This article serves as a cursory introduction to a series of articles I will be doing on the reliability of the Gospel. Through this series, I will be taking a theological, philosophical, and historical look at the reliability of the Gospel. I will also answer objections to the authenticity and reliability of the Gospel as a whole and the four books contained therein: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In April of 2019, I published an article on Owlcation (a website created by academics and educators for topics of academic interest) on the topic of Yeshua (Jesus) rising from the dead that may also be of interest to the reader. The article is brief and it is a good overview. This article series, however, will be significantly more in depth.
By the end of this series, you will be well acquainted with the accuracy, origin, and reliability of the Gospel. You will also be well acquainted with historical works that are connected to the Gospel and the implications of its message. This, however, will not be a typical apologetic of the Gospel. Instead of treating the Gospel as the claim, the historical evidence will be subservient to what is already said in the Gospel. In this series, ‘evidence’ will be defined as content that appear consistent with what is expected given the truth of a conclusion.
What is the Gospel?
The Gospel is often referred to as the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We, as believers should be aware that this view of the Gospel is mistaken, for all four books of the Gospel preach only one Gospel, and that is that God came as a man, robed in flesh, to minister on this earth, die on the cross as a sin offering, and be raised again for the forgiveness of sins and for us to be born again by spirit. The fullness of this message is embodied in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the congregation of Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15.
All four books of the Gospel attest to the same Gospel shared by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Therefore, we should not say ‘four Gospels,’ for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John preach the same Gospel. We should instead say that these books are one Gospel with four books (or components). The four books of the Gospel were written by men who were inspired by the same spirit, the Holy Spirit, for they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4, John 16:12-13, 1 Corinthians 2:12-13). When the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, the Gospel spread through the world like wildfire and even countries such as Rome who were trying to stamp it out was overtaken by the message of the Gospel, and the country became full of believers. Not long after the receiving of the Holy Spirit, congregations and churches were established in many countries.
In most apologetic articles concerning the reliability of the Gospel, the Gospel is treated as the claim, and evidence is presented to support that claim. While there is nothing wrong with evidence, I do not believe this is the best approach. If we believe the Bible, we should always take it at its word, and furthermore, the extra-biblical historical sources that will be cited concerning the Gospel and related issues will be a response to the Bible. How, pray tell, can we piece together a history with any semblance of accuracy if we disregard that in which writings and events are responding to? The only way to investigate the reliability of the Gospel is to include the Bible in our investigation.
Therefore, the Bible, in this apologetic, will be treated as indisputable. This may seem a bit strange, but any historical method must decide which sources the historian will stand on. If the Bible is the Word of God, the extra-biblical evidence will be consistent with both what the Bible claims and its implications.
Concerning the reliability of the Gospel, it is important to note that evidence has limitations. Evidence is not something that proves the truth of a proposition. Evidence is accumulated inductively, and thus, the evidence gathered does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. For the believer, it is God that guarantees the truth and reliability of His Word. At best, evidence and the conclusions inferred from the evidence are given as reasons to supplement the strength of our position.
Insofar as polemics are concerned, the arguments that have been raised against the credibility and reliability of the Gospel will be shown to be riddled with logical inconsistencies and questionable claims on the basis of faulty presumptions, questionable historical methods, and false claims. By the end of this series, you will not only be familiar with the Gospel, the historical issues surrounding it, and its credibility, but you will also know how to respond to the objections that skeptics and liberal new testament scholars give.
The Necessity of a Philosophical Framework
Evidence is of no use if it is not viewed within a philosophical framework, and a philosophical framework is in need of an axiom. An axiom is the first principle (or, you could say, the first proposition or first belief) of a philosophical system. Indeed, the Presbyterian philosopher Gordon Haddon Clark wrote, “Axioms, because they are axioms, cannot be deduced from or proved by previous theorems.” 1 Because axioms are starting points in a philosophical system, there can be no belief that proceeds them, for whatever precedes the axiom would then be the axiom of that philosophical system.
