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It is commonly argued that the New Testament is unreliable and historically inaccurate. The argument focuses on a number of apparent inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, which, it is said, make the accounts unbelievable.
Here I discuss seven of the most commonly raised issues. My discussion is based on the conclusions of a balance of christian and non-believing scholars at reputable universities.
Understanding the literature
Scholars tell us that the gospel authors were not writing objective history in the modern sense – few did in those days. The writers were writing biographies, a recognisable ancient literary form which was intended to be factual history, but presented in a way to make certain points.
So Luke said he gathered evidence written by others from eyewitnesses reports (Luke 1:1-4) while John says he wrote his gospel so people would believe (John 20:31). Sometimes the writer’s reflections and teaching are interwoven with the historical account .
Some historians try to separate the two, to get beyond the reflections of the writers to the actual events, but others accept that history cannot exist without interpretation. Either way, historians can rarely make certain statements, but instead deal in probabilities. For those whose prime interest is in the message, these distinctions are less important.
Not a problem
We can therefore rule out a number of things that may appear at first sight to be inconsistent:
- The gospels are not necessarily chronological, so differences in the sequence of events are not generally an issue.
- Jesus would have given the same teachings many times, so differences in wording are not necessarily an indication of a problem.
- The authors sometimes simply omit information we would like to know.
- The writers selected, arranged and wrote their stories in a way that assisted their goal of presenting Jesus as they understood him.
- On some occasions in the gospels and Acts, it is clear that the author is summarising what someone said rather than quoting them word for word.
But this still leaves many apparent inconsistencies.
Jesus’ birth is recorded only in Matthew and Luke, and the two stories have some major differences, though no clearcut contradictions. Critics have suggested the following anomalies:
- Both gospels agree that Jesus’ birth took place during the life of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. However Luke says Jesus was born during a census conducted by Quirinius, and this is known to have taken place in 6 CE. Most scholars think that Luke got it wrong, but some scholars argue that this could have been a preliminary registration for the main census, which could well have been a drawn-out process, while others suggest that the correct translation is that the census took place before the one we know about – i.e. during the life of Herod.
- Some critics say that it is unlikely that both Joseph and Mary would have been required to travel the 100 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but others point to Roman sources suggesting this might have been the case (particularly if Joseph owned property there).
- The genealogies of Jesus given in the two gospels differ significantly. Some say they are the separate genealogies of Mary and Joseph, but this seems impossible. It seems more likely that the genealogies were never intended to be totally factual (Matthew’s is neatly divided into 3 groups of fourteen), but symbolic.
- It is possible, but difficult, to reconcile Luke’s statement that Mary and Joseph returned home to Nazareth soon after his birth with Matthew’s story of their trip to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempts to kill Jesus.
- Some features of the stories, though not contradictory, are nevertheless doubted by many scholars: the story of the wise men, the slaughter by Herod of the children in Bethlehem and Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ trip to Egypt. Many believe the stories are legendary, or are unable to be accepted because they are not mentioned elsewhere.
- The virgin birth of Jesus is disputed by many, because they hold a naturalist view that doesn’t allow such a miracle. But it remains true that this is one of the features of the story that occurs in both accounts, suggesting that it was commonly believed among early christians.
There are many scholars who believe the two stories can be harmonised and are true. Many others believe the birth stories are not historical and were never intended to be, but rather stories which portrayed what the writers thought was the truth about Jesus – he was the son of God worthy to be worshiped. Perhaps the most common view is that some parts of the story are true and other parts are fanciful ways to teach deeper truths.
Those who believe the Bible is without error can plausibly, though with some difficulty, believe that everything can be harmonised. Those who don’t have such a view of the Bible can accept some or all of what the scholars say without much problem, and accept the stories without being sure how much is true.
But Jesus must have been born in some way and these stories are all we have. The scholars cannot offer definite answers, so I think it’s quite reasonable to believe and celebrate the Christmas stories in the traditional way.
Did Bethlehem and Nazareth exist?
Some sceptics claim there is no evidence that Bethlehem or Nazareth existed as settlements at the time of Jesus, making the whole story doubtful. I have looked at this in more detail in Were Bethlehem and Nazareth real places? The answer from archaeology is that there is compelling evidence for Nazareth being a small village in Jesus’ time, and some evidence that Bethlehem also existed.
Gadara or Gerasa?
The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) tell the story of an exorcism by Jesus which resulted in a herd of pigs rushing into the sea. However there are some notable differences in their accounts:
- Mark (5:1-20) and Luke (8:26-39) describe the exorcism of one man, whereas Matthew (8:28-34) mentions two. Scholars generally conclude that Matthew has altered this detail to make some point, although it is possible that there were two men and Mark and Luke only describe what happened to one of them.
- Mark and Luke also differ from Matthew on the location – they say the territory of the Gerasenes (i.e. the country around the city of Gerasa) whereas Matthew says it was the territory around Gadara, a quite different city. But the matter is complicated by the fact that some ancient copies of these gospels have the opposite locations, or even the territory of the Gergesenes.
Both cities are located some distance from the Sea of Galilee, which some claim is a clear error. But since the gospels say it was in the territory, not the city, this is not a correct claim. But the different locations in the texts remain to be explained. Perhaps they all originally had the same place, but there was a copying error early on and this has been carried forwards – this seems quite possible since there are so many variant readings. But as they stand, the accounts differ.
These differences are minor, don’t affect the story much, and don’t pose much of a problem to the historians. But again, they may worry believers who think the Bible contains no errors, though the errors could well be in copying.
Miracles, particularly healings and exorcisms, play a large part in Jesus’ ministry. But can we believe they actually occurred now we understand the world in a more scientific way?
