Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
(Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007, 202pp.)
Mark D. Roberts
When I attended Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1970’s, the required text in defense of the reliability of the New Testament was F. F. Bruce’s widely acclaimed The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Eerdmans, 1960). In 1987, Craig Blomberg published his The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity Press), a more detailed treatment of the same issues. For some, Bruce was too brief, and for others, Blomberg was too long. That’s what makes this new book by Mark Roberts just right: it is mid-level, written in a popular style, yet substantive enough to satisfy the curiosity and questioning of most inquiring minds.
Roberts, a graduate of Harvard University, is senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in California, but is best known for his blog (http://www.markdroberts.com/) where the material for this book was first developed.
One of the more helpful features of this volume is found in the opening chapter where Roberts gives a very personal account of his own theological journey as a student at Harvard, studying under the brilliant but less than conservative NT scholar, George MacRae. Notwithstanding the best that modern critical scholarship had to offer, Roberts eventually emerged with a healthy confidence in the reliability of the four gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth. In what follows I want to provide a brief summation of the more important arguments that Roberts makes.
In chapter one he devotes his attention to the relationship between the original compositions and the manuscripts that we now possess. As for the antiquity of our gospel manuscripts, he responds to the oft-heard argument that too much time had elapsed between the writing of the original gospel accounts and the documents on which our English Bibles are based. He points out that “the oldest extant manuscripts of Tacitus and Suetonius come from the ninth century. Those of Josephus date back only to the eleventh century. We’re talking about a time gap of 800 to 1,000 years, yet historians accept the manuscripts as basically reliable representations of what was originally written” (30). Yet the gap between our earliest manuscript of John’s gospel and the original composition itself is only two generations. “The more complete manuscripts are about a century later than the original writings, with extant copies of the whole New Testament more than two centuries later than the time of composition” (30). In other words, “if someone were to claim that we can’t have confidence in the original content of the Gospels because the existing manuscripts are too far removed from the autographs, then that person would also have to cast doubt upon our knowledge of almost all ancient history and literature” (30-31).
He also points out that the number of Gospel manuscripts in existence (more than 5,700) is about twenty times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings. In response to those, such as Bart Ehrman, who make much of the quantity and quality of textual variants, the vast percentage of them are nothing more than spelling errors or differences in word order that have no affect on the integrity of the text. In fact, only about 1% of the textual variants make any substantive difference and none have any bearing on theologically important matters.
In chapter three Roberts turns his attention to the question of whether the evangelists knew Jesus personally. We need to remember that the four gospels are anonymous and that it wasn’t until the second century that scribes began to ascribe these documents to the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is no evidence that Mark or Luke knew Jesus personally, although clearly Matthew and John did. Roberts believes a good case can be made from internal evidence and tradition that Mark and Luke wrote the gospels with which their names are associated and argues persuasively that “Matthew and John may not have been the ones who finally put pen to papyrus, but they, their memory, and their authority stand behind the Gospels that bear their names” (49).
Chapters four and five are devoted to a discussion of the dates when the gospels were most likely written and the sources that were probably employed by their authors. The more important issue of how accurately the early church passed down the oral tradition about Jesus is taken up in chapter six. Here we find Roberts at his best, as he explains in layman’s terms how a culture in which few people were literate faithfully preserved the story of Jesus. His conclusion is worth citing in full. The early followers of Jesus, says Roberts,
“had both the ability and the motivation to pass on oral traditions with accuracy. The combination of context, people, content, community, and process helped them to faithfully recount what Jesus did and said. A study of the Gospels shows that the early Christians did this very thing with considerable success. Thus the first-century dating of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, combined with their use of earlier oral traditions, combined with early Christian faithfulness in passing on these oral traditions, add up to a convincing rationale for trusting the Gospels. What we find in these books accurately represents what Jesus himself actually did and said” (81).
One of the more helpful issues addressed by Roberts is the question of what a “gospel” was in a first-century context. Contrary to the expectations of many modern believers, an ancient “gospel” was neither a novel, a book of history, nor even a “biography” in the sense in which that word is used today. Ancient authors of this genre exercised considerable literary liberties in constructing their material to communicate a theological message. “It sometimes comes as a shock,” notes Roberts, “when Christians discover that the Gospels don’t present the sayings of Jesus in exactly the same way, or don’t give the same details when telling what must obviously be the same story. Skeptics love this sort of thing and use it to diminish confidence in the Gospels. But both scandalized Christians and zealous skeptics must learn to see the Gospels in the context of their own time and history” (88).
