Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recent Posts

Past Posts Archived by Date

Search this site


Search this site


« Critical New Testament Scholarship: Up Close and Personal | Home | F.A.Q. Format »

Critical Scholarship and Confidence in the Gospels

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, June 22, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Beginning with my days at Harvard and continuing throughout the last three decades, I have worked away on the question of the trustworthiness of the Gospels. I have come to believe that there are solid reasons for accepting them as reliable both for history and for faith.

You may be surprised to learn that I agree with about threequarters of what I learned from Professor MacRae in Religion 140. We affirm the same basic facts: the raw data of ancient documents and archeological discoveries. The differences between our views have to do with how we evaluate the data, and here the gap between what Professor MacRae taught and what I believe today is often wide and deep.

You may also be surprised to discover that my arguments in this book are often friendlier to critical scholarship than you might expect. For example, many defenses of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John depend on an early date of composition (pre–A.D. 70). I will not base my own conclusions upon this early date, though I think there are persuasive arguments in its favor.

While reading this book, an evangelical who is well acquainted with New Testament scholarship might periodically object, “But there are even stronger arguments than the ones you’re making.” So be it! I’m open to these positions and glad for those who articulate them. But I have chosen to base my case, for the most part, on that which most even-handed critical scholars, including non-evangelicals, would affirm. I’ve done this for two reasons.

First, I want to encourage the person who is troubled by negative views of the Gospels, perhaps in a college New Testament course or in a popular “Gospels-debunking” book. In a sense, I’m writing for the Mark Roberts who once felt perplexed in Religion 140. To the “old me” and others like him I want to say, “Look, even if you believe most of ‘assured results of scholarship’ concerning the Gospels, you can still trust them.”

Second, I believe this book will have broader impact if I don’t fill it with theories that, however plausible, are popular only among conservative scholars. For example, it may well be that the disciples of Jesus had been trained to memorize sayings of their religious mentors, much like later rabbinic students.10 If this is true, it would greatly increase the likelihood that the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels closely reflect what Jesus himself had once said. But since the jury is still out on the question of whether or not the disciples were trained in technical memorization, I won’t base my conclusions upon this possibility.

My basic point in this book is that if you look squarely at the facts as they are widely understood, and if you do not color them with pejorative bias or atheistic presuppositions, then you’ll find that it’s reasonable to trust the Gospels.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

10 Responses to “Critical Scholarship and Confidence in the Gospels”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 3:26 am

    It’s difficult to accept scholarship of prophecy. If a person could accurately describe future events without use of statistical or analytical projection, it would be completely unique. As an agnostic, I can’t grasp what you’re claiming for Christ here. Are you saying he had the ability to see future history events given any date? I mean, Jesus could tell you the state of the world and events that would occur for whatever dates his disciples might shout out?

    If so, you’re discussing a shocking, miraculous ability that would seem to require shocking, incredible evidence to justify any scholarship confirming Christ’s ability. It’s no wonder your Harvard professors were skeptical.

    And please accept I’m not trying to mock here, but instead understand how you come to your beliefs.

  2. Dave D. Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 8:18 am

    Chris: I am not a scholar, but I am a scientist and my DEFINING verse from the writer of Hebrews is 11:3 (NIV):

    “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

    This tells me to relax my criterion for the scientific method regarding proof of things like creation and miracles. As a scientist, I believe that the theories of the development, lives and ages of the dinosaurs fit into the available evidence. OTOH, I keep a segment of my conviction open to this verse and realize that God created the earth and was in control of the entire process. Our limited understanding of physics and space/time may just not allow us to answer the dilemna of discordance found in the creationism/evolution concundrum, for example. I, as an obedient Christian, state this often and it is a core belief for me. I, as a scientist, am perplexed and look for answers.

    Keep in mind that scientists as late as ~1906 were teaching advanced physics by introducing a mythical substance called “aether” that was undetectable, but necessary to unite the laws of electricity and magnetism as understood then. A guy named Einstein and his General Theory of Relativity removed the necessity for this human artifact to describe our universe. I’m sure there are LOTS of other things that we don’t understand, particularly about the universe in the immediate post-creation epoch.

    I’m rambling, but my real point is that I don’t see how Bible scholars cannot do the same and start from the assumption that undecribable events are capable for God and leave it at that.

  3. Ted Volckhausen Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 11:32 am

    ChrisK is thinking that prophets are like Calchas the son of Thestor, who accompanied the Greeks to the war against Troy. According to Homer Calchas was one “who knew all that was and had been and was to come, and had guided the ships of the Akhaians into Ilium (Troy).” Jewish prophets were generally not like that. Rather they claimed knowledge of what God was going to do about specific matters, usually in the relatively short term, for example that Assyria would be destroyed, or that Israel would win a battle if the king behaved in a certain way, or that the Temple would be destroyed, or that Jerusalem would be rebuilt.
    Jesus said (if Mark’s Gospel is right) that the Temple would be destroyed. He pretty clearly thought and said that the Jewish people were facing a great crisis and that there would be great slaughter and that the current leadership would be displaced. And all this did happen within a generation. That’s not bad for a prophet, though some people might think a shrewd political analyst could have done it too. But we can’t be sure Jesus knew, for example, who would be elected President of the United States in 2008. I would guess not. If Homer’s description of Calchas was right Cachas did, though he might not have cared. Anyway, Jewish prophets were not typically credited with all-encompassing knowledge.

