The New Testament Gospels are not a reliable historical guide to the life, work, and teachings of Jesus
For this assignment I have been asked to argue the following thesis: The New Testament Gospels are not a reliable historical guide to the life, work, and teachings of Jesus. In particular, they provide no convincing evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
This thesis sounds terribly negative, but I want to start on a very positive note. Let me say here at the outset that I consider the Gospels of the New Testament to be four of the most beautiful, powerful, moving, and inspiring books ever written. I love the Gospels. Their stories of Jesus’s words and deeds have always been and always will be near and dear to me. Among other things, I have always strived to make the values they promote and the ethics they teach the center of my moral life, and I encourage others to do likewise. For me they are the most important books in our civilization and for my own life.
That does not mean that I think they are always historically accurate. On the contrary, even though they do contain valuable historical information about Jesus’s life and death, they also contain a good deal of material that is non-historical. It is my task in this writing assignment to show why I think that is.
I should stress that the views I lay out here are not unique to me, as if I’m the one who thought all this up. On the contrary, the views I will be laying out here are those held by virtually every professor of biblical studies who teaches at every major liberal arts college or research university in North America. Take your pick: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Kansas, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, University of Florida, Amherst, Middlebury, Oberlin — literally, pick any top liberal arts college or state university in North America, and the views that I will be sketching here are pretty much the sorts of things you will find taught there.
I want to stress this point because it is important to know that these are not the idiosyncratic ideas of some radical liberal professor with crazy ideas. These are the views shared by critical scholars around the country (and in Europe) who have devoted their lives to studying such things.
How the Gospels Have Been Understood Throughout History
That has not always been the case, however. If I were to try to lay out the history of scholarship on the Gospels in a highly succinct and compact way, I would say that it has gone through three stages.
Stage One: The Gospels as Supernatural Histories
The first stage involved the study of the Gospels before the Enlightenment. Prior to the eighteenth century, every scholar who studied the Bible maintained that the stories of the Gospels were what we might call “supernatural histories.” Both words in that term are important. First, the Gospels are “supernatural,” that is, they contain numerous stories that are so remarkable that they would require the miraculous activity of God. The Gospels are full of miracles from beginning to end. Jesus’s life begins with a miracle: his mother is, in fact, a virgin. Jesus’s ministry is one miracle after the other, as he heals the sick, casts out demons, walks on the water, feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes, calms the storm with a word, and raises the dead. At the end comes the biggest miracle of all: after he is dead and buried, God raises Jesus from the dead and exalts him to heaven, where he now dwells until the time when he will return to the earth in judgment.
The Gospels are obviously full of supernatural stories. And for scholars prior to the Enlightenment, these stories were actual events of history. They really happened. If you had been there, you would have been able to record them with your video camera (not that there were video cameras before the Enlightenment, but still … ).
Now, I’m not saying that this older view of biblical scholars is no longer anyone’s views! Quite the contrary, the idea that the Gospels are supernatural histories continues to be the assumption of most Christians today, including many (but not all) Christian scholars, especially fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, even if other scholars have other views (as we will see).
Stage Two: The Gospels as Natural Histories
The second stage in this history of the study of the Gospels happened during the Enlightenment, when scholars began to think about and look at the world very differently. In the Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began to break free of the authority imposed by the Christian church and to develop new, rational ways of engaging in intellectual activity. The sciences were on the rise, and scholars began to realize that one does not need to appeal to the activities of God to explain the events of the world. Lightning strikes, floods, and droughts were no longer thought of as direct interventions of God into the world; they were seen as naturally occurring climactic conditions.
Medicine was developed, and proved to be much more efficient in solving human illness than prayer and hope. Astronomy developed and people came to realize that the earth was not the center of the universe. Eventually, scientists realized that the world was not created in six days and that humans were not simply created out of the dust, but evolved from lower forms of primates, which were themselves evolved from yet other forms of life.
The emphasis during the Enlightenment was on the possibility of human reason to understand our world and the nature of life in it. We can all be endlessly grateful that these developments occurred. We now have ways of dealing with everything from toothache to polio to potential crop failure to massive starvation to … to literally thousands of things that earlier people could not control at all.
This decision to use human reason to understand the world was applied by biblical scholars to the accounts of Scripture. If we no longer needed to appeal to “miracle” to explain why we got over the flu, or why it finally rained last week, or why the solar system was formed, do we need to appeal to miracle to understand the Gospels?
Some scholars of the Enlightenment thought that the answer was No. In their view, the Gospels do not contain Supernatural Histories, but what we might call “natural histories.” Before explaining this view, let me stress that there are very few scholars today who hold to this opinion (of all the hundreds of biblical scholars I personally know, I don’t know of anyone who does). But in the early nineteenth century, this became a common view in scholarly circles. It maintained that the Gospels do contain historical accounts of things that happened. But the things that happened were not miraculous, since these Enlightenment scholars did not think we needed to appeal to the miraculous in order to explain what happens in the world. Instead, the events narrated in the Gospels were non-miraculous, “natural” events that were simply misinterpreted by the followers of Jesus (who were obviously not influenced by the Enlightenment) to have been miraculous, supernatural events.
To explain how the view worked, I might mention one of the great Enlightenment scholars in the field of biblical studies, a German scholar named Heinrich Paulus, whose most important book was called The Life of Jesus (1828) (German title: Das Leben Jesu). Paulus went story by story through the Gospels in order to show that what the disciples mistakenly thought or described as a miracle was in fact a natural occurrence. Let me illustrate with three examples, just so you can get a feel for how it worked.