The historical evidence
Most scholars conclude that Jesus was known, even among his critics, as a healer and exorcist. The historical evidence is very clear on that. E P Sanders:
I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism. Maurice Casey:
There should be no doubt at all that Jesus carried through a dramatic and successful ministry of exorcism and healing. Scholars are less certain about other miracles such as calming the storm or raising the dead.
Explaining the evidence
There are several approaches to explaining the apparently historical facts. G Stanton:
Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.
- Many scholars do not try to explain these miracles, on the basis that people of different beliefs, or none, will bring different presuppositions to the question. Thus, they say, the question of whether miracles actually happen is not a historical one but a philosophical one or a matter of faith. J Meier:
I don’t know how in the world you would decide historically whether or not Jesus did or did not in fact perform miracles possible only by God alone. It’s a matter of faith.
- Some scholars say outright that the miracle stories, or at least some of them, are exaggerations or legends. JD Crossan:
…. Jesus …. did not and could not cure that disease [leprosy] or any other one …..
- Some offer natural explanations, citing evidence that some forms of healing and apparent demon possession have been explained in modern times by medical science. Maurice Casey:
Jesus’ healings generally fall within the parameters of what is perceived to be possible by traditional healers who operate within communities of people who accept their powers.However this leaves other miracles unexplained.
- Other scholars believe that the best explanation of the historical evidence is that God’s power worked through Jesus. G Twelftree:
the miracles identify Jesus as the powerful Messiah – indeed God himself at work. WL Craig:
there seems to be no in principle philosophical objection to establishing the occurrence of a miracle by means of historical research.
The historical evidence suggests that Jesus peformed miracles. Our acceptance or rejection of this evidence will depend on our prior opinions on whether God’s existence and activity in the world are considered possible or not.
Jesus’ last week
Jesus’ last week unfolds slightly differently in John, when compared to the synoptic gospels, though I have never felt this objection was clearly established.
- In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ last week begins with his entry into Jerusalem and confrontation with the temple authorities. But in John, the temple incident is way back at the beginning of his ministry. Some scholars say that there were two such incidents, but most scholars believe that John has placed the story out of chronological order to make the point that Jesus’ whole ministry would replace the temple sacrifices. Ancient biographies like the gospels often grouped events thematically rather than chronologically.
- John’s chronology is also said to differ later in the week. In the other three (synoptic) gospels, Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples was apparently on Thursday and he was crucified on Friday, but it is said that in John both the meal and the crucifixion were a day earlier (it is hard to be sure here, because the accounts don’t always specify the day of the week for the various events). There are also some other minor differences in the events.
Again, the scholars are divided. Some say there is a genuine discrepancy, with John changing the days and reporting different details to make theological points. But others argue that Jesus had two meals with his disciples (not uncommon during Passover), which explains some of the differences in the accounts, and that John also says Jesus was crucified on Friday, if his times and dates are understood correctly.
There seems little to be concerned about here. Both Biblical inerrantists and other christians can explain the gospel stories adequately, and there are enough uncertainties to make any assessment tentative. (For a discussion of each view, see chapter 2 of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted, and Ben Witherington’s critique.)
The resurrection stories
The resurrection stories in the four gospels, plus a reference in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, present a variety of stories, with details that seem difficult to harmonise. For example:
- How many women went to the tomb that morning, and who were they?
- Were there one or two people in Jesus’ tomb when visited, and were they angels or men?
- Who did Jesus appear to, where, and in what order?
Most scholars are not fazed by these differences.They say that when witnesses agree on the main facts but differ on the details, it means they have not collaborated or copied, and the truth of the main facts is more assured. And so most scholars believe that the story of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus are historical, whether they believe Jesus was really resurrected or not. They find it less important whether the details are all correct, and many believe the events were so confusing and unexpected that the disciples memories of some details are unreliable. This is enough for many christians.
Those who believe the Bible is without error have a tougher time trying to harmonise the various accounts, and many scholars say it can’t be done. But New Testament scholar John Wenham has been able to write a convincing account that fits in all the details (see Was Jesus raised from the dead?). It may not be a correct and provable reconstruction, but it shows it could be done – and it was convincing to me.
Changes to the New Testament
The New Testament we read today is translated from copies of the originals. The copies don’t always agree, so how do we know if the text we read is what was originally written?
I have looked at this matter in more detail in The reliability of the New Testament text. It turns out that, unlike most ancient texts, there are many copies, and most of the errors are easy to spot, so that there are very few passages that are now in doubt. Some of the stronger claims for inaccuracy aren’t supported by the facts.
These are the most obvious apparent discrepancies, but there are many others. Scholars, critics and christians would deal with them much the same as the ones I have discussed.
It seems to me that the problems with the historical accuracy of the New Testament are sometimes overstated. It is true that there are many unresolved difficulties, and scholars generally think there are errors there, some unhistorical details and sometimes unhistorical stories, especially in the birth narratives. But most uncertainties have plausible explanations, though these are not always accepted by most scholars.
But these apparent errors don’t seriously undermine the historical value of the New Testament, and don’t prevent even sceptical scholars from concluding that we can know a good deal about Jesus (see Jesus in history).
Those who hold to Biblical inerrancy face difficulties. Although most discrepancies can be explained in some way, the explanations sometimes seem strained, and I find it difficult to think that every one of them can be resolved reasonably.
I think it is safer to accept the scholars’ conclusions as a common basis for historical discussion – this still leaves the majority of the New Testament as historically reliable. I personally believe we can trust the New Testament writers for more than the minimum allowed for by the scholars, but that is a statement of faith based on fact, and not historical fact alone.