By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on the reliability of the Bible. Please see the introduction if you have not read it yet.


Have you ever been singing a song, but then forgot some of the lyrics? It happens to me sometimes, but I have even seen examples of people thinking that they are singing the correct lyrics, when in reality, they are not even close. However, it does not even have to be a huge difference in wording to drastically change the meaning of a song. I recently saw a list of the Top Ten Misheard Lyrics and some of them become quite comical when altered from the original. Some examples are in order.

Right1A line from Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer, “Hold me closer tiny dancer”, has been misinterpreted as “Hold me closer Tony Danza”.

In Black Sabbath’s song Paranoid, “I tell you to enjoy life” has been mistakenly thought to be “I tell you to end your life” by some.

Jimmy Hendrix’s song Purple Haze includes the line “’Scuse me, while I kiss the sky” which is sometimes incorrectly changed to “’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”. In fact, there is even a website called devoted to similar instances of misheard lyrics.

Examples like this could be multiplied, for, whether through misinformation, mishearing, or just plain old forgetfulness, we do not always get all the details right.

Now the examples I have given range in seriousness. On the one end, some parents have blamed Ozzy Osbourne (who was the lead singer of Black Sabbath at the time of the song) for select suicides, and on the other end, a couple of sitcoms (Friends, Will and Grace) have had some good fun with the Elton John parody. Right2Jimmy Hendrix even had some fun with his own misheard line by singing the misheard version, “’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”, during a concert and pointing to his guitarist. Though I do generally think that it is important to get things right, I think the significance is multiplied when we turn our attention to the Bible. In part 1 of this series, I gave reasons for believing that God really has spoken in history and that these words are recorded in the Bible. However, even if someone concedes that God did speak some things at certain times, is there further reason to believe that those words were recorded accurately? After all, the evidence I gave in defense of the Bible claiming to be from God was more general. I think it at least shows that God has spoken in history, but are we able to say more by assessing the quality of the recorders of that history? From one perspective, perhaps Jesus did speak the truth from God, but the four Gospels have obscured that message. From another perspective, perhaps our understanding of the general reliability of the Gospels will bring us back to trusting the purity of the message as communicated from God.


The Reliability of the Gospels

Right3In considering the question of whether the right words were written down, I have chosen to focus on the Gospels for a few reasons. I mentioned in the introduction to this series that I would pay more attention to the New Testament than the Old Testament. This is both because there is more that we know about the time of the New Testament for us to evaluate, being nearer in time, and because the New Testament bears witness to the Old Testament.

Second, though there are other books in the New Testament, the letters do not have many historical references for evaluation. The Gospels (and I could add the book of Acts), however, present narratives that could be questioned or confirmed based on coherence with history.

Third, there are four Gospels, so this allows them to be examined side by side and compared to establish a level of internal consistency. They can be read vertically, looking at the consistency of a Gospel within itself, but also horizontally, looking at the consistency of a Gospel compared with the other three.

Finally, the Gospels, for different reasons, have been the target of considerable opposition, especially in recent decades. This opposition has great significance, wherever the evidence may lead. Right4Because the Gospels are narratives of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity (the very One from whom the name “Christian” is derived), to largely discredit these narratives would be to largely discredit Christianity itself. According to the Bible’s own testimony, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17) and the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63-64), and verses emphasizing the centrality of Christ to the Christian faith could be multiplied. However, the Apostle Paul makes very clear that this faith could be falsified if Christ has not been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17), while at the same time strongly asserting that Christ has been raised (1 Corinthians 15:20). This very important detail of Christ’s life is recorded in the Gospels, among others, so it is certainly worth considering if this information is reliable. However, the knife of critical examination cuts both ways, and this is why I said above that the opposition has great significance. It is not only the case that discrediting the Gospels would have implications for the Christian, but also that confirming the Gospels would have implications for the skeptic. After all, if the kinds of things that Jesus said and did were shown to be accurately recorded history, it would demand a response from all who read it, regardless of their predispositions.

In light of this, I intend to go about making a case for the reliability of the Gospels by starting with a little perspective, comparing the Gospels to other ancient histories and works in terms of historical standards. I will also look at the Gospels individually in terms of historical accuracy. Then I will examine the Gospels together in terms of internal consistency. That will be the extent of this article, but because of the above mentioned objections, I will also address common objections in the accompanying article, for those who are interested.

A History Lesson

How Did We Get the Gospels?

While this may not be a question that people are used to asking, it is an important one for evaluating the historicity of the Gospels. Right5After all, we must first get an idea of the process of transmission before we can assess its reliability. If you were thinking of Jesus teaching while a stenographer types down every word He says, think again. However, just because a modern method of the transmission of information was not in place, it does not mean nothing was in place or that the transmission of information was unreliable. Though different stages have been suggested by different scholars for the writing of the Gospels, I would like to focus on the period of oral transmission. I will do so because it is the period people would generally consider to be less reliable than the written period and because there could be misunderstandings concerning the reliability of oral history.

Oral Compared with Written History

One aspect of oral history that may surprise you is that, in some ways, oral history was actually preferable to written history in the ancient world. A good reason for this would be that a written account of something was set, while a verbal account could be given further explanation if necessary.

Timothy Paul Jones

Timothy Paul Jones

As Timothy Paul Jones puts it, “In some cases, first-century folk may have been less likely to trust written records, because they couldn’t speak personally with the individual that was telling the story!” (Misquoting Truth, p.85). At first, this might give the impression that a verbal account is taking liberties with what would have been written down in a book. However, this is forgetting that written accounts can often be limited in scope. Right7To give an illustration, have you ever asked yourself why we have history teachers? After all, if we have a history textbook, can we not simply read the book and know all we need to about the subject? If you answered yes, I fear it might have more to do with not liking your history teacher than actually thinking there is no more to history than what can be recorded in a book. However, my point is that the teacher is there to give context, point to the significance of events, answer questions that come up, and so on. Turning our attention to the Gospels, we must begin to realize that these accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching are very selective. John 20:30 and 21:25 tell us as much.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book”

“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

We are also informed by the Gospels themselves that Jesus explained things privately to His disciples. Mark 4:34 is a representative example, but there are many more instances where Jesus teaches the crowds, while telling more to His closest followers. It makes sense if you think about it. If the Gospels contained everything Jesus ever said and did, we would have to conclude that Jesus did not say or do many things, especially considering that the majority of His life before He was 30 years old is not recorded. However, our concern is mostly with what is recorded and with the reliability of this witness to what happened.

Papias of Hierapolis

Papias of Hierapolis

One person in the early church who appreciated the value of this witness was a bishop of Hierapolis, named Papias. He lived in the second half of the 1st century, when some of the disciples of Jesus still lived, but he also lived on into the 2nd century. Papias talks about how he sought what the disciples had said, asking those who had heard them. Looking back on his encounters with those who heard their words and speaking about what came from the disciples, he said,

“For I perceived that what was to be obtained from books would not profit me as much as what came from the living and surviving voice.” (Quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39)

Papias is not saying that books are somehow unreliable, because that would undermine the reliability of the Gospels. What he is saying is that he would rather hear the testimony of the disciples themselves. This would not be possible forever, of course, because the disciples of Jesus did eventually die, but it is significant that this oral history of what Jesus did and taught was so highly valued.

Regulating Oral History

This leads into another important point to make about oral history, which is the fact that not just any story was considered oral history. A person was not free to make up a story about Jesus or to change what had been proclaimed. In terms of what was considered oral history,

Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham, a professor of New Testament Studies, points out how a distinction was made in oral societies between tales and accounts.

“…oral societies treat historical tales and historical accounts differently and in such a way that the latter are preserved more faithfully.” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.273)

If we imagine every story in the ancient world to have been accorded the same historical value by the ancients themselves, we would be quite mistaken. Professor of New Testament Craig Keener points out several ancient authors who differentiated between what was historical and what was fantasy. Right10Among them is Arrian, who, in his biography of Alexander the Great, complained that some writers tell of wonders at the ends of the earth only because they can get away with inventing stories that their readers cannot check. Diodorus Siculus even attempted to “demythologize” some accounts, depicting how he saw accounts reworked into mythological ones. Thucydides claimed to deal with probable events, rather than the pleasant-sounding myths. Livy warns that the more incredible reports are believed, the more others will spring up, implicitly distinguishing those spurious accounts from his own.



Perhaps the clearest illustration is found in a quote from Plutarch, who himself encouraged neither believing too much nor disbelieving too much (Miracles, p.90-92), for he said,

“Whenever you hear the traditional tales which the Egyptians tell about the gods, their wanderings, their dismemberments, and many experiences of the sort,…you must not think that any of these tales actually happened in the manner in which they are related.” (Quoted in J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, p.252).

So we can see that there was a difference, but how does the oral history of Jesus’ disciples distinguish itself as different from tales? Tales could develop from some historical core that was embellished over time, or they could be entirely made up to explain something through the use of a story. The oral history spread by the disciples of Jesus distinguishes itself by close proximity to the events described. So not just any person could make up a story about Jesus and have it become oral history, because the followers of Jesus were around to correct them. Right11Before the Gospels were written, the disciples were not just sitting around waiting for them to be written, but they were proclaiming the message about Jesus that would eventually be written down in the Gospels.

“…the interval between Jesus and the written Gospels was not dormant. The apostles and other eyewitnesses were proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ wherever they went.” (J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, p.34)

We can see hints of this in other parts of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul writes a few references to traditions of Jesus in 1 Corinthians, written around the mid-50’s. 1 Corinthians 9:14 makes a reference to the Lord’s command, which is very likely referring to what Jesus says in Luke 10:7, that “the laborer deserves his wages”, and this is even quoted more explicitly in Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy (5:18). Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is quite similar to the words of the Lord Jesus recorded in Luke 22:19-20. There are other references, such as 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 15:1-5, but I want to pay special attention to the parallels in Luke. 1 Corinthians was written before Luke and very likely before any of the Gospels, so it is not as if Paul is simply quoting from a Gospel here. It may be that Paul and Luke draw from the same oral history. I cannot prove that these parallels come from the same source, but even if they do not, that only strengthens the case for the idea of a uniform oral history before the writing of the Gospels. That would mean that Paul and Luke drew the same saying of Jesus from different sources.

Right13There are also examples of people trying to teach what was not true of Jesus, in opposition to the disciples. In 1 John 2:22 and 4:2-3 we see indications that there was a false teaching about Jesus that needed to be corrected. The authority for this correction comes from the firsthand nature of the testimony about Jesus (1 John 1:1-4). Paul encouraged a confused church at Colossae to not be led astray according to human tradition, but to follow Christ (Colossians 2:8-9). Examples of the teaching of Jesus, either explicitly or implicitly, in the writings of the New Testament outside the Gospels could be multiplied, but the point is that the witness of the disciples was being preserved, through proclamation of the truth and rebuke of false teaching.

The Gospels Compared with Other Ancient History

Right14aIn addition to not being dormant, but filled with oral history, the interval of time between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels was not even relatively long. When some people hear the generally accepted dates for the Gospels, about 30-70 years after Jesus (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.58), they think it sounds like a considerable amount of time. Would accurate oral history be able to be preserved over this time period? Philosopher William Lane Craig references a well-known historian to answer that question.

William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig

“Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White remarks that in classical historiography the sources are usually biased and removed at least one or two generations or even centuries from the events they narrate, but historians still reconstruct with confidence what happened. In the Gospels, by contrast, the tempo is ‘unbelievable’ for the accrual of legend; more generations are needed. The writings of Herodotus enable us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of oral tradition. Such a gap with regard to the Gospel traditions would land us in the second century, precisely when the apocryphal Gospels began to originate.” (William Lane Craig, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.154)

So if history can be accurately constructed based on sources a couple generations, or even centuries, after the actual events, great confidence can certainly be put in the Gospels in terms of their close proximity to the time of Jesus. Some may claim that the Gospels present legendary accounts of Jesus, made up long after the events, but the claim of legend goes against the evidence and “long” must be understood in a relative manner. Right15This is further strengthened by the fact that when we see Gospels outside the New Testament starting to fit the profile of legend, it is in the second century, long after the people who actually followed Jesus were no longer living. I will have more to say about these so-called Gospels later in this series, but it is enough to notice here that the poor quality of the apocryphal Gospels, those outside the Bible, serves to indirectly confirm the good quality of the biblical Gospels.

If we make a comparison with the works of two trustworthy writers I have already mentioned, Arrian and Plutarch, it will serve to give greater perspective on the relatively short interval between Jesus and the Gospels.

Craig Blomberg

Craig Blomberg

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg notes that even with later dates for the Gospels than he considers necessary,

“… we are still far closer to the original events than with many ancient biographies. The two earliest biographers of Alexander the Great, for example, Arrian and Plutarch, wrote more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians generally consider them to be trustworthy. Fabulous legends about the life of Alexander did develop over time, but for the most part only during the several centuries after these two writers.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.29-30)

Another New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham, also sees the significance of the interval from events to Gospel writing.

Right14b“The Gospels were written within the living memory of the events they recount…This is a highly significant fact, entailed not by unusually early datings of the Gospels but by the generally accepted ones.” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.7)

“…oral transmission is quite capable of preserving traditions faithfully, even across much longer periods than that between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels…” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.240)

So, all of this testimony to the reliability of the oral history and the distinctions that would be made between tales and accounts, together with the relatively short interval in time, tells us that the disciples of Jesus were able to record accurate history concerning the life of Jesus. Those who were closest to Jesus certainly had the ability, and we could even add the motivation, to write about the things concerning their Lord, since they followed Him closely and were immersed in His teaching. After being sent out by Him to spread that teaching, they would have used the conventions of oral history to convey the message until writing became expedient.


The Historicity of the Gospels

How Well Did the Gospel Writers Record History?

Establishing that the Gospel writers had the ability to record history correctly is not the same as establishing that they did. Though they had the right position, opportunity, and motivation, perhaps they were not concerned with accuracy. However, if it could be shown that the authors were concerned with accuracy, and that what they wrote lines up with other historical reference points, it would significantly strengthen the claim that the Gospels are indeed reliable history. Going through all four Gospels for historical references is beyond the scope of this article, so some examples will have to suffice.

The Gospel of John

RIght18I think John is a good Gospel to look at first, because it is the one that skeptics have often considered to be the least historically reliable. If the general reliability of this Gospel can be demonstrated, it would implicitly provide additional credibility to the Gospels that have faced fewer challenges. In presenting the following evidence, I do not intend to prove every part of John historically, but by giving a framework that can be found trustworthy, I would hope that the benefit of the doubt could be extended to the parts of the book that have no direct corroborating evidence. In this vein, I agree with Craig Blomberg’s assessment of how historians should be judged.

“A historian who has been found trustworthy where he or she can be tested should be given the benefit of the doubt in cases where no tests are available” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.63)

One aspect that is easy to overlook, and yet is of significance in historical documents, is the use of names. First of all, we could consider whether the names used in the Gospel even fit the places they are supposed to be from. If they do, we could further consider whether the Gospel writer remembered the names accurately. If we think of the song lyric example, I find song lyrics easier to remember than the names of certain people and I am sure most people have experienced forgetting someone’s name at one time or another. If John got the names right, something difficult to remember, it is very likely that he would be accurate regarding other historical details that would be easier to remember. We might just assume that John would record the right names, but as we will see, it was not a simple task.

According to Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.85, 89) the most popular male names and female names in Palestine from 330BC-200AD were:

  1. Right19Simon
  2. Joseph
  3. Lazarus
  4. Judas
  5. John
  6. Jesus
  7. Ananias
  8. Jonathan
  9. Matthew
  10. Manaen
  11. James

Right211. Mary

  1. Salome
  2. Shelamzion
  3. Martha
  4. Joanna

Now, those familiar with the Gospels (and Acts) will notice that most of these names can be found in the narratives, and a quick reading of any list of the twelve disciples will reveal that eight of them have names from the male list. Why is this significant? Well, if you were going to make a story up, it would be unlikely that you would get this kind of detail right. We can demonstrate this by applying the same criteria to Egypt, for in descending order of popularity, we get Lazarus, Sabbataius, Joseph, Dositheus, Pappus, Ptolemaius, and Samuel (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.73). Now, while we do see Lazarus and Joseph again, they appear in a different order, and more significantly, alongside names foreign to the New Testament. Think back to the New Testament now, and observe how the only unfamiliar male name is Manaen and the only unfamiliar female name is Shelamzion (which is even just the longer form of Salome) (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.74). Also, comparing the proportion of the most popular names in total with those in the Gospels and Acts, there is a remarkable similarity in the percentages of the names used, and we can notice that around half the population had names that were among the most popular (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.71-72).