In the Gospels Jesus is said to have fed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Jesus is said to have been teaching the crowds — Mark’s Gospel says there were 5,000 men there, not counting the women and children. So, let’s say 15,000 people altogether. The disciples come to Jesus and tell him the crowds are hungry, he should send them home so they can eat. He tells the disciples that they themselves should feed them. The disciples are incredulous: how can they possibly feed this vast multitude? Jesus asks them how much food they have. It’s not much: five loaves and two fishes. He tells them to have the crowd all sit in groups of fifty and a hundred. They do so, and Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it in pieces, and starts giving it to the disciples, who distribute it to the groups of people. He does the same thing with the fish. And the food just keeps coming. Eventually there is enough for everyone. And there are basketfuls left over.
Now, scholars before the Enlightenment (just as many people still today) would have described this as a “supernatural history,” an event that really took place (history), which is nonetheless obviously miraculous (supernatural). But Heinrich Paulus did not believe in the supernatural. In his view something really happened (it was history), but not a great miracle. It was a natural event that was later misinterpreted.
But what was the event? Paulus argued that what actually happened was this: The disciples tell Jesus to allow the multitudes to go home to eat. Jesus instead tells them to have every one sit and to bring him what little food they themselves have on hand. They do so and he breaks the bread and fish and starts handing it out. When he does this, everyone else looking on sees that it’s time for lunch. And so they break out their own picnic baskets and start sharing their food with one another. By the time it’s all over, there is more than enough food to go around.
Only later, looking back on that great afternoon, did someone say “You remember that day when Jesus was teaching us, and we were all hungry and … ? That was a great day. A spectacular day. In fact, that was a miraculous day.” And so the story started up that a miracle had happened that day. But in fact it was not a supernatural event, but a natural one, that only later was misinterpreted as an actual miracle. (Again, I’m not saying that I — or anyone else I know — think this is what really happened; but it was a popular kind of view in the early nineteenth century.)
Or take a second example: After Jesus feeds and dismisses the multitudes, he tells his disciples to take their boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (which is in fact merely a lake, as you will see if you ever visit Israel), while he stays on shore to pray. It is nighttime, and in the dark the disciples head off across the lake, but a mighty storm arises and as they row they are making no headway. When Jesus finishes his prayer he looks up and sees them struggling, and he begins to walk out to them, on top of the water. The disciples, in a boat in the middle of the lake, see him and are terrified. They think it is a ghost. Jesus tells them “No, it is I.” In Matthew’s Gospel, the head disciple Peter (who is always saying ridiculous things) says, “Lord if it is you, let me come to you.” Jesus gives his permission and Peter hops out of the boat and begins walking toward him on the water. But then he looks around and sees the wind and waves and realizes what he’s doing, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out a hand and rebukes him, “Oh, you of little faith!” They then get in the boat and arrive at their destination.
Those who hold to the Gospels as supernatural histories would simply say that the walking on the water was an event that really and truly happened, a miraculous occurrence. But Heinrich Paulus could not see it that way. For him it was, again, a natural event that was simply misunderstood. This is how it worked. Recall, we are told that the event took place at night, after it was dark. The disciples set out in their boat, but can make no headway because of the violent storm that had arisen. In Paulus’s view, they literally had made no headway. They had never gotten off the shore. They didn’t know this, of course, since it was dark and rainy and they couldn’t see. They thought they were in the middle of the lake. Wrong. Jesus finished praying and seeing that they were getting nowhere came to them, wading through the water on the shore. Since they think they are already halfway across the lake, they are terrified and cry out. But Jesus tells them not to be afraid, it is just he. Peter wants to know if he can come to him. Jesus, somewhat surprised, says “Of course.” Peter hops out of the boat, but begins to flounder around, thinking that he is trying to walk on the water. Jesus grabs his hand and helps him up, and pulls the boat to shore.
This, in other words, was not a miraculous event, but a rather ordinary one that was simply misunderstood, a natural history rather than a supernatural one.
So, that might work for some of the miracles Jesus did, but what about the biggest miracle of all, his resurrection from the dead? In the Gospels Jesus is found guilty of treason against the state (calling himself the “King of the Jews”), is flogged within an inch of his life, is crucified, dies, and is buried. On the third day the women go to where he was buried and find the stone rolled away from the tomb. Jesus is not there. He later appears to them and then to the disciples. He has been raised from the dead. How could one possibly give a “natural” explanation for such an obviously supernatural event?
As you might imagine, Paulus has a way. Paulus stresses that before Jesus was crucified he was flogged nearly to death. Hanging, then, on the cross, his body was put under the most severe stress. And for Paulus, at that point something truly significant happened. Jesus went into a coma. His vital signs slowed down. It looked like he stopped breathing, and that his heart stopped beating. They thought he was dead. A soldier wanted to make sure and plunged a spear into his side, serving, according to Paulus, the medical purpose of a “bloodletting,” which started the process of healing (remember: in the early nineteenth century one of the ways to heal an illness was for the doctor to cause a bleeding). The soldiers assumed he had died; he was taken from the cross and laid in a grave; and, after a while, in the cool of the tomb, with the smell of the ointments, he awoke. He arose, rolled the stone from the entrance of the tomb, and appeared to his followers.
And what were they supposed to think? They had seen him dead. And now he was alive, no longer in his tomb. They assumed he had been raised back from life. But Jesus had not, in fact, been resurrected, because Jesus had never died.
That was the theory of Paulus. You could probably poke a ton of holes in it. But that was one of the two views that virtually everyone had of the Gospels in the early nineteenth century. They either thought that the Gospels were supernatural histories, or that they were natural histories.
Stage Three: The Gospels as Non-Historical Myths
All that changed in 1835–36 with the publication of one of the most important books in biblical studies ever to be written, by another German scholar, named David Friedrich Strauss. The book was called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined [Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet] (1835). This would then be the third stage in the history of biblical scholarship.