The suggested axiom in this article is, ‘The Bible is the Word of God.’ Thus, when we look at the Bible in a historical context concerning its reliability, not only will historical evidence be used, but the Bible itself will be considered to be fully inspired by God from page to page. The power of the Word will be considered, and the status of our Messiah, the Apostles, and the Prophets will not be questioned. I am not ashamed of the Bible, and whatever the Bible says is enough for me to believe.
Typically, most people think of history as being unbiased. If, however, it is not possible to build a philosophical framework from an axiom, it is impossible to be unbiased. Why? Because if a historian disregards the notion that Yeshua was the Messiah and that the Holy Spirit empowered the Apostles to write the four components of the Gospel and preach the Gospel to the nations, he will have already decided that it is not possible for God to intervene in these matters before he even begins his investigation. On the same note, if the believer assumes the Bible is the Word of God prior to investigating the credibility of the Gospel, the believer will interpret all historical evidence in light of what the Bible already teaches.
In many cases, the same evidence is looked at, yet there are different conclusions. The one who objects to the plenary and verbal inspiration of the Bible would likely blame the believer, but the historical method is not so simple. After all, the historical method is not unbiased. Popular culture views what history books say as being indisputable, or, at the very least, the most reliable sources for historical matters.
History, however, is not so cut and dry. When we look at historical sources, we find that they often contradict regardless of when each source was written. Sometimes, there is disagreement between sources that were written centuries apart, but there is also disagreement between historical sources that are written in the same time period and from the same society.
For example, the National Archives is the United States’ government’s collections of documents that have recorded significance events in the United States’ history. In an article on the National Archives website it reads:
Documents–diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs–created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even the best-written article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students become aware that all written history reflects an author’s interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature. 2–United States National Archives
The U.S. National Archives Website further reads:
As students read eyewitness accounts of events at Little Big Horn or letters to congressmen expressing concern about woman suffrage, or look at photographs from the Civil War and then attempt to summarize their findings, they become aware of the subjective nature of their conclusions. The disagreements among students in interpreting these documents are not unlike those among historians. Through primary sources students confront two essential facts in studying history. First, the record of historical events reflects the personal, social, political, or economic points of view of the participants. Second, students bring to the sources their own biases, created by their own personal situations and the social environments in which they live. As students use these sources, they realize that history exists through interpretation–and tentative interpretation at that.–United States National Archives
Any source, whether it is a first or secondary source, will be biased both on the part of the writer and the interpreter. One only need look at the current political and historical climate of the United States in 2019. A first-hand source, President Donald J. Trump’s transcript with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, had very different reactions between reporters. Some said there was no wrong doing and others said that Donald Trump’s conduct is impeachable. People on both sides of this issue have the same documentation, but they have very different conclusions. Thus, non-revelational history is a matter of opinion and not of what some may call ‘fact.’
Thus, the notion that history is not an objective enterprise, rather, it is an unavoidably dogmatic enterprise is a conclusion that is beyond reasonable dispute. Furthermore, history reflects the socio-political climate of the time in which it records. If this is so, the Bible cannot be disregarded even by the historian who is investigating the reliability of the Gospel. Rather, it too, must be treated as a historical source.
Therefore, in this series, the Bible will be treated both as the Word of God and as a historical source. The four components of the Gospel are eyewitness accounts, we know this by scripture, but there is also extra-biblical evidence to support that men who were moved by the Holy Spirit to write a biography on our Lord and Messiah, Jesus Christ, also known as Yeshua the Messiah, were eye witnesses to the glory, splendor, ministering, and the ascension of our Lord to heaven to be seated at the right hand of God.