  4. rw Says:
    June 22nd, 2007 at 12:13 pm


    On the contrary, the scholarship of fulfilled prophecy (the ultimate destruction of Tyre in the book of Ezekiel for one)should be pretty easy to accept. If we’re to take God at His word, the proof in the pudding is 100% accuracy

    Oftentimes because of the limitations of time and space we’re confined to as physical beings, we have a hard time imagining a being that is not bound by time or space.

    Kind of reminds me of an old joke about a thermos bottle. When told that it keeps hot things hot and cold things cold, a man asks, “How does it know which?”

  5. ChrisK Says:
    June 23rd, 2007 at 12:47 am

    Great responses to my thoughts, Ted, Dave, & rw. I do understand how a faith based belief system could accept what Jesus did. I want to probe why Dr. Roberts would expect that standard scholarship should not balk at prophecy.

    Prophecy, if for real, uses mental time travel, I would suppose. Dave notes Einstein’s theories, which discussed methods of playing with time. Tests could be set up and run to check the theories, (e.g. the classic experiment that showed an atomic clock on a jet in motion runs slower than a stationary atomic clock.)

    A being on Earth who could do accurate prophecy would seem to use incredibly sophisticated mental or physical time travel methods. I would think any kind of non-faith based scholarship would have to theorize and begin setting up tests for how Jesus of Nazareth pulled off accurate prophecy. Non-faith based sets up tremendous hurdles. Back to Hitchens’s “Great claims, great evidence.”

    Faith-based scholarship is different. As an agnostic, it’s not for me, and I can’t see why Harvard would approve it. But I certainly can understand Christians on sincere faith believing that 2000 years ago Jesus as God incarnate acted in a manner as described by the New Testament.

  6. Ted Volckhausen Says:
    June 23rd, 2007 at 4:56 am

    I don’t think the Jewish prophet travels in time and actually sees the future events he predicts. The picture we get in the Old Testament is that God tells the prophet what will happen and he reports it. Or God gives the prophet words to say which foretell the future which the prophet himself may not fully understand. So if there’s any time travel, it’s God that does it.
    Two explanations have been advanced for God’s ability to know what the future will bring. One is, God is outside time and all times are alike to him. He looks at all moments in his creation just the way someone in a high tower surveys the landscape. Personally I think this is problematic, but great philosophers like Aquinas have supported it, and I think the great majority of Christian theologians past and present hold this view. I guess this is something like time travel, though no movement is involved.
    The other possible explanation is that God brings about the future and his telling the prophets what it will be is like the furniture maker telling you what kind of chair he will make next. That needn’t involve time travel in any sense.

  7. Evan Says:
    June 23rd, 2007 at 7:59 am

    ChrisK: Your method of dialogue speaks very highly of you. A discussion is enjoyable, whereas I have little interest in cage fights. You are discusser.

    Here is a thought for consideration. Trying to analyze the actions of God runs into the problem that we are finite and He is not, and that our expectation of what “Almighty” God would do might not be what He has done, for reasons we cannot comprehend. Please understand that I am not trying to beg the issue altogether with this
    assertion, but put it forth as a thesis to be thought through.

    Here is what I mean. In Matt 12, the Pharisees demand that Jesus give a “sign,” some sort of prodigious miracle proving He was God. This is in line with the Hitchens’ thesis of “Great claims require great evidence.” Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet,” and He further elaborates so that it is understood He is referring to His resurrection. This is the
    problem in a nutshell: Assuming for discussion that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead in a manner proving He was God, why wouldn’t He also give another sign? What possible explanation could there be if He was indeed God Almighty? If the proposition is that God Almighty must give “great evidence” in accord with our expectations, the wheels have come off the cart. He was God Almighty and would not provide the additional sign, and we cannot comprehend why.

    In Psalm 22, written about 1000 years before Jesus was around, David describes being attacked, mocked, poured out like water and laid in the dust of death. That is all well and good, but he adds two details in vs. 16 and 18: “they have pierced my hands and feet” and “They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they
    cast lots.” It could be a prophecy, it could be a coincidence, but it is very striking.