We should hardly be surprised to discover that the authors of the four Gospels often paraphrased or rephrased statements and speeches as well as rearranged events in thematic rather than chronological order (91). “Minor variations of wording or a different ordering of events do not mean that we should discount the reliability of the Gospels as sources of genuine knowledge of Jesus. They do mean that we must closely examine the intent and process of the Gospel writers, however, in order not to misconstrue their purposes” (92).
In a very helpful chapter (nine), Roberts addresses the question: “Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?” He reminds us that “saying something differently [which the gospel authors often did] isn’t disagreement, unless of course the two statements couldn’t both be true” (102). He has a good summary of common variations among the Gospels and demonstrates that these are hardly grounds for rejecting their reliability as accounts of who Jesus was and what he did and said. Unlike the modern reader, people in the first century “wouldn’t have expected Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to narrate all of the events in the precise order in which they happened. That’s just not how it was done in those days. So if we come along and insist that, in order to be reliable, the Gospels must get everything in precise chronological order, we’re demanding something that is both anachronistic and inconsistent with the intentions of the evangelists. We’re asking the Gospels to be something that they are not” (104).
Roberts takes up the relation between history and faith in chapter ten and insists that the theology of the gospel authors “was anchored in past events” (120). “It was in the realm of history that God made his presence known, revealing himself and his salvation” (120). There’s simply no reason why someone can’t have sincere theological convictions and at the same time write accurate history.
As for miracles in the life and ministry of Jesus (chapter eleven), in the final analysis those who object to them do so primarily because they begin with a world view that rules out the possibility of miracles altogether. Few critical authors, Roberts rightly notes, “admit openly that their bias against the trustworthiness of the Gospels is fundamentally based on their personal belief that miracles don’t happen and that therefore the Gospels must be substantially fictional” (136). In a later chapter Roberts returns to this point and makes the following incisive observation:
“If your worldview excludes the possibility of miracles, then you have an intractable problem with the historicity of the Gospels. But your acceptance of such a worldview is a matter of faith. There’s no way you can prove that miracles don’t happen, even as there’s no way I can prove that they do. There’s an irreducible element of faith on both sides of this argument” (194).
Chapters twelve and thirteen are devoted to a discussion of the ways in which historical sources from the era of the gospels, as well as more recent archaeological discoveries, support the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Especially helpful is Roberts’ summation of the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library. Nothing in either of these “undermines the reliability of the biblical Gospels. In fact, the opposite is true” (161).
Neither the alleged “political agenda” (chapter fourteen) of the early church nor the process by which the canonical books were selected (chapter fifteen) provide any justification for questioning the reliability of what we read in our New Testament.
In the final analysis, does Roberts believe he has proven beyond any doubt that the New Testament Gospels are historically reliable? No. “I do believe, however,” says Roberts, “that I’ve shown it is reasonable to trust the Gospels as historically accurate” (194). So, can we trust the Gospels? In a word, concludes Roberts, “yes” (195).
This is a wonderful book for several reasons, only three of which I’ll note. First, it is extremely timely given the plethora of TV documentaries, alleged archaeological discoveries (e.g., the bones of Jesus that were unearthed in his family’s tomb!), ludicrous novels like The Da Vinci Code, and the ill-fated Jesus Seminar, all of which have made feeble and now discredited attempts to undermine the reliability of Holy Scripture.
Second, Roberts has presented the evidence in a wonderfully readable way. Often material such as this can be quite dry and tedious, but Roberts has a gift for putting the difficult into easily understandable terms. I highly recommend this book for high school seniors about to begin their studies at college. It is no less valuable to college seniors who have the courage to challenge the spurious and often prejudicial arguments of their liberal professors.
Finally, Roberts is to be commended for demonstrating how to read the Bible as it was meant to be read. All too often Christians of the present day ignore the principles that governed the composition of literature in the ancient world and subject the New Testament Gospels to standards of judgment that were quite foreign, if not utterly unknown, to the original authors. The bottom line is, if we understand the days and ways of the biblical authors and interpret the text as they intended, we have nothing to fear from liberal critics. The Bible, God’s inspired Word, will always stand the test. It will not return unto Him void.