The Gospels as history, fairytale, or hogwash?

Fairy Tale Illustration Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

By Spencer D Gear PhD

See the background of fairytales in Claire Fallon’s article, “The Shocking, Twisted Stories Behind Your Favorite Nursery Rhymes” (The Huffington Post, 21 November, 2014).

It is not unusual to hear through the media, in university classrooms, or on secular forums some disparaging statements about the New Testament records of the life of Jesus.

How do we decide what is reliable ancient history? Many accept something as historical without asking further questions. That’s not how historians work, whether investigating the Pharaoh dynasty in Egypt, Benjamin Franklin, Captain James Cook, what happened in World War I, or the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Those who pursue ancient history as a discipline are rarely able to conclude with absolute certainty what happened historically because of the considerable distance from now to way back then. That is because we were not there and often are too far removed from the events recorded. We rely on others to record the events and have assessed if those records are accurate.

The nature of history is such that we cannot usually conclude with more than probability about any historical event. This applies to the life of Socrates, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the landing of the first fleet in Sydney Cove in 1788.
Please understand that I’m not dealing here with the place of verbal inspiration of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17 NIV).

See J P Moreland, The historicity of the New Testament,

Criteria used by historians

Which criteria do historians use to determine if something is historical? John P Meier in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991 Doubleday) has an informative chapter (ch 6, Criteria: How do we decide what comes from Jesus?) in which he discussed some of the criteria for historicity used in examining the life of Jesus.

He investigates five primary criteria and some secondary criteria used by historians. The primary criteria are: (1) Embarrassment, (2) Discontinuity, (3) Multiple attestation, (4) Coherence, and (5) Rejection and execution (Meier 1991:168-177). These are not infallible ways of assessment, but they are among the best we have to determine the reliability of data from history. Let’s examine these criteria briefly and apply them to the New Testament Gospels.

1.  Emarrassment

Who witnessed the empty tomb of Jesus? Two women! Women were unreliable witnesses in Jewish culture. See: Josephus: Women unacceptable witnesses. Matt 25:46 states: ‘And they [unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life’. ‘Eternal punishment (damnation)’ would be an embarrassment to the Jews.

Australian ancient historian and former Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Dr Paul Barnett, who taught ancient history at Macquarie University, Sydney, wrote:

Provided that we accept the limitations in the Gospel of Mark, in its brevity and single focus, we have good reason to believe it provides a historically credible account of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, the regions of Tyre and Sidon, Ituraea-Trachonitis, and the Decapolis. The words of Jesus, which are weighty and wise, are singularly applicable to the pericopes in which they occur. The parables in Mark as well as in Matthew and Luke are arguably authentic, based (in particular) on the cogent double criteria of similarity and dissimilarity. In any case, we argue that the gospel writers would neither invent nor omit a word of the Lord, though they felt free to adapt a word appropriately.

The narrative of Mark and the synoptics [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] is set within the complex jurisdictions of the thirties, but not those as they would be altered in the decades following. As the narratives unfold we note the inconspicuous ways in which Jesus’ movements cohere with the political realities of those times. Furthermore, Jesus’ own path crossed the paths of the notables of that time, whether John the Baptist, the tetrarch Antipas, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, or the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. In the course of the narratives we encounter those who were eschatologically excited (‘the men of violence’) as well as the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus aligned himself as a lawbreaker. Furthermore, we see Jesus as the worker of mighty deeds, including in those towns where most of his mighty works were done.

In brief, we have in Mark a gospel that is a useful source of information about Jesus’ words and actions in Galilee and adjacent regions in the north (Barnett 2009:247).

2. Discontinuity

This refers to a fact or event that does not appear to have had any basis in earlier tradition is less likely to have been invented by the gospel authors than an event that may have been predicated in an earlier tradition.

This a test that depends on knowing details of Judaism and the early church after Jesus in the first century. Our information is limited so it must be applied with caution. However, 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 (NLT) states our preaching is useless unless Jesus is raised and if there is no resurrection of the dead. Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus where, after death, Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom [heaven] while the rich, ungodly man was in torment in Hades (Luke 16:22-23).

3. Multiple attestation

A fact or event that appears to have been preserved down multiple lines of independent tradition is more likely to be true than one that is only preserved down a single line.

4. Coherence

Coherence refers to a fact or event that appears to be consistent with our present understanding of the historical context is more likely to be true than one which appears to be at odds with it.

What is the coherence or consistency of Matt 25:46 with John 14:1-4 and 1 Cor 15:53? The John passage confirms that for believers Jesus has prepared a place of ‘many mansions.’ For believers, our mortal bodies will be transformed to be immortal at his Second Coming  (1 Cor 15:53). For unbelievers, what will happen after death and at Christ’s return? Revelation 20 explains the Great White Throne judgement of unbelievers. Rev 20:12-13 (NLT) states: ‘I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds’. No unbeliever can run and hide from God’s judgement. There is an afterlife for the godly and ungodly – with two different destinies.

5. Rejection and execution

A fact or event that looks as though it might provide a realistic explanation for the rejection or execution of Jesus is more likely to be true than the more tendentious explanations offered consciously by the gospel authors (e.g. divine providence, the Jews being in league with the devil etc.). (This criterion is less strong as it presumes historicity of the execution to begin with, but given that the execution of Jesus appears to satisfy each of the four previous criteria, it’s based on a fairly solid foundation so far as second-order criteria go.) [the above indices are courtesy of Gary, Eschaton Now, 2010].

Meier gave this warning:

Our survey indicates that five suggested criteria of historicity or authenticity are really valuable and deserve to be ranked as primary criteria. . . .

The use of the valid criteria is more an art than a science, requiring sensitivity to the individual case rather than mechanical implementation. It can never be said too many times that such an art usually yields only varying degrees of probability and not absolute certitude. But . . . such judgments of probability are common in any investigation of ancient history, and the quest for the historical Jesus cannot apply for a special exemption (Meier 1991:184).

Using the normal tests of historicity, the Gospels can be shown to be reliable and not hogwash.

Works consulted

Barnett, P 2009. Finding the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge U.K. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Meier, J P 1991. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume 1. New York: Doubleday.


Copyright © 2021 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 07 September 2021.