This is a strong indication that the Gospel writers were familiar with the people that the narratives are purported to have taken place among, but this would be true of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and Acts) as well, so what is so great about John in this respect? Well, when you have half the population of a relatively small area sharing only a select number of names, you would need to distinguish who is who in other ways than by first name. This could be done in a number of ways, observable in the Gospels and Acts, but what is unique about John is how he does it and with whom.

Right22The first thing to notice about John’s Gospel is a notable omission, and try to follow me, as I will be using the name John to refer to different individuals here. In the other Gospels, the John (not the author of the Gospel) who baptized Jesus is known as “John the Baptist” and “John the son of Zechariah”, but in the Gospel of John, he is only called John (John 1:6, 15, 19). In the other Gospels, they need to distinguish John the son of Zechariah from John the son of Zebedee, but in the Gospel of John, any such identification would be unnecessary, because John the son of Zebedee is not mentioned by name (probably because he is the author of the Gospel) and because John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism is made plain. This shows that the Gospel writer knew what he was talking about and was not just copying the conventional name of this well-known figure.

Right23Another John is mentioned, but only when making another identification; that of Simon, who had the most popular Jewish name for a male (John 1:40-42). What is interesting here is that the other Gospels say that Simon was also called Peter, but only John explains the reference. In this case, John actually interprets two names, Christ (Messiah) and Peter (Cephas). He first gives their Aramaic originals transliterated into Greek and then tells his audience what they mean by giving the Greek version. This is another indication that John is interested in precision, because he explains the events surrounding these individuals, as Messiah and Cephas are the words which would have naturally been used in the actual dialogue.

Right24In dialogue a little further down (John 1:45), Philip describes Jesus as both “of Nazareth” and “the son of Joseph”. While the name Jesus springs one figure to mind for many today, keep in mind that Jesus was number 6 in popularity back then. John records not one, but two, distinguishing characteristics for the One who founded their religion. If this were to be made up much later, no such distinctions would likely be considered, but it fits perfectly in the time in which it is supposed to have been spoken. In fact, the so-called Gospels outside the Bible mostly call Jesus “Christ” or “Saviour”, which fits their later composition.

John also deals with other well-known figures in an interesting way, with one being Lazarus. John 11 tells us of Lazarus, who had sisters named Mary and Martha. The text talks of an amazing miracle, in that Lazarus, after being dead for 4 days, was raised from the dead. Apart from a passing parabolic reference in Luke 16, this is the only place where we find the name Lazarus and the event is not narrated in the other Gospels, as amazing as it was. The single attestation and the miraculous nature of the account have led skeptics to doubt the historicity, but there are indications that speak for the historicity, if the skeptic is willing to listen. First, even though this particular miracle is unique to John, the type of miracle is not (Mark 5:35-43; Luke 7:11-17). Second, there are several unlikely inventions that would seem to emphasize Jesus’ humanity over His divinity, and thus, would not likely be later additions. These would be things like Jesus’ seeming to arrive “late” (11:21, 32), Jesus being troubled (11:33), and Jesus weeping (11:35) (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.169). Right26Third, Lazarus seems to be in less focus than his sisters, even though he is a male and the subject of the miracle Jesus was about to perform. The village of Bethany is called the village of Mary and Martha. This fits with the sisters being more well-known, because again, the story of Lazarus is not narrated in any other Gospel, but Mary and Martha are talked about in Luke 10:38-42. Fourth, Mary and Martha are among the most popular names for women, just as Lazarus is for men, and inscriptions have even been found near Bethany, connecting all 3 names to that place. However, because of how common the names were, no direct identification can be certain at this point. Fifth, Mary is introduced by connecting her with the account of the anointing of Jesus, which is recorded in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9. Interestingly, neither Gospel names this woman, even though what she had done was to be known wherever the gospel was preached. John gives this introduction, but he has not yet narrated the event at this point (it appears in his next chapter), so he is counting on people knowing what great act she did, but is simply supplying the added detail of the woman’s name (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.165).

In John 12:1-8 we have a narrative that is found in Matthew and Mark as well, the anointing of Jesus, but only in John are we told that Judas Iscariot is the one who initiates the complaining about this ointment not being sold and the money given to the poor. Also, only in John are we told the reasoning. Right27Judas was in charge of the moneybag and he used to steal from it, so he was not actually concerned for the poor, though the other disciples who agreed with him may have been. This detail also explains why none of the disciples thought it was strange that Judas left their company in the middle of a very solemn moment. Jesus said for Judas to do what he was going to do quickly and the disciples thought that meant to use the moneybag to either buy something or give to the poor (John 13:21-30).

In John 14:22 we find the name Judas again, which would need further identification for obvious reasons, being both generally popular and specifically used just recently in John. In an odd description, John does not provide information about who Judas is, but who he is not. John knows that the much more well-known Judas is the son of Simon Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus (13:2, 26). He also knows that there are only 2 men named Judas in Jesus’ group of followers, even though Jesus also had a brother named Judas and it was a popular name. This again shows familiarity with the original situation, enough to identify the Judas that was speaking by saying he was not the other Judas, who had already gone out from the group (John 13:30) and had been a major character in the previous passage.

Right28Finally, just as Mary was identified as the one who anointed Jesus from other Gospel narratives, Simon Peter makes a revealing appearance in John that stood anonymous in the other Gospels. All 4 Gospels record that one of Jesus’ followers cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant with a sword, but only John tells us that it was Simon Peter who did this (John 18:10). John is also the only one to tell us that the name of that servant was Malchus.

Right29Now, I am not saying that any of these are of major significance in isolation, but they do give the picture that John is concerned with historical accuracy. Many more details could be noted, but suffice it to say that John shows considerable attention to historical factors. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek list 59 details of John’s Gospel that are either historically confirmed or historically probable (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.263-268). Right30Those that are historically confirmed have some other trusted source that lines up with what John says. One quick example would be the 5 roofed colonnades at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) being confirmed by archaeological and literary sources (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.109). Right30aThose that are historically probable are details that are very unlikely to have been made up for various reasons. A quick example of this would be the fact that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus. It would be embarrassing to admit that a peripheral figure and not Jesus’ disciples buried Him, and it would be easy to refute if not true, because Joseph was a member of the Jewish council and would thus be well-known. For these and other reasons, most scholars accept the authenticity of this account (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.256). Craig Blomberg even puts the Gospel of John above the other Gospels (the Synoptics) in certain respects.

“Another interesting feature of John is that, when compared with the Synoptics, his Gospel consistently gives more references to chronology, geography, topography, and the like.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.39)

Blomberg goes on to say that this is all the more significant, because John does not seem to be making any point with it and it seems to appear incidentally. John is not trying to convince us that he knows what he is talking about, but he simply reflects that he does through his natural narration of the events in Jesus’ life. So, since John’s Gospel turns out to be a lot more accurate than many skeptics give it credit for, further confidence can also be placed in the Gospels in which there was already a greater level of confidence than in John.

Acts and the Gospel of Luke

It is of interest to investigate both the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke, though not much detail will be necessary, since this history happens to be the one that skeptics are least skeptical about, as opposed to John’s Gospel. One reason the books should both be considered together is that they are similar to a two volume set, both addressed to the same person (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), with the second book making reference to the first. Right31Another reason would be that the Gospel deals with one corner of the Roman Empire, while Acts narrates events over much more of it. So with Acts there are potentially more details that could be historically examined through what we know of the Roman Empire. In fact, one of the greatest archaeologists in history, Sir William Ramsay, thought that it would be easy to show that Luke’s history in Acts was incorrect, because he mentioned so many details. However, having examined the evidence himself, he was forced to completely reverse his earlier skepticism.


William Ramsay

“I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tübingen theory had at one time quite convinced me. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought in contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvellous truth. In fact, beginning with the fixed idea that the work was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations. ” (William Ramsay, Saint Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, p.12)

Josh McDowell quotes Ramsay in having said that Luke “should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” (The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.63). McDowell then quotes already noted historian A.N. Sherwin-White in confirmation of this assertion as well.

“For Acts the confirmation of his historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” (The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.64)

Right34Another Roman historian, Colin Hemer, went through the last 16 chapters of the book of Acts (which records the major travels of Paul through the Roman Empire) and noted 84 facts confirmed by historical and archaeological research (The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic Culture, p.108-158). Since it took Hemer 50 pages, I will not attempt to give all the details, but an example will illustrate Luke’s accuracy. The leaders of different places and different responsibilities had different names, and Luke is very accurate in this regard, as he mentions these different titles correctly for any given place and position. Right35On Cyprus, the governor is called proconsul (ἀνθύπατος) (Acts 13:7). In Philippi Luke describes magistrates (στρατηγοί) (Acts 16:20, 22). Those in Thessalonica are called authorities (πολιτάρχαι) (Acts 17:6, 8). In Ephesus we hear of the town clerk (γραμματεὺς) (Acts 19:35). The leader on Malta is called the chief man (πρώτος) (Acts 28:7). This may seem simple, but someone writing about these people and places could very easily use a more general name and thereby make a mistake. This would stand in contrast to Luke, who exhibits remarkable familiarity with the history he describes and makes no mistake in his narrative. Other examples involve details of geography, language, religion, and society, but suffice it to say that Luke knew what he was talking about and recorded accurate history.

Right36What does this say about Luke’s Gospel, then? Well, I believe we should remember the quote from Craig Blomberg above. We should give a historian the benefit of the doubt where they cannot be tested when this historian has proven trustworthy where they can be tested. When we read Luke, we can keep in mind that this is the author of Acts, so if he paid such attention to accuracy in the latter book, his quality as a historian should also be connected with the former book. You do not simply need to take my word for it, though, since Luke himself tells us of his attention to detail.

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4 ESV)

This introduction to Luke’s Gospel does not in itself guarantee that everything he writes is correct, but it does give the impression that this is Luke’s intention and that he did the research to make sure that Theophilus could have confidence that the account was accurate. Right37To see this demonstrated, one need only turn to the beginning of Luke 3, where not 1, but 6 historical reference points are given for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry in the span of 2 verses (Tiberius was Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the governor, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were tetrachs, Annas and Caiaphas were high priests). However, some have still claimed that Luke did not live up to his introduction, but just as historical information has confirmed Acts, the same has been true of Luke. There will always be skeptics, so even though Luke is considered generally reliable, it may be instructive to consider a charge of inaccuracy to see how the Gospel holds up.

A commonly cited example is the census described in Luke 2:1-5, for which some evidence suggested that Luke got his facts wrong.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins uses this example to refute the reliability of the Bible (The God Delusion, p.119), making fun of the idea of returning to an ancestral city for a census and accusing Luke of carelessness in “mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking.” I use Dawkins as an example because of his popularity among skeptics, but I must say that he does base his objections on the work of historical scholars. To spell it out, the problems presented by this passage are that Augustus called for the census of all the people, that people had to return to their ancestral city, and that Quirinius was the governor at the time.

To consider Augustus calling for the census, there was no evidence that he registered the whole Roman Empire at the same time. However, it is an assumption to claim that Augustus would have to register all at the same time and Luke does not say that, but merely that they “should be registered” (ESV). In light of this, evidence has been found that these events happened regularly around the Roman Empire, starting in the very reign under question, the reign of Augustus. In fact, it took place about every 14 years. Furthermore, an Egyptian papyrus describes the practice of returning to one’s ancestral city. Right39Finally, the issue with Quirinius is that we know he was made governor of Syria by Augustus in 6AD and that a census took place around this time in Syria and Judea, but the birth of Christ is placed around 6BC. The interesting thing is that Sir William Ramsay comes in to correct Dawkins and others who thought the same way Ramsay did before examining the evidence; namely, that Luke was foolish to mention historical events that could be checked. As it turns out, Ramsay discovered several inscriptions indicating that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, once before the time in 6AD that I already mentioned around 7BC. So, if one census occurred no earlier than 6AD, the average timing would place the previous census within an adequate timeframe to send Jesus’ parents to their ancestral city of Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth while Quirinius was governor the first time. We have even further reason to believe that Luke knew what he was talking about, because he makes a reference to the later census in Acts 5:37. It seems that he knew of two and distinguishes one from the other in his Gospel. Looking back to Luke 2, possible translations of the verse in question are “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” and “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria”. So however it is translated, history has a satisfactory answer (Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p.172-173; Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.63-64).

So, having looked at the Gospel generally thought to be the least reliable and then the Gospel considered to be the most reliable, I believe we can observe a pattern. General skepticism does not hold up upon closer scrutiny and the Gospel writers demonstrate attention to accurate detail, even in matters that might initially seem to be of little consequence. Therefore, I suggest that since the Gospels have been historically tested and been confirmed in certain areas, that we should extend a strong vote of confidence to the portions of the Gospel that are thus far untestable.


The Internal Consistency of the Gospels

How Well Do the Gospels Line Up with Each Other?

I have often heard people talk about apparent contradictions in the Gospels, and ask how, if one Gospel says one thing about an event and a second Gospel says another, are we to know which Gospel to believe, if any? This is important to ask and is a common objection, so I will certainly address this in the objections article that will accompany this article. After all, even if the disciples were able to record accurate history and even gave many historical indications that they did this, having various contradictions between them would undermine the historicity in the minds of many. Though I will address contradictions, as I have said, what I have not often heard is how well the Gospels fit together. Amidst all this talk of how the Gospels might disagree, I would like to present evidence of their remarkable agreement. I hope this will also provide a foundation from which to assess alleged contradictions.

The way I plan to do this is through the evidence of what have been called “undesigned coincidences”, which I have based on the work of 19th century scholar John James Blunt (Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings Both of the Old and New Testament). More recently, his work has been revived by philosopher Timothy McGrew, specifically regarding the Gospels. Right40An undesigned coincidence is basically a feature of a narrative where an event(s) is more fully explained in another narrative. Though undesigned coincidences appear throughout the Bible, I believe they are most evident in the Gospels, because there are 4 of them and some of the same events are narrated more regularly than in other portions of the Bible. If you do not understand what I mean, examples are usually the best way to clear that up, but hopefully explaining the name will give a little more clarity. These features are called “undesigned” because they would be very difficult to explain if they were planned and they are called “coincidences” because they connect narratives together, though incidentally. In other words, there may be no obvious intention, and yet the Gospels line up with each other in extraordinary ways, like pieces of a puzzle.

Right40aI have read the Gospels many times, and in a way, that can work against me in noticing the confirming details that are there to be found. I never really thought about undesigned coincidences before they were pointed out to me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I was just hindered from seeing a different perspective by my familiarity with the Gospels. So, whether you have read the Gospels 30 times or none, I plan to help you see something that is likely new to you. I can say that, because last year I taught this in Stockholm to a group of 30 people of all different ages and not one of them had heard anything like it before. A major reason many do not think of these features is because we do not often think of the uniqueness of each Gospel, but lump them all together into one big Gospel with all the events. However, when we appreciate each Gospel individually, and then compare them very intentionally, some interesting observations arise.

Just One Thing

Sometimes the events narrated in different Gospels will be nearly identical, but 1 Gospel will have a single detail not found elsewhere. This is not strange, because rarely do different people telling the same story agree exactly, but it is significant when this little detail explains something puzzling about the other account.

Right41Matthew 26:67-68 describes how the council that condemned Jesus to death started to strike Him after they gave the sentence. Have you ever asked yourself why they tell Jesus to prophesy who struck Him? After all, could He not simply look and then say who had struck Him, without using His prophetic abilities? Well, you might be tempted to just forget about it or to offer some extravagant interpretation…or you could just look at the same event narrated in Luke 22:63-64. Luke gives us the tiny little detail that puts the pieces of the puzzle together; namely, that they blindfolded Jesus for this. That is why He would be forced to prophesy to identify who struck Him, because He could not actually see at the time. In this way, Luke explains Matthew.

Right42Luke 9:29-36 describes the transfiguration of Jesus, including Jesus’ altered appearance, Moses and Elijah talking with Him, and a voice from the clouds saying to listen to Him. It is safe to say that this would have been an amazing experience for the 3 disciples who were there. However, Luke tells us that they told nothing of what they had seen to anyone in those days. If that seems a little odd to you, you are not alone. Why would they not tell anyone? We need look no further than the same event in Mark 9:2-10. As it turns out, Mark records how Jesus commanded the disciples to tell no one until after His resurrection. This explains both why they did not proclaim it initially and why they eventually did proclaim it, based on Jesus’ instruction. In this way, Mark explains Luke.

Right43Matthew 26:20-25 records Jesus revealing to His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and Judas, the one who was going to betray Him, asked Jesus directly if it was him that would commit the betrayal. Jesus responds “You have said so” (ESV), but there is no reaction recorded from the disciples. Why would no one say anything after such a serious accusation? John 13:21-30 tells us that, even though some of this conversation was public, the actual identification of Judas as the betrayer was not perceived by the majority of the disciples. In this way, John explains Matthew.

