What do we know about the gospels?

Richard Dawkins says, 'The Bible is... a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other.'

Is he right?

The historical reliability of the gospels about Jesus in the Bible can be tested.  You can read more about this here.  But what else do we know?

1. We know when the gospels were written and most scholars (Christian or not) agree they were all written well within living memory of Jesus himself.  This means the first readers would have included eye-witnesses and people who knew Jesus personally – his family including Mary his mum would have read it – his friends including the disciples would have read it – the religious leaders who wanted him dead would have read it – the Roman authorities who authorised the crucifixion would have read it – and the soldiers who carried it out would have read it too. If the gospel writers were telling lies, these people would have known it and the writings would never have been taken seriously by anyone.

2. We know how the first disciples died.  They had nothing to gain from making up or believing lies about Jesus.  In fact most of them were tortured and killed for believing them and non-biblical sources also confirm it.

- Andrew was crucified.
- Peter was crucified upside-down.
- Mark (who wrote Mark’s gospel) was dragged through the streets and then beheaded.
- Luke (who wrote Luke’s gospel) was hanged.
- James was beheaded.
- Matthew was killed with a battle-axe. 
- St Jerome records they tried to boil John in oil and then banished him to a remote island. 
- Bartholomew was flayed alive and then crucified. 
- James the brother of Jesus was crucified, stoned and then beaten to death with a club! 

Not many would be prepared to die for something they knew to be a lie without spilling the truth and these guys would have known the truth about Jesus.  They literally staked their lives on it.

3. We know that Jesus is the unique fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies in the Old Testament, written hundreds of years before he was born.  These include specific details such as:

- He would be born in the town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2, Luke 2:4-7)
- He would be from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10, Luke 3:33)
- He would ride a donkey into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9, Mark 11:7-11)
- He would be betrayed by a close friend for 30 pieces of silver and the money would be used for something called ‘Potter’. (Psalm 41:9, Zechariah 11:12-12, Mark 14:10, Luke 22:47-48, Matthew 26:14-15, 27:3, 5:7)
- His hands and feet would be pierced (Psalm 22:15-16, Zechariah 12:9-10, John 19:33-35, 20:25-27)
- People would play games for his clothes as he died (Psalm 22:18, Matthew 27:35, John 19:23-24)
- His side would be pierced but none of his bones broken (Psalm 22:16, Zechariah 12:10, Exodus 12:3, 5-6, Isaiah 53:7, John 19:33-36)

The mathematical probability of one man ever fulfilling all these prophecies is ridiculously low.  You might find people who were born in Bethlehem and died on a cross but add to this the other specific details and the odds go way down!  The only reasonable explanation is that God knew the future, told people what would happen and then did it!

4. We know plenty of what the Bible says about Jesus is also corroborated by non-biblical sources.  For example Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and Roman historian Carius Cornelius Tacitus, both of which are well known and accepted by historians.
Josephus, in the book ‘Jewish Antiquities’ wrote: 
“At that time lived Jesus, a wise man, if he may be called a man; for he performed many wonderful works. He was a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure… And when Pilate, at the instigation of the chief men among us, had condemned him to the cross, they who before had conceived an affection for him did not cease to adhere to him. For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, the divine prophets having foretold these and many other wonderful things concerning him. And the sect of the Christians, so called from him, subsists at this time.”
(Antiquities, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 1).

Tacitus, in writing about accusations that Nero burned the city of Rome and blamed it on Christians, said the following: “They had their denomination from Christus (Christ, dm.), who in the reign of Tibertius was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate.” (Tacitus, Annals).

These non-Christian writers verify the historical existence of Jesus and a lot of detail about the events of his life including his miracles, teaching and death by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate.

5. We know that Jesus has left a legacy throughout history. Legal systems have been built on the teaching of Jesus, attesting to the validity of the deep truths he spoke. Many of the gospel stories have been retold for over 2000 years, not just in words but in people’s lives. The healing, transformation and hope that Jesus brought when he walked on the earth is still testified to now as people show the difference he has made in their lives. These are not just ancient stories; Jesus is still doing what he did 2000 years ago for people today.