    Here is my point: There is no empirical way to establish a standard of behavior for a being with no limitations. There is no empirical way to determine the motivations of such a being. We can only use our limited abilities and analyze the data that comes to us and try to determine if the actions we see could be consistent with our best determination of what Almighty God would do. If Hitchens has determined that the evidence actually presented is not sufficient, that is not necessarily unreasonable. But I think that he has decided that an Almighty God would present that evidence better, so the evidence as presented does not even get considered, ie, an all-powerful God could have and therefore WOULD have ensured that all four Gospels had no variations in any manner whatsoever, so since there are variations, there cannot be an Almighty God. I simply disagree that this would be the ONLY conclusion possible, though it is a possible conclusion. It is also possible that my analysis of what an all-powerful God would do is flawed, or my perception is flawed, ie, the day that Jesus was crucified is called Good Friday– “bad” for Him from a human perspective but good for us from a divine perspective. At the risk of beating the dead horse, one analyzes the data and forms a conclusion that cannot be scientifically proven, and it is “faith” either way you jump. Hitchens is not shut out from his conclusions by pure logic, but pure logic does not shut out any other conclusions but his, either.

  8. ChrisK Says:
    June 23rd, 2007 at 10:01 am

    re: Ted’s thought: “The other possible explanation is that God brings about the future…”
    re: Evan “There is no empirical way to establish a standard of behavior for a being with no limitations.”

    Maybe we’re in agreement here. I want to get back to what I understand Dr. Roberts’s issue. He appears to disagree that Harvard doesn’t like to accept a scholarly study of prophecy. (I’m greatly summarizing my interpretation of the first couple paragraphs of his 6/21 post.)

    I don’t know any reasonable scholarly test of Ted’s theory that God might bring about the future. And Evan seems to say there’s no empirical way of testing a being with no limitations.

    So why is it puzzling that secular Harvard doesn’t accept prophecy as something factual and worthy of theorizing and testing?

    If we looked at another historical event, say, we were puzzled by how Columbus navigated to North America, we could theorize that he navigated by use of the stars. We could read up on the equipment he had available for the voyage, and test whether it indeed might have had the capability to navigate a wooden ship across the Atlantic to North America. So obviously this could be a scholarly study at a university.

    And again, of course, I accept that a faith-based person who ALREADY accepts that Christ was God could use Dr. Roberts’ research to test the reasonableness of his or her belief.

  9. rw Says:
    June 26th, 2007 at 10:13 am


    To reiterate, the empirical evidence IS in fulfilled prophecy, some of which has been alluded to already. God’s standard for prophecy has been 100% accuracy. He also required the prophets to speak to a local issue first as a way of proving themselves as speaking for God before going further out in the future. Consider our attempts to predict the extent of global warming (or whether it is man-made), much less the weather forcast a week ahead, and you can see our attempts to go beyond the present condition as mostly futile. What more evidence would be required to confirm there’s a Being out there that’s way beyond who we are, whether knowing the future as Someone concurrently standing in the past, present, and future, or even Someone that can control events to the degree that He’s given us a ‘heads up’ from time to time? I can’t help what Harvard wants to consider scholarly or not. There’s enough guys out there on both sides of the prophecy debate way smarter than me that consider it worth a lifetime of study.

  10. aurorawatcher Says:
    June 26th, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    ChrisK, I would note that Mr. Roberts is perhaps frustrated with the dogmatism of many liberal “scholars”. It goes something like this — if it won’t fit into my test-tube, then it doesn’t exist and therefore, we don’t even need to discuss or consider it. That’s the take many of these pseudo-intellectuals take toward prophesy and God.

    Obviously, we can’t prove prophesy by scientific method. Some would say that is reason enough to reject it. Yet, prophesy proves itself when it comes true.

    I offer an example — a friend who has been claimed by the gift of prophesy (I worded that deliberately) received a word from the Lord that a married couple was expecting a child. He felt compelled to them this. The timing for getting pregnant was off by a couple of days and they had scientific verification to show that the woman was not ovulating until after her husband was 300 miles away from her; also the woman had not yet missed her first period. They were skeptical. But as the baby grew within her, they stopped being skeptical. The thing is, our prophet friend recorded in his journal that God had told him of the pregnancy. That date corresponded with the woman’s ovulation, though he did not share the prophesy with the couple until a week later when the husband was home from his business trip.

    We know, in retrospect, what scientifically occurred to result in this pregnancy, but some would say you can’t prove the prophesy because it won’t submit to scientific methods. The fact is that the prophesy was given a week before even a doctor could prove a pregnancy (by technology 15 years ago), but our friend the prophet knew a child would be born and he was proven right by the subsequent events.

    Should Harvard or my local university be skeptical of prophesy? You bet! So should the local church! But, we should not be so skeptical that we utterly reject it because it doesn’t fit into our materialistic interpretation of the world. God is the Creator of the Universe. He can cause things to happen, or tell a prophet that they will happen, if that’s His choice.

    By the way, it’s not the prophet who comes “unstuck in time” to see the future. God Himself is eternal, which logically infers that He might not be bound to time since that is a concept based upon beginnings and endings — something that doesn’t apply to the eternal. If God lives outside of the flow of time, why are we shocked if He can know the future as readily as He can know the past? I think the shocking thing really ought to be that He choses to tell us bunch of lunk-heads about it.


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

You must be logged in to post a comment.