Mark 9:11-13 contains a description of Elijah, how he had already come and that “they” did to him whatever they pleased. The disciples bring up the question and Jesus gives an answer, but it is not at all made clear what they are talking about. Who is this Elijah and why does it matter? The parallel passage in Matthew 17:11-13 gives us a better idea. Matthew includes the fact that the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist, and since he had been imprisoned and eventually executed (Matthew 11:2, 14:1-12), Jesus was using this description to point to His own imminent suffering and death. In this way, Matthew explains Mark.

Mentioned in Passing

These undesigned coincidences are often subtle or mentioned in passing. These would be details that are not necessarily linked to major points, which also makes them easy to miss. However, if we think about them in terms of historical value, they have added significance, because they reflect that the author sees the historical picture and records the detail, even if it is not directly important for his message.

Luke 5:27-28 introduces us to a tax collector named Levi. Jesus calls him to follow and it says “leaving everything, he rose and followed him” (ESV), which sounds a lot like the calling of Peter, James, and John a little earlier (Luke 5:11). This has every appearance of the calling of an important disciple, but oddly enough, we hear nothing else about this Levi. Luke 6:14-16 records the names of the 12 disciples, but Levi is nowhere to be found. Why would Luke include this specific calling if he played no further part in Luke’s Gospel? Right45For those more familiar with the Gospels, you might have been thinking that Luke 6:15 does mention that one of the disciples was named Matthew and that Matthew was a tax collector. This is the answer, of course, but it illustrates how easily we can gloss over the fact that Luke does not give us all the information we need to work that out, so it would be easy to miss that detail. Matthew 9:9 gives the same narrative as in Luke 5, but the name given is Matthew, which is the more well-known name of the tax collector who left everything to become a disciple of Jesus. Matthew’s list of the 12 disciples includes Matthew and adds that he was a tax collector (Matthew 10:2-4). The name change may have been something that Jesus Himself initiated, as He did with other disciples, or it may have Matthew’s own decision. Whatever the case, the Gospel traditionally ascribed to Matthew is the only one that connects the tax collector and the disciple, so even if we have it in our minds that Matthew was a tax collector, we have to remember that only Matthew’s Gospel tells us that. In this way, Matthew explains Luke.

John 3:24 and 6:67 include references to details that John mentions briefly, but never takes the time to explain or narrate. The first verse says that John the Baptist had not yet been put in prison and the second verse mentions Jesus saying something to the Twelve. This might not seem odd to you, but the fact is John the Baptist’s arrest is not described anywhere else in the book, nor is any identification given for the Twelve. Right46On one side, why would John make a chronological reference to an event he does not narrate later? On another side, why would he make a biographical reference to a group he has not introduced before? Mark 6:17 describes that John the Baptist was indeed arrested and Mark 3:13-19 does include a list of names for John’s mystery group. Now, what is helpful to understand is that John is very widely held to have been written after Mark. So it would make sense that John would not have to narrate John the Baptist’s imprisonment or tell his audience the identity of the Twelve, because it would have already have become known through Mark and the other Gospels. John mentions historical persons and events in passing, confirming their veracity, though without actually making a big deal of it. Mark fills in the details, but John is content with what is more relevant to his Gospel in particular. In this way, Mark explains John.

John 21:1-3 describes Peter, the sons of Zebedee, and some other disciples deciding to go fishing at Peter’s initiative, after Jesus had revealed Himself to His disciples. Right47Why would they go fishing? The answer is quite simple to those familiar with the Gospels. Peter and the sons of Zebedee were fishermen before Jesus called them to be His disciples. However, I am sure by now that it will surprise no one, based on the evidence I have already presented, that John does not in fact divulge this information anywhere in his Gospel. This is another illustration of how we can form a conglomerate picture of the Gospels, forgetting what each Gospel includes or omits. If we go to Matthew 4:18-22, though, we see James and John, sons of Zebedee, in addition to Peter, leaving their fishing nets to follow Jesus. In this way, Matthew explains John.

Filling in the Blanks

Sometimes the Gospels interlock so well that a detail in one Gospel explains an aspect of a second Gospel, but then that second Gospel also contains a detail that explains an aspect of the first Gospel. In other words, sometimes it is almost as if the Gospels fill in each other’s blanks to create one fluid account. One coincidental detail is significant enough as evidence for reporting accurate history, but it is naturally more significant when there are multiple details that fit together.

Luke 23:1-4 and John 18:33-38 each give an account of Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, but as it turns out, neither account makes total sense on its own. However, when the narratives are read in parallel, the puzzle pieces come together. To begin with Luke, the leaders of the Jews accuse Jesus before Pilate and one of the charges is that Jesus was claiming to be a king. Pilate proceeds to go and ask Jesus if He considers Himself the King of the Jews. Jesus answers in the affirmative and then Pilate goes out to those that made the accusation and declares Jesus not guilty. Right48Why would Pilate declare Jesus innocent if He confessed to what He was accused of? John provides the answer, giving more of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. In this conversation, Jesus explains that His kingdom is not of this world, so He was not actually rebelling against the current ruling authority; namely, Rome. Whatever Pilate thought of Jesus, he did not see Him as a rival King. However, the explanation goes the other way too, for in John’s description of the accusation portion just before the conversation with Pilate, there is no mention of a charge of Jesus claiming to be the King of the Jews. Why would Pilate, out of nowhere, ask Jesus if He was the King of the Jews? The answer, of course, has already been given above in the discussion of Luke’s account, but it would remain a mystery if John was the only Gospel we were looking at. In this way, Luke explains John, and John explains Luke.

John 11:1-2 has John again making a passing mention of something. Contrary to the examples above where he does not refer to it later, in this particular instance, he does narrate what he refers to briefly, doing so in John 12:1-8. The event is the anointing of Jesus by Mary (chapter 12) and John uses this to identify which Mary he is talking about (chapter 11). Why would John use an event he has not yet narrated to identify this woman? Right49He can do so, because this event was well-known. Matthew 26:6-13 includes the account of Jesus being anointed, so John can make a passing reference to it, even before he has come to that point in his own Gospel. However, Matthew does not have all questions answered on its own either. Matthew 26:13 says that what this woman had done would be told in the whole world in memory of her. Why would this woman be so famous, yet anonymous? I suppose she could have been known as the woman who anointed Jesus, but thankfully, John identifies Mary in the way that he does, even before giving the description of the event. In this way, Matthew explains John, and John explains Matthew.

Confirming Miracle Accounts

Another interesting feature of these undesigned coincidences is that some of them appear in the context of a miracle happening. While the accurate detail may not automatically guarantee that the miracle actually happened, it does support the idea that the Gospel writers paid attention to accurately recording history. In other words, if the author was correct regarding a comparatively insignificant detail of the event, it would make sense that he would also get the most important part of the narrative right.

Matthew 8:14-16 starts with Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. Then in the evening, it says many people were brought to Jesus. He proceeded to cast demons out of those who were possessed and heal all who were sick. The fact that this happened in the evening may seem like an insignificant detail, but have you ever asked yourself why that is when these people were brought to Jesus?

Mark 1:21-34 provides an important piece of the puzzle. Sometimes it can be hard to identify which day it was that Jesus healed any particular person, but we can safely assume that Peter only had 1 mother-in-law. So, knowing that we have the same day, we will also discover from Mark’s account that this all happened after Jesus was teaching on the Sabbath. The Jewish day ended at evening, so the people who were brought to be healed were brought at the time when the Sabbath ended, “at sundown” (ESV) as Mark correctly puts it. This allowed the people to avoid making Jesus heal on a Sabbath, which is a point of contention in other parts of the Gospels. In this way, Mark explains Matthew.

Mark 6:31-44 gives an account of the feeding of the 5,000, one of the events mentioned in all 4 Gospels. Mark tells us that it happens in a desolate place and that there were many people coming and going, but an interesting detail is that during the miracle of feeding this crowd with just 5 loaves and 2 fish, Jesus instructs them to sit down on the green grass. Why would there be green grass in a desolate place? Right51John 6:4-13 gives us the timing of this event, putting it near the time of the Passover. According to Alfred Edersheim, there would be no green grass soon after the Passover, but there would be in the time leading up it (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p.1051). So, the timing of the miracle in John coincides with the detail give in Mark, for the event happened during the rainy season, so there would be green grass, even in that desolate place. The timing, around one of the great Jewish feasts, would also explain why there were many people coming and going. In this way, John explains Mark.

Right52Wait a minute, though. How do we know where the event took place? This we know from yet a third Gospel, and as it happens, it explains an additional detail of John’s account in the process. In John 6:5, right before Jesus is about to do the miracle, He asked Philip where they could buy bread to feed the people. Now, Jesus only asked this to test Philip, knowing that He was about to do a miracle (John 6:6), but still, of all the disciples, why would Jesus ask Philip? Well, before going to another Gospel, we can learn a little more about Philip in a totally unrelated context. In John 12:21, we are told that Philip is from Bethsaida. This might seem of little consequence if it were not for what we find in Luke 9:10-17. As it turns out, the feeding of the 5,000 happens around Bethsaida, so Jesus asked someone who was from that region where they could buy something for the crowd to eat. To sum up, only Mark tells us that there was green grass in the desolate place and that there were many coming and going. Only John tells us that it happened around the time of the Passover and that Jesus asked Philip, who was from Bethsaida, where they could buy food. Finally, only Luke tells us that the event took place around Bethsaida. In this way, Luke explains John, and indirectly, Mark.

Setting the Record Straight

Ironically, some undesigned coincidences even occur in passages that have been charged with contradiction. What I mean is that on the surface, the Gospel accounts may seem to diverge, but if we take a closer look, I believe details arise that show the Gospel writers to be writing different parts of the same event. As I mentioned above, I plan to address the objection of contradictions in the Gospels in the accompanying article. However, I would first want to point out that an apparent contradiction is not the same as an actual contradiction, for sometimes details that seem to disagree have simply not been given adequate examination.

One alleged contradiction revolves around who went to Jesus’ tomb on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Textual critic Bart Ehrman (Jesus Interrupted, p.48) says that he uses the resurrection narratives to illustrate contradictions among the Gospels and often asks which women were at the tomb. Was it Mary Magdalene alone or was it one other Mary with her, or were there in fact more women that went? Right53Let’s start with Mary alone, from John 20:1-2. The first thing that should be noted is that it does not say that Mary was alone, but it is granted that no other women are mentioned directly. I say directly, because when Mary says that the body of the Lord was gone, she proceeds to say “we do not know where they have laid him” (ESV). Why would she say “we” if she was alone during the discovery? This is where Luke 24:1-10 comes in, especially verse 10. Luke lists 2 women named Mary, a woman named Joanna, and then simply describes the rest as other women. So, if Luke knew there were more and neglects to name them, it certainly stands to reason that John could just be focusing in on Mary Magdalene, as the pronoun “we” also indicates. That would be enough of a connection, but if we add in a third Gospel, there is more. John 20:17 shows Jesus saying not to cling to Him. Why would Jesus tell Mary this? In Matthew 28:9, the women take hold of Jesus feet, which is another indication that this is the same encounter. John omits the fact that there were other women present, but he also makes no claim that Mary Magdalene was alone. There are assumptions being forced between the lines, but they do not stand up to closer examination. In this way, Matthew and Luke explain John.

A less obvious contradiction involves the calling of the first disciples. Though some will not see an apparent contradiction here, I have heard it used as an example. In Mark 1:16-20, Jesus simply calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him, and then they do. End of story. In Luke 5:1-11, Jesus uses one of their boats to teach the crowd a little off the shore and then He tells them to let their nets down.  Right54aThey do it and catch a large number of fish. After bringing their boats to land, Jesus has some new disciples that leave everything to follow Him. I think these accounts are easily reconcilable, with the one in Mark focusing on what happened after Jesus taught like He did in Luke. However, another assumption forced between the lines would be that the disciples followed immediately, just at Jesus’ word, and not after He had taught and shown them a miracle. Let’s look closer, then. What were the soon-to-be disciples doing in Mark just before they were called? They were mending their nets. Why would they need to mend their nets? Well, if my chronology is correct, Luke 5:6 happened not too long before this, when they had so many fish that their nets were breaking. When the fishing nets break, they need to be mended. So, if you get past an overly rigid reading, these passages go together quite naturally. In this way, Luke explains Mark.


The examples I have provided are enough to show that each Gospel confirms aspects of the other 3, and even more could be given. These kinds of coincidences are not what you would expect to find in stories that have been made up or in narratives simply copied from one another. However, they are just what you would expect to find in narratives recording the same history accurately, telling it from their unique perspective.



In this article, I have shown that the Gospel writers not only had the ability and opportunity to record accurate history, but also that they gave different indications that this is exactly what they did. They were close to the events, they would have preserved the oral history, and they showed attention to detail in their recording of the events. As I mentioned above, historians who are found trustworthy where they can be tested, should be given the benefit of the doubt in areas where they cannot be tested. With this in mind, a lot of confidence can be placed in the Gospels, and this is significant, because of the subject matter of the Gospels. The skeptic will no doubt have other questions, but that is a matter for the accompanying article. However, if you have no further questions about the reliability of the Gospels, feel free to continue on to the next article to consider how God’s words have been preserved over time (to be continued).



By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on the reliability of the Bible. Please see the introduction and Part 2a if you have not read them yet.


RightObj1“Some scholars seem to think that the more skeptical they are, the more critical they are. But adopting an excessive and unwarranted skeptical stance is no more critical than gullibly accepting whatever comes along.” (Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, p.46)

“This overly skeptical thinking, for example, leads to the conclusion that much of what Jesus said in public or to his disciples in private was either forgotten or was irrelevant and that, what eventually came to be written in the Gospels was for the most part from later Christians, not from Jesus himself. Indeed, this is absurd. That is, if Jesus really said little of lasting significance and was unable to train his disciples to remember accurately what little he did say, then we must really wonder why the Christian movement emerged at all.” (Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, p.47)

Craig Evans

Craig Evans

Evans makes an important point. Is it really reasonable to believe that Jesus, whom many consider to be one of the most influential leaders in history, was largely unable to influence His own close followers? Proponents of this kind of unwarranted skepticism would much rather come up with extravagant explanations for the beginnings of Christianity than take the text at face value. In the previous article, I gave various reasons to take the text at face value. In the process, I mentioned that there are some objections that could be brought against the reliability of the Gospels, and I will attempt to address a few of them in this article. There will always be skeptics, but I must ask whether their skepticism is warranted or not.

Addressing Objections

Objections of the sort I will describe are not only offered by the overly skeptical, so it is also instructive to see the responses to more moderate skepticism. As I will describe below, even if some of the charges brought against the Gospels were to be granted, I do not think it would show as much as the skeptic intends. At the end of reading this article, there may still be honest disagreement about the degree to which the Gospels are reliable. However, I would hope that there would at least be considerably less disagreement concerning the fact that the Gospels are reliable. That being said, I personally consider the Gospels to be very reliable and I will be defending that perspective against the following objections.

If you are only interested in one particular objection, feel free to read it on its own, as the arguments are largely independent.

Objection #1: The Gospels Were not Written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

RightObj-figure 1-1

Objection #2: The Gospels Contain Contradictions

RightObj-figure 2-1

Objection #3: The Gospel Writers Invented Stories of Jesus according to their Own Biases

RightObj-figure 3-1


RightObj59aIn this article, I have examined varying degrees of skepticism toward the reliability of the Gospels. In examining this range of skepticism, I have explained that granting some of these objections does not necessarily damage the general reliability of the Gospels, as many critics clearly intend it to. If the traditional authorship of the Gospels is wrong, that is fine. They still present eyewitness testimony and do not explicitly claim a particular authorship. If there are a few contradictions in the Gospels, that does not automatically negate their historical reliability. If the Gospel authors are biased, that does not prevent them from recording accurate history, and it may even help. RightObj59That being said, I have also suggested that we can take the evidence to the skeptic and see if their position is really warranted. There are good reasons to support the traditional authorship of the Gospels. There are ways to explain apparent contradictions, if there is willingness to put in the extra effort that it takes. This should especially be the attitude in light of undesigned coincidences. Finally, the Gospel writers may have been biased, but that did not lead them to wholesale fabrication of sayings of Jesus. I do not imagine I have convinced everyone to take all of my views, but I hope I have at least challenged what many have taken for granted. I believe that the Gospels are very reliable and I have presented much evidence to that effect. The question remains, however, whether what they put in writing is what we have now, and it is that question to which the next article in this series speaks.