Strauss wanted to argue that both previous ways of looking at the Gospels were wrong. The Gospels were not supernatural histories and they were not natural histories. That’s because the Gospels were not histories at all. For Strauss, they were myths.
Now, before you reject that view as being a bit crazy, it is important to know what Strauss meant by the term “myth,” since what he meant by it is not what most people today mean by it. Today, people often think of myth as a story that is not true. But not for Strauss. Strauss maintained that a myth was true. For him, a myth was a true story that didn’t happen.
What??? If a story didn’t happen, how can it be true? In fact, I would argue that all of us hold to true stories that didn’t happen. Here’s the example I often give my students. Most of us, when we were young, heard the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Young George is given a hatchet for a present, and he somewhat unwisely uses it to chop down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When his father comes home, he angrily asks, “Who chopped down my cherry tree?” And young George tells him, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it.”
Parents and school teachers continue to tell that story today. But we know for a fact it didn’t happen. There is no dispute about this. The man who made up the story, a biographer of Washington named Mason Locke Weems [generally known as “Parson Weems” — ed.], admitted that he invented the story. (He invented other stories, as well. Among other things, he falsely claimed that he had been Washington’s pastor. These inventions came from a man who made up the story about how “I cannot tell a lie”!)
So, if we know the story about the cherry tree didn’t happen, why do we tell it? We tell it because we appreciate the “truth” that it conveys. For example, with respect to our country, it shows that the Father of this country was an honest man, one who would never lie. How honest was he? Well, one time when he was a boy.… This country is founded on honesty! Moreover, many people tell the story because they think it teaches an important lesson in personal ethics. If you do something wrong, you should just admit it and not compound the problem by lying about it. This is a lesson we want our children to learn. It is important never to lie. It is a true story. But it didn’t happen.
According to Strauss, the Gospels are full of stories like that, stories that didn’t happen (they aren’t histories), but that attempt to tell the truth about Jesus. Strauss’s term for that kind of story can be off-putting for people today, since it’s a bit hard for anyone to say the New Testament is full of myths. And so scholars today describe the phenomenon that Strauss has in mind by using other kinds of terminology. But the basic idea that he advanced is one that is very widely held today among critical scholars of the New Testament. The Gospels contain stories that did not literally happen. We know that for reasons I will be laying out in a second. But just because they didn’t happen in history does not mean that they cannot be “true” in some other sense. They may be an attempt by the author to convey a “truth” about Jesus that is important for his understanding of him.
Do the Gospels Contain Stories that Cannot Be Historically Accurate?
Let me explain how all this works by taking just one example out of a huge number of possibilities. This is a story that simply cannot be historically accurate the way it is narrated, but that is attempting to convey a true understanding of Jesus (in the view of the author). The example has to do with the death of Jesus as it is narrated in the Gospel of John.
First, let me stress a point that I will be making a bit more fully later: the Gospels certainly do contain historically important information about Jesus, especially when it comes to the very broad outlines of what he said, did, and experienced. With respect to the death of Jesus, for example, there are very good reasons indeed (that I have spelled out at length in some of my books, if you’re really interested) for being relatively certain that Jesus went from his home country of Galilee to the city of Jerusalem (about 100 miles away from where he spent his public ministry) the last week of his life in order to celebrate the Passover meal; that there he aroused the anger of the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities; he was arrested, put on trial by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate; found to be guilty of treason against the state; and crucified. That basic story is reported in all the Gospels, and I think it is almost certainly right. But many of the details of the Gospel accounts cannot be right.
To make sense of what I want to say, I have to explain just a little bit of historical background. It is important to know what the Passover feast of the Jews was all about as the context within which Jesus made his last fateful trip to Jerusalem.
Passover was (and is) an annual Jewish festival celebrating the greatest event in the history of the ancient Israelites, their deliverance by God, through Moses, from their slavery in Egypt. You can find the story in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus. We are told that the people of Israel had migrated down to Egypt to escape a famine in the Promised Land. In Egypt they became a numerous people, and out of a fear of their numbers, the Egyptians enslaved them. The children of Israel had been in Egypt for 400 years when God finally heard their cries and raised up for them a savior, Moses. Moses was empowered by God to do miracles against the Egyptians in order to convince the ruler, Pharaoh, to let the people go.
The last of the ten great miracles was the “death of the first born.” God was to send the angel of death to kill every first-born child in the land to convince the Pharaoh that he, God, meant business. Moses was instructed to have every Israelite family sacrifice a lamb, and to spread the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel of their house. Then, when the angel of death came, he would “pass over” their houses to those without the blood to kill their first born. They Israelites all did so, and it happened. Throughout the land there were massive deaths. Pharaoh realized that he was dealing with an implacable power and sent the people away; they made a hasty escape. Pharaoh then had second thoughts and chased them to the Red Sea. God did then another great miracle, parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites, but bringing the waters back with a vengeance in order to drown the Egyptian army. This then was the Exodus event.
Hundreds of years later, in the days of Jesus, the Passover was celebrated by Jews throughout the world, but especially in the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the temple of the Jews was, the only place where animal sacrifice could be practiced. At the Passover pilgrims from around the world would arrive, a week early, in order to prepare for the celebration, which involved a special meal in which the Jewish households would eat a lamb and a number of other symbolic foods, including unleavened bread and several cups of wine.
Now, here is the only tricky part of this historical background. It is important (crucial!) to recall the traditional Jewish reckoning of time. For Jews, the new day begins not at midnight (as for most of the rest of us), but when it gets dark. That’s why, even today, the Jewish “Sabbath” dinner is eaten Friday night, even though Sabbath is on Saturday. The beginning of the new day comes when the stars come out.