When looking at the reliability of the Gospel, it is worth noting that biographies in the first century A.D. are quite dissimilar to the western biographies that have been written in the 20th and 21st century. In Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, Craig L. Blomberg, a New Testament scholar at Denver Seminary is quoted saying:
“In the ancient world the idea of writing dispassionate, objective hsitory merely to chronicle events, with no ideological purpose, was unheard of. Nobody wrote history if there wasn’t a reason to learn from it.” 3
When we look at the way the four books of the Gospel are presented, we find that the structure of the biographies are not unusual for first century content. Thus, the notion that the four books of the Gospel should have been recorded in a way that is consistent with a modern biography is preposterous even by historical standards. Thus, the notion that the Bible should read like a modern biography is not a good argument against the reliability of the Gospel.
The issue does not stop here, however. The Apostle Paul wrote, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).” The Apostle Paul also wrote, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).” The receiving of the revelation of God is not a natural matter; it is a spiritual matter.
Thus, when we approach the issue of the reliability of the Gospel, we, as believers, cannot be removed from the spiritual matter. It is not because there is not any evidence for the reliability of the Gospel (indeed, there is an embarrassment of riches). In 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle Paul draws a distinction between the way His message was delivered and persuasion by the wisdom of man. He writes:
“But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. 16For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.1 Corinthians 2:10-16
This is the mindset of the Apostle Paul, and this too, was the mindset of our Messiah, Yeshua, “Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you (John 14:17).”
Defining the Bible
Though this series focuses on the four books of the Gospel, other parts of scripture may be discussed. In this article, the Bible is defined as the propositional revelation of the 66 books of the Protestant Canon. This means that the revelation is predicated on the meaning of the text and not the scribes who made the copy of the texts. This will be a very important point as this series progresses.
The Argument for the Reliability of the Gospel
In this article series, I am arguing specifically for the reliability of the Gospel. Though the Bible attests to its own truthfulness, the primary argument that will be given, is the reliability of the Gospel is the best explanation for both its own claims and the historical evidence surrounding it. The argument that will be given from the historical evidence is a textbook case of the inference to the best explanation.
Since this is an article series, there will be a section for answering every objection I have heard to the issues discussed. As new objections come up, I will update these articles. This section will focus on general objections to the Gospel whereas other articles that cover the individual books of the Gospel will answer the objections pertaining to those individual books.
You are starting with the Bible. This is begging the question.
Begging the question occurs when you attempt to prove a proposition by assuming the proposition to be true. We, as believers, know the truth of the Bible by divine revelation, thus, when we become believers, the Bible becomes our ultimate authority. Those of us who have pondered the philosophical implications of this understand that the Bible (specifically, the Bible is the Word of God) must be our axiom. Since an axiom is indemonstrable, a person who holds to this axiom will not seek to prove the Bible. Thus, when we are beginning from an axiom that we know is not demonstrable, it is not possible to beg the question.
Even so, there are additional related arguments that can be made from starting from this axiom that are not circular. For example, the truth of the Bible makes the best sense of the evidence that is related to the Bible. Thus, we can conclude that there is extra-biblical evidence that the Bible’s Gospel narrative is true.
This is not question begging, for the premise and the conclusion are different. If the Gospel is historically reliable, we would expect to find evidence that it is true. The Gospel is historically reliable. Therefore, we expect to find evidence that the Gospel is true. This is not question begging, rather, it is a modus ponens syllogism.
The progression of the four books of the Gospel show that the believers’ theology of Jesus developed over time rather than by divine inspiration.
1 Corinthians predates all four books of the Gospel and it shows a complete theology in 1 Corinthians 15. 1 Corinthians is believed to have been written around 51-55 A.D.
Jesus never existed. His stories are based on ancient mythologies. We know this because there are clear similarities between Jesus and other mythical figures such as Horus.
