of history is overwhelming” and that “any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” Ibid., page 189.

As to the gospels, Sherwin-White determined that it is unlikely that the Gospels were predominantly legendary, though he does think they must be read as written with agendas and for polemical purposes: “The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time…. Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, [showing that] even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core.” Ibid., pages 189-190.

Sherwin-White’s statements about most classicists having faith in the New Testament documents receives further support from the reviews of his own book and by the works of other classicists. John Crook reviewed Roman Society and Roman Laws for Classical Review and agreed that Acts is “an historical source talking about exactly the same world as Tacitus and Suetonius.” He thought that Sherwin-White’s work “support the authenticity in detail of Acts.” Classical Review 14 (1964): 198-200; another reviewer, J. J. Nicholls, agreed with Sherwin-White that the Gospels and Acts “are to be treated as equally serious and valuable evidence” as other ancient historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. Journal of Religious History (1964): 92-95.

Other classical historians have used the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data. Connect with the original article to learn more. For example: Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford who specializes in Jewish and Roman history, relies on Acts in his conclusion that “a Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor, as did Paul in c. 60 before the Roman governor of Judaea, Festus, when the latter wanted to send him to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jewish authorities.” His only cite for the statement is Acts 25:10-12. Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, page 73.

Some will claim that because the origin of the gospels is disputed their historical data is unreliable. however, not only do classical historians as well as “biblical historians” rely on the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data, they rely on other ancient documents of disputed provenance. Check out the original article for more. An example of this is The Augustan History this is

“an ancient document with a terrible reputation, much worse than any of the Gospels or Acts. It is a collection of more than two dozen Roman biographies that purports to be by six different authors and cite hundreds of sources, but is likely is the result of one author… the documents referenced “range from the suspicious to the outrageously false.” Despite the big question marks about authorship and date and reliability, the historian Mellor treats the document seriously, noting that  “historians cannot afford to cast aside any substantial source, [so] it is necessary to analyze the lives carefully to see what may come from reliable earlier sources.”

Therefore, when we take the gospels for what they are–a kind of folk history of the predominantly Jewish community of disciples of Jesus Christ, and we see that they match up with all the geographical and archeological details that we have discovered, that they report accurately on the Jewish customs, Scriptures and religious practices of this place and time period, that they reflect accurately the political and ethnic situation in Palestine during the reported time period, that they fit neatly into all that is known from that place and time period, and they record details that only eyewitnesses could have known, we can confidently trust in their historicity.