So too in Jesus’s day. The final preparations for the Passover meal were done after noon on the “Day of Preparation for the Passover.” The lambs were slaughtered, taken home, and cooked; all the other foods were purchased and assembled; all things were made ready. Then, when it became dark, the next day was begun, the day of Passover itself, starting with the Passover meal.
Now we can get to the Gospels and their accounts of Jesus’s death. Our earliest Gospel is Mark’s (written about 70 CE — that is, about 40 years after the events it narrates). In Mark, the disciples ask Jesus “Where do you want us to prepare the Passover for us” (Mark 14:12). He gives them their instructions, and so, on this day of “Preparation,” they get everything ready. That evening, after it gets dark, they eat with Jesus the Passover meal. He takes the symbolic bread and breaks it, instilling yet greater symbolism in it: “This is my body.” He takes a cup of wine and instills greater symbolism: “This is my blood of the covenant.” After they finish eating the meal, they go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays until the betrayer Judas Iscariot comes with the troops and he is arrested. Jesus spends the night in jail, is put on trial early the next morning, is condemned, and is then crucified at 9:00 am, on the day of Passover, the morning after he had eaten the meal (Mark 15:25). That’s Mark’s version.
Our final Gospel to be written was John (possibly around 90–95 CE, some 20 years or so after Mark, and about 60–65 years after the death of Jesus). Here, too, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. Here, too, he eats a last meal with his disciples (John 13–17). But in this account the disciples never ask Jesus where he wants them to prepare for the Passover meal, and the meal is not described as a Passover meal. Moreover, in John Jesus does not take the Passover foods of bread and cup and instill any new significance in them. It’s just a meal. Afterward, Jesus goes out to pray, he’s arrested, spends the night in jail, is put on trial, and is condemned to be crucified. And we’re told exactly when this took place: “And it was the Day of Preparation for the Passover, about noon” (John 19:14).
The Day of Preparation for the Passover? How could it be the “Day of Preparation for the Passover”? According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lived through that day, had the disciples prepare the Passover, and that night ate the Passover meal, only to be crucified the next morning at 9:00 am (not after noon). What’s going on here?
What’s going on here is that John cannot be historically accurate if Mark is historically accurate. In John Jesus dies the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten, when preparations were underway for the meal that evening; in the earlier account of Mark, Jesus actually ate the meal with his disciples that evening and was killed the next day.
It may seem like a small detail, and in many ways it is. But why the difference? Scholars have long known the answer to that question. It all has to do with a “truth” that John is trying to convey. He has changed a historical datum in order to convey this truth.
Here’s the deal. John’s Gospel is the only one in which Jesus is said to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (spoken two times: John 1:29 and 35). For John, Jesus himself is like the Passover lamb. Just as the lamb represented the salvation of God that he brought about at the Exodus, so too Jesus is the lamb — the one who brings the even greater salvation, not from slavery, but from sin. For John’s Gospel, Jesus is himself the Passover lamb whose death brings salvation.
And when does Jesus die, in John’s Gospel? He dies on the same day the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. These sacrifices in that time were begun after noon. And so John indicates that Jesus was killed after noon, on the Day of Preparation for the Passover.
John, in other words, has changed the story to make his point. If Mark’s account is accurate, John’s cannot be (and vice versa). But that’s not ultimately the point. For John, the point is not a history lesson of something that took place one Spring day in 30 CE. The point is that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John has changed the story to make it less historically accurate, but more theologically correct (in his view).
Initial Conclusion: Non-Historical Accounts in the Gospels
David Friedrich Strauss would say that the Gospels are chock full of those kinds of stories, stories that are not and cannot be historically accurate. This particular example I have given involves just a tiny little detail (which day Jesus died on, and at what time of day). And you might think, “Who Cares???” Well, John cared. And the reason it matters is because this kind of thing happens all over the place in the Gospels. And — this is a VERY big “And” — in many, many places the non-historical aspects of the Gospels involve not simply tiny little details, but very large parts of stories and entire stories themselves.
To show that this is the case would take far more time and space than I have here. For anyone interested, I’d suggest that you start with my book Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne, 2009), where I go into this matter at great and considerable length. And even there, I am also simply scratching the surface.
Before explaining the matter a bit further and then turning to the stories of Jesus’s resurrection, let me make two fundamental points about the Gospels that are important to understand when discussing their historical accuracy.
Even though we continue to call the Gospels “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” we do not know who the authors actually were. Each of the Gospels is completely anonymous: their authors never announce their names. The titles we read in the Gospels (e.g., “The Gospel according to Matthew”) were not put there by their authors, but by later scribes who wanted to tell you who, in their opinion, wrote these books. But for well over a century scholars have realized that these opinions are almost certainly wrong. The followers of Jesus were uneducated, lower-class, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee; these books, however, were written by highly educated and well trained, Greek-speaking, elite Christians living in cities in other locations. They were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and do not ever claim to be.
Where then did they get their stories? This is the second point to stress. For nearly 100 years scholars have realized that the Gospel writers acquired their stories about Jesus from the “oral tradition,” that is, from the stories about Jesus’s life, words, deeds, death, and resurrection that had been in circulation by word of mouth, in all the years from the time of his death. The Gospels were written between 70–95 CE — that is 40 to 65 years after the events they narrate. This means that the Gospel writers are recording stories that had been told and retold month after month, year after year, decade after decade, among Christians living throughout the Roman empire, in differing places, in different times, even in different languages.
