Can we trust the four canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? More specifically, are the teachings they ascribe to Jesus authentic? The Jesus Seminar (JS), a collection of skeptical Bible critics active in the 1980s and 90s, concluded that only 18% of what the Gospels had attributed to Jesus were actually genuine.
For many, this puts the kibosh on the Bible. If it’s not authentic, then it can no longer be regarded as the Word of God. However, many gifted New Testament scholars subsequently addressed the methodological fallacies and erroneous presuppositions that had given rise to the JS conclusions.
On a positive note, there are many reasons why we should regard the Gospels as God’s Words, or at least authentic. Besides the fact that the NT writers regarded their words as God’s Word, there are also many other objective reasons for arriving at this same conclusion:
On a positive note, there are many reasons to regard the Gospels as God’s Words. Not merely did the NT writers regard their own writings as such, there are also many objective reasons to conclude this way:
- The Miracles of Jesus
- Fulfilled Prophecy
- Internal Consistency
- External Confirmation
- The Wisdom of the Writings
- Personal Transformation
I’d like to focus on one additional way. The Jesus teachings, as found in the four Gospel accounts, could not represent human embellishments or inventions. Humans – Christians – would not invent such teachings and events! Instead, Jesus’ words are offensive, confusing and even seem to contradict the interests and teachings of the early church. When we examine the Jesus of the Gospels, we find that virtually everything He did and said cut against the grain of not only His contemporaries, but also His Apostles and the early church.
THE ASSOCIATES OF JESUS
Christ’s 12 chosen apostles were all simple men. They weren’t highly educated – not at all the type of people with whom thinking people today or the early church would want to identify; certainly not the type of people who would draw new converts.
Even worse, Jesus’ 12 are consistently portrayed as simpletons who just didn’t get it. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find Jesus telling them that they had done a good job or that they were catching on. Yes, Jesus did affirm Peter’s response on one occasion, but then followed it with a stinging denunciation:
- “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23)
In fact the Apostles misunderstood almost all of Christ’s teachings. Even at the end, they still failed to get it. The Apostles seemed to be so filled with themselves that they refused to believe what Jesus told them:
- “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” (Mark 14:27)
However, each of the apostles confidently protested that he would never abandon Jesus. Later, they had to eat their words. As a matter of fact, Christ’s absolute inner circle of disciples could not even stay awake to pray with their Master, as He had requested them to do.
If the early church had invented the four Gospels, the writers of such a “fiction” would have presented a glowing and winsome portrait of the apostles. After all, those same apostles would become the foundation of this movement. A glowing report would lend status and credibility to this new and embattled religion. However, we find no indication of this kind of window-dressing. Instead, the apostles are consistently presented as morally bankrupt, status-conscious and even racist. They looked up to everyone above them socially and tried to place impediments in front of those petitioners they regarded as inferior. At times, the apostles physically blocked the blind, children and gentiles from coming to Jesus. Meanwhile, they held the rich and powerful in high regard (Mat. 19:25).
Who would want anything to do with such characters, and who would invent such patriarchs if they wanted their religion to flourish? No one! Why then do we have such consistently disparaging portrayals of the apostles in the Gospels? The answer is simple—the accounts are true! The NT writers were more concerned about the faithfulness and reliability of what they wrote than how attractive they could make their story sound.
There is something else we need to remember here. Jesus received the worst sinners into His presence. Consequently, the ruling class concluded that He couldn’t possibly be a prophet. How could He be if He allowed such a degraded woman to touch Him? Over and over again, Christ’s actions brought upon Himself the utter contempt of the Jewish leadership (Luke 7:39).
And it wasn’t only the ruling class which felt this way. The entire culture partook of this worldview. Jesus not only alienated everyone, He reserved His strongest denunciations for those who were the most highly respected. This is certainly not something you would want to do if you were starting a religion and wanted to win advocates!
How then could such a Man have a following? He must have been a miracle-worker. Many of the skeptics associated with the Jesus Seminar have reluctantly admitted as much:
1. “On historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” (Marcus Borg)
2. “Throughout his life, Jesus performed healings and exorcisms for ordinary people.” (John Dominic Crossan)
3. “On the eve of the Passover Yesu was hanged…because he practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.” (Babylonian Talmud; Jewish sources have an aversion against mentioning Jesus by name and anything positive about Him.)
4. “Jesus certainly performed exorcisms as they were practiced in the first century…It would have been natural for an itinerant charismatic healer and teacher to do so.” (John Rousseau)
THE EVENTS OF JESUS’ LIFE
Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It makes it seem that He had a sin to confess. No one would have invented such an account. The fact that He was tempted by the Devil for 40 days suggests that He could be tempted. On the surface, this would seem to be inconsistent with the early church’s agenda to prove that Jesus is God.
