Below is a short but nicely reasoned article on the reliability of the canonical gospels by Brian Colon.
Evidence for the Reliability of the Gospels
When assessing the truth claims of the Gospel narratives, the first question that usually arises is the question of the burden of proof. In other words, should we regard the Gospels as false until they can be proven true or true until they can be proven false? This initial question is the dividing line between skeptical critics and conservative historians. Skeptical critics always consider the Gospels to be unreliable until they can be proven reliable. It is no secret that skeptical critics hold this view because of their presupposition to a naturalistic worldview. After all, if there is no God, then miracles are impossible, and since the Gospels describe miracles, then they must be false. This means that the rejection of the Gospels as historical documents is based on a philosophical assumption. The problem is, you cannot invalidate the historicity of the Gospels by way of philosophy any more than you can mathematically prove that Holocaust didn’t happen. This is because philosophy and mathematics are irrelevant to history.
In this paper I will argue that we should assume that the Gospels are reliable until they can be shown to be unreliable. Three of the reasons I am persuaded that the Gospels should be regarded as reliable are the following: (1) The Gospel writers have a proven track record for reporting accurate information, (2) there was not enough time for legends to arise and displace the historical facts in the narrative, and (3) the Gospels are nothing like legendary folklore.
Proven Track Record (Luke)
To give one example of the trustworthiness of the Gospels, I’d like to take a look at Luke, the author of the "Gospel According to Luke" and "The Acts of the Apostles." These two books are actually one single work. They are separated in our Bibles only because the people who canonized the Bible wanted to group the Gospels together (International Bible Society, 2007). Among the four Gospel writers, Luke is the only one who writes in such a way as to convey to the reader that he is a true historian. For example, in the preface to his book "The Gospel According to Luke" he states:
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4)
This preface alone provides a wealth of information about Luke and what he intends to do with his writings. First of all, this preface, unlike the rest of his book is written in classic Greek, such as was used by classic Greek historians. In verse five he switches to a more common Greek. This abrupt change is most likely his way of conveying to his reader that his book can be treated like any other historical report. Secondly, Luke clearly states in this preface that his narrative is based on eyewitness testimony, that he has "carefully investigated everything from the beginning", and accordingly he will be reporting "the truth."
Luke however was not an eyewitness to the events he was reporting, so the question would soon arise, "where did he get his information?" This question may be answered in an interesting fact we learn about Luke in his "Acts of the Apostles." In chapter 16 of the book of Acts, when Paul reaches Troas, Luke switches to using the first person plural in his narratives. His use of the word "we" clearly means that he has joined Paul and his entourage on his evangelistic tour. This continues through chapter 21 where the group returns to Jerusalem. This means that Luke was in first hand contact with people who knew Jesus and he had the opportunity to interview them. This is where he got his information for his Gospel.
Not enough time for legends to arise
I’m sure, as a child, everyone has played the game "telephone." In this game one child is given a sentence and then whispers that sentence to the child next to him/her. This is repeated over and over until the last child in the line hears the sentence. Then the original sentence is compared with what the last child heard. This usually gets quiet a laugh because in the course of delivering the message from one child to another, the message usually gets distorted and what you end up with is very different from the original.
This analogy has been used to explain how the Gospels allegedly have become hopelessly corrupted. They say that because the events happened so long ago, the true facts of the story most definitely have been distorted as they were passed on one generation at a time. Proponents of this argument always fail to address one particular problem with this argument. Just like in the child’s game of "telephone" the distortion of the message begins to decrease as you subtract children from the game. If only two or three children were playing the game, it would be unlikely that the original sentence would be changed very much, if at all.
To give another analogy, imagine it is the year 4,000 and historians are trying to discover what took place back in this decade. Among the historical evidence they discovered about "ancient America" is a few video tapes showing the World Trade Center collapsing and several news reporters covering the stories. Would the historians be justified in believing that the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11th? After all, this evidence would be 2,000 years old. Of course they would! This is because the time gap that is important in determining the reliability of historical reports is the time gap between the events in question, and the writing of the description of the event (or in this case, the video recording), NOT the amount of time between the writing of the record and the present. As Professor William Lane Craig has said, "Good evidence doesn’t become bad evidence by receding into the past." (Craig, 2008)
It takes several generations for the original message to become corrupted and for legends to arise in historical narratives. If you were to add two generations to the time in which the Gospels were written, you would land in the 2nd century, just about the time the gnostic writings begin to appear. Theses gnostic writings definitely do included all kinds of legendary embellishments. To illustrate how much these writings have been embellished and have distorted the facts I will compare one of the gnostic writings with one of the gospels.