My most recent book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016), explains what appears to have happened to these stories that had been in oral circulation for all those years before any of our authors wrote them down. The stories changed. Sometimes in little ways (as in the date of Jesus’s death) and sometimes in enormous ways. How could they not change? Think about it for a second. In the Gospel of Matthew we have the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” It is one of the best known and most beloved set of ethical teachings the planet has ever seen. It takes up fully three chapters of the Gospel (it is not found in any of the other three). But Matthew was writing his account some 50 years or so after the sermon was allegedly given. How would he know what was said?
Give it some thought. Suppose you were supposed to write down a speech that you yourself had listened to a while ago. Suppose it was a speech delivered by a presidential candidate last month. If you had no notes, but just your memory—how well would you do? Or suppose you wanted to write down, without notes, Obama’s first “State of the Union” address? That was only seven years ago. How well would you do? How well would you do with the first “State of the Union” addressed delivered by Lyndon Johnson? My guess is that you wouldn’t have a clue.
When I was in graduate school, we always learned that it was completely different in oral cultures. That in cultures where there is no writing, people remember things better, since they more or less have to. I believed that for years — until I decided to see if there was any research that could back up that claim. I have now read extensively in this research, and I can tell you the claim is bogus. You can read the research for yourself; it is all very interesting.
Since the 1920s cultural anthropologists have studied oral cultures extensively, in a wide range of contexts (from Yugoslavia to Ghana to Rwanda to … many other places). What this scholarship has consistently shown is that our unreflective assumptions about oral cultures are simply not right. When people pass along traditions in such cultures, they think the stories are supposed to change, depending on the context, the audience, the point that the story-teller wants to make, and so on. In those cultures, there is no sense at all that stories should be repeated the same, verbatim. They change all the time, each and every time, always in little ways and quite often in massive ways.
The early Christians were passing along the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. They changed them. Sometimes, in the details. Sometimes, in more significant ways. These are the stories that have come down to us once they were written in the Gospels.
Evidence that Gospel Stories Were Changed (or Even Invented): Discrepancies in the Gospels
But how do we know that the stories have changed? That there are parts of stories — or entire stories — that are not historically accurate? We know this for two reasons: because there are abundant discrepancies among our stories, and because a number of the stories can be shown to be historically completely implausible.
First, let me mention some discrepancies — not an exhaustive list of them (that would take an entire book), but just a couple of examples to give you the idea. If you read the Gospels carefully enough, you’ll find plenty yourself. The way to do it involves a different method of reading the Gospels from how we normally read them. Normally, we read a passage here or there, as we choose. Sometimes, we read the Gospels straight through, from beginning to end. Both ways of reading the Gospels are perfectly great and fine. But there is another way to read them. I call it a “horizontal” reading. This is when you put two Gospels next to each other, on the same page as it were, and read a story in one of them and then the same story in the other. If they were printed on the same page, you could literally do this horizontally; but you can simply read an account in, say, Mark, and then the same account in Luke, and do a point-by-point comparison that way. It’s very easy to do.
When you do it, you start to find irreconcilable differences among the Gospels. Do it — just to pick an example — with the story of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5:21–43 and Matthew 9:18–26. In Mark, the man Jairus comes up to Jesus and tells him that his daughter is very sick, near to death. Could he come heal her? Before Jesus can get there, though, he is delayed by someone else who needs to be healed, and while he is taking care of this other person, people from Jairus’s household come and tell him that now it is too late, the girl has already died. Jesus tells Jairus not to fear, but only believe, and he goes and raises the girl from the dead. Fantastic story.
Matthew has the story, as well, but in his account when Jairus comes to Jesus he does not say the girl is very sick. He comes to inform Jesus that the girl has died. Could he come and raise her from the dead? And Jesus goes and does so.
Again, this is a small detail, but think about it. It’s rather serious. There is a big difference between being very sick and being dead. Imagine a father who learns that his child has been taken to the hospital as opposed to learning that his child has died. Huge difference. It can’t very well be both. Someone has changed the story. (Presumably, Matthew changed it, since it is widely thought that he was using Mark as his source.)
There are lots and lots of detailed differences like this that you will find once you start reading the Bible horizontally. Just take another seemingly small instance. In Mark’s Gospel, at his Last Supper, Jesus informs Peter that he, Peter, will deny Jesus that evening three times “before the cock crows twice” (Mark 14:30). In Matthew we have the same scene, but here Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times “before the cock crows” (Matthew 26:34). Well, which is it? Is it before the cock crows or before it crows the second time? Again, it seems like a picayune detail: but why the difference? What is more interesting (and possibly important), is that in the different Gospels Peter actually denies Jesus to different people on different occasions. So, what is going on?
When I was in college I bought a book called The Life of Christ in Stereo, by Johnston M. Cheney (Multnomah Publishing, 1984), in which the author tried to reconcile all these differences by producing one mega-Gospel out of the four of the New Testament, creating one large narrative with all the details found in one or another of the Gospels. And what happens to the denials of Peter in this inventive book? Here, we learn that Peter actually denied Jesus six times: three times before the cock crowed the first time and three more times before it crowed the second! This is an interesting (and rather amusing) solution to the problem, but it ends up meaning that what really happened is precisely what none of the Gospels actually says!
Now, I know some of you are reading these instances of discrepancies and are not at all impressed. These are such little, minor differences. What’s the big deal? I have two responses to that: the first is, that I’m just giving you a couple of small details to make the point; there are very large differences as well, as we will see in a second. But the second is that small details matter a lot in many parts of our lives. If you were reading about a murder investigation in which detectives were arguing about a fingerprint which could solve the case, would you say, “It doesn’t matter! It’s just a tiny thing! It’s just a fingerprint!!!”? Of course not. Often the tiniest piece of evidence can help you solve a case. So, too, with history. The small things sometimes have huge implications.