Part 2a

Part 2b

Objection #2

Objection #3

Objection #1: The Gospels Were not Written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Bart Ehrman

RightObj3“Why do we call them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Because sometime in the second century, when proto-orthodox Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul).” (Lost Christianities, p.235)

Ehrman also explains that many scholars today continue to call the Gospels by their traditional names as a matter of convenience, because they do need to be called something. After all, calling them George, Jim, Fred, and Sam (Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p.44) would not make much sense, would it? However, he insists that the Gospels are anonymous in the strongest sense, and that the only reason they now bear the names they do is based on later speculations that arose in the church. In addition, Ehrman adds to his claims.

RightObj4“The titles of the Gospels were not put there by their authors—as should be clear after just a moment’s reflection. Suppose a disciple named Matthew actually did write a book about Jesus’ words and deeds. Would he have called it ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’? Of course not…And in fact we know that the original manuscripts of the Gospels did not have their authors’ names attached to them.” (Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p.42)

So, for Ehrman, even if the disciples did write the Gospels, we would not know about it by the designation, because no one would title it in their own name. Furthermore, he states that we can be certain that the original manuscripts were not ascribed to the authors from the beginning.

Alleged Anonymity of the Gospels

RightObj5Even though I consider Ehrman’s certainty about the Gospels being completely anonymous to be unwarranted, we can agree that they are technically anonymous. After all, none of the four Gospels directly names its author. It is not like the letters of Paul, where he states clearly in the first verse that he is the author, so evaluating a claim for authorship becomes more difficult. That being said, to claim that there is no reason to believe that the Gospels originated with their traditionally designated authors is beyond the evidence in my opinion, and I intend to show why. Before going into my reasoning for this opinion, though, I thought it would be helpful to take a step back and explore the implications of Bart Ehrman’s assertions. I believe this will show that the evidence I have presented in the previous article still holds up, even on the assumption that the authorship belongs to persons other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

What Would Anonymous Authorship Show?

RightObj6First of all, to hear that Matthew (for example) did not write the Gospel attributed to him, might seem to some to then imply that the Gospel of Matthew is a forgery, claiming to be written by Matthew, but not in reality having been written by him. Ehrman is not suggesting this, but I think it is worth clarifying. He is simply claiming that later Christians have attached the Apostle Matthew’s name to the writing to give it authority. A forgery would be if the Gospel itself directly indicated that Matthew had written it, while in truth, someone else had written it. When we are evaluating the claims of authorship, we are concerned with the text itself and not later attribution.

For example, many different authors have been suggested for the New Testament book of Hebrews, with Paul and Apollos being among the most common. However, since the text of Hebrews itself does not directly indicate its own authorship, to show that Paul or Apollos did not write it does nothing to damage the integrity of the writing itself. It merely finds those who suggested such authorship to be incorrect. The same is true of the Gospels, because as I have said above, I agree with a certain level of anonymity, based on direct textual assertions. RightObj7aWith that in mind, I believe it is legitimate for someone to say that they believe in the reliability of the Bible and at the same time deny the traditional authorship of one Gospel or another. In fact, there is discussion within Christian circles about whether John’s Gospel should be attributed to John the son of Zebedee or another disciple named John, both early disciples of Jesus. The Gospel merely attributes itself to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, so the question of to whom that refers can legitimately be discussed without casting doubt on the authenticity of the writing itself.

Pro golfer Fred Couples and CBS commentator Jim Nantz

Pro golfer Fred Couples and CBS commentator Jim Nantz

Second, in the previous article, I have given reasons to believe that the Gospels present eyewitness testimony, but I have not suggested that the authors of the Gospels needed to personally be eyewitnesses. In fact, through discussing the traditional authorship below, it will be clear that I, and the majority of the church with me, affirm that two out of the four Gospels were not actually written by eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). Though the evidence I have presented indicates that these two Gospel authors drew from authentic eyewitness testimony, which I believe to have come through oral history, it does not damage the argument to say that authors other than Mark and Luke are the real authors. We could even follow Ehrman’s joke and call them Jim and Fred, but as long as they continue to present authentic testimony to the events surrounding Jesus, their reliability must be appreciated. The writings are to be judged on their quality in reporting history and not on their later designations.

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Support for the Traditional Authorship

Though it is not crucial to the reliability of the Gospels, it is worth considering why these four Gospels received the names that they did. It only adds to the case for reliability if we know the identity of the authors and can more accurately assess their credentials. If we were to call the Gospels George, Jim, Fred, and Sam, most of our evidence for reliability would have to be internal, simply because these names do not appear in the history of the early church. However, we do know something about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and that helps the case.

RightObj9The first thing to do would be to ask who ascribed these Gospels to their traditional authors, and then we could assess the quality of the reasons for doing that. As described above, Ehrman seems quite convinced that the authors did not, and indeed would not, ascribe the book to themselves, so he is of the opinion that the names were added later. He even asserts quite strongly that the original manuscripts did not have the authors’ names attached to them. While I do not have a problem with approaching the problem from this perspective, and will look at it in just a bit, let us first consider what ancient evidence shows us. What we learn when we do not just make modern assumptions, but look at ancient patterns, is that authors did commonly title their own works in the ancient world. One example would be that of a contemporary of Jesus’ disciples, the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The same pattern also appears among famous Greek historians Herodotus and Plutarch (Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, p.98). So, we cannot confidently say that the authors of the Gospels did not title their own works, as Ehrman does, but it is also true that we cannot confidently say that they did, either.

So, even though we cannot be sure, let us proceed to entertain the thought that the Gospels were attributed to their traditional authors by others than the Gospel writers themselves. Now, Ehrman is convinced that the reasoning for this attribution was to give the writings apostolic authority, and it would make sense to do that, especially considering that some groups tried to do this with later writings.

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts summarizes this view well.

RightObj10a“Quite a few scholars have argued that the names of the Gospel writers were made up in order to gain authority for the writings. This is surely true when you consider the broader collection of Christian (or semi-Christian) Gospels. In the noncanonical writings you find such documents as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Peter, as well as many others. It’s clear to almost all observers that these books were not actually written by the supposed authors. The names were attached to give authority to the writings. So, some have concluded, the same is true of the New Testament Gospels.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.48)

However, Ehrman seems to gloss over a key piece of information that is detrimental to his own case when he states what has already been quoted above. He would claim that Christians attributed two of the Gospels to “close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke the traveling companion of Paul).” (Lost Christianities, p.235). Why, we may ask, if the Christians were free to attach any name to these Gospels, would they pick a secretary and a traveling companion? After all, if you are making up the author, why not say Peter himself, as the above mentioned Gospel of Peter does? Why go through his secretary? These later forgers at least had the sense to pick an authoritarian figure when attempting to give their Gospels authority. Mark Roberts brings attention to the fault in the argument in the continuation of the quote above.

RightObj11“This argument could explain the naming of Matthew and John, though I think it reflects unwarranted skepticism about early Christian tradition. But the main flaw in this argument is obvious: Two of the biblical Gospels were named after relatively inconsequential characters who did not actually know Jesus in the flesh.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.48)

RightObj12To add to the idea that these two would be unlikely candidates for authorship of the Gospels, it is almost as if the 2nd century Christians had to defend these two authors. Keep in mind that these are the same Christians who supposedly had the freedom to name the Gospels after whomever they wanted. After 2nd century church leaders Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus confirm the authorship of Mark and Luke by way of others who had actually been with Jesus (Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth, p.110), Tertullian (at the end of the 2nd century) does the same. However, he also felt the need to explicitly explain how the authority was assured.

“We present as our first position, that the Gospel testimony has apostles for its authors, to whom the Lord himself assigned the position of propagating the Gospel.” (Against Marcion, 4.2.)

With just this sentence, you would then expect to find the Gospels named after people like Peter or James, but it is interesting that Tertullian continues as he does.

“There are also some that, though not apostles, are apostolic—they do not stand alone; they appear with and after the apostles.” (Against Marcion, 4.2.)

If the authorship was truly open, as Ehrman would argue, and apostolic authority was desired, it is strange that the early church leaders unanimously name Mark and Luke as the authors of the second and third Gospels respectively. It is even stranger to imagine them making this up, considering the fact that Tertullian felt the need to explain how Mark and Luke could still be legitimate candidates for apostolic authorship, when they themselves were not apostles.

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RightObj13The unanimous nature of their attribution is also instructive. Christianity was spread throughout the Roman Empire at this time and these were not the days of the church councils that came after Christianity was legalized over a hundred years later. Christians were certainly not as well connected as they were later in church history. In spite of that, however, the attribution of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is uniform. What we do not see is someone calling a particular work Matthew’s, someone else calling it the Gospel of John, and someone totally different saying it was written by Thomas. This is significant, because you would expect different groups in different places to come up with different names, not being connected to reliable tradition. Craig Blomberg asks a pertinent question based on this evidence.

Craig Blomberg

Craig Blomberg

“No competing traditions assigning these books to any other authors have survived, if any ever existed. Why would Christians as early as the second century ascribe these otherwise anonymous Gospels to three such unlikely candidates if they did not in fact write them?” (Craig Blomberg, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.28)

RightObj15The third unlikely candidate he refers to is Matthew. Though not as unlikely as Mark and Luke, Blomberg also brings attention to the dislike of tax collectors in the ancient world and suggests that Matthew would also be an unlikely candidate for artificial Gospel authorship. After all, there were other apostles to choose from, so why pick Matthew, whose tax collecting past might be a stumbling block to some.

Why is Ehrman so certain that the traditional authors had nothing to do with the Gospels that bear their names? The answer is that he is not, nor could he be, based on current evidence. The original manuscripts that he strongly asserted to have been without the author’s names are not in our possession (a subject of which both Ehrman and I will have more to say in the third part of this series). All we have are copies, but it is intriguing that the complete copies that we have include the traditional authors’ names. In addition, we cannot judge all similar works to be forgeries, just because we know some of them to be forgeries. RightObj16What is revealed from reading more than just a few quotes from Ehrman is that he is trying to present Christianity as if there was no uniform tradition from the time of the apostles, even using the much later forgeries to claim that the earlier canonical Gospels should not be given superiority. He submits that there were various groups competing to have their teaching about Christ become what would only later be known as orthodox or right teaching (another subject for further exploration, this time in the fourth and final part of this series). The point I want to make is that if there was authentic apostolic tradition behind the four canonical Gospels, it not only damages Ehrman’s argument against Gospel reliability, but also his argument against early Christian orthodoxy. So, he has more than one reason for plainly asserting things that cannot be proven, even if it goes against the evidence.

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Even if Ehrman’s claim that the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is accepted, it does not defeat the case for the Gospels presenting authentic, eyewitness testimony. However, his claim goes beyond the evidence, for there are good reasons to accept the reliability of the early church tradition. In the end, we may not say with certainty that the traditional authorship of the four Gospels in the Bible is correct. However, to deny the traditional authorship with certainty betrays another agenda, as I consider the scales of history to be tipped in the other direction, in favour of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Part 2a

Part 2b

Objection #1

Objection #3

Objection #2: The Gospels Contain Contradictions

Bart Ehrman

RightObj17After explaining that there are some differences that are simply variations and some that seem to be at odds without being “flat-out contradictions”, Ehrman speaks of a third category of difference.

“There are other differences that, in the opinion of a large number of historical critics, simply cannot be reconciled without doing real violence to the text.” (Jesus Interrupted, p.22)

In Ehrman’s books, debates, and general teaching, he seems to be fond of asking a question about some detail or other in the Gospels, and answering his own question with the following phrase.

“It depends on which Gospel you read.” (Jesus Interrupted, p.41)

RightObj18For Ehrman, the fact that the Gospels contain genuine contradictions is plain for anyone to see. You just need to read the Gospels side by side and start to ask questions of the text. After a while, he is convinced that you will be reciting his mantra, saying that understanding what happened during the life of Jesus depends on which Gospel you read.

Alleged Contradictions in the Gospels

I appreciate that Ehrman makes distinctions between different levels of variation, because sometimes there are contradictions suggested that actually say nothing contradictory. RightObj19I once read an article discussing where Jesus was born, whether it was Nazareth or Bethlehem. Because Mark and John do not narrate the birth of Jesus, the evidence was being drawn from Matthew and Luke. What I kept thinking as the topic was being discussed is that both Matthew and Luke state explicitly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:1-7), and never say that He was born in Nazareth. That being said, there are obviously more serious difficulties present, or I would not feel the need to discuss it. Before doing so, however, it is worth discussing what implications genuine contradictions would have, were there to actually be irreconcilable differences, as Ehrman believes.

What Would Contradictions Show?

As Ehrman himself describes, he had a crucial experience when he was at seminary and wrote a paper on Mark 2.

RightObj20“Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that ‘Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath’ and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple ‘when Abiathar was the high priest’ and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat.” (Misquoting Jesus, p.9)

On the same page, Ehrman goes on to point out that the problem is that 1 Samuel 21:1-6 describes Abiathar’s father as the high priest at the time when David did this. At the time, he tried to explain how the problem could be reconciled. However, his professor wrote at the end of his paper, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

After taking time to consider the possibility, he describes that once he “made that admission, the floodgates opened.” I will have more to say about this particular example below, but for the time being, I want to bring attention to these “floodgates” and what one contradiction would open the door to.

Some might assume that if a particular writing has made a mistake in one detail, it would then become suspect in every detail. This is an attitude that would indeed open floodgates, as it did with Ehrman, because he found himself looking for mistakes and no longer attempting to harmonize apparently contradictory passages. This creates an atmosphere of suspicion, so that the Gospels are guilty until proven innocent. The historian in this situation acts like a defense lawyer that is more interested in having their client plead guilty than doing the extra work to try to prove innocence. Though this might be considered the easier approach, this is not how history is to be done, and this is most obvious when other ancient literature is considered. RightObj22After mentioning generally respected ancient historians, New Testament scholar Gary Habermas explains that there are “frequent inconsistencies and contradictions in these writings.” Is history then lost to us? Habermas provides the answer.

“…scholars can make allowance not only for the subjective factors involved in the recording and interpretation of events, but even for incorrect data. The reconstructing of ancient history relies on the ability of the scholar to determine the facts of the past in spite of these deterrents.” (The Historical Jesus, p.261-262)

RightObj23aIn other words, to consider a particular writing generally reliable does not require that every word be accurate, in terms of ancient historiography. Historians could expect to find contradictions in these other trusted historians, so it would not be a shock to think that there might be some in the Gospels, from a historical perspective. Claiming genuine contradictions does not mean that these events did not happen, so the skeptics have more work to do if they want to prove the Gospels to be generally unreliable. Thus, even if there was a proven contradiction in the Gospels, this need not open the floodgates. The jump from fundamental confidence to fundamental skepticism would be unwarranted on the basis of one inconsistency, or even a few more.

Even if Christians could not give a totally satisfactory explanation for all the difficulties in the Gospels, it would not justify claiming contradictions left and right. The texts should be innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around. RightObj24Skeptics often treat the Gospels as if they are a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: one wrong answer and you can end up losing a lot of money. In reality, if a contestant answered all the questions right and got the million dollar question wrong, we would still consider that person to be a generally reliable source of information. However, the nature of the game show states that a wrong answer after the $32,000 question returns the contestant to $32,000, regardless of whether they get the next question wrong or the final one. In the case of the Gospels, I suggest that the benefit of the doubt could certainly be extended to most, if not all, of the apparent contradictions. I also suggest that even if contradictions be admitted, that the Gospels would not be denied the respect they deserve as historical documents.

Furthermore, discrepancies could actually contribute positively to a case for general reliability of the Gospels. For one thing, the idea of differences is not a modern discovery, for early Christians knew about the difficulties. Apart from a few scattered individuals like scribes trying to harmonize Gospel accounts through editing manuscripts and Tatian writing his Diatessaron to harmonize the four Gospels into one, the Christians by and large left the four accounts as they were.

N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright

As N.T. Wright states, this points to the early nature of the accounts.

“The later we imagine them being written up, let alone edited, the more likely it would be that inconsistencies would be ironed out.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.612)

In addition, if you consider the evidence I presented in the previous article concerning undesigned coincidences together with the idea of discrepancies, it emphasizes that the same basic story emerged from largely independent sources. The discrepancies show that the authors did not simply copy each other, while the undesigned coincidences show that these accounts line up in a number of striking ways. RightObj26aRenowned legal expert Simon Greenleaf captures the significance of these peculiarities in his book on the reliability of the Gospels from a legal perspective.

“There is enough of discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them, and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction, as the events actually occurred.” (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, p.34)

I happen to believe that the Gospels fit together very well, and that the discrepancies are only apparent and not genuine contradictions. I will move on to defending that now and will do so by way of some instructive examples. However, I think it is significant that even if someone does not agree with me on every point, there can still be a high degree of confidence placed in the reliability of the Gospels.

