You don’t have to read the gospels for long to find things that don’t seem to fit together. Sceptics argue that these prove that the gospel stories can’t be trusted, and probably aren’t true.
Is this a reasonable conclusion? Is it the only reasonable conclusion? How do historians deal with these apparent discrepancies?
Some of the most commonly mentioned are these:
- Birth stories – the two familiar stories seem to be too different for both to be true.
- Did Bethlehem and Nazareth exist? – is there enough archaeological evidence?
- Gadara or Gerasa? – Jesus performed an exorcism, but where?
- Miracles – can we believe in them in this scientific age?
- Jesus’ last week – John’s gospel seems to have things happening on different days to the other writers.
- The resurrection stories – so many stories, so many little differences, how can they all be true?
- Changes to the New Testament – the text of the New Testament was copied, not always accurately, to get to the books we know now.
What the historians say
In summary, we can note that:
- There is wide range of belief among New Testament scholars, from strong christian commitment to strong disbelief. There is therefore, naturally, a range of opinion about some of these apparent errors. The comments below are a summary of the most common views of scholars I have read.
- Most historians accept that many of the apparent errors are real, caused by the writers or copyists adapting the stories to suit their purposes and their readers’ needs. Nevertheless, they still accept the gospel accounts as good historical sources.
- Some of the supposed errors are either imagined (e.g. Nazareth) or of relatively minor importance (e.g. the changes in the text, Gadara or Gerasa?).
- There is little doubt among the scholars that Jesus was known as a miracle worker and exorcist, and most historians think that is as far as they can go as historians, the rest is a matter of belief.
- The birth stories are the ones most doubted by historians. Some accept them as they are, some think they are just stories to show that Jesus was recognised as important from his birth, while others accept some parts of the stories as genuine but not others.
- Most scholars accept the accounts of Jesus’ last week in Matthew, Mark and Luke as substantially historical, with some believing John’s account is accurate and supplements these, while others believe John’s account makes theological points in places rather than historical ones.
- The basic resurrection stories of the empty tomb followed by appearances or visions of Jesus are generally accepted by historians as true, but few believe historical analysis can determine what actually happened.
A reasonable response?
1. The argument that the New Testament contains errors is challenging for any christian who believes the Bible contains no errors. While explanations can be found for every apparent discrepancy, this has to be a matter of faith, because the historical evidence suggests otherwise.
2. Christians who believe the New Testament is reliable without necessarily being without any error can accept what the historians say (without necessarily believing they are always right) and continue to trust the New Testament to give them a historically accurate picture. Their faith in the New Testament is well based on the historical evidence, but faith is still required.
3. Open-minded non-believers don’t have to think of the New Testament books as any different to any other historical documents that have been found generally reliable. This conclusion allows reasonable assessment of Jesus as a person to believe and follow, or not.
4. Outright sceptics face as many challenges as the strong believers. The consensus of historians doesn’t support their scepticism about the life and teaching of Jesus, and those who take extreme views on those matters have to ignore evidence.
A personal conclusion
I think that the evidence about Jesus is finely balanced. There is plenty enough evidence to believe, but enough uncertainty to allow doubt. As a christian, I think that is how God intends it. We are not given certainty, we are not forced. The evidence is good, but faith and a willingness to believe are also required.