Are the Gospels True?

[Easter comes at the end of the month. There are bound to be some Radio or TV producers, journalists or liberal theologians who say you cannot trust the New Testament records about the resurrection of Jesus. The following is a chapter (abbreviated) from a book I wrote in 1983, Where did Jesus Go? - the truth and meaning of the Resurrection.The last section on John and Luke's Gospels I have included again from four years ago. It may be of help. DRJH]

A common fallacy

Over the last 200 years the Bible has come in for an unprecedented amount of criticism. It is remarkable how well it has stood the test. Emil Brunner tells an interesting story to prove the point: "Two hundred years ago, scoffing Voltaire, probably the most famous man of his time, prophesied that all would soon be over with the Bible. The house in which this boast was made is to-day one of the offices of a great Bible society. Voltaire's name is almost forgotten; the Bible has had, in the meantime, an incredible career of triumph throughout the world."

Perhaps one of the greatest causes for distrusting the New Testament records is a common fallacy; and the Bible more than any other book has been subject to this. It is the fallacy that says that if you have explained the origins of something and seen that these are very different to the final product, you have explained away the final product.

It is amazing how powerfully destructive a knowledge of origins can be. But, of course, to know the origin of something is irrelevant often as far as its present value, truth or effectiveness is concerned. A man may be born in a log cabin. But if he ends up in the White House as President of the United States of America, he is the President no matter what his origins. Modern astronomy may have evolved from astrological guesswork in ancient Babylon. But if men can travel to the moon and back today, it is clearly more than guesswork now. So it is with the Bible.

The four Gospels may well be the result of godly men in the mid-first century AD collecting earlier written sources as "Source Criticism" has suggested. Or the Gospels may have resulted in part from regularly told short stories from the life of Jesus as "Form-Criticism" has suggested. And most probably the Gospel writers put their material together, from whatever source, to emphasise a particular truth about God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, as "Redaction-Criticism" has suggested. But by itself all this tells us nothing about whether what we have got as the final product is true or false, accurate or inaccurate. Something in the Gospel narrative may be said by the scholars to come "from 'Q' (a collection of Jesus' teachings) or from 'M' (Matthew's special source)" or to come "in the 'Form of a miracle-story'". But by itself that tells us nothing as to whether what comes like that is true or false. The mere fact that the report of a miracle may be given in a stylised way tells us little. The question "Was there a miracle there in the first place?" is a different question from "How has the report of the alleged miracle come down to us?"


The gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ was originally passed on by word of mouth. The Resurrection happened (or something happened). The Apostles then spoke about it and "preached" it and they spoke about Jesus. Maybe some of them had taken down notes earlier of specific teachings of Jesus; but there is no record of these in the Acts of the Apostles. All we hear about is "preaching". All we can be certain of is an oral tradition. But such an oral tradition would have been nothing new.

In the Old Testament there must have been an "Oral Tradition". It is not unreasonable to think of the stories of the patriarchs and the judges as being handed down by word of mouth and repeated at the various sanctuaries; these would have been associated with the various Old Testament heroes. It has been suggested that Abraham may have been associated with Shechem and Hebron, Isaac with Beersheba, Jacob with Bethel and Shechem and Gideon with Ophrah. In addition stories would have been handed down within the various tribes and clans. But of course often the "tradition", or the "handing down", would have related to large spans of time.

Take the sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus; or take the settlement in Canaan, or the period of the Monarchy or the period when successively the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians were the superpowers. These were centuries long. The oral tradition in those days covered hundreds of years. Nor is there anything odd about this. You get it in other ancient cultures. And from what we know of some of these there is evidence of a very tight oral tradition. In the period of the passing on of material by word of mouth, before it is eventually written down, it is handed on in relatively careful ways. You can think for example of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey; here the verse form acts as a control. This can be paralleled at various stages of European literature.

Inevitably in the transmission of Old Testament material before it was written down there would have been stylisation. That is to say the way you tell one story is influenced by the way you tell a different story. Details may get lost. But there is no evidence that you can invent "ad lib".

But - and it is a very big but - the New Testament is totally different to all of this. As has been well pointed out "the period of the New Testament covers fewer decades than the Old Testament covers centuries."

Eventually, after the initial preaching, the New Testament Gospels or the sources behind them came to be written down. What had been repeated orally, by word of mouth, was now in a manuscript, a hand-written document, and to that extent fixed.

But prior to that "fixing" had the "tradition" been radically modified? That is the big question. Had the oral tradition grown? Of course oral tradition can grow.

But the check on the growth of any tradition is the fact of other people being around who know differently. They can let it be known that certain things are fiction. This means that the presence at large of "eyewitnesses" of any alleged event that has now become a "tradition" is of first rate importance.

