The gospels are many things
To some the gospels are objects of veneration, to others great literature, for example. Are they history? Many people are highly sceptical, but should they be? What questions have they asked and of whom? To some, even to ask such questions seems sacrilegious, whereas I welcome all such questioning. We know Jesus was not afraid of honest enquiry, for he said “The Truth shall set you free”.
Who is investigating the gospels now?
I expect many people are studying the Bible from various points of view. I have just seen an enjoyable documentary with Robert Powell, who played Jesus in the TV production Jesus of Nazareth back in the 1970’s. Robert visited Israel and Palestine to see many of the places associated with Jesus and many scholars expressed views about aspects of the stories in the New Testament. It was interesting to see the places and I gained new insights into certain elements of the stories. For instance the word traditionally translated ‘carpenter’ could equally mean ‘builder’ and Jesus and Joseph could have been stonemasons. The ‘inn’ in the nativity story. where there was no room, could have been the guest room in a house. These and similar discoveries add to our understanding but do not detract from the historicity of the accounts.
Did the programme challenge the dating of the gospels?
There were some detailed discussions of dates, especially that of the birth of Jesus. I remember learning at school that Jesus was probably born about 5 or 6 BC, which fits in with Augustus being the emperor. The date of the census was apparently later, but there could have been an earlier census. Another dating issue was that the Bible says Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Other records show that he was, but much later. However, it is not certain that he did not serve more than one term as governor. It is possible that the gospel writers were more accurate than certain other sources, but, in any case, an error as to the dates would not invalidate the whole story.
What of the general historicity of the gospels?
One of the scholars interviewed claimed that the gospels could not have been written by the disciples because they are so well written: hardly the work of illiterate fishermen, and they were probably written a couple of centuries later. Several points could be made to challenge that assertion.
- St Luke is said to have been a doctor, not an illiterate fisherman.
- St Matthew, aka Levi, is said to have been a tax collector.
- We do not know that all fishermen were illiterate.
- They might have gained an education after becoming apostles.
- They could have told their story to more educated friends.
- People in societies without access to writing often learn and recite things verbatim to a high degree of accuracy.
In addition, some details in the gospels seem unlikely to have been added or included other than by eye witnesses.
- John outran Peter to the tomb but Peter went in first.
- A young man saw the arrest of Jesus and was almost arrested himself, but he fled naked, leaving his captors holding the linen cloth he had been wearing.
- Jesus was asleep with his head on a cushion in the boat in the storm.
I hope you give all these points due consideration. However, please remember there are Christians who doubt the historical truth of the gospels but find deeper truths within them. You may also like to consider a post I wrote about the Easter story. If you prefer to read the actual Bible, I suggest a modern translation such as the one used by David Suchet.