RightObj-figure 2-2

Dealing with Contradictions

In reading Ehrman’s description of how the floodgates opened for him through the passage in Mark 2, I find a bit of irony. In his paper, he said he “had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem” and that his argument “was a bit convoluted” (Misquoting Jesus, p.9). Well, whatever his paper may have been, the solution need not be complicated. RightObj27It is true that Abiathar was not the high priest when David ate the show bread, but if we look closer, the verse need not be saying that. Ehrman chooses to translate the verse “when Abiathar was the high priest”, but there are various translations (some older, some more modern) that render the verse “in the days of Abiathar” or “in the time of Abiathar”. So, instead of putting David’s action in the time of Abiathar’s high priestly service, it is simply placing it in the time of Abiathar, who is most known as the high priest he later became. In fact, it was not too much later that he became high priest, for the high priest at the time, Abiathar’s father Ahimelech, was killed by Saul shortly after David’s visit (1 Samuel 22). Reference is likely made to Abiathar rather than his father, because his father is a minor character, whereas Abiathar served through David’s entire reign following Ahimelech’s death. Now, if Ehrman asks why Abiathar is then called high priest, if he did not yet belong to the office, I could turn around and ask why he calls David “King” in reference to the same passage. David was not yet ruling Israel at this time, but was running from Saul. The answer is that Ehrman calls him “King David” because that is how we recognize him, so it is for the purpose of identification, even though it is anachronistic to speak of him as king at this point. Well, I do not see any reason why the same would not be done for Abiathar, who did become the high priest, so that is how we recognize him.

It can be easy to look at two descriptions, notice that they do not line up, and then immediately pronounce that there is a contradiction. From this, a person may decide that one description is wrong, or maybe even that both are wrong. However, with a little more investigation, it may be revealed that this is not the correct way to assess the facts. RightObj28A personal story from Dr. Kenneth Kantzer illustrates this perfectly.

“Some time ago the mother of a dear friend of ours was killed. We first learned of her death through a trusted mutual friend, who reported that our friend’s mother had been standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, had been hit by another bus passing by, was fatally injured, and died a few minutes later. Shortly thereafter, we learned from the grandson of the dead woman that she had been involved in a collision, was thrown from the car in which she was riding, and was killed instantly. The boy was quite certain of his facts, relayed them clearly, and stated that he had secured his information directly from his mother – the daughter of the woman who had been killed.” (Quoted in Lynn Gardner, Christianity Stands True, p.39)

At this point, it may seem like there is no possible way of reconciling these two accounts of what happened to this woman. One said that she was fatally injured by being hit by a bus while standing on the street and died a few minutes later. The other said she was killed instantly and that she had been through from a car she was riding in. However, when more facts are presented, it is revealed that both accounts are true, and they merely reported different aspects of the same general string of events.

“We learned that the grandmother had been waiting for a bus, was hit by another bus, and was critically injured. She had been picked up by a passing car to rush her to the hospital –but in the haste, the car in which she was being transported to the hospital collided with another car. She was thrown from the car and died instantly.” (Quoted in Lynn Gardner, Christianity Stands True, p.39)


John Ankerberg

Dillon Burroughs

Dillon Burroughs

Therefore, considering that such an apparent contradiction as this can turn out to correspond with the facts, it is helpful to have some guidelines for approaching Gospel discrepancies. John Ankerberg and Dillon Burroughs provide a good framework for dealing with contradictions, which is also easy to remember because of the alliteration. The 4 D’s are as follows: define the issue, determine the options, develop strengths and weaknesses, and decide on what is most likely (How Do We Know the Bible Is True?, p.60-61). In my discussion of undesigned coincidences in the previous article, I mentioned a couple proposed contradictions. I would now like to use one of them as an example for applying the 4 D’s to Gospel passages.

The example that I have heard Ehrman use many times would be identifying which women were at the tomb. After asking the question of which women were at Jesus’ tomb in the resurrection narratives, he predictably replies, “It depends which Gospel you read.” RightObj30Well, whatever our conclusion, we need to start by defining the issue. After all, to claim a contradiction, you must first clearly identify the problem. The problem is that the Gospels all give different lists of which women went to the tomb. Matthew mentions two women, both named Mary (Matthew 28:1), while Mark mentions three women, two named Mary, along with one named Salome (Mark 16:1). To complicate matters further, Luke also mentions two women named Mary, but adds Joanna and even “the other women” (Luke 24:10). To round things off, John mentions one Mary and no other women (John 20:1). In determining the options, we could say (1) that only one woman was at the tomb, (2) that there were only two women there, (3) that there were only three women there, or (4) that there were an unspecified amount of women at the tomb. In developing strengths and weaknesses, we see that options 1 to 3 would contradict the other Gospel accounts, and it must be said that the authors do not claim that only these individual women were present at the tomb. It may be that these are the only ones they mentioned for varying reasons. In the case of option 1 (based on John), one of the undesigned coincidences mentioned in the previous article is that Mary says “we” when addressing Jesus, implying that there were more people present. Option 2 (based on Matthew) also contains an undesigned coincidence as the women take hold of Jesus’ feet, which is another detail that I showed to be connected with John’s account, again implying that more than one woman was present. Option 3 (based on Mark) could explain the first two, for where three women are present, two and one are also present. RightObj31Option 4 (based on Luke) shows that Luke knows of more women than the ones he names. He mentions both women named Mary from the other Gospels, adds that Joanna was also among them, and neglects to mention Salome from Mark’s account. If this is the correct option, Luke is saying that at least five women were at the tomb: Mary, Mary, Joanna, plus at least two other women (to make it plural), one of which was likely Salome. This could explain the other three options, for where five women are present, three, two, and one are also present. Again, it may be that the authors are being selective in who they name. Finally, in deciding what is most likely, option 4 seems to explain the most. Luke very clearly chooses to name some and not others, so it is not a stretch to suggest that the other Gospel authors have done the same, while mentioning fewer women. This feature of the Gospels not telling us every person that was there is not only observable in the resurrection narratives, but in other parts of the Gospels as well. N.T. Wright gives special attention to Luke in this regard.

“Luke is quite capable of highlighting one person when he knows, and tells us later, that more than one was involved.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.613)

RightObj32This may seem imprecise to some, but imprecise is not the same as inaccurate. We might expect historians to tell us everything and everyone that was involved, but for the most part, this is not what historians do. The reasons for this selectivity would range from the author naming whom they consider to be more important to the author relying on a source that only lists certain individuals and not others. Specifically for the resurrection account, we must keep in mind that none of the Gospel writers were themselves present when the women discovered the empty tomb. So, relying on eyewitness testimony, reliable though it may be, they might have been limited in the information given to them. Even if we cannot establish the reasons for the omissions with certainty, we can acknowledge that such reasons likely exist, and that Luke’s account allows for there to have been as many women at the tomb as any of the other Gospels suggest.

Going through every other proposed objection is beyond the scope of this article. However, some representative examples will serve to illustrate at least some of the reasons why skeptics claim that there are many contradictions. I will not go through the 4 D’s in detail as with the example above, but will attempt to present the problem and solution more briefly. New Testament scholar Mark Roberts provides some helpful perspective regarding alleged contradictions and Craig Blomberg mentions the most common discrepancy.

“Given the variation we see in the Gospels, these stories and sayings weren’t delivered in exactly the same words every time. This would be especially true when the original Aramaic of Jesus was translated into Greek.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.79)

“By far the most common kind of difference between Gospel parallels involves simple variation in language.” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.157)

RightObj34Think about this: why would Jesus only be allowed to say something one time in one place? After all, if it is good teaching in one village, it might still be good teaching in another village. If Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in Galilee, is He prevented from giving a similar rebuke in Judea? This is important to consider when dealing with discrepancies. Upon closer examination, some of the alleged contradictions might turn out to be similar stories or sayings at different points in the life of Jesus. That being said, there are times when we can be pretty sure that the event is the same, and yet, the Gospels present Jesus saying different words. One example of this could be when Jesus receives the little children. It is true that this could have happened in general more than once. However, both Matthew and Mark present the same context before and after this event (Matthew 19:1-30; Mark 10:1-31), so it is not controversial to say that this is the same event. Now, in Matthew 19:14, after Jesus welcomes the children, He adds, “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”, but in Mark 10:14, He says, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (ESV). This pattern is the same in other parts of Matthew, even within these same passages. RightObj34aSo, the question could be asked whether Jesus said “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God”. Well, in this case, it is a matter of one word, but the more skeptical would say that this is a significant change in theology. Whatever you think about the significance of the difference, it is still a difference. To address this issue, it could first be said, as Roberts did, that Jesus was speaking in Aramaic and the Gospel writers wrote in Greek. That means that even before the Bible was translated into English (which is helpful for the writing of this article), Jesus’ words were already a translation. The Gospel writers considered Jesus’ words and tried to communicate what He had said in Greek in the most understandable way. Perhaps Matthew, writing to Jewish readers, maintained the Aramaism in writing “kingdom of heaven”, while the other Gospels render it “kingdom of God” to make it more understandable. There are other examples where more words appear differently, but for all such passages, Blomberg gives further helpful perspective.

“Greek and Hebrew had no symbols for quotation marks, and a historian or biographer referring to what others said did not necessarily try to cite their exact wording. So long as what was written remained faithful to the meaning of the original utterance, authors were free to phrase their reports however they liked, and no-one would accuse them of misquoting their sources or producing unreliable narratives.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p.157)

RightObj35Now, I have used quotation marks to let people know that this was a direct quote, but I could just as easily paraphrase what Blomberg was saying and still give him the credit for having said it. It is the same with ancient standards of historiography. Even though biographers could give exact wording, there was not an expectation that they had to. This seems to be the case with kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven, with the difference being a matter of translation, but we must remember that quotation marks in our Bible were not placed there by the Gospel authors. As long as the meaning stays constant, slight differences in wording do not constitute contradictions. We should not impose our modern preferences on these ancient texts that followed the literary conventions of their day.

RightObj-figure 2-3

Roberts also points out that “Many of the apparent contradictions turn out to depend on superficial or rigid readings of the text.” (Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.108). To give an example of a superficial reading, the accounts of Jesus feeding four thousand men and that of Him feeding five thousand men are thought to be doublets by some skeptics. A doublet would be a supposed repetition of the same event with contradictory details, so that it seems like they are two stories, when in reality, only one happened. It might initially sound plausible that there was a story of Jesus feeding some number of people, and that subsequent accounts had variations of 4,000 and 5,000. However, there are several reasons for accepting that these are distinct and accurate accounts, and not contradictory accounts of the same event. Since I have mentioned most of them in the previous article, I will quickly summarize a few of them here. RightObj36First, the feeding of the five thousand is narrated in all four Gospels, so it was a well-known event and would not easily be confused with a feeding of four thousand. Second, the location in a desolate place is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence and the close proximity to Bethsaida is confirmed through a different undesigned coincidence. Third, the timing during the Passover is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence. Fourth, the large gathering of people coincides with the timing in yet another undesigned coincidence. Fifth, the Gospels that mention both events present them in the same order, with the same surrounding context before and after. There are more reasons that could be mentioned, but more generally, the Gospels contain Jesus doing and saying things that sound the same on the surface. Looking more closely, though, distinctions do set each one apart, so it would be superficial to pronounce a contradiction in such cases. In my own study of the Gospel of Matthew, I have recorded 36 different occasions in this Gospel alone where Jesus does or says something that is the same or similar to another part of the same Gospel. In Luke I found 22, but there may be even more, as I have studied Matthew more than Luke. The point is that when we come across something that sounds similar within a Gospel or between different Gospels, we cannot immediately assume that it is the same story. We would need to consider the context for that. Remember that Jesus would likely have said the same thing in different places at different times.

Parallel passages in Matthew

Parallel passages in Matthew

Parallel passages in Luke

Parallel passages in Luke

As I have already said, sometimes we can be fairly certain that the same event is being portrayed, so further guidelines are in order. Roberts also gives an example of an overly rigid reading (Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.102). RightObj38Matthew and Luke both record the three temptations of Jesus by the devil, but they do so in a different order. These temptations are (1) turning stones to bread, (2) throwing Himself off the temple, and (3) worshipping the devil to receive all the kingdoms of the world. Matthew’s order is 1, 2, 3, while Luke has it go 1, 3, 2. Now, looking at this, it would strain credulity to say that these are two separate events, as we could do above, so it does appear that Matthew and Luke disagree about the order in which the temptations happened. Wait a minute, though. Must the events proceed in chronological order to be considered correct? Just because it is what we might expect of a modern biographer, we should not automatically impose that on all biographers. “In fact, historians and biographers in the Hellenistic world often preferred thematic to chronological orderings of events.” (p.103). Since Luke often pays greater attention to time and dates, perhaps he has presented the material in the order that it happened. I then find it very plausible that Matthew has placed the temptation concerning the kingdoms of the world last for thematic purposes. Matthew intended to show through his Gospel that Jesus was the King of the Jews, not of an earthly kingdom, but of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew is then attempting to present a climax by placing the temptation where Jesus denies the offer of earthly kingdoms last, even though it was likely second chronologically. This is not a contradiction, but merely a thematic presentation, emphasizing the bigger picture of Jesus’ mission.

Finally, I would add that even if the skeptic remains unconvinced by the current explanation for some difficulty, it does not negate the possibility that a satisfactory explanation exists. The renewed confidence in Luke 2 that I mentioned in the previous article is instructive. RightObj39I will not go through all the details again, but basically, Luke 2 was formerly thought to contradict history and the implied chronology of the birth narrative in Matthew. Luke seemed to place the birth of Jesus around 6AD, the date of Quirinius’ census, whereas Matthew’s account could not have Jesus’ birth any time later than 4BC, the time of King Herod’s death. This seemingly irreconcilable discrepancy has subsequently been vindicated by both archaeological and literary sources. So, though I have said above that the presence of a contradiction would not necessarily negate reliability, I would even recommend caution in giving up on a problematic text forever.

That being said, there are plenty of competent scholars who have looked at every suggested contradiction and have affirmed their confidence in the truth of the Bible.

Gleason Archer Jr.

Gleason Archer Jr.

Gleason Archer Jr. is a representative example.

“As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archaeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself—or else by objective archaeological information.” (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p.12)

RightObj-figure 2-4


Craig Blomberg provides a measured assessment of the subject of discrepancies in the Gospels.

“Not every proposed harmonization is as credible as every other, but enough are sufficiently credible that it is best to give the text the benefit of the doubt where we are less sure rather than immediately speaking of proven contradictions.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.35)

'You're no longer entitled to benefit of the doubt.'

As I have said, skeptics do not have to believe that the Gospels are totally without contradictions in order to judge them to be generally reliable. Reconstructing history requires work and sometimes this work includes trying to find out what really happened using conflicting, but still fairly trustworthy, sources. The opening of Ehrman’s floodgates is thus unwarranted on the basis of a single contradiction. That being said, I believe that there are good explanations for the proposed contradictions within the Gospels. Some are easier to reconcile than others, but even in the harder cases, I agree with Blomberg that the Gospels should be given the benefit of the doubt. I do not intend this as a request that the skeptic take it on faith that a solution will be found, but as a challenge for the skeptic to go and find the history that so often lies beneath the surface.

Part 2a

Part 2b

Objection #1

Objection #2

Objection #3: The Gospel Writers Invented Stories of Jesus according to their Own Biases

Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann

The collection of the material of the tradition began in the primitive Palestinian Church. Apologetic and polemic led to the collection and production of apophthegmatic [short and witty] sections. The demands of edification and the vitality of the prophetic spirit in the Church resulted in the handing on, the production and the collection of prophetic and apocalyptic sayings of the Lord. Further collections of dominical sayings grew out of the need for parenesis [advice, exhortation] and Church discipline. It is only natural that stories of Jesus should be told and handed down in the Church—biographical apophthegms, miracles [sic] stories and others.” (Cited by William Baird, History of New Testament Research: From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann, p.285) RightObj43a

Bultmann is essentially claiming that in order to meet the needs of the early church, sayings of Jesus were fabricated. Different circumstances gave rise to different types of sayings, with the purposes ranging from defending the faith among unbelievers to encouraging and challenging those who were already believers. He did not mean that none of what found its way into the Gospels was originally from Jesus, but it becomes clear that he considered very little to truly be from Jesus when we consider his criteria for genuine sayings of Jesus.

“We can only count on possessing a genuine similitude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features.” (History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.205)

Bultmann only considered a supposed saying of Jesus to be from Jesus Himself if it was unlike Judaism before Him and Christianity after Him. He especially notes that the genuine preaching of Jesus focused on the time to come. For those passages he deems genuine, this is a very strong historical argument. After all, if you find a saying of Jesus that does not come from His Jewish roots, and it also has nothing to do with later Christian belief and practice, it would seem to be a very unlikely fabrication. However, I submit that if you read through the Gospels in this way, you will not find many sayings that are totally unlike both Judaism and Christianity.