This is highly relevant for our evaluation of the New Testament. Even at the end of the first century AD a few eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus and of the events surrounding his death and resurrection were still alive. There were many more who had known and spoken with eyewitnesses. They heard their reports of what they had seen and heard. "Some people seem to imagine that, after the initial telling of the story (of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) every eyewitness immediately and for ever withdrew from the whole affair. The fact is that right up to the beginning of the stage of writing and well on into it, there were in the church surviving eyewitnesses whose oversight of the tradition must have been sufficient to ensure substantial accuracy in its transmission."

Memory span

It is clear that there were written accounts of the gospel events earlier than the four Gospels as we have them (Luke 1.1). And we have Paul's statement on the resurrection appearances in the first epistle to the Corinthians. This was made ten or fifteen years earlier than the usual dating of Mark's Gospel. There were thus accounts of the Resurrection nearer to the events than the Gospels themselves. But leaving all that aside and just thinking about the finished product of Mark's Gospel, we need to remember that even this was published only thirty-five years or so after the Resurrection.

C.H.Dodd, the New Testament scholar, once said that in his younger days he felt this gap of thirty-five years to be a "very serious matter". Later in life he came to see that such a period was not so long after all. In a Radio broadcast in 1949 he said that he and his contemporaries had a very vivid memory of the events of the summer of 1914 just prior to the outbreak of the first World War. He went on: "When Mark was writing there must have been many people who were in their prime under Pontius Pilate, and they must have remembered the stirring and tragic events of that time at least as vividly as we remember 1914. If anyone had tried to put over an entirely imaginary or fictitious account of them, there would have been middle-aged or elderly people who would have said (as you or I might say) 'You are wasting your breath: I remember it as if it were yesterday!'"

As I write this on my typewriter, I hear over the Radio that today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the King George VI. On that day there was a new Queen of the United Kingdom. I can remember quite vividly standing in my school hall and being told by the headmaster of the King's death. I can remember many events from that period; it was when I was at the top end of the Junior School. I could not necessarily give you an accurate chronological sequence of all the events; but I could recount a lot of them as isolated events. Most important of all if someone came along and said that something major had happened at the school when it hadn't, or he totally misrepresented what had happened, I would be able to say he was speaking nonsense. [As I write this Coloured Supplement at my computer all that is still true at the fiftieth anniversary of the death of King George VI.]

And, of course, where there is a great deal of teaching by word of mouth memory becomes more important. It appears that the Jewish Rabbis employed memorising techniques in their transmission of teaching. Clearly Jesus was different to the other religious teachers of his day; we cannot assume that he copied their teaching techniques anymore than he copied their teaching. But in a culture where memory was important, a cavalier approach to the passing on of facts and information is not to be expected. In fact in such a culture memory is often developed to a high degree; and people have better memories than many of us have in our instant "electronic recall" world! This apparently is true in parts of India where the training of the verbal memory is regarded as being very important.

Prophets and private revelations

But what about the influence of "Christian prophets" in developing and creating tradition. Some might say: "People will ignore memory when a 'prophet' is around and be afraid to contradict when a man says, 'I, the Lord speak to you.' Perhaps Christian prophets made up edifying stories." The evidence for this is non existent. In any case prophets are always "the odd man out". As far as the majority is concerned they find them an embarrassment. That prophets should have been responsible for the creation of fictions about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is unthinkable. "The role of prophets in the formation of the tradition," says F.F.Bruce, "has been greatly exaggerated. We have simply no concrete evidence to indicate that prophets in church meetings uttered words in the name of the exalted Lord which were preserved in the tradition as sayings of Jesus 'in the days of his flesh.' From the few details of prophetic utterances that have been recorded in the New Testament, they seem to have been pedestrian in character, relating to ad hoc situations."

To assume that prophets were responsible for words and deeds ascribed to Jesus in the four Gospels is hardly worth refuting. To assume that prophets could have given rise to the Resurrection is, of course, even more ridiculous.

Another check on the development of fictitious ideas and stories was the fact that the gospel was not private. This is very significant. It was the Gnostic sects that believed in "secret" revelations; it is not surprising that bizarre and obviously fictional stories about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus emerged from them. But the Church under the Apostles believed that the gospel belonged to the church as a whole. There was something corporate about it. It was an "open secret".

So there was a concern for the "unity" of the tradition. People wanted to check up on the facts. Paul himself wanted to consult with the Christians in Jerusalem. In one sense he was totally independent of Jerusalem and doing a quite separate work in his Gentile mission. But he decided early on to go up to Jerusalem to check things out. He decided to put before the leaders there "the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain" (Gal. 2.2). Paul clearly believed that he had received his commission and his gospel directly from the exalted Christ. He had not received it from the Jerusalem leaders (Gal. 1.1). But he "checked it out" with them.

There is no evidence for individual Christians in the early Apostolic Church having "private" visions and on that basis generating "stories".

