Are the New Testament Gospels historically reliable? Before we can answer this question, it will be necessary for us to define what we mean by the term “historically reliable.”
Many events in ancient literature cannot be verified due to a lack of data. Moreover, the metanarrative in the Gospels is beyond the reach of historians. The metanarrative is that God’s uniquely divine Son has come into the world to save us and has since returned to heaven where he shares a throne with his Father and will return in the future to judge the world. This metanarrative, of course, cannot be confirmed by historians who simply do not have the tools capable of confirming such things. This doesn’t mean the metanarrative is false. But it does mean it cannot be HISTORICALLY confirmed.
So, what do we mean when we ask if the Gospels are “historically reliable”? To start, it means the Gospels get things right. But there’s more to it than that when speaking of ancient history writing, since the finest ancient historians—Greek, Roman, and Jewish alike—were committed to accurate reporting AND writing quality literature for the reader’s benefit. And that often meant reporting in a manner that was less concerned with precision than modern historians have.
Think about it this way: How many of you are married? Well, you know what I mean when I say there’s the GUY VERSION of a story and the GIRL VERSION. Now I’m generalizing here but for the most part women like details – and lots of them. They want to know what happened, when it happened, where it happened, why it happened, how it happened, who was there, what they were saying, what they were wearing, and what they were feeling. And then they want to know how you feel about it.
Guys are different. We prefer bullet-points. Get to the bottom line. Many times we don’t care about details we regard as insignificant. So, we feel free to abbreviate and adapt a story. We’re not trying to pervert the truth. On the contrary, our objective is to communicate the relevant truths behind the story more clearly.
The first book written by my late friend Nabeel Qureshi was a New York Times best seller: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. It’s an autobiography of his journey from Islam to Christianity. Here’s what Nabeel wrote in the Introduction:
By its very nature, a narrative biography must take certain liberties with the story it shares. Please do not expect camera-like accuracy. That is not the intent of this book, and to meet such a standard, it would have to be a twenty-two-year-long video, most of which would bore even my mother to tears.
The words I have in quotations are rough approximations. A few of the conversations represent multiple meetings condensed into one. In some instances, stories are displaced in the timeline to fit the topical categorization. In other instances, people who were present in the conversation were left out of the narrative for the sake of clarity. All of these devices are normal for narrative biographies . . . Please read accordingly.
That’s biography written in modern times by a meticulous academic. Now lets go to antiquity. A man named Sallust commanded one of Caesar’s legions and would become one of Rome’s finest historians. Tacitus referred to Sallust as “that most admirable Roman historian.” The famous rhetorician Quintilian said Sallust was a greater historian than Livy and that “one needs to be well-advanced in one’s studies to appreciate him properly.” So, it’s noteworthy that Sallust occasionally displaced statements and speeches from their original context and transplanted them in a different one in order to highlight the true intensity and even the true nature of those events. The finest ancient historians commonly used that technique and others.
In my view, that does not undermine the overall reliability of the literature, as long as we have the understanding that what we are reading was intended to convey an accurate gist or an essentially faithful representation of what occurred. Ancient historical literature rarely ever intended to describe events with the precision of a legal transcript. In other words, it’s often “the guy version” of a story but with a lot more class.
So, here’s the bottom line: Historians can speak of historical reliability in terms of specific stories and even in the broader sense of the entire biography. And it’s this broader sense in which I’m interested. So, in what follows, I’ll offer six criteria of reliability that provide confidence in the historical reliability of the Gospels in a general or broad sense.
1. The author intended to write an accurate account.
The majority of New Testament scholars now hold that the Gospels share much in common with the genre of ancient biography. From the Renaissance period to the present, much of our understanding of the ancient world derives from biographies written by Plutarch. Of course, that’s the real Plutarch and not the Plutarch in The Hunger Games. Ronald Mellor of UCLA refers to Plutarch as “the greatest of all ancient biographers.”
Plutarch told his readers that the biographies he was writing of people who had lived 800-1000 years before his own time are not historically reliable, because he had lacked good sources on which to rely. So, he had to employ a lot of guesswork. Plutarch contrasts these biographies with those he had written of people who had lived within only 150 years of his own time. He says those biographies relied on better sources and could be trusted.
Now the Gospels were written within only 35-65 years of Jesus and perhaps even earlier. When they were written, eyewitnesses of Jesus and those who had known them were still alive. So, there was no need for the Gospel authors to employ the large amount of conjecturing present in Plutarch’s biographies of much earlier times.