But as I’ve said, some of the discrepancies are much larger. As a very famous example: when did Jesus cleanse the temple? In the earliest Gospel, the last week of Jesus’s life he travels to Jerusalem, enters the temple, is disgusted by what he sees there, drives out the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals, and declares that this was to be a place of prayer, but they have made it a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:15–19). This is pretty dramatic stuff. And it led to a dramatic end. It was because of this act that the Jewish authorities decided that Jesus had to be destroyed. Within a week he was dead.
You have the account of Jesus cleansing the temple in the Gospel of John, as well. But here it is not one of the last public acts Jesus engages in. In fact, it’s one of the very first things he does, at the beginning of a three-year ministry (John 2:13–22). How could it take place here at the beginning if in Mark it takes place at the end? Virtually the only way to reconcile the two is to say that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end (which is kind of like saying that Peter denied Jesus six times!). But if he did it at the beginning, then why wasn’t he arrested then? I don’t think there’s a good answer to that question. John seems to have changed the account. Just as he did with the date of Jesus’s death (before or after the Passover — see my comments at the beginning).
If witnesses to an event change their story, do you consider them reliable?
Sometimes, the differences among the Gospels are far larger and fundamental. Let me give just one example that I explain at length in my recent book How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2015). In the Gospel of John — just to stick with this account — Jesus spends almost his entire preaching ministry explaining who he is. This does not happen in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. In those Gospels, Jesus rarely speaks about himself, except to say that he must go to Jerusalem to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, crucified, and then raised from the dead. In those earlier Gospels, Jesus spends the bulk of his time preaching that God’s Kingdom is soon to arrive, and explaining both what the kingdom will be like and what people must do in preparation for its appearance.
In John, however, Jesus’s preaching is almost entirely about his own identity. Here he makes the most breathtaking claims about himself, repeatedly claiming to be God, to the dismay of his Jewish listeners who regularly take up stones to execute him for blasphemy. You don’t find anything like that in the public ministry of Jesus in the other Gospels. But here in John, Jesus says such things as “Before Abraham was, I am” (Abraham lived 1,800 years earlier! John 8:58); “I and the Father are one” (10:30); “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (14:9). Here, Jesus speaks of the glory that he shared with the Father before the world was created (17:5).
These are spectacular passages, all of them. But did the man Jesus, during his life, actually say such things about himself? Here is a point worth considering. The other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are all considered to be based on earlier sources. Scholars call these earlier sources Q (a source used by both Matthew and Luke for many of their sayings of Jesus), M (a source used just by Matthew), and L (a source used just by Luke). All of these sources were written much earlier than John, much nearer the time of Jesus’s public ministry. What is striking is that in precisely none of these sources or Gospels does Jesus make the exalted claims for himself that you find in John. You will not find these claims in Mark, Q, M, L, Matthew, or Luke.
So, here is the question. If the historical Jesus actually went around claiming that he was God on earth, is there anything else that he could possibly say that would be more significant? That would be the most amazing thing he could conceivably say. And if so, it would certainly be what someone who was recording his words would want their readers to know about him. If that’s the case, how do we explain the fact that such sayings are not found in any of our earlier sources? It’s not simply that one or the other of them chose not to give these sayings. Precisely none of them give them. But these would be the most amazing things that Jesus ever said. Did all six of these earlier authors simply decide not to mention that part? All of them?
The more likely explanation is that Jesus did not actually say such things. Otherwise, they would have been reported. When Jesus says these things in John, it’s because John is putting these words on his lips. You may certainly think that the words of Jesus in John are theologically true, that in fact Jesus was God on earth. But historically, these are probably not things Jesus himself actually said.
Evidence that Gospel Stories Were Changed (or Even Invented): General Implausibilities
I have spent a good deal of time talking about discrepancies among the Gospels. There is one other reason for thinking that in places they are not historically accurate. That is because they occasionally tell stories that are completely implausible historically. Here, I have time (and space) to give only one example. This time I will refer to the Gospel of Luke and one of its most familiar stories, involving the birth of Jesus.
According to Luke’s version of Jesus’s birth (found in chs. 1–2), his mother Mary was a virgin who had been made pregnant by the Holy Spirit. She and her betrothed, Joseph, were from the town of Nazareth (up in the northern part of Israel, about 65 miles from the capital, Jerusalem). But even though they were from there, and Jesus was raised there, he actually was born in the village of Bethlehem (near Jerusalem, in the south). We learn from another Gospel, Matthew, why it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even if he actually “came” from somewhere else (Nazareth): It’s because of an Old Testament prophecy that said a savior would come from Bethlehem, the city of King David (whose descendant was to be the messiah — see Micah 5:2; quoted in Matthew 2:5–6).
But why would Jesus have been born somewhere other than where his parents lived? This is where Luke’s story picks up. Luke indicates that during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria, and Herod was the king of Israel, there was a census that required “all the world” to be registered. Normally, in the ancient world a census was instituted to register people for taxes. This would be an enormous program of taxation indeed, if the whole world had to register for it! But I suppose we are to imagine that this is a census only of the Roman Empire (not China, for example). Still, for Luke it was a very big deal.
Joseph has to register for the census not in Nazareth, where he lived, but in Bethlehem, because he was “from the lineage of David,” and that’s where King David had been born. And so Joseph takes his pregnant espoused, Mary, to Bethlehem to register, and it turns out, while they were there, Mary went into labor and delivered her child, Jesus. So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though he came from Nazareth. Luke then indicates that eight days later, Jesus was circumcised and 33 days later, after Mary performed the “rites of purification” (this is in reference to a law in the Old Testament, Leviticus 12), they returned back to Nazareth.