Alleged Gospel Invention RightObj44

To ask whether Jesus’ followers put words in His mouth for the sake of their audience is a fair question. After all, I do not deny that the authors of the Gospels had a distinct purpose in writing to their audiences and this even helps us interpret why they have included some sayings and stories, while omitting others. It is also interesting to consider how these men, who were clearly trying to convince others of the truth of their religion, could be judged to have presented the facts fairly and accurately. They were not third-party observers. They were biased toward their own religion, so perhaps this would lead them to embellish or even change the way things really went for their own purposes. As interesting as this may be, though, I believe there are good reasons to trust that the Gospels present the genuine teaching of Jesus, even if that comes through biased lenses.

Bias RightObj45

A couple of years ago, I was in Ukraine at the time when there were protests in the capital city of Kiev. This was a few months before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, but even at this time, there was a distinct difference between the Ukrainian news and the Russian news in regard to the situation in Kiev. After the annexation, there was quite a different story on the Russian news compared with the Ukrainian report of what had happened. Examples like this in the media today make us question the validity of biased testimony. We see how facts can be twisted or even how outright lies can be told, and we long for an unbiased third party to tell us what is really happening. Turning our attention to the ancient world, skeptics would be inclined to trust something in the Gospels, as long as it is corroborated by some supposedly neutral source. That is fair enough, but it is worth learning a little more about those neutral sources from New Testament scholars and historians.

“Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White remarks that in classical historiography the sources are usually biased and removed at least one or two generations or even centuries from the events they narrate, but historians still reconstruct with confidence what happened.” (William Lane Craig, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.154)

“…scholars can make allowance not only for the subjective factors involved in the recording and interpretation of events, but even for incorrect data. The reconstructing of ancient history relies on the ability of the scholar to determine the facts of the past in spite of these deterrents.” (Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, p.261-262)

if the Gospels were not ideological, they would have been unparalleled among ancient historical and biographical writing!” (Craig Blomberg, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.37) RightObj46

To assume that historical accounts outside the Bible are unbiased is not in line with the evidence. The great Jewish historian Josephus, often used as a major source for events concerning the Jewish people, had the dual bias of being Jewish himself and of attempting to defend the Jewish people to his Roman benefactors. Ironically, skeptics sometimes try to use Josephus to cast doubt on the Gospels, but they do so by exaggerating what he says and neglecting Josephus’ own bias (Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, p.158-159). Sure, there were those who distorted the facts to support their own ideologies, but there were also those who reported accurate history because of their biases. The historian is not condemned to ignorance due to biases, but can reconstruct history by determining the facts through the biased reports. Furthermore, Swedish scholar Samuel Byrskog provides an important insight in regard to the role of bias in reporting history.

“Involvement was not an obstacle to a correct understanding of what they perceived as historical truth. It was rather the essential means to a correct understanding of what really happened.” (Story as History-History as Story, p.154) RightObj47

A biased observer would be able to portray the context in which a particular event occurs and would also be more interested in reporting all the relevant details. Conversely, an unbiased observer would in some cases miss the significance of the events they are supposed to be reporting. It is also worth saying that even if an observer might be considered unbiased toward that particular subject matter, no one is without some bias.

The reporting of events would then still be affected by bias, at least to some degree. So, the answer is not getting rid of bias, but reading the Gospels together with other ancient documents and determining what happened historically. Simply being biased did not condemn the Gospel writers to putting words in Jesus’ mouth, but it remains to be seen what the evidence indicates. RightObj-figure 3-2 Putting Words in Jesus’ Mouth?

“Sometimes you’ll hear skeptics talk about the oral period before the writing of the Gospels as if it were a free-for-all, a time when anybody could be inspired by the Spirit to put all sorts of words into Jesus’ mouth. But there is little evidence that this sort of thing actually happened, and plenty of evidence that it did not happen.” (Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?, p.77)

RightObj48aSome of this little evidence would be that many sayings of Jesus that we find in the Gospels do in fact correspond to needs of the early church. Wait a minute, though. Why would it be any other way? I find it unlikely that an author would seek to bring a message to his audience that was largely irrelevant to their lives. Some might counter that just having Jesus’ teaching was of value, regardless of its relevance, because of what Jesus meant to the people. It could be asked why Jesus meant so much if He said so little, but that can wait. At this point, I would like to point out the significance of there being four Gospels. We can see some similarities between them, but we must notice that the authors are being very selective as we compare the different accounts. As John explicitly tells us, Jesus said and did a lot more than what he records (John 20:30-31, 21:25), but he records what is relevant to his purpose in writing the Gospel. This would be true of any biography, for most people say and do a lot over the course of their lifetime. So, the fact that the Gospels present the life of Jesus in such a way as to relate to their audience should not be shocking.

That is all I wanted to say about the “little evidence”, but what further evidence is there that it did not happen? For one thing, if it were the case that Christians were free to make up their own “sayings of Jesus”, we would also expect there to be many more sayings of Jesus outside the Gospels. After all, why should sayings of Jesus be confined to the pages of a Gospel if Christians could just quote Him in their own writing to satisfy their specific need? Well, when we look at the early Christian writings outside the Gospels, what we see is a general hesitancy to quote Jesus. RightObj50

“Moreover, even more significantly, early Christian instruction (as we have it in various New Testament letters and in the Apostolic Fathers) rarely cites the sayings or deeds of Jesus as such. Allusions are made, more or less frequently; instruction is given that is clearly indebted in its spirit and thrust to the sayings of Jesus; but actual citations are very rare.” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p.279)

I have conducted a study of allusions to the teaching of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament. Throughout these New Testament writings, I made note of hundreds of allusions being made, but in terms of quoting sayings of Jesus, there are only a couple. There are even examples where the wording is similar to a point where it would almost be considered a citation, but it is not attributed directly to Jesus. 1 Timothy 5:18 says “The laborer deserves his wages”, which is almost certainly referring to what Jesus says in Luke 10:7, and yet, the description says this belongs to Scripture. James 5:12 echoes the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37), as he says to “let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no”, but does not feel the need to justify his words by naming Jesus directly. Paul gives us perhaps the most explicit demonstration in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12. I have explained this in answering the objections to the first article in this series, so I will focus on what is relevant to the current discussion here. As I showed before, Paul is referring to the teaching of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 7:10, which reflects Mark 10:2-9 where Jesus teaches in favour of married couples not divorcing. Again, this would count as an allusion and not a direct citation, but what is most significant here is not what Paul is doing. It is what he is not doing. Jumping down to 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul could have pulled out another reference to Jesus, if indeed he was free to do so as he wished. However, he does no such thing. Why? Well, his subject is a believer being married with an unbeliever, and in Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish context, it is very unlikely that this would have come up for Him to comment on. So, having no authentic saying of Jesus on the matter, Paul does not presume to make one up, and this is not an isolated incident, for he does this again later in the same chapter (1 Corinthians 7:25).

What about sayings of Jesus outside the New Testament? Well, it may surprise people to find out that there are sayings attributed to Jesus found outside the four Gospels. Scholars refer to them as “agrapha” (unwritten). This may initially seem to confirm Bultmann’s conclusions, but Edwin Yamauchi clarifies both the source and impact of the agrapha, based on the recent studies of O. Hofius and of Joachim Jeremias.

Edwin Yamauchi

Edwin Yamauchi

“Hofius agrees with the earlier study of Jeremias that there are few agrapha which can be placed on the level of those in the canonical Gospels. The vast majority of the agrapha are dependent on Gospel materials.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.219)

Yamauchi also mentions Hofius’ conclusion here, that he finds it very doubtful that the early church freely, and without inhibition, produced sayings of Jesus on a large scale. Now, there were extrabiblical Gospels produced, clearly claiming to be sayings of Jesus, but most scholars consider these to be much later than the New Testament Gospels. I will have more to say about these so-called Gospels later in this series, but suffice it to say here that these Gospels also depend on the biblical Gospels. The authors of these extrabiblical Gospels put words in Jesus’ mouth to be sure, but they did so to justify their heretical teaching against the already established Gospel message. A minority of scholars would have us believe that there was no established Gospel message, but even many of them still acknowledge that the four Gospels were written earlier than the other Gospels. So, it can be said that if we want to know what Jesus said, we should be looking primarily in the four Gospels.

RightObj53Another area to consider is Bultmann’s criterion of dissimilarity. As a reminder, Bultmann only considers a saying of Jesus authentic if it is unlike Judaism before Jesus and also unlike Christianity after Him. Now, this criterion can be helpful in positive identifications of historical material. However, I believe it is a mistake to use it negatively. What I mean by that is a saying attributed to Jesus would be very unlikely to be a fabrication if it did not come from the Jewish roots of Jesus, nor from the beliefs and practices of the Christian church that followed Him. It also bears keeping in mind what I have already discussed about how the authors of the Gospels had specific purposes and wanted to write what was relevant for their audiences. So, it can legitimately be used in this positive way. On the negative side, it would be to deny that any saying that is not dissimilar is authentic. This seems to me to be to be quite unreasonable and New Testament scholar Darrell Bock speaks along the same lines.

Darrell Bock

Darrell Bock

“…if both sides of the dissimilarity are affirmed, so that Jesus differs from both Judaism and the early church, then Jesus becomes a decidedly odd figure, totally detached from his cultural heritage and ideologically estranged from the movement he is responsible for founding. One wonders how he ever came to be taken seriously.” (In J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.91)

Even more than asking how Jesus could be taken seriously, we could ask what He even said that made Him the central figure of this movement that would depend so little upon His actual words. I am not saying that no disciple has ever put words in the mouth of their teacher, but we must ask if this seems like the case for the Gospels. I have argued elsewhere regarding the origin of Christianity that it needs a significant explanation for the movement to have got going as it did. What are we to say in light of double-dissimilarity? That Jesus uttered several loosely connected sayings and His disciples took it from there? I think not. RightObj55aJesus is the central figure of the Gospels and He continues as the central figure throughout the New Testament. Christianity is not primarily a philosophy of life, but following Christ, hence the name Christianity. If all the Christians needed was a name to give authority to their teaching, I do not see how this would be Jesus unless He really said and did at least some of what is attributed to Him. Then of course, if some can be attributed to Him, even if it corresponds with early church belief, the criterion of double-dissimilarity seems rather arbitrary and extreme. Not only does Bultmann’s criterion rob Christianity of its essential qualities, it goes against the pattern that we see in the early church.

A further observation in regard to the early church comes to us from an unlikely source: the Gospel of John. I say unlikely, because this is generally agreed to be the latest Gospel written and is consider by many critics to be the least reliable Gospel. I explained this in the previous article, while at the same time giving reasons to trust John’s Gospel in historical matters. The interesting thing is that for what I will explain now, the argument works either way. So whether you consider John to be later and unreliable, or whether you consider it to be on the same level with the other Gospels, there is evidence that needs to be accounted for. Craig Blomberg brings attention to an interesting feature that is repeated throughout the Gospel of John.

RightObj56“…several passages show how John differentiates what was understood before the cross from insights gleaned only after the resurrection, thus militating against the view that sees later Johannine interpretative insights so intertwined with nuggets of historical information as to be inextricable (cf. esp. John 2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 16:12-13).” (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, p.56)

To discuss one example of this, John 7:37-39 describes Jesus offering living water to those who were thirsty. That is the extent of the saying, but John adds an explanatory note for his readers, making clear that this living water was actually the Spirit given to believers. John also indicates that at this point in time when Jesus speaks, it had not happened, but it happened later obviously, because he knows about it. RightObj56aIf John had the freedom to write his own sayings of Jesus and he wanted to teach his readers about the Spirit of God, he could have easily put “the Spirit” alongside or instead of “living water”. It is significant that he does not do that, but carefully distinguishes Jesus’ words and his own explanations. Blomberg rightly brings attention to the chronological factor, because it shows that John is not retrospectively writing his post-resurrection insights back into the pre-cross narrative. John gives the facts of what Jesus actually said and then turns to discuss their significance. So, on the one hand, if you think John is later and unreliable, it shows that Christians still dealt with Jesus’ words reverently, even toward the end of the first century. The later you place John, the later this phenomenon was continued. It could also be added that this is the general pattern of church fathers after the time of the apostles. On the other hand, if you think John is on the same level as the other Gospels, this just serves to confirm the patterns of the early church already discussed. It is not just John, though, for the other Gospels reveal similar distinctions.

“James Charlesworth, of Princeton Seminary, observes the muted claims Jesus makes about himself throughout the Synoptics, especially in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12 pars.)-claims that would have been more explicit had the later church been creating them.” (Craig Blomberg, in J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, p.26)

By the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written, many, if not all, of Paul’s letters had been written. It does not take long reading Paul’s letters to realize that Jesus was viewed as the exalted Son of God, Lord and Christ. In fact, as soon as we open Romans, we find all of these things before Paul is done his greeting (Romans 1:1-4). Now, the Gospels claim these things for Jesus as well, but rarely from Jesus’ own lips. RightObj57Based on the views of the church at the time of the writing of the Gospels, it would stand to reason that Jesus would be a lot more explicit about His identity; that is, if the Gospel writers were not restricted by what Jesus actually said. I believe the reason for the lack of explicit claims to Jesus’ messianic and divine identity is that Jesus did not say this much. Often these claims are made only with His disciples. Sometimes they do appear in contexts involving Jesus’ opposition, but it raises trouble every time. We see a definite attempt on Jesus’ part to keep His identity a secret, especially in the beginning of His ministry. This is likely due to the desire to both avoid aggression and misunderstanding of what His messianic identity meant. Whatever the reasoning, we can say that it is another piece of evidence that speaks against the invention of Jesus’ sayings. RightObj-figure 3-3 Perhaps the strongest argument against the invention theory, or at least my biggest problem with it, is the lack of Jesus’ sayings related to various concerns of the early church. I think New Testament scholar Craig Evans expresses this succinctly. RightObj58

“In fact, the oft-heard assertion that many of the sayings were generated by questions and issues that the early church faced is called into doubt by the observation that many of these questions and issues (as seen in the New Testament letters) are nowhere addressed by the sayings of Jesus. There was disagreement over the question of circumcision, eating meat sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts, Jew-Gentile relations, and qualifications for church office, but not a saying of Jesus speaks to any of these questions.” (Fabricating Jesus, p.234) This is a significant point, because it is what the whole theory is based on. If Paul could make up a saying of Jesus that said the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, it would have quickly solved a lot of problems, as seen in Acts and the letters of Paul. However, neither the Gospels nor any letters claim Jesus’ authority on this issue. The same could be said of the other issues Evans mentions. This all makes sense if we consider Jesus’ historical context. Surrounded by a predominantly Jewish population in Palestine, questions of whether to be circumcised or whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols would be the farthest thing from the minds of the average person. So, while the disciples could draw on the teaching of Jesus as the basis for the faith in general, they were restricted when it came to many of the specific problems that confronted the churches. We do not see sayings of Jesus on many relevant issues, because He most likely did not address them during His ministry in Palestine. RightObj-figure 3-4 Summary

It is easy to claim that the bias of the Gospel writers and the needs of the church essentially created the Gospels. However, it is much harder to maintain this in light of the evidence. Bias is not unique to the Gospel writers, and not only does bias fail to prevent accurate history from being recorded, sometimes it aids it. Furthermore, the early church was clearly restricted in their use of sayings of Jesus. If they were free to produce their own sayings of Jesus, we would see a much different New Testament than the one we have. Since we have the New Testament that we do, let us then appreciate the Gospel writers’ care in preserving what Jesus actually said and not what they wished He had said.

By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the series on the reliability of the Bible. Please see the introduction and Part 1a if you have not read them yet.


WordObj1b“In a religious context, a revelatory claim makes great sense, assuming one is confident one is looking at a revelation from God.  But in a secular context and in a world where many writings make such claims of being in contact with the divine, it is important that some standard of assessment exist—not to prove beyond a doubt the character of the writing, for no humanly devised judgment can do that, but to set a direction that indicates the plausibility and general credibility of the text.” (Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace, Dethroning Jesus, p.32).

This quote essentially summarizes what I was trying to do in the previous article.  For the religious, the question is simply how we can see which book(s) constitutes revelation from God, while for the non-religious, the question is if we can realistically recognize revelation from God, leaning toward the negative, as there is no basis of belief in God to create an expectation that God might reveal Himself.  For the former group, the evidence I have already presented might be sufficient, at least to get them to seriously consider that the Bible might be truly the word of God.  However, for the latter group, being more skeptical to even the idea presented, irrespective of the particulars, there will no doubt be some lingering questions.  I do not pretend to be addressing every possible objection, but I do intend to deal with some common objections, especially related to the evidence I have already presented.

Addressing Objections

Darrell Bock

Darrell Bock

Daniel Wallace

Daniel Wallace

As the quote from Bock and Wallace above suggests, the objective is not to use human standards to prove beyond a doubt that a given book is from God, because naturally, if something is from God, it just will not conform to human standards at every turn.  However, though we might not be able to track down proof for every word, by presenting a general reliability, we can point the finger at fundamental skepticism and ask whether that is the best approach.  Having said that, the following objections do not all come from atheists, but also from scholars who at least claim to be Christians (that they actually are genuine Christians is highly doubtful in the case of some).  So, some of these objections do not necessarily undermine the idea that God has spoken, but the question is more concerned with how much He has spoken.  Whatever the case may be, there is nothing wrong with having questions, as long as they really are honest questions and not simply an excuse to believe whatever we want to believe, regardless of which way the evidence points.

If you are only interested in one particular objection, feel free to read it on its own, as the arguments are largely independent.

Objection #1: The Bible Is a Human Book

WordObj-figure 1-1

Objection #2: The Bible Contains Unscientific Ideas

WordObj-figure 2-1

Objection #3: The Bible Contains False Prophecy

WordObj-figure 3-1


As I stated in the introduction, I have not dealt with every possible objection, but a selection of objections that are commonly raised, especially in response WordObj54bto the evidence I presented in the previous article.  However, I do believe these objections are representative of the fundamental presuppositions behind doubting the Bible as the word of God.  Norman Geisler quotes Stephen Davis as he sums this up well.

“What leads them to liberalism, apart from cultural and personal issues, is their acceptance of certain philosophical or scientific assumptions that are inimical to evangelical theology—e.g., assumptions about what is ‘believable to modern people,’ ‘consistent with modern science,’ ‘acceptable by twentieth-century canons of scholarship,’ and the like.” (Quoted in Inerrancy, p.307).

Scholars read some other human books and find some similarities in the Bible, so then they question how it could be a divine book.  They see the Bible as inconsistent with modern science, so they dismiss its claims.  They see miraculous detail in the predictions and do not believe in miracles, so they conclude that there must be some other explanation.  However, as I have shown in this article, these objections do not hold up and I submit that their failure should lead to a reexamination of those cherished presuppositions that have such a great influence over the view of the Bible.  I have contended that the Bible claims to be the word of God and shows it in different ways, and I have also proceeded to answer objections to that contention.  Next it will be time to continue and see if God’s word, even if spoken in the past, can actually be said to have been preserved accurately.

Part 2 of the series

Part 1a

Part 1b

Objection #1

Objection #2

Objection #3: The Bible Contains False Prophecy

This particular objection is not referring to what I explained in the first objection about the Bible reporting falsehood, without endorsing it, for the Bible clearly does report that there were some false prophets who prophesied falsely (Jeremiah 28:15; Ezekiel 13:9; Mark 13:22).  This objection charges the Bible with claiming true prophecy in cases where the prophecy is not true.

Clark Pinnock

WordObj21What discussion of an area of Christian controversy would be complete without good old Clark adding his input?  Honestly, I am not intending to pick on Pinnock, but since he does represent a fringe position within Christianity well, I find his opinions worth discussing.  In his book Most Moved Mover, he claims of the Bible that “There are imprecise prophetic forecasts based on present situations, as when Jesus predicts the fall of Jerusalem” (p.50).  Pinnock expands on this in a note on the next page, saying “despite Jesus, in the destruction of the temple, some stones were left one on the other’ (Mt. 24:2)”.  This is at least partially due to his belief that God does not know the future (a topic worth taking up at another time), but regardless of the reasons, the concern is that Pinnock is content to say that “prophecies often go unfulfilled.” (Most Moved Mover, p.51 note 66).

Thom Stark

WordObj22Stark would agree that Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem was an imprecise forecast that is not so impressive (The Human Faces of God, p.190), and he would also say that Jesus “got a few things wrong.” (The Human Faces of God, p.225).  In addition to this, Stark would go so far as to claim that the Bible includes pseudo-prophecy or prophecy after the fact.  When this is the case, the so-called “prophet” is really writing history or contemporary events that have already happened, but writes it like it is prophecy by putting the words in the mouth of a past prophet.  To give an example of this claim for the Bible, Stark mentions in passing, accompanied by a footnote, that Isaiah 40-66 was not written by Isaiah, but that chapters 40-55 and then 56-66 by two successive disciples of Isaiah, one near the end of the Babylonian exile (40-55) and one after (56-66) (The Human Faces of God, p.83 note 22).  In fairness to Stark, he is basing his arguments on previous scholarship (The Human Faces of God, p.xvii) and is not intending in the book to argue for things like the dividing of Isaiah into three parts, so I am not faulting him for that.  However, what I do take issue with is the often unchallenged assumptions on which these kinds of casual assertions lie, of which Stark merely stands as a representative.  Knowing that scholars generally claim a certain thing does not impress me.  I am more concerned with why they do so and if acceptable reasons present themselves.


In the previous article, I made use of the book of Isaiah and his prophecies in support of the Bible being the word of God, so the integrity of the book is certainly worth defending.  After all, if what I claimed was predictive prophecy, showing that God revealed His word to Isaiah, turned out to be some anonymous poet writing history and tacking it on the book of Isaiah, it would negate the point.  It is WordObj23worth mentioning that the idea of a book of the Bible having multiple authors is not the issue, for the book of Proverbs very openly declares to include contributions by Solomon (1:1), the wise (24:23), Hezekiah’s men copying Solomon’s proverbs (25:1), Agur (30:1), and Lemuel (31:1) as a collection of wise sayings.  The issue is whether the words of Isaiah are predictions of the future which imply God’s hand in them being spoken (Isaiah 48:3-5) or the reminiscence of the past (Isaiah 64:10-11) and descriptions of the present (Isaiah 45:1).  The question is if God has truly declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) or if a clever writer has declared the middle from the end as if it were from the beginning (Isaiah 42:22).

The Division of Isaiah

WordObj24Though I pointed out above that Stark mentions three different authors of Isaiah, there are some who opt for two authors, and still others that consider the book to be the work of more than three.  Since I will be defending the unity of Isaiah below, I will only look here at the idea that there are two authors, or a “First” and a “Second” Isaiah, so to speak.  This is just for the sake of simplicity, for I will be attempting to refute that Isaiah should be divided into different books at all, so naturally, the number of books will be of less consequence if the argument for unity is strong.  In fact, the idea that there might be a “Third” Isaiah built upon the same principles that declared that there was a “Second” Isaiah in the first place, so if there was not adequate reasoning for breaking the book at chapter 40, serious doubt is cast on breaking the book at chapter 56 as well.  I will first present some of the challenges to the unity of Isaiah (summarized by Daniel Lewis in The Book of Isaiah, p.51) and then proceed to respond to such challenges.  The terms “First Isaiah” and “Second Isaiah” will be used for simplicity in discussing the two parts.

WordObj25aOne challenge is that of historical situation, for while chapters 1-39 (First Isaiah) are largely concerned with the threat of the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, chapter 40 and onward (Second Isaiah) are concerned with Babylon in the 6th century BC.  These latter chapters also deal with the Babylonian exile of the Jews and subsequent rise of Persia as yet a third world power after Assyria and Babylon.  Cyrus the Great is even mentioned by name a couple times (44:28, 45:1).  “Furthermore, it is not simply that Second Isaiah envisions a different historical circumstance than First Isaiah, but more important, that it views the exile and the destruction of Judah as a past event (40:2; 42:22-25).”

Another issue is the literary difference between First and Second Isaiah.  In the former, the tone is one of condemnation, while in the latter, it is one of consolation, with the change of attitude suggesting a change of author.  In addition, First Isaiah has biographical material about Isaiah the prophet, but Second Isaiah has none.

Old NewsA final point has to do with the fact that the writings in Second Isaiah are said to be “new” and previously unknown (48:6-8).  However, if this concerns the exiles in the 6th century BC, how could they not know about it if it was written in the 8th century BC?  How could something around 150 years old be considered new?

The Unity of Isaiah in Historical Perspective

In response to the difference of historical situation, it must first be said that the subject matter of these latter chapters is not in dispute, for they do deal largely with Babylon.  WordObj27The issue is whether these chapters are history written as pseudo-prophecy (as would be the case if chapter 40 and onward represented a much later work than chapters 1-39) or represent authentic predictive prophecy (as would be the case if the Isaiah of the 8th century was the author of both halves of the book).  So what can be said in support of both halves of the book coming from the same prophet in light of this dilemma?  First, even if there is a significant change in subject matter and time period, this does not necessarily negate the possibility of common authorship.  Some of the smaller prophets mix prophecies of the imminent judgement, physical restoration of Israel, messianic restoration, and final judgement and restoration all together, and yet escape suggestions of segmentation.  Perhaps their small size makes the variety of time periods prophesied about less obvious, but the point remains that prophets are free to prophesy about more than their own period.  Of course, whether this is true prophecy or not depends on personal presuppositions, as we will see below, but at least in principle, Isaiah can write about Babylon if he so chooses, even if Assyria was formerly the main threat.

Second, though it is true that Assyria was the main enemy in chapters 1-39, should we expect that this continue after chapter 39, if indeed Isaiah is really the author?  When I look at the end of First Isaiah, I am convinced that the answer is a resounding “No!”  WordObj28Chapters 36-39 narrate the events surrounding the 701BC invasion of Judah by King Sennacherib of Assyria (John Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.584).  This invasion, and the others they had made against surrounding nations previously, certainly makes them a threat at the time, but the fact that they subsequently withdrew from Judah for the next few decades changes things.  Though some might question the historicity of the withdrawal, in his prism, Sennacherib himself mentions Hezekiah the Jew, that he had him “like a bird in a cage”, but there is no mention of a conquest of Jerusalem, which would be expected if the city had been taken (Daniel Lewis, Archaeology and the Old Testament, p.33).  Whatever happened there, Assyria was no longer a threat for the time being.

Third, though the question of why Babylon would replace Assyria as the enemy of Judah might surface, this is also described in this same section in chapter 39, forming what I find to be a natural transition from Assyria to Babylon.  After chapters 36-38 narrate how Assyria came, but was unable to conquer Jerusalem, chapter 39 reveals Hezekiah showing off to the representatives from Babylon.  It is at this point, and not starting at chapter 40, that Isaiah prophesies the following words.WordObj25

Isaiah 39:6-7 “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD.  And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

So the change from Assyria to Babylon is explained within the text itself and we need not resort to conjecture about the implications of such a change; at least if we are at all interested in what the book itself says.

WordObj30Fourth, for those who might then be tempted to suggest that the break should not be at chapter 40, but 39, or maybe even 36, what is said about Babylon even earlier in the book will likely be even more frustrating.  Isaiah 21:1-10 contains an initially puzzling oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.  It is not clear what this is referring to until verse 9, where “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” is found.  In this light, it is interesting to go back to verse 2, which states “A stern vision is told to me; the traitor betrays, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, O Elam; lay siege, O Media; all the sighing she has caused I bring to an end.”  As it happens, Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persian Empire in 539BC led by Cyrus the Great, who represented the area of Elam and Media, which would explain the reference to them in this prophecy.  In addition, the Medes had formerly been allies with Babylon when they were both fighting against Assyria, but after Babylon became the world power, betrayal and destruction came when Babylon was conquered by their former allies (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, p.316).  So this is a passage which envisions something quite similar to that of Second Isaiah, but strangely enough, it is found in First Isaiah.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

Fifth, though this objection might seem for many to have an aura of objectivity about it, it is based upon the anti-supernatural presuppositions that these kinds of prophecies could not have been predictive prophecies.  EJ Young objects to this kind of thinking when he suggests, “It is time that we cease to call such a method scientific.  It is not scientific, for it does not take into consideration all the facts, and the basic fact it overlooks is that of God and His relation to the world which He created.” (Quoted by JB Payne, in Inerrancy, p.93).  Why is it that Isaiah can prophesy about what Cyrus did in conquering Babylon without suspicion in chapter 21 and yet be denied authorship of chapters 44 and 45 because he uses Cyrus’ name?  If God really does know what is going to happen and reveals it to His prophets, then denying that possibility from the start is not going to lead to correct evaluations of the prophetic literature.

The Unity of Isaiah in Literary Perspective

WordObj32aIn response to the literary objection, it must also first be said that there is a general recognition of the difference of tone between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah.  In fact, in the Bible study school I am leading, we divide the book between “Judgement” (1-39) and “Restoration” (40-66).  However, does this necessitate a change of authorship?  Well first, I can say that this judgement to restoration pattern is common to other prophets (Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Zephaniah), but this does not mean that these books were also written by different authors.  In one prophet after another, the idea is that God presents the bad news that judgement and cursing are coming because of the disobedience of the people, but also the good news that if they turn to God and repent of their disobedience, He will bring restoration and blessing.  This is a fundamental feature of the prophets and is to be expected, even sometimes in different halves of a book.

WordObj32Second, though First and Second Isaiah can roughly be split between mostly judgement and mostly restoration, it is not entirely clear cut.  There are many promises of restoration in the first 39 chapters and many descriptions of judgement of disobedience in the last 27 chapters.  This is also true of the other prophets that are divided according to judgement and restoration, as it is rarely black and white.  To give a couple examples of restoration from Isaiah, in First Isaiah there is 4:2-6, depicting the glory of the Lord among the survivors of Israel, or 12:1-6, which describes how God’s anger turned to comfort and how Zion could sing for joy and proclaim in all the earth what the Lord had done.  Interestingly, these same passages have parallels in Second Isaiah.  4:2-6 describes the glory of the Lord, the survivors of Israel, and how they will be cleansed, while Isaiah 60:19-21 speaks of the Lord being their glory and them all being righteous, and 56:8 speaks of God gathering the outcasts of Israel.  As for 12:1-6, we see the idea of God being angry with Israel, but then gathering them in compassion and love in Isaiah 54:7-8, as well as declaring in joy to all the earth that the Lord redeemed and comforted His people in 48:20 and 49:13.  These are just select examples, but other instances could be multiplied.

In terms of judgement, the story is the same.  While Second Isaiah might contain a higher proportion of restoration compared with judgement, it is not without its wrath against the wicked who rebel against God.

Isaiah 59:17-18 “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.  According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment.”

Isaiah 63:10 “But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.”

Isaiah 65:6-7 “Behold, it is written before me: ‘I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their bosom both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they made offerings on the mountains and insulted me on the hills, I will measure into their bosom payment for their former deeds.’”

WordObj33aOther examples could be given, such as the repetition of “There is no peace…for the wicked” and the shaming of those who trust in idols, but the point is that there is plenty of judgement in the latter chapters of Isaiah.  Though there is a shift in emphasis, it is not night and day, as it might look at first glance.  In addition, one could expect a shift in emphasis in a book that speaks a lot about judgement of sin, for there must be something to look forward to and strive for, and the end of Isaiah shows that even if the people of God fail and are judged, God has not given up on them.  “But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’  ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:14-15).

WordObj34aAs far as Second Isaiah lacking biographical details about Isaiah, I feel this severely overestimates how much of First Isaiah is actually biographical material and underestimates how selective the material is.  It is not as if Isaiah’s life story is in First Isaiah.  1:1 is a verse that explains when Isaiah is seeing his visions concerning Judah and Jerusalem: during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  2:1 basically repeats this without naming the kings.  Chapters 6-8 describe Isaiah seeing God’s glory at the end of the reign of Uzziah and confronting Ahaz, which would have happened while Jotham was still alive and co-reigning with his son Ahaz.  Chapter 20, during the reign of Hezekiah, is the sign against Egypt and Cush, as Isaiah walked naked for three years and the same would happen to them.  Chapters 37-39 tell of Isaiah’s interactions with Hezekiah concerning the king of Assyria, Hezekiah’s sickness, and the Babylonian envoys.  In all, there are about 94 verses in Isaiah that could be considered biographical.  There are 1292 verses in Isaiah, so the biographical detail makes up about 7% of the book, and it is not even as if it is evenly distributed.  Three chapters close to the beginning, one chapter after 11 chapters with no biographical detail, and three chapters after 16 chapters with no biographical detail.  To compare a couple of other prophets, Amos contains 13% biographical material in 3 of 9 chapters, though after 1:1 there are 6 chapters without any narrative.  Hosea contains 7% biographical material in 2 of 14 chapters, but nothing after the third chapter.  Also consider prophets like Malachi, Nahum, Obadiah, Joel, and Zephaniah who reveal little more than their name.  I am not saying that there are no other prophets who have more biographical detail, but I am simply pointing out that Isaiah’s percentage and distribution is nothing out of the ordinary.  There are 57 chapters in Isaiah that contain no biographical detail, and while it is true that 27 of those belong to Second Isaiah, the other 30 belong to First Isaiah.  If an author has the freedom to organize his material as he wants, he should not be denied authorship of his book based on how he distributes his narrative.

It is also worth noticing that the blocks of narrative seem to be from the reigns of each king mentioned in 1:1: Uzziah (chapter 6), Jotham and Ahaz (co-reigning when chapters 7 and 8 were taking place), and Hezekiah (chapters 20 and 37-39).  It seems as though Isaiah has organized a selection from each of their reigns.  Though Hezekiah is the king at the time of chapter 20, he is not mentioned in the text.  If Isaiah is so selective in First Isaiah and he has already narrated a significant event from the reign of each king, is it really so strange that he does not add anything more to the events of Hezekiah’s reign in Second Isaiah?  Is it really such a glaring omission in Second Isaiah if First Isaiah does not say a whole lot during any particular reign in the first place?

The Unity of Isaiah in Chronological Perspective

WordObj35So what about the apparent “newness” of the prophecies of Second Isaiah, if they were supposedly spoken at least 150 years before their fulfillment in the fall of Babylon?  Well, first of all, even if we say that there is some pseudo-prophet writing history and contemporary events as if they are predictive prophecy, this question is still not answered.  After all, by joining Second Isaiah to First Isaiah, this pseudo-prophet is trying to gain some credibility for the prophecies by claiming that they were spoken in the time of First Isaiah.  So the interpretation that the “newness” of the prophecies refers to the fact that the exiles in Babylon have never heard of them seems incorrect, no matter when I say they were written.

Second, as always in Bible study, I do not think words should be taken out of context.  To take a key passage for this objection, let us look at Isaiah 48.

WordObj35aIsaiah 48:1-8 “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the LORD and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.  For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  ‘The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.  Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, “My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.”  ‘You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known.  They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, “Behold, I knew them.”  You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened. For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel.’”

WordObj36The ending is where the “new” and “hidden” things are described, but a question I have is whether this is being spoken to the exiles in Babylon or not.  Even if it is, the issue is not merely knowledge about the prophecies, but true understanding.  The last verse says “your ear has not been opened”, which reminds me of Isaiah 6:9-10 where it says to keep hearing but not understand, and the hearts of the people would be made dull to not hear with their ears and understand with their hearts.  If this message is to the exiles, God is simply saying that they would never understand what this prophecy meant until they were right in the middle of God’s judgement of their rebellion.  This also goes along with the second part of that verse, where God knew that they would deal treacherously and be rebels.  In other words, God knew that they would not understand what He was doing with them until after.

WordObj38However, I am not totally convinced that this is a message to the exiles, even if it would definitely be a message applicable to them.  The first verse depicts swearing by the name of the Lord, but not in truth as an identification of Judah.  This idea of false allegiance is repeated in the book of Isaiah, of which 29:13 is a good example: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me”.  I find this idea of false allegiance to be right at home in the time of Isaiah, and thus, it could be Isaiah challenging Judah to truly trust the Lord, having seen former prophecies come true (48:3-5) and having confidence that current prophecies will be fulfilled in the future.  In fact, 48:3-5 is integral in understanding 48:6-8, for it is precisely God’s ability to predict long ago what His people have seen happen in recent times that allows Him to pronounce, with authority, new events in the distant future, from Judah’s perspective at the time, that is.  Because He has shown Himself to be superior to idols in declaring what is to come, He can announce new things to the people of Isaiah’s time, creating the expectation that they will be fulfilled in the future.  It is a call to trust God in the present because of how He has been trustworthy in the past and because He declares hope for the future.  In this case, the newness would be from the time that the prophecies are spoken, in the time of Isaiah, and not the time of fulfillment.  If the author really expects his readers to believe that God declares things long before they happen (48:3-5) and the end from the beginning (46:10), he should continue with predictions of the future, as I believe he does.

Other Considerations Supporting the Unity of Isaiah

It is also significant to note how later authors treated the book of Isaiah.  Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, is a work from the 2nd century BC that makes reference to Isaiah (Esay) in Ecclesiasticus 48:22.  Then, 48:23 goes on to state “In his time the sun went backward, and he lengthened the king’s life”, which is narrated in Isaiah 38:4-8.  Going further in 48:24, Sirach also says “He saw by an excellent spirit what should come to pass at the last, and he comforted them that mourned in Sion.”  This last phrase is especially important, because it would appear to attribute a writing of Second Isaiah to the same Isaiah just described from First Isaiah.  The passage I am referring to comes from Isaiah 61:2-3, where we find “to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion”, so it seems that Sirach considered the Isaiah of the First and Second parts of the book to be one and the same.  Along the same lines, some of the authors of the New Testament made reference to the writing of the prophet Isaiah.  Though there are as many quotes of Isaiah as there are chapters in his book, not all of these New Testament quotations mention his name.  However, the twenty that do mention his name are listed in the table below, along with where they are taken from.

New Testament                                                  Isaiah 1-39


Matthew 4:14-16                                                        9:1-2

Matthew 13:14-15                                                      6:9-10

Matthew 15:7-9                                                          29:13

Mark 7:6-7                                                                  29:13

John 12:39-40                                                           6:10

Acts 28:25-27                                                            6:9-10

Romans 9:27-28                                                       10:22-23

Romans 9:29                                                             1:9

Romans 15:12                                                            11:10

                                                                        Isaiah 40-66


Matthew 3:3                                                  40:3

Matthew 8:17                                                 53:4

Matthew 12:17-21                                          42:1-4

Mark 1:2-3                                                      40:3

Luke 3:4-6                                                       40:3-5

Luke 4:17-19                                                    61:1-2

John 1:23                                                          40:3

John 12:38                                                        53:1

Acts 8:28, 32-33                                              53:7-8

Romans 10:16                                                   53:1

Romans 10:20-21                                             65:1-2

Of the twenty quotations of Isaiah by name, nine are from First Isaiah and eleven are from Second Isaiah.  This means that the New Testament attestation for Second Isaiah belonging to Isaiah the prophet is on the same level (technically even a little better) as that for First Isaiah.  Perhaps the best example of this is found in John 12:38-41.

WordObj39WordObj40John 12:38-41 “so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’  Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’  Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.”

John first quotes from Second Isaiah (53:1), attributing it to the prophet Isaiah, and then he proceeds to quote Isaiah “again”, this time from First Isaiah (6:10).  John wraps it up by explaining that Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.  Thus, these references are inextricably connected to the historical prophet Isaiah.

WordObj41Furthermore, in terms of manuscript evidence, those who would split up Isaiah do not have a manuscript copy of only Isaiah 1-39 (or only 40-66 for that matter) to bolster their case.  If they did, they would certainly make no secret of the fact that one or the other or both have been preserved in separated form.  However, as it turns out, the earliest known copy of any complete book of the Bible (2nd century BC) just happens to be of the prophet Isaiah, including all 66 chapters (Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.78-79).  So as far back as we can see, Isaiah stands complete in its undivided form.

WordObj42Finally, as I pointed out in the previous article, Isaiah makes other predictions of the future, some of them referring to the time of Jesus as messianic prophecies.  While it may be conventional for scholars to suggest that the prophecies in Second Isaiah concerning the exile were actually written around that time, no one has suggested that the messianic prophecies were written around the time of Jesus.  Of course, the above mentioned complete copy of Isaiah from before the time of Jesus prohibits such suggestions, but the principle is the same.  Isaiah’s messianic prophecies are on the same level as his exilic prophecies, for he presents compelling knowledge of what would happen in the life of Jesus.  Norman Geisler points out twelve aspects of Jesus’ passion that were foretold in the twelve verses of Isaiah 53.  He would be rejected, be a man of sorrow, live a life of suffering, be despised, carry our sorrows, be afflicted by God, be pierced for our transgressions, be wounded for our sins, suffer like a lamb, die with the wicked, be sinless, and pray for transgressors (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p.611).  If Isaiah could predict that and not have those portions of his book assigned to the 1st century AD, he could certainly have spoken about the Babylonian exile without those portions of his book being assigned to the 6th century BC.  If predictive prophecy is not ruled out of the equation from the beginning, I do not see any reason to consider the prophecies of the book of Isaiah to be any later than the life of the prophet himself.

WordObj-figure 3-2

Unfulfilled Prophecy?

WordObj43In considering Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, and particularly the temple located there, objections range from claiming that Jesus was a little off to saying that He was completely wrong.  The former focuses on the specific claims of what Jesus said would happen in the events surrounding Jerusalem’s fall, which we know from the history of the event in 70AD.  The latter dispenses with the details and suggests that Jesus said a lot more would happen than what actually did happen.  Both of these views are compatible with seeing Jesus’ prediction as imprecise and foreseeable by natural common sense.  However, I believe that neither is compatible with what Jesus actually meant, so these claims are worth taking a closer look at below.

Jesus Thought the Final Judgment Would Occur along with the Fall of Jerusalem

This is where people like Thom Stark (The Human Faces of God)  and Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) would claim that Jesus was wrong.  A couple of quotes from Stark in reference to the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) sum up the contention.

WordObj44“The simplest reading of this discourse, and the reading that best fits with the Jewish apocalyptic context out of which Jesus and his disciples emerged, is also the only reading that makes sense of Jesus’ claims.” (The Human Faces of God, p.173).

“Jesus could not have been clearer if he had said, ‘I predict that the final judgement will occur within the next forty or fifty years.’” (The Human Faces of God, p.174).

The basis for such confidence in such an interpretation rests largely on the weight of the evidence of Jewish apocalyptic literature from around the time of Jesus and His disciples, coupled together with textual evidence of what Jesus said in light of historical evidence of what did and did not happen at the fall of Jerusalem.  The case certainly sounds convincing when such evidence is presented, but it is not the evidence that I take issue with; it is the interpretation of this evidence.  So let us examine the Jewish apocalyptic context and the textual evidence.

The Jewish Apocalyptic Context

WordObj45In Stark’s summary of the different chapters of his book, in reference to the chapter on Jesus, he states that “honest appraisals of the text force us to acknowledge that because of the apocalyptic worldview that Jesus inherited, he necessarily got a few things wrong.” (The Human Faces of God, p.225).  Why is this so?  Well, for Stark, Jesus (and His disciples with Him) is merely a child of His own generation, hopelessly locked within the framework with which He is presented.  So naturally, if Jesus were to make a prediction of the coming kingdom, Stark would say that it would, of necessity, fit into the Jewish apocalyptic context.  Though I do not dispute his general depiction of the Jewish apocalyptic environment, I ask: is this a valid way to interpret the situation?

I would emphatically answer this question in the negative for a few reasons.  First, this is precisely what I have been contesting in the previous article; namely, that the Bible is just a book like any other.  If you deny Jesus the possibility of being able to think differently about the coming of the kingdom of God than the other Jews of His time, of course you would have to admit that Jesus got a few things wrong.  After all, I do not know of anyone who thinks the Jews fighting to deliver their land from the oppression of the Romans prior to the destruction of Jerusalem got things right.  However, if God is permitted to provide correct ideas about the nature of the kingdom of God, Jesus is not bound to think as others before Him have thought.  With a starting point that limits God from speaking into a situation, it is no wonder that many who take such positions fail to recognize the voice of God in the words of Jesus.  If God’s ability to speak is not ruled out from the beginning, the rules of the game change considerably.

WordObj45aSecond, there is much evidence that Jesus did think of the kingdom differently than the other Jews of His time.  In one of my articles on the historical evidence for Jesus resurrection (The Argument from Jesus’ Resurrection (Part 4)), I explained how the particular portrait of Jesus as Messiah did not fit any of the messianic paradigms around at the time.  There was no belief in a dying, much less, rising Messiah, and there was no belief that anyone, not even the Messiah, would rise in advance of the general resurrection at the end of time.  Yet, as evidenced by the birth of Christianity in the first place, Jesus surprised everyone, including His disciples, by showing the true nature of the kingdom to be different than anticipated.  A great example of this same iconoclastic thinking, even before Jesus’ death, would be the events surrounding Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah.  Matthew 16:16-23 describes how Peter calls Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, but then as soon as Jesus tells His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, Peter rebukes Jesus.  Jesus then proceeds to rebuke the satanic nature of Peter thinking according to the things of man, but not of God.  Peter was merely acting according to what he believed about the nature of the kingdom, but Jesus was trying to illustrate the earthly nature of those actions.  Another good example would be Jesus’ confession before Pilate, where Jesus is not merely putting off the timing of His kingdom, but the very nature of it.

WordObj46John 18:36 “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”

Third, even within an apocalyptic framework, different interpretations are plausible.  Though I have my own particular view of how to interpret apocalyptic literature, there are others, and some can even be made to complement each other.  I have reasons for why I prefer my particular apocalyptic view, but I would not be so arrogant as to suggest that my view is the only possible view.  I see some views as more plausible than others, but the point is that if I can recognize the plausibility of other views, even if I am not compelled to adopt them, the field of interpretation may not be as narrow as some would like it to seem.

The Textual Evidence

As Stark puts it, “Although Jesus spoke of an imminent final judgment frequently, in two of his discourses in particular Jesus predicts that the final judgment will occur within the lifetime of his disciples.” (The Human Faces of God, p.168-169).  The passages he is referring to are both found in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but for the sake of simplicity, I will focus mostly on Matthew.

WordObj47After the passage in Matthew 16 that I mentioned above, Matthew 16:28 (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  The claim is that Jesus is saying here that He will come back and judge the earth within the lifetime of some of the disciples.  This is based on the notion that His kingdom is only to be identified with the final judgement, but as we have seen above, Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.  The kingdom of God is not restricted to one meaning, so we need to look at the context.  Stark is very much aware of this and correctly points out that the preceding context contains reference to the Son of Man coming with His angels in the glory of His Father and repaying everyone for what has been done (Matthew 16:27) (The Human Faces of God, p.172).  However, I feel he brushes over the proceeding context, which narrates the transfiguration of Jesus in all three instances (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36).  Stark explains why he thinks the transfiguration is not a good explanation of what Jesus means in Matthew 16:28.  He points to the fact that there is no mention of angels in the transfiguration and that there is no mention of judgement, both of which can be found in the preceding context (16:27).  However, he is assuming that Matthew 16:27 and 16:28 are talking about the same event, and I think the context reveals this.  If we go back a little further, Matthew 16:24-26 talks about the paradox of losing life and yet saving it and vice versa, and then about a person gaining the whole world but forfeiting their WordObj48soul.  How can someone lose their life and yet save it?  How can someone try to save their life and yet lose it?  Well, Jesus is not speaking of life in this world, and this is where Matthew 16:27 comes in.  If someone gives their life for Jesus’ sake in this world, they will find it in the afterlife, for the judgement will be favourable when the final judgement comes.  Conversely, if someone seeks to save their life away from Jesus, they too will die eventually, but the judgement will not be favourable when the final judgement comes.  This clearly speaks of the final judgement in my opinion.  However, I feel that Matthew 16:28 speaks of this life and I believe the proceeding context supports that.

To review, Jesus has been proclaimed as the Messiah by Peter.  He then reveals that He would be killed in Jerusalem and would rise again on the third day.  Peter rebukes Him, but is in turn rebuked for being mindful of the things of man and not God.  Jesus tells His disciples that they would need to be willing to suffer like Him and it could even cost them their lives, but they could be assured of their souls being preserved unto the final judgement.  Now, it is at this point that Jesus proclaims something that would be for this life and would only be to some.  WordObj49The final judgement was going to be for every person, but the next part was for a select few.  The final judgement was not dependent on physical survival, but this next part was.  In Matthew 17:1-13 Jesus takes only Peter, James, and John up a mountain with Him and is transfigured before them, shining like the sun and becoming white as light.  He proceeds to talk with Moses and Elijah, and this is capped off with a voice from the clouds saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  On the way down from the mountain, Jesus commands them to tell no one until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  Jesus thus had shown these three disciples a secret of the kingdom that was not to be revealed until after His resurrection from the dead, and indeed would only make sense after that.  Jesus is not predicting the final judgement within forty or fifty years, but is simply showing a revelation of His kingdom to His closest followers, who would spread the message of His kingdom after His resurrection.

WordObj47aMoving to the next passage in Matthew 24 (Mark 13, Luke 21), the claim is again that only one event is in mind: the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgement together.  However, to properly understand Jesus’ answer to His disciples, we need to know the question.  The question is initially prompted by Jesus’ statement about the temple, for He pronounces of the temple that, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2).  WordObj53In reaction to this, His disciples ask “when will these things be” and “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).  There are actually two questions here: one concerning the destruction of the temple and the other concerning Christ’s coming and the end of the age.

Jesus describes that they should not be led astray as false christs are leading people astray, as well as wