Table of Contents
4. Where possible, do the documents find support from other avenues of investigation and documentation?
Are the New Testament Gospel Documents Reliable?
The New Testament Gospel documents provide a record of the most incredible of all stories, the story of Jesus Christ. These documents have been read, studied, researched and scrutinized like no other narrative in all of human history. The New Testament has certainly encountered unbelief, skepticism and resistance and this response will continue for various reasons, many of which we will examine here. However, the single greatest reason for the opposition, skepticism, criticism and cynicism is because of the central main subject of the New Testament and that is the Person of Jesus Christ. People can talk about God, spiritual matters, politics, history… and usually at the end of the day find some kind of common ground. But the Jesus Christ that is presented in the New Testament brings a sword, He divides. We either side for Him or against Him with no neutral or middle response. The Gospel message of Jesus Christ and the preaching of the cross bring an offense to many people. I don’t state this lightly, but I believe that this has proven itself to be true time and time again.
The general view among the secular media and educational institutions is that the New Testament documents are not reliable history, but rather they are the end result of second century Christian church theology. Accordingly, Jesus Christ is largely an invention and the miracles of Christ are exaggerated events built on legend rather than fact. As examples, the typical encyclopedia that is available for prospective Bible information suggests that the New Testament and the Gospels are tradition-based that have no significant historical value.
“The character and structure of the individual traditions are incorporated into the Gospels, which definitely do not have a historical or biographical interest in facts, circumstances and the course of events. They do not reproduce the story of Jesus as such, but instead recount history interpreted from the viewpoint of the Christian faith. What Jesus says, does, and suffers is interpreted as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and his story is slanted toward his end (the Passion and the Resurrection), his significance as the divine Savior, and his Second Coming. In other words, the Gospel texts do not intend to describe the Jesus of the past but rather to proclaim who he is for all ages of time. These perspectives of the post-Easter church to which the writers belong and for which their reports are intended must continually be taken into consideration.” – The Encyclopedia Britannica: CD 2.02 (Jesus: The Christ and Christology)
“While the four Gospels obviously tell the same story, their interpretations of it clearly differ and many important contradictions may be noted among them.” – The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, Vol. 16, page 40, 1999.
“The Gospels are not biographies and make no distinction between the events they narrate and the interpretation those events are thought to bear. But they are the basis for modern attempts to reconstruct the Jesus of history.” – The Encyclopedia Americana International Edition, Vol. 16, page 38, 1999.
These Encyclopedia sources give very clear examples of what is supposed by many people in the educational community regarding the historicity of the New Testament Gospel accounts. What is the basis of this understanding? What are the factors that contribute to these views regarding the Gospel? How do we examine and see if the New Testament documents, and the Gospels in particular, are reliable? How do we determine if what they affirm is true? Are these narratives simply legends, myths, forgeries, exaggerations or are they factual history? Is it even possible to come to a conclusion regarding the record of the New Testament? Where do we start? (See note #6.)
Where do we Start?
When we examine the record of the Gospel , we have an excellent basis for asserting the credibility and the veracity of the message. But for some this is not enough, they want provability. In the case of historical events, this type of confirmation is not possible. We can only deal with levels of probability not provability. However, everything in life is based on probability not 100% certainty.
So where do we start in an investigation into the facts of the Gospel and the resurrection of Christ? Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), the former Royal Professor of Law at Harvard University is considered by many to be the greatest legal expert on the laws of evidence that has ever lived. The one unchanging and abiding principle that he taught his law students was to“never make up your mind about any significant matter without first considering all the evidence”.
This approach should be employed as we examine the issue of the Gospel and the resurrection of Christ. To discover what is true and factual, we must use all of the principles of logic, physical, historical and science based evidences that are available to us. The two basic rules of logic that this examination is based on are the laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. These two primary, self-evident laws of logic are called first principles. These principles are not something that we learn or are instructed in but rather we simply know them intuitively and we use them every day in the normal course of life. When investigating any question of fact, including the question of the resurrection of Christ and the factual nature of the Gospel, these laws of logic must apply.
The law of non-contradiction is a self- evident first principle that simply says that contradictory statements cannot both be true and false at the same time and in the same sense. A principle or affirmation of a fact cannot be both true and false. Testimony in our court systems, business transactions and general communication on a personal level of any factual matter is based on this law of non-contradiction.
The law of the excluded middle simply states that something either is or is not. There is no middle ground or third alternative. For example, either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not rise from the dead. Either one or the other is true but not both. There is no third or middle option.
Based on these first principles, we establish a logical argument that must correspond with reality and if the premise of our argument is true it follows that the conclusion will be true.
The next area in our examination is to answer the question, “can our reasoning process based on these laws of logic and evidence be trusted to provide us with any degree of certainty”? The answer to this question is yes but not with 100% certainty. Can we know for example that Jesus rose from the dead? Well, if by “ knowing” we mean 100% absolute assurance then the answer is no. If we mean can we prove that Jesus rose from the dead with moral certainty, then the answer is yes. But we must remember that this proof does not mean that people will accept the evidence regardless of how good it may be. This type of proof is not a perfect or absolute certain proof, but rather it is a level or standard of proof that can lead to certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard of moral certainty is what our judicial system has historically based its decisions on. A judge or jury makes their decisions on high probability not 100 % certainty. If judicial decisions had to be rendered only where 100 % certainty was determined, no court room decisions would ever be reached.
What about Faith?
All of us are people of faith. We make decisions everyday based on probability not 100 % certainty and we make these decisions and choices based on a certain level of certainty and the remainder on faith. As limited, finite human beings, we do not have the capacity or the capability to acquire or possess the type of knowledge that can provide us with 100 % certainty on any matter of fact. We must always exercise some level or degree of faith. (See note #1).
For example, the simple task of sitting into a comfortable chair. We examine the chair by sight, we consider where the chair is located and we might even test it by pushing against it to see if it is mechanically and structurally sound and then based on our observations we choose to sit down. Are we 100 % certain that it will support us securely? – no. We may be 99 % certain but there will still be a requirement of 1 % faith. Based on this high level of probability we choose to place ourselves into the chair. We must employ this same willingness to examine the evidence for the truth of the Gospel and then exercise faith based on the high probability that this evidence provides.
There are people who desire absolute, 100 % certainty prior to believing in the Gospel and the resurrection of Christ. Yet they do not apply this high level of certainty in other matters of significance. It should be noted that the atheist (denies that God exists) and the agnostic (doubts that God exists) must also exercise faith in atheism or agnosticism. I would argue that it takes far more faith to believe that complicated life forms evolved through a natural selection process and from the random interaction of molecules which came into existence through random chance, than to believe in a Creator (God) and that this God has stepped into human history in the Person of Jesus Christ. The point is that both the Christian and the atheist / agnostic must exercise and employ faith. So from the theist position, can we prove the truth of the Gospel and the resurrection with 100 % certainty ? – no. With reasonable moral certainty? – yes, if we are willing to weigh and evaluate the evidence and follow where it leads us. We must recognize that when we step outside of the knowledge of our own limited experience, we have moved into the area of probabilities. This requires us to evaluate the evidence and do the hard work of examining what we believe and why we believe and then exercise faith based on the evidence for our beliefs.
Next, we have to be willing, as much as is humanly possible, to put aside our personal presuppositions and use an evidence based approach, apply sound investigative procedures and put the New Testament documents to a test. This I will attempt to do this as best as I can in this limited presentation. However, I must state that as a Christian I have definitely parked myself in the camp as a believer in the trustworthy nature of the New Testament. On the basis of a reliable New Testament, I believe that it provides us with a written record of the life, death, resurrection and ministry of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
I have arrived at this point with time spent reading, researching and in examining numerous viewpoints. My experience has taught me that if one is not open and willing to believe the Gospel and the presentation of the New Testament, then no amount of evidence will convince. Truth does not of itself have the power or ability to force people’s compliance and acceptance. We can still dispute, deny and reject truth. I understand that this same argument can be applied in many different circumstances to all of us. But this is an examination into the veracity and reliability of the New Testament and it applies here now. I also understand that the New Testament deals with realities that go beyond our understanding. Why the cross? Why the resurrection of Christ? How does Jesus’ death on the cross deal with sin? Although the Gospel presents the claims of Christ based on reason and logic, there are realities that are a mystery. However, if we examine the New Testament documents in areas that we can test and they are found to be trustworthy, then the information that may go beyond our ability to verify or understand, now has a credible basis upon which to trust the rest of the New Testament.
There are four areas of difficulties that people have with regard to the New Testament and the Bible in general.
I. The Denial of Miracles:
First, people struggle with the miracles that are in recorded in numerous New Testament narratives. If a person does not believe that miracles can occur, then any document that records these events will be suspect and ultimately rejected.
II. The Alleged Inconsistencies of the Testimony of the Gospel Accounts:
Second, readers of the four Gospels, and to a lesser extend other books of the New Testament, find what appears to be inconsistencies or contradictions in the accounts of the same events recorded by various writers. This leads them to doubt the veracity of these records.
III. The Difficulty of Trusting Ancient History:
Third, there are those who believe that any document that is dealing with information that is centuries old, suffers from the high probability of corruption and tampering.
IV. The Exclusive Nature of the Gospel and the Claims of Christ:
Fourth, when people who consider themselves open-minded and fair, see the absolute and exclusive claims of Christ, there is an offense and a sense of an elitist agenda that sets up a resistance to the message of the Gospel.