It’s a very well-known story, and a beautiful one. But did it happen? Among biblical scholars it is widely thought to be completely implausible, for several reasons:
- If Luke is right that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, Quirinius could not have been the governor; he became governor of Syria ten years after Herod’s death.
- We are well informed of the reign of Caesar Augustus. There is no record anywhere of a census in which “the whole world” (or, indeed “the whole Roman empire”) had to be taxed.
- More important, the census simply doesn’t make any sense. Joseph has to register in Bethlehem precisely because he is descended from King David who came from there.
- So, first of all, probably most Jews today are descended from King David, given how genealogies work. Did half the Jewish population of the world descend on Bethlehem?
- Second, David lived 1,000 years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire is returning to their ancestral home from 1,000 years earlier? Imagine if the Democrats take over in this next election and our taxes get raised and you need to register with the IRS by returning to the home of your (say, patrilineal) ancestor from 1,000 years ago. Where will you go?
- And everyone in the empire is doing this? Imagine the absolutely massive population migrations. And there is no other source that even mentions it?
Finally, if Luke’s account is right about the birth of Jesus, then the one other account that discusses it in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, cannot also be right. Read Matthew’s account: what happens after Jesus is born? In Matthew, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem because he doesn’t want any competitors for his throne as “King of the Jews.” But Joseph is warned in a dream and he escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they stay until Herod dies. But if that’s right, how can Luke also be right that they stayed in Bethlehem just 41 days (eight days till the circumcision; 33 days before the rites of purification) and then returned to Nazareth? If Luke’s right, then Matthew can’t be, and vice versa.
- All of this makes the account in Luke (and Matthew’s account, too, but for other reasons) extremely improbable. The only way to make it work is to interpret it so that it means something other than it says. It can’t literally be right. But why does Luke spin such a tale? For the reason I pointed out earlier. It’s because he thinks that Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem — since that’s to be the home of the savior — even though he knows he came from Nazareth. And so, he came up with a story to explain it. The story, though, is almost certainly not historically accurate.
Applying These Results to the Stories of Jesus’s Resurrection: The Discrepancies
We could look at lots and lots of stories in the Gospels that have similar problems, both because they contain discrepancies and because they involve serious problems of plausibility. Here in my last section, though, let me show how such problems affect the most important stories of the Gospels, the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.
Let me stress here a fairly obvious point. When historians try to reconstruct what happened in the past, they desperately want to find internally consistent sources. To that extent, they are like trial lawyers. Suppose there was a court case about a murder: All the witnesses on the stand agree that there was a murder, but that’s the only thing they agree on. Everything they say — about the time, the place, the people involved, the weapons used, the events leading up to the murder, what happened immediately afterward — everything they say is different, from one witness to another, sometimes different in ways that simply can’t be reconciled. And suppose some of them say things that simply defy plausibility. Would a trial lawyer — or a jury! — consider these to be reliable witnesses? How could they all be reliable?
So, too, with historical sources: We want independent and supportive accounts that are completely consistent with each other.
But when it comes to the resurrection narratives, that’s not what we find. Here, I would encourage you again simply to do a horizontal reading of our four New Testament accounts (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21). For every detail, ask yourself if you are reading the same account or a different account. What are the differences? It’s fine, of course, for there to be differences: everyone will tell a story in his or her own way. But are the differences of the sort that don’t matter for the accuracy of one account or another, or are they fundamentally at odds with one another? And do any of the accounts give information that is simply implausible, historically?
Here are the some of the differences that you will find, some of which really can’t be reconciled with one another. There are others you will find for yourself. (Recall the setting: Jesus has been crucified and buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea; and then, on the third day.… )
- Who goes to the tomb? Is it Mary by herself, or with other women? If with other women, how many women? And what are their names? (As is true for this and all the other points I made, the answer in each case will appear to be: “It depends which Gospel you read!”)
- Do they find that the stone is already rolled away from the tomb (before they arrive) or does it roll away after they get there?
- Whom do they see there? A man? An angel? Two men? Two angels?
- Do they ever see Jesus himself there?
- What are they told there – that they are to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee? Or that they are to remind the disciples what Jesus told them when he was in Galilee?
- That is, are the disciples to go to Galilee (about a four-day walk north) to see Jesus, or are they to stay in Jerusalem to see him?
- Do the women tell anyone? (Take special note of Mark 16:8. The original Gospel ended with that verse – as will probably be indicated in your Bible. It says, “And the women said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s where it ends. If the author doesn’t really mean that they never told anyone, why does he say that they didn’t tell anyone? And if he thinks they did tell someone, why doesn’t he say so?)
- Do the disciples ever learn that Jesus has been raised (take note of Mark’s account)?
- Do the disciples go to Galilee? Or do they stay in Jerusalem?
- Does Jesus appear to them just on the day of his resurrection, and then ascend to heaven? Or does he make appearances for a period of time?
- Does he ascend on the day of the resurrection or 40 days later (see Acts 1)?
Let me explore briefly just one of those differences to show you why the accounts seem to be truly at odds with one another. Do the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee or do they never leave Jerusalem? In Mark’s Gospel, the women are told to tell the disciples to go to meet Jesus in Galilee. But they never tell them. So, it’s not clear what Mark thinks happens next: Did no one ever hear? Surely, someone heard, since Mark knows the story!
In any event, the women are told something very similar in Matthew, and there they do tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee. And the disciples go to Galilee (again, it’s about over 60 miles, and they would have gone on foot). Jesus meets with them there and gives them their final instructions, and that’s the end of the Gospel.