This is a popular objection in pop-culture atheism, but when you actually read the stories of Horus, other mythical figures, and Jesus you will find that many similarities that atheists point out are actually nowhere found in the mythological stories they are referencing. For example, the atheist often claims that Horus was conceived by a virgin, but Horus is the son of Osiris and Isis, and thus, we was conceived conventionally and not by a virgin. Joshua J. Mark, the co-founder, director, and an editor for the Ancient History Encyclopedia remarks concerning the Jesus-Horus myth:
This claim, which is quite obviously false to anyone who knows the stories of the two figures, has become the best known of the book [The Pagan Christ]. Unfortunately, many readers who do not know the original stories take Harpur’s claims as legitimate scholarship when they are not. To cite only a few examples, Harpur asserts that both Horus and Jesus were born in a cave – this is false, Horus was born in the Delta swamps and Jesus in a stable; both births were announced by an angel – also false, as the concept of the angel, a messenger of God, is absent from Egyptian beliefs; Horus and Jesus were both baptized – false, baptism was not practiced by Egyptians; both Horus and Jesus were tempted in the wilderness – false, Horus battled Set in many different regions, including the arid desert while the gospel stories make clear that Jesus was tempted in the desert or the wilderness; Horus and Jesus were both visited by Three Wise Men – false, Horus is never visited by wise men and, even more damaging to Harpur’s ‘scholarship’, there are not ‘three wise men’ mentioned in the Bible which only references `wise men’ who bring three kinds of gifts; Horus and Jesus both raised the dead back to life – false, Horus had nothing to do with raising Osiris or anyone else from the dead. 4Joshua J. Mark, Director, Editor, and Co. Founder of Ancient History Encyclopedia
We do not have the original manuscripts for the New Testament so we cannot know what the Bible originally said.
By using the historical method, even if we do have original copies that we are unaware of, there would be no way to prove that they were the original copy. Thus, the objector is either implicitly or intentionally trying to set a standard for the Bible that the historical method cannot possibly resolve. Based on the unbeliever’s logic, we cannot know that Plato wrote The Republic.
Philosophically, this is not an issue for believers. Recall that in this article, I defined the Bible as the propositional revelation of the 66 books of the Protestant Canon. The propositional meaning of the text that we have now is what is being defined as the Bible, thus, we can know what the Bible said. Furthermore, all textual evidence that is available to us shows us that the Bible has remained unaltered in its propositional meaning. Thus, whether you look at the Bible from the standpoint of divine inspiration or through the historical method, there is no reason to believe that the text we have today is any different than what was written in the first century.
You said that the four books of the Gospel are similar in literary style to other first century biographies. This shows that the Bible is a natural work and not a work of God.
It is true that the four books of the Gospel have some similarities in literary style to other first century biographies, but this does nothing to show that the four books of the Gospel are not inspired by God.
In order to draw such a comparison, we would have to have an example of a work that is produced by inspiration and another work that is not produced by inspiration. If the objector admits that he does not believe that any literary work is divinely inspired, how would he know what to look for in order to identify a literary work that is divinely inspired? How does the objector know that a literary work that is divinely inspired wouldn’t have similar themes to other contemporary biographies?
It is commonly believed, and the Bible also teaches this, that when God inspired the writers of the Bible, they retained some of their literary tendencies. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).” The Greek root word used for the inspiration of God is θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), and it means inspiration of God. Because of how this verse is phrased in the Greek, very few believers think that the inspiration of God was literally dictated word-for-word in the Bible. Rather, God sought to share His message while retaining the humanity and literary tendencies of the author, just as God used Moses, Elijah, and other characters of the Bible to carry out His will while still allowing them to maintain their agency. If we already know that God purposes His people while allowing them to maintain control over their decisions, why would we expect Him to do anything different with their writing?
- The Trinity Foundation © 2004, Gordon Haddon Clark & John W. Robbins, The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark Volume 4, p. 299.
- National Archives <https://www.archives.gov/education/history-in-the-raw.html>, Accessed 10/10/19
- Zondervan Publishing House © 1998, Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, p.31
- Ancient History Encyclopedia, Joshua J. Mark, Horus, <https://www.ancient.eu/Horus/>, Accessed 10/11/19