By Dan Barkman. Many questions are often raised regarding the reliability of the four Gospels of the Christian Scriptures. Who were their authors and how can we be sure that they were in a position to know what really happened in the life of Jesus? Did they witness every event they narrate? Who were their sources of information and how did they know the details of specific conversations of which they were not privy? Volumes could be written addressing each of these questions. However, despite years of assaults on their credibility, I believe that it is still reasonable to affirm that the four evangelists had access to reliable biographical material about Jesus and that that information has been successfully transmitted to us in the New Testament canon.
The Gospel of Mark
Most New Testament scholars hold that Mark was the first Gospel written. This is by no means certain, but it is a popular position right now. According to the 2nd century church father Papias, Mark essentially functioned as a secretary for the apostle Peter and received much of his Gospel’s material from him. This passage from Papias is no longer extant but has been preserved for us in the writings of the 4th century church historian Eusebius:
“Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who had adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely” .
Moreover, Mark’s narrative has been shown to contain several internal indications of Peter’s influence . Given that this work was likely completed prior to 70 A.D., within one generation of the events it records, the likelihood of legendary embellishment impinging on the central facts of this document seems implausible.
The Gospel of Luke
Luke tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel: “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” (Luke 1:1-2). It is probable that one of the written sources that Luke was referring to was the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s Gospel would be seen as an invaluable source for Luke since much of it was essentially coming from the viewpoint of the apostle Peter—an eyewitness to many of the events narrated in the Gospel of Mark. Of course, Luke had additional sources, probably both written and oral, at his disposal. He knew the apostle Paul, who had consulted with and whose doctrine was endorsed by, the Jerusalem apostles: Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:9). This makes it unlikely that Luke lacked access to the deeds and teachings of Jesus. As F.F. Bruce has noted:
“Again, Luke seems to have spent two years in or near Palestine during Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem and detention in Caesarea (cf. Acts 24:27). These years afforded him unique opportunities of increasing his knowledge of the story of Jesus and the early Church. On one occasion at least, he is known to have met James, the brother of Jesus; and he may have seized other opportunities of making the acquaintance of members of the holy family” .
Luke explicitly mentions meeting James in Acts 21:18. Being the son of Mary, James surely had access to stories of Jesus’ infancy and virginal conception-events that played an integral part in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1-2).
The Gospel of Matthew
Good arguments have been made over the years that the apostle Matthew, the tax collector, is the author of, or the chief source behind, the Gospel of Matthew. If this is correct, Matthew himself would have personally seen and heard many of the events that are narrated in this work. Matthew would still rely on earlier written or public oral traditions as well. The hypothetical “Q” document, if it existed, could have been one of Matthew’s sources .
The Gospel of John
Who was the “Beloved Disciple” of our fourth Gospel? Can we be confident that John, the son of Zebedee, was the author? Internal evidence suggests that the author was a Jew, involved with fishing, and a Palestinian native—all traits consistent with Johannine authorship. He seems to have been personally close to Jesus and to have witnessed some of the events that he narrates (e.g., John 19:35, etc.). In the latter part of the 2nd century, the church father, Irenaeus of Lyons, claimed that the apostle John was the author. This reference is significant given that Irenaeus had met the Apostle John’s personal student, Polycarp. Other early sources, such as Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, etc., state that John was the author. In fact, the patristic sources are almost unanimous that John was the author of the Gospel bearing his name—a doubtful scenario if the Son of Zebedee was not in fact the author.
When There are No Witnesses
Access to eyewitness testimony does not guarantee that all the events recorded were historical. Challenges are often levied against the credibility of specific Gospel episodes in which there are no obvious witnesses. For example, Matthew 4:1-11 narrates a dialogue between Jesus and Satan. Who was present to hear this discussion? While it is plain that Matthew mentions no third party witnesses to this epic conversation, there is no reason why Jesus Himself could not have informed Matthew or his source(s) about it later. It is hard to imagine Jesus not retelling the story at some time to His disciples during His earthly ministry!
What about Mary’s meeting with the angel Gabriel? More than likely, she had no problem remembering the event years after the fact. I’m sure it would be a difficult conversation to forget! It was a short dialogue so Mary surely could have remembered the exchange years later. Other questions arise from Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. Who was there to witness the specifics of Jesus’ prayer to His Father? There is nothing in the text to suggest that Peter, James, and John were so far away from Jesus that they couldn’t have heard the content of His prayer. Again, though, there is no reason why Jesus Himself could not have recounted this story to His disciples after His resurrection. What about Jesus’ trial before the Jewish High Priest? How could the four evangelists have known what was said at that hearing? Here we must remember that it is quite possible that Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea-both of whom were sympathetic toward Jesus–could have served as informants as they would likely have been present to hear what transpired.
While questions remain regarding the sequence and timing of the four canonical Gospels, reasonable arguments continue to convince many that the four evangelists had access to—and were able to successfully transmit to us—accurate historical material related to the Jesus of history.
 Eusebius, Church History 3.39.15-16
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 155-182
 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) p. 39
 “Q” or the “Q Document” is a hypothetical collection of Jesus’ sayings that may have pre- dated the four canonical Gospels. “Q” comes from the German word, Quelle, meaning “sources”. However, there is no hard evidence that this document ever existed.
Originally posted here.