We see a Jesus confessing ignorance about His return: “Not even the son of man knows” (Mark 13:32). The Gospel accounts of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane show a fearful and reluctant Jesus. On the Cross, we see a “confused” Jesus, crying out to His Father, “Why have You forsaken Me?” – hardly the portrait of Jesus that the early church would want to convey if they wanted to prove that Jesus is the promised Messiah!
In contrast to the Gospels, every other religion paints their leader departing in style, as an inspiration and an example for all the followers. However, Jesus departed in utter disgrace – beaten, stripped naked, murdered as a common criminal, abandoned by His apostles. This is not a portrait that others would find inspiring. Why should the Gospels include these embarrassing accounts unless they actually happened this way?
Why were the women, whose testimony lacked any credibility in that culture, acknowledged as the first ones to encounter the risen Lord? Again, it must have happened that way! No Christian would have invented such an account!
Some of Jesus’ teachings were difficult to understand. Others were impossible to follow and would, therefore, discourage would-be followers. On one occasion, Jesus taught:
- “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6:53)
As a result of this difficult teaching, many departed from Him. However, just about all of His teachings were difficult to understand. He taught, “Hate mother and father,” “Let the dead bury the dead,” “Cut off hands,” “Don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing.”
His parables were no less challenging. None of them had appeal to the common man or the leadership. Most were highly offensive. None would warm the heart, except perhaps for the parable of the Prodigal Son. But even this parable ends by placing a sword into the gut of those who think that they are religious.
Almost all of His parables criticize cherished religious assumptions. The parable of The Rich Young Man teaches that humanity is incapable of salvation (Mat. 19:26). The Workers in the Vineyard (Mat. 20:1-16) insultingly teaches that many of those who had worked the longest and the hardest in the Lord’s vineyard will find themselves out in the cold. The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Mat. 22:1-14) also showed how the most “deserving” lost out entirely. The Parable of the Ten Girls (Mat. 25:1-13) seems to praise an unwillingness to share. Likewise, The Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-8) seems to praise cunning. These are not the type of parables that the early church would invent if they wanted to win converts.
His other sayings and teachings were, for the most part, impossible to follow and utterly humbling for anyone who would try to follow them. He taught, “Sell all you have,” “Give alms of all that you have,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Give to anyone who asks.” It seemed as if Jesus didn’t want any followers. Who would want to be part of a religion that required everything? No one who wanted to promote a new religion would create such teachings, least of all the early church, which understandably would want to make its teachings appealing. Evidently, these difficult teachings had been recorded as such, because these were exactly what Jesus had taught.
THE CRYPTIC NATURE OF JESUS’ TEACHINGS
Jesus had been very cryptic about many of the central doctrines of the faith – His messiah-ship, His divinity, the atonement, the new covenant. Had the early church edited the Gospels, they would have placed these cherished foundational doctrines more explicitly in the mouth of Jesus. His words would have reflected their concerns. However, for the most part, He had been embarrassingly silent about these doctrines until the time of His departure.
For example, Jesus only covertly confessed that He is the Messiah or that He is God. However, during His trial, in order to enable the Sanhedrin to convict Him, He confessed His messiah-ship by citing two messianic texts in reference to Himself (Mat. 26:64).
Capitalizing on Jesus’ relative silence, liberal skeptics claim that the Gospels were written by the early church (70-100 AD) to prove that Jesus is actually God. In order to make their case, most will cite the Gospel of John considered the latest Gospel. It makes more explicit references to Jesus’ deity than the other three Gospels. Consequently, it reflects the church’s growing desire to prove that Jesus is God.
For an extreme example, New Testament critic Bart Ehrman claims:
- The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our Gospels, only in John. (Jesus Interrupted, 249)
Ehrman believes that the last Gospel, John’s, would have the most to say about the deity of Christ, because, at this point, the church had fully evolved into this belief. Meanwhile, Ehrman claims that the earliest Gospel, Mark’s Gospel, according to him, had nothing to say about Christ’s deity, because the church had not yet evolved to the point of worshiping Jesus as God. In this regard, Ehrman makes an extravagantly erroneous claim:
- There is not one word in this Gospel about Jesus actually being God. (247)
However, this assertion is contradicted by a multitude of verses in the Gospel of Mark. Even in the first three verses of his Gospel, Mark applies Isaiah 40:3 (“Yahweh” coming to Israel) to Jesus, equating Jesus with “Yahweh!”
Nevertheless, Jesus’ relative silence is embarrassing because it leaves many with the impression that Jesus, at least superficially, had preached a different Gospel than Peter, Paul and John. The teachings of Jesus, therefore, couldn’t have been an invention of the early church, which would have wanted to comfortably harmonize all of these teaching.
Had the early church exercised editorial oversight over the Gospels, they would have surely smoothed over the apparent contradictions between Jesus’ teachings and the Epistles. However, we have no evidence that this ever happened in any systematic way. Here are a couple of examples. Jesus seemed to teach unrestrained giving:
- “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)
However, the Epistles have more qualifications:
- For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (2 Thes. 3:10)
Of course, Paul does not refer to the man who cannot work, but the one who will not. Nevertheless, to the casual reader, this seems like a contradiction, since Jesus didn’t provide any exceptions. Had the early church written the Gospels to suit themselves, it is likely that they would have qualified Jesus’ teachings to line up with the Epistles, but they didn’t.