Furthermore, the Gospels do not hesitate to report numerous embarrassing details, such as none of Jesus’ brothers believed in Him during His ministry, that Jesus was unaware of the time of His return to judge the world. Although their embarrassing nature is not so evident to modern readers, they would have been to the early Christians. Yet, the Gospel authors chose not to omit them, suggesting their intent was to present accurate accounts of Jesus.
2. The author used good judgment in his CHOICE of sources.
At least half of today’s critical New Testament scholars agree with the early church tradition that Mark’s primary source was Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples. A majority of critical scholars agree that the primary sources for Luke-Acts included Mark’s Gospel, people more directly acquainted with Jesus, an early source scholars call “Q” (short for the German word Quelle, meaning “source”), and Paul, with whom many believe he had traveled. A majority of critical scholars also agree that John’s Gospel was written either by an eyewitness or that an eyewitness was the author’s primary source for much of the information in that Gospel.
So, contrary to what the old form critics claimed, the Gospels are not a compilation of stories known by the Gospel authors only after those stories had been passed around word-of-mouth by a vast number of unknown individuals over the course of four decades and even longer. For, at minimum, the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John are based on excellent sources who were either eyewitnesses or those not far removed from them.
3. The author used good judgment in his USE of those sources.
Classicists believe Plutarch used only Dionysius of Halicarnassus as the source for his biography of the Roman general Coriolanus. So, by comparing Plutarch’s account with Dionysius’s, we can decrypt what Plutarch did with his source when writing his biography of Coriolanus.
We can do something similar with some of the Gospels. A near consensus of New Testament scholars hold that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary source. So, by carefully comparing how Matthew and Luke use Mark, we can decrypt what Matthew and Luke did with their source. Sometimes they use Mark verbatim. Sometimes they paraphrase him. Sometimes they adapt him. But when one also considers other historians and biographers who wrote around the same time as the Gospels and compares how they use their sources, one is struck FAR MORE by the SIMILARITIES between the Gospels than by their differences. For when Matthew and Luke use Mark, they stick to their source far more closely than most other ancient authors do with their sources.
4. The author & his sources were capable of reporting accurately.
A few years ago, my wife Debbie and I viewed the series Vietnam in HD. Those of you who saw the movie We Were Soldiers staring Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott will recall there was a combat reporter named Joe Galloway who was with Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his soldiers during the 3-day Battle of Ia Drang River Valley in November 1965. In the first episode of Vietnam in HD, the real Galloway teared-up in an interview while talking about his experience during those days of battle, obviously still impacted by them, even after 35 years. Then there was a 60-second clip of Galloway I thought quite profound. Here’s what he said:
I left that landing zone X-Ray battlefield knowing that young Americans had laid down their lives so that I might live. They had sacrificed themselves for me and their buddies. What I was learning was that there’s some events that are so overwhelming that you can’t simply be a witness. You can’t be above it. You can’t be neutral. You can’t be untouched by it. Simple as that. You see it. You live it. You experience it. And it will be with you all of your days.
Now ask yourself, if the events in the Gospels actually occurred and YOU had been there, observing Jesus healing paralytics, the blind, lepers, and the demon-possessed, you saw Him walk on water, raise the dead, be crucified, then shortly thereafter saw him alive and well, wouldn’t such experiences have impacted you in a manner at least as deeply and lasting as those 3 days of battle had on Joe Galloway?
That pertains to Jesus’ deeds. What about His teachings? Unlike pastors who have to prepare a new sermon every week, Jesus was an itinerate preacher, traveling and speaking in new villages and towns. Because he constantly had a new audience, Jesus probably had a dozen or so messages that he gave over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
Then He commissioned His disciples to teach what they had heard Him teach. And so, they went out and taught the same things over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. They could correct one another in the process and some of them may even have had notes they could check. Then they returned and heard Jesus teach the same things over and over and over and over and over and over and over. After He left them, for the next several decades they preached what He had taught them over and over and you get the idea. Perhaps thousands of times.
So, Jesus’s teachings were not something His disciples had heard only once then recalled decades later. And, like any effective teacher, Jesus wanted to communicate His teachings in a memorable form. So, He taught in parables and employed rhetoric, such as hyperbolic language to shock. For example, “You can’t be my disciple unless you hate your family.” So, the essence of Jesus’ deeds and teachings could quite easily have been recalled accurately even decades later.