John's Gospel

The Gospels are four different accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are quite unique in the history of literature; they are not biographies in the modern sense. A disproportionate amount of them is given over to the last week of Jesus' life. John says of what he has written in his Gospel, especially the "signs" - and the greatest sign is the Resurrection - that he has been selective. He has only written a fraction of what he could (John 21.25). He says: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20.31). John clearly had a theological purpose. But he is not for the moment suggesting he is fabricating "signs". He says he makes his theological points by selection from actual incidents and events - that is what he thought he was doing; there is not the slightest hint he was making his theological points by the creation of imagined incidents and events. But can we trust John?

John's Gospel has had a recent "rehabilitation". For many years it was said that John's Gospel was written late. It was said that the writer, whoever he was (and according to this view he certainly had nothing to do with the Apostle John of the twelve), just took Matthew, Mark and Luke and rewrote them! He rewrote the facts even! This was the reason, it was said, why John seems so different from the other three synoptic gospels (synoptic means literally "seeing together"). But the argument went on like this: if John could freely rewrite the other existing Gospels, why shouldn't those other three have done just the same thing with their sources? Why not indeed?

Then C.H.Dodd gave the Sarum Lectures for 1954-55. These were published as Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. He proved overwhelmingly that John was not dependent on the other Gospels for his sources. He did not rewrite them therefore. He couldn't have done. Rather, Dodd showed, in John's Gospel we have an independent tradition of material from Southern Palestine. We can't dismiss what John says about the Resurrection.

So now when C.H.Dodd comes to look at the narratives in John about the Resurrection and in particular Peter and John's visit to the tomb, he sees evidence of eyewitnesses rather than fabrication. He sees this in the account of the two Apostles' visit to the tomb. When they got there, they "saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself" (John 20.6-7).

The body of Jesus had been wrapped in long strips of cloth and spices had been put in between. The "napkin" was a separate piece of linen wrapped over the head and under the chin to keep the jaw in place. What John's Gospel says is that when John saw these "cloths" he believed. He believed, that is to say, not when he saw the empty tomb, but when he saw the "napkin" still separate from the rest of the linen wrappings that had been round the trunk and legs; it seemed as though the body had passed through the linen cloths. This was no resuscitation. It was a resurrection! The body had not revived, it had disappeared. "The story," says Dodd, "is told with dramatic realism of which this writer is master. It looks something as near first-hand evidence as we could hope to get. Perhaps it is, and if so, it becomes the sheet anchor of belief in a 'bodily resurrection'."

Again it was Dorothy Sayers who was quite convinced of the "eyewitness" nature of John's Gospel. Looking at the Gospel as a novelist herself and so from the viewpoint of someone used to "creating" or "fabricating stories", she says this: "It must be remembered that, of the four Evangelists, St John's is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eyewitness. And to anyone accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out the claim."

Luke's Gospel

But John is not the only Gospel writer who tells us what he is aiming to do as he selects his material. Luke also tells us of his aims. "In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account" (Luke 1.1-3).

Despite attempts to discredit Luke over the years, it is quite remarkable how he has withstood the test. Indeed what is noticeable is how modern experts who approach the New Testament from the view point of secular ancient history find Luke convincing. Those used to evaluating ancient documents and sources from the classical world of Greece and Rome say Luke is a good historian. A.N.Sherwin-White, a Roman Historian, is amazed at the scepticism of some New Testament critics. Having examined the New Testament, especially Luke and Acts, from the view point of Roman law and culture he finds it remarkably reliable.

One of the reasons why Luke has been "attacked" is because he has an interest in the miraculous. This is undeniable.

"Sober criticism," writes G.B.Caird, "cannot get behind the gospel record to a plain, commonplace tale, devoid of the miraculous and the supernatural. The early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had been at work in new and astonishing ways and they had the evidence of their own eyes to support their faith. Luke cannot justly be accused of exaggerating the miraculous element in his narrative. He omits Mark's most difficult miracle, the story of the barren fig tree. It is true that he also goes one step beyond Mark in recording a cure performed at a distance by word of command, but his story, the healing of the centurion's servant, was taken from Q, his most trustworthy source. He has sometimes been taken to task for emphasising the physical nature of the Resurrection since it is in his Gospel alone that the risen Jesus eats and drinks with his disciples. But here too he is simply reproducing with fidelity the sources on which he was relying. For in Acts 10.37-43 he puts into the mouth of Peter an almost credal utterance which is clearly derived from an Aramaic source and which presents the same picture of the Resurrection as we find in the Gospel."


The origins of the Gospels may be complicated, but that doesn't entitle us to dismiss their evidence. There were surviving eyewitnesses and other factors to prevent gross exaggeration in reporting or pious additions. There is every reason for saying we are dealing, in the Gospels, with accurate records.

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