The Gospel of Mark was written in about AD 70 and is the earliest surviving biography of Jesus’ life. As such, the Gospel is very simple and lacks embellishment. For example, Mark’s account of the resurrection of Jesus merely mentions three woman going to the tomb and finding it open, seeing a young man who tells them that Jesus had risen from the dead, and running away in fear; nothing more.
On the other hand consider the Gospel of Peter. This gospel has been universally understood by scholars to have been written in the 2nd century not only because of its adherence to a Gnostic philosophy, which was common in the 2nd century, but also because it uses uniquely 2nd century vocabulary. When the Gospel of Peter describes the resurrection of Jesus, there are many elements of the story which are obviously legendary. For example the story describes the stone in front of the tomb rolling back by itself. Then it has two angels descending from heaven and going into the tomb. As they come out of them tomb they are seen carrying Jesus. The heads of the angels reach up to the clouds, but the head of Jesus, overpasses the clouds. As if this wasn’t enough embellishment, a cross is then seen walking out of the tomb. God is heard from Heaven in a loud voice saying, "Did you preach to those sleeping?" and the cross answers, "Yes"
Now, unless we want to grant that a cross got up and walked out of the tomb and spoke, not to mention the rest of the incredible elements of this story, it is safe to assume that the Gospel of Peter is an embellished legend, unlike the canonical Gospel of Mark.
To give another example of early reports of historical events, consider Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 1st Corinthians was written in AD 55, This is only 25 years after Jesus’ death. In 1st Corinthians 15 Paul passes on an oral tradition to his readers. This passing on of sacred words was common for the Jewish people of his day. The tradition reads as follows:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
It is widely agreed by most scholars that Paul received this tradition from Cephas and James during his visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 36 as described in Galatians 1:18. This means that Paul’s source for his writings goes back to within 3 years of Jesus’ death. It is simply ridiculous to speak of legends with respect to the Gospels.
The Gospels are attested by other writings
Stories like the legend of Paul Bunyan, or the vanishing hitchhiker all have one thing in common: none of them are concerned with actual people. The Gospels on the other hand describe real people who actually lived, and who are mentioned in literature contemporaneous with the Gospels. For example Flavius Josephus, the court historian for Emperor Vespasian has written:
"At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."
Here you have Josephus describing Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He also mentions Pilate by name as being the one who condemned him to Crucifixion.
Also Tacitus a Roman Historian wrote the following:
"Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular."
These are only two of several extra-biblical sources that attest to the story of the Gospels. Technically however, mentioning these sources shouldn’t be necessary. A common misconception among lay-people is that the New Testament is a single book and therefore it can’t attest to itself because to do so would be reasoning in a circle. This is simply not true. The New Testament is a collection of ancient documents describing events that occurred in the 1st century. Four of them describe the life of Jesus, so already certain events in the narrative have multiple, independent attestations. For example, the gospel narratives describe Jesus physically appearing to his followers after his death. His appearance to the Apostle Peter is attested by Luke and Paul (In 1st Corinthians). His appearance to all the Apostles (excluding Judas) is attested by Luke, John, and Paul. His appearance to his women followers is attested by Matthew and John. These multiple attestations of the post-mortem appearances were enough to cause Atheist and Skeptical Critic Gerd Lüdemann to reach the conclusion that "it may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." (Lüdemann, 1995)
As we have seen there is no reason to accuse the Gospels of being false and there is good reason to regard them as true until they are proven false. The skeptic who asserts that the Gospels contain false information must bear the burden of proof. As R.T. France has said: "At the level of their literary and historical character we have good reason to treat the Gospels seriously as a source of information on the life and teaching of Jesus…. Indeed many ancient historians would count themselves fortunate to have four such responsible accounts [as the Gospels], written within a generation or two of the events, and preserved in such a wealth of early manuscript evidence. Beyond that point, the decision to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by openness to a super-naturalistic world view than by strictly historical considerations." (France, 2002)
Aune, D. (1987) The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987
Craig, W. L. (2008) Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Good News Publishing
Craig, W. L. (1998) Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Presuppositions and Pressumptions of the Jesus
Seminar, Faith and Mission, 15: 3-15
Brown, R. The Gospel of Peter, Early Christian Writings, 10/13/2010,
Habermas, Gary R. (1984) Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984
Ludemann, G. (1995) What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans John Bowden, Louisville: Westminster John Knox
France, R. T. (1985) "The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity," Truth Journal, 1, 86.