5. We can verify numerous items reported.
Many items in the Gospels reflect existing knowledge pertaining to the historical setting in which the Gospels are situated. Richard Bauckham has shown that, when ancient documents and inscriptions are considered, the names mentioned in the Gospels and the book of Acts are not only common names of Palestinian Jews of that period and not those of Jews elsewhere, they also appear with roughly the same frequency in the Gospels and Acts that we find in extrabiblical sources. At the very minimum, this suggests all of the Gospel authors—or the sources from which they drew—were acquainted with Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We also know that places mentioned in the Gospels actually existed (e.g., Capernaum, Bethlehem, Bethsaida, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives). We know that several of the people mentioned in the Gospels actually existed and during the period in which they are situated (e.g., Augustus, Quirinius, Tiberius, the Herods, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, John the Baptist, Jesus).
A number of items about Jesus reported in the Gospels are corroborated by non-Christian (unsympathetic) sources of the same period, such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and Mara bar Serapion.
Most historians of Jesus employ a number of the criteria of authenticity. Is the item reported by an eyewitness, or by an unsympathetic source, or by multiple independent sources? When these criteria and others are employed in reference to traditions about Jesus in the Gospels, there are numerous items about Jesus that nearly all scholars regard as being virtually certain.
6. No more than a very small percentage of items reported by an ancient author are known to be false.
When we bracket theological claims in the Gospels, since they are outside the reach of historians, there are only a few historical items in the Gospels that are reasonably good candidates for being incorrect: For example, Luke’s report of Augustus’ census when Quirinius was governor of Syria; the differing genealogies in Matthew and Luke and the chronologies in their infancy narratives; three instances where the name of a person in the Old Testament is stated differently in the Gospels; a few occasions where Mark may be geographically confused, references to Christians being banished from the synagogue at a premature date in John; a few minor chronological items in the Passion narratives in Mark and John; and the manner in which Judas died in Matthew and Acts. Reasonable alternatives to error have been posited for many of these. However, even if we were to judge that every last one of them are outright errors, they are minor matters and make up only a very, VERY small percentage of the content in the four Gospels.
Summary & Conclusion
I’m proposing that we must think of historical reliability in view of the literary conventions in play at the time of writing. To say that a particular historical work in antiquity is “historically reliable” does not require reports to have accuracy with the precision of a legal transcript or that it be free of error or embellishment. “Historically reliable” means, at the very minimum, the account provides an accurate gist or an essentially faithful representation of what occurred.
Think of Nabeel’s book and “the guy version of a story.” We’ve seen that we have good grounds for believing the Gospels are historically reliable in this sense, because they meet this minimum standard. In fact, I think they go well beyond the minimum.
*A note from Tim Stratton: I want to personally thank Mike Licona for his permission to publish this article on the FreeThinking Ministries website. This article was the opening statement offered by Licona in his latest debate with Bart Ehrman regarding the historical reliability of the Gospels. Click here to watch the debate in its entirety and make sure to check out Licona’s website www.RisenJesus.org for more!
Click here to purchase Mike’s book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?
 Tacitus, Annals 3.30.
 Quintilian, Inst. 2.5.19.
 Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians (New York: Routledge, 1999) 133.
 Luke 2:1-2.
 Matthew 1:1-17 / Luke 3:23-38; Matthew 2:1-23 / Luke 2:21-39.
 Mark’s statement about Abiathar being high priest when David ate the consecrated bread (Mark 2:25-26; 1 Samuel 21:1-6); the name “Asaph” in Matthew rather than “Asa” in 1 Kings (Matthew 1:7. See Psalms 50, 73-83 for the psalmist Asaph and 1 Kings 15:9ff for Asa the king of Judah); the name “Zechariah son of Berachiah” in Matthew rather than “Zechariah son of Jehoiada” in 2 Chronicles (Matthew 23:35 and 2 Chronicles 24:20-22).
 In Mark 5:1, 13, the distance of Gerasa from the Sea of Galilee, since Gerasa is about 30 miles from the Sea of Galilee. In Mark 6:45, Jesus commands his disciples to get in a boat and cross over to Bethsaida, which is on the northeast side of the lake. However, in Matthew 14:22, 34 he commands them to get in a boat and cross over to the other side and they land in Gennesaret. And in John 6:16-21, his disciples get into a boat, began to cross to Capernaum, and landed where they had intended. Gennesaret and Capernaum are on the northwest side of the lake. Of interest, Mark 6:53 reports they landed at Gennesaret. See my online article at https://www.risenjesus.com/mark-confused-pertaining-location-feeding-5000. In Mark 7:31, we read of an awkward journey from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the region of the Decapolis.
 John 9:22; 12:42, 16:2.
 Matthew 27:5; Acts 1:16-19.