But how does that stack up with what we find in Luke’s account? In this case, the women are not told to tell the disciples to go to Galilee; they are instructed to remind the disciples what Jesus had told them earlier when they were all in Galilee. And what happens? Here, it is very important to pay attention to Luke’s explicit chronological statements. On the day of the event, the women tell the 11 disciples what they heard from the two men at the tomb (24:8). “That very same day” Jesus appears to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus (24:13–32). “At that same hour” they went and told the disciples in Jerusalem what they had seen (24:33–35). “As they were saying this” (24:36), Jesus then appears to the disciples, shows them he has been raised from the dead, and gives them their instructions, which include the injunction that they are to “stay in the city” until they receive the promised Spirit from on high (24:49). He then takes them to a suburb, Bethany, and ascends to heaven. The disciples then return to Jerusalem itself and worship in the temple (24:50–53). And that’s where the Gospel ends, on the day of the resurrection, in Jerusalem.
As you probably know, the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the book of Acts. It is interesting, and puzzling, to read the first chapter of Acts immediately after reading the Gospel of Luke. Even though Jesus ascends to heaven on the day of his resurrection in Luke, we are told explicitly in Acts that in fact he stayed on earth for another 40 days, convincing his followers “with many proofs” that he had been raised from the dead (Acts 1:3 — I’ve always found this one of the most perplexing verses in the entire New Testament: Why would Jesus need to “prove” that he was raised from the dead? They knew he died and now he was still with them! So, what were his “many proofs”? It’s an intriguing question!). For this entire 40 days, they have followed Jesus’s instruction, and are still in Jerusalem. He then ascends to heaven as they watch (1:9–11).
They continue to stay in Jerusalem until the Day of Pentecost (which would have been 50 days after Jesus’s crucifixion), when they receive the Spirit from on high (Acts 2). And in fact, they continue to stay in Jerusalem even after that (see Acts chapters 3–8).
I am giving this relatively detailed summary in order to make a fundamental point. In Luke’s version of the events, the disciples are told to stay in the city of Jerusalem and they do stay in the city of Jerusalem. Not for a day or two, but for weeks. This is where Jesus appears to them before ascending. But in Matthew’s version, they leave Jerusalem and travel up to Galilee (it would take some days to get there on foot), and it is there that Jesus appears to them.
So, which is it? It depends on which Gospel you read. Can they both be absolutely accurate? I don’t see how. They are at odds on a most fundamental point. I don’t see how we can accept these books as historically reliable sources of information about what happened. There are simply too many discrepancies.
Now, you might say, “Look, these books are trying to describe the most astounding event that ever transpired in human history. Of course the different storytellers had different ways of saying things. And who, when faced with such an amazing event, might not be confused and unable to say things in a completely clear and coherent way?”
Fair enough! But my question is whether witnesses that are at odds with each other time and time again can be taken as reliable. Trial lawyers would almost certainly say not.
Applying These Results to the Stories of Jesus’s Resurrection: Implausibility
There’s one other problem with the accounts, and that is that they contain stories that simply defy what we would think of as plausible. Let me cite just one example, since I’m almost out of time and space. This is an intriguing story found only in Matthew’s Gospel. According to Matthew, Jesus was not the only person raised from the dead. In fact, there were others. Why does none of the other Gospels mention this? It seems like it would be an important point.
According to Matthew, at the moment when Jesus died there were a number of enormous, cataclysmic, mind-boggling events that took place: the curtain in the temple was ripped in half (we have no record of this occurring, by the way, even though Jewish authors talk extensively about the temple at the time and would have been very interested indeed, if part of it had been destroyed!); there was a massive earthquake; “the rocks were split” (it’s hard to know what that means exactly); and, most breathtaking of all, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52–53).
Really? Are we supposed to think that masses of people came back to life and started walking around Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was raised? And no one else — whether Jews at the time, or Romans, or Christians, or even the other Gospel writers — thinks this is important enough to say something about? What is going on here?
Whatever is going on, almost certainly one thing that is not going on is a historically reliable report about what happened three days after the death of Jesus. Even many good Bible-believing people find this one too hard to accept as historical. But if we concede that one part of the story is probably not reliable, what is to stop us from thinking that other parts are not reliable, either?
Some Concluding Reflections: On the Historicity of the Gospels
Let me just wrap up this discussion with a couple of concluding reflections. I begin by stressing a point that may not be altogether clear from my foregoing comments, but is how I started this commentary: I think the Gospels are among the most brilliant, inspirational, and significant writings that have come down to us from the ancient world — arguably the most important books ever to have been written. I love these books, as do, literally, billions of other people in the world.
But I also think that it is important to recognize both what the Gospels are and what they are not. What they are: These are four narratives that attempt to explain who Jesus was and what he said, did, and experienced. They were written by four different authors living many years after the events that they narrate. These authors do not claim to be eyewitnesses to the events they describe, and they almost certainly were not eyewitnesses. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life were for the most part lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee. The Gospels are written by highly literate, well-educated, Greek-speaking authors from other parts of the Roman Empire. They are basing their accounts on stories that they have heard, stories that have been told by word of mouth, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.
You can probably imagine what happens to stories as they are circulated in this way. There was no way for the original eyewitnesses to control what one man told his wife, based on what he heard from a business associate, who had heard stories from his neighbor, who once had a cousin who was married to someone who had known an eyewitness. The stories almost certainly got changed over time. That’s why there are so many differences among them.
But they are fantastic stories. And for many people, they contain not simply inspiring accounts of the Savior, wise words that can help guide their lives; they contain the very words that can lead to eternal life. That is what the Gospels are for many, many people in our world. Without denying their inestimable value, though, it is also important to recognize what the Gospels are not.
They are documents of faith, but they are not reliable historical sources.
1. Full title: Das Leben Jesu als Grundlage einer reinen Geschichte des Urchristentums (The Life of Jesus as the Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity).