Missions Catalyst 02.29.12 – News Feature

In This Issue: Can you believe what you read?

  • Are the Gospels Reliable?

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FEATURE: Are the Gospels Reliable?

Source: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Editor’s Note: In honor of leap year, we’ll take a leap back in time to an old question many are still asking today: Can you believe what you read? Specifically, can you believe what you read in the Bible?

 I wonder how much the debate has changed. Have you found other approaches or resources helpful for responding to such questions as they arise in your context? Go to our website to share your experience and opinions.

Are the Gospels Reliable?

It was a cold winter day. I was sitting in the Union at the University of Rochester talking with a student. We were discussing a passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus calms a storm. The discussion about the passage was lively. Suddenly the student focused on me with a stunned look on her face. “Do you believe that this actually took place?”

I said, “Yes.” She asked, “Why?” I said, “For the same reason that when I pick up The New York Times or The Washington Post and read the front page, I consider them reliable sources of information on events.”

I went on to say that I consider most current newspapers reliable sources for information on people, events, and information. I also said that when I am, or anyone is, trying to determine the reliability (different from absolute scientific accuracy) of any document that makes claims about events that have taken place, they should ask three questions. These are the same questions that scholars often ask when they approach historical documents. Those questions are:

  1. Do I have what the author wrote?
  2. Does the author claim to be telling the truth, and is what he writes consistent with that claim?
  3. Is there evidence from other sources that verifies that the author is a reliable source?

When you read a current newspaper like The New York Times, the answers to the three questions is:

  1. Mostly.
  2. Yes.
  3. Almost always.

When you read the Gospels, the answers are:

  1. More closely than many newspaper articles.
  2. Yes.
  3. Not as much as a current newspaper, but an amazing amount.

There is as much evidence for their reliability as there is for events like the Crusades and the Inquisitions. There is more external evidence for the facts and events in the Gospels than any event in ancient history. Furthermore, I would strongly suggest that if you are going to believe in the historical oppression of women, the Crusades, and the Inquisitions, ask yourself the following: why am I ignoring the historical reliability of the Gospels?

The claim that in some ways the Gospel writings can be considered as reliable as what you read in a current newspaper is very important. It demonstrates that the Bible must be taken seriously. Instead of it appearing that intelligent people should be wary of the Gospels and the New Testament, it shows that those who have intellectual integrity will look seriously into the claims of the Gospel accounts and the New Testament. Mark Twain, the great American author who wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, was known to dislike organized religion. Yet, he said, it is not “those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” The things that Jesus says and does in the Gospels challenge the way we view the world. Therefore, it is important to know if it is a reliable account.

It is critical to distinguish between the reliability of the Gospels and the “inspiration” of the Gospels or the New Testament. Many people, particularly skeptical ones or those who do not have a religious or church background, find it difficult to believe that the Bible is God’s words, holy words. Often, these types of individuals have found it much easier to study the Bible and simply treat it as they would a newspaper. This has helped them make a decision about who Jesus is. After they decide about the historical reliability of the Gospels and who Jesus is, then they are more prepared to make a personal decision about the inspiration of the Gospels.

My claim that the Gospels have reliability similar to a current newspaper may seem remarkable, but it is a claim that can be supported.

>> Read the rest of this article. The author’s recommendations for further reading include Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and Paul Barnett’s Is The New Testament Reliable?

>> We recently published a review of The Jesus Accounts, a documentary on the reliability of the Scriptures. The producer thought you might also want to know it’s available in Arabic, Turkish, Persian (Farsi), Mandarin, and Cantonese.

>> See also coverage of a story about an alleged first-century fragment of Mark (Baptist Press).


Marti Smith

Marti Smith is a writer, speaker, and project manager for the Church Partnerships Team at Pioneers. Since the mid-90s she has helped prepare cultural research teams to explore unreached communities and mobilize efforts to serve them.

Marti manages and publishes Missions Catalyst and is the author of Through Her Eyes, a book about the lives of missionary women in the Muslim world.


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