Do the biographies of Jesus stand up to scrutiny? Eight tough tests say “YES!”
As Christians, we’re told that the Bible is God’s Word. But how can we know that this old, historical book — the foundation of our faith — is, indeed, trustworthy? And that it has relevance for us today?
Pastor Lee Strobel, an American Christian author and former investigative journalist, is but one person who asked these questions and then exhaustively researched the Gospels to see if they can stand up to intense scrutiny.
Strobel approached his research in the same way an attorney would evaluate the story of a defendant on trial. As part of his research, Strobel met with Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar and expert on the biographies of Jesus.
Let’s look at the eight tough tests they applied to the Gospels to determine their legitimacy.
~ The Intention Test ~
This test evaluates whether the Gospels were written with the intention of being treated as historical fact.
Each of the Gospel writers determined, says Blomberg, to clearly communicate detailed fact. He adds, “There’s an important piece of implicit evidence that can’t be overlooked. Consider the way the Gospels are written — in a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude.
In the Gospels we don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that are evident in a lot of other ancient writing. It is quite apparent that the goal of the Gospel writers was to attempt to record what actually occurred.
~ The Ability Test ~
This test examines the ability of the authors to write down accurately the historical details of their story.
Were they just well intentioned — or were they actually capable of getting the facts right? Did they know the history well enough themselves?
Matthew was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. Mark was an associate of Peter, a disciple of Christ. Luke was a companion of Paul, who claimed to have personally encountered Jesus on his way to Damascus. John, too, was a disciple of Jesus, and one of the “inner three” of the twelve, alongside Peter.
Some have doubted that the New Testament writers were able to report accurately because of the significant gap between the time of the events and the date of writing. However, it is important to understand the culture of the writers. Written materials were not nearly as commonplace as they are today. During this time in Jewish culture, communication was primarily oral. Memorization, even of entire books, was common and natural for the Gospel writers.
Blomberg points out that 80 to 90 percent of Jesus’ words were originally in poetic form. “This doesn’t mean stuff that rhymes,” he cautions, “but it had meter, balanced lines, parallelism, and so forth — and this would have created a great memory help.”
~ The Character Test ~
This test looks at the character of the authors of the purported history.
Did they have malicious intent that would produce an altered version of what actually happened? For the Gospel writers, there is no good reason to suggest this was the case. The stories they write point to an incredibly high standard of moral living. Are we to believe that some of the world’s greatest ethical teachings came from unethical people?
Second, there’s no reason to suggest that they had motives for material or societal gain. In fact, these men were willing to face torture and even death for their conviction that they had seen the risen Jesus.
~ The Consistency Test ~
With this test we ask, “Do the stories that relate the same events agree with one another?”
If the authors constantly contradict each other, there is good reason to doubt the historicity of the events in the stories.
That said, the Consistency Test allows for small discrepancies that are not serious enough to lead to the conclusion of falsehood. This is possibly the most common critique of the biographies of Jesus. There are numerous examples of where the Gospels appear to contradict one another. But apparent discrepancies should be handled carefully.
We need to remember that ancient expectations were often different from expectations in our current culture. For instance, sometimes the Gospel writers will describe the same event but mention different characters being present. This is because they did not intend to compile a complete list. One example would be the witnesses at the empty tomb of Jesus.
Other times the Gospel writers abbreviate details with a kind of liberty that surprises readers today. For example, in Matthew a centurion (a commander in the Roman military) speaks to Jesus. In Luke, there are two elders speaking for the centurion. Luke’s account is probably the more precise one, whereas Matthew referred only to the centurion because the elders spoke as representatives for the centurion.
All in all, the stories of Jesus are similar enough that they pass the Consistency Test — and yet different enough so that we know that the Gospel writers did not conspire to fabricate events that never happened.
~ The Bias Test ~
This test considers whether the authors may have altered the text intentionally or unintentionally due to personal bias.
Did they have reason to skew parts of the narrative?
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all had different theological objectives to accomplish when writing the Gospels. So they focused on stories and details that had particular theological significance. But this doesn’t necessarily affect the historicity of their narratives. In fact, their historical accuracy was probably bolstered by their love for Jesus and their commitment to His moral teachings.
~ The Cover-Up Test ~
When people testify about events they saw, they will often try to protect themselves or others by conveniently omitting details that are embarrassing or hard to explain. As a result, this raises uncertainty about the trustworthiness of testimony.
Yet the biographies of Jesus contain many embarrassing details about the disciples. The disciples squabbled among themselves, for example, as to which Jesus loved best. And when the going got tough, most of the disciples ran and hid — and Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Yet Peter and the other disciples were leaders of the early church when these stories were written!
Why include embarrassing details? We are left to assume that the writers were honest men who simply wanted a factual, historical account recorded. In the Gospels we see both the good and the ugly, which is strong evidence that the authors of Jesus’ biographies did not play loose with the facts.
~ The Corroboration Test ~
This test aims to corroborate a story’s details by using outside evidence.
Blomberg points out that a lot of archeological discoveries have been made within the past hundred years that help to corroborate the Gospels:
In addition, we can learn through non-Christian sources a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in His life. And when you stop to think that ancient historians for the most part dealt only with political rulers, emperors, kinds, military battles, official religious people, and major philosophical movements, it’s remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and His followers even though they fit none of these categories at the time these historians were writing.
~ The Adverse Witness Test ~
This final test is arguably the most difficult for any historical document to pass.
What do the critics have to say? Do they admit that the stories carry truthful details? What arguments do they offer? Do they dismantle the premise? Do they sidestep the logical conclusion?
Blomberg points out that some Jewish writers claimed that Jesus was a sorcerer who led Israel astray. This is a fascinating observation, as they could have claimed that the miracles never happened and that the stories are all fictional, legendary tales. But they didn’t! If the enemies of Christianity needed to call Jesus a sorcerer, there is reason to believe that something miraculous did indeed happen!
~ Do You Have “Enough” Proof to Believe? ~
Unless Christ Himself knocks on your door and gets in your face to assert, “Everything the Bible says about me is true,” it’s perfectly natural to have doubts. I would even hasten to say that every Christian experiences doubt — sometimes on a daily basis! It’s part of our nature to question and test things. And as we now live in a world that worships only scientific proof, it can take a leap of faith to believe God’s Word.
But as we’ve said repeatedly throughout this blog series, God never demands blind faith nor blind allegiance. So feel free to question, feel free to push back on what you learn at church — but don’t allow not having every answer to dissuade you from trusting God’s truth or His love for you. God birthed you for specific purposes, which He has planned in advance for you to do. The Bible tells us so.
You can walk around believing that you have purpose — or continue to waste time trying to find the “truth.”
So will you believe the Bible — and spend time reading it — so that God can speak to you?
As we’ve shown you in this series, the Bible has proven to be a reliable, truthful, historical report of who God is — and what Jesus came to do. Stay with us as we continue to test the historical evidence (both Christian and non-Christian) that validates the truth of God’s Word!
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!