Jesus even seems to contradict Himself. On the one hand, it seemed as if He taught complete non-resistance to evil:
- “But I tell you, ‘Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matthew 5:39)
However, He also proved to be very confrontational. He drove the money-changers out of the temple (John 2:12-16; Mat. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46) and confronted the religious leadership with charges of hypocrisy on many occasions.
Of course, these accounts can be reconciled, but to the casual reader, they seem like contradictions. It seems unlikely that the early church, had they edited the Gospels, would not have allowed these apparent contradictions to stand.
In many instances, it seems as if Jesus’ prophecies hadn’t been fulfilled. Adam Gopnik wrote:
- “The Jesus faith begins with a failure of faith. His father let him down, and the promise wasn’t kept: ‘Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God’ [Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27], Jesus announced, but none of them did.” (“What Did Jesus Do?” The New Yorker, 6/29/2010)
However, each one of these promises is followed by an account of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, where three of Jesus’ disciples viewed the glorified Christ – in a sense, the Kingdom of God.
However, other prophecies present us with more difficulty. On several occasions, Jesus seemed to prophesy His speedy return. When He sent His disciples out on their first evangelistic outreach, He promised them:
- “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:23)
Regarding this perplexing prophecy, Albert Schweitzer claimed that Jesus had wrongly believed that He would return and set up His everlasting kingdom prior to the return of His disciples:
- He tells them in plain words…that He does not expect to see them back in the present age.
However, was this really what Jesus had communicated? It seems highly unlikely. The preceding verses reveal that His return would be preceded by many global events:
- “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles…Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17-22)
Instead, it seems that Jesus was preparing His disciples for both a long wait and possibly martyrdom. What them did Jesus intend to convey when He stated that “you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23)?
I think that Jesus, so thoroughly imbued with the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, mimicked them. Often, these prophecies would begin with the immediate in view but would then jump years into the future in the same breath. Here’s a familiar example – the prophecy to Abraham:
- “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Although this prophecy had some immediate applications, the blessing to “all the peoples of the earth” would come much later.
Similarly, it seems that Jesus’ prophecy to His disciple would also be realized by later generations.
He delivered a similar prophecy to the high priest:
- But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:63-64)
This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that the high priest himself would see this take place. However, in harmony with the character of Hebrew prophecy, He was probably suggesting that the Jewish people would observe His return.
Perhaps the most fought-over prophecy about Jesus’ return comes from Matthew 24:34, after Jesus had described the signs preceding His return:
- “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24:34; also Mark 13:30-31 and Luke 21:32-33)
“This generation” seems to take away any ambiguity about His return. Specifically, it would be during “this generation!” However, there is some controversy about what “this generation” really refers to. As we found in Matthew 10, here too we find that Jesus clearly doesn’t believe that the end is near:
- You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death [Evidently, the Apostles will not be living at the time of His return!], and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold…And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:6-14)
Many things must first take place – martyrdom, apostasy, and worldwide evangelism – prior to Jesus’ return. Therefore, “this generation” shouldn’t be interpreted in its usual sense.
It is therefore more likely that “this generation” should be understood as “this Jewish people.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that the Jewish people will still exist when He returns.
However, while the Greek word for “generation” (“genea”) can be understood in certain verses in this sense (Luke 11:50-51; Mat. 12:39), only in the Hebrew Scriptures can we find the corresponding term (“dor”), usually rendered at “generation,” used unequivocally in this manner:
- There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company [“dor”] of the righteous. (Psalm 14:5)
- By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants [“dor”]? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. (Isaiah 53:8)
In both of these cases, “dor” cannot be understood as “generation” – a typical human lifespan. In Isaiah, “dor” can only be understood as the many generations, “descendents,” or people who didn’t come forth from the Messiah, because He died for the sins of the people.
Was Jesus mistaken about the time of His return? Well, if we choose to understand His words as indicating an early return, then it does seem that He was mistaken. However, if we don’t dismiss entire context of His remarks, then it is not possible to construe His words as prophesying an early return.
Nevertheless, these prophecies are troubling and have understandably invited the charge that Jesus had been mistaken. Why then would the Gospels have retained such troubling prophecies? The writers must have regarded them as genuine!
New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, consequently concluded,
- Whether by giving the Gospels the benefit of the doubt which all narratives of purportedly historical events merit or by approaching them with initial suspicion in which every detail must satisfy the criteria of authenticity, the verdict should remain the same. The Gospels may be accepted as trustworthy accounts of what Jesus did and said. (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels)
If the Gospels are reliable, then we can accept their accounts of the miraculous, especially the Resurrection. If Jesus rose from the dead, this authenticates His testimony about Himself and His words as the Words of God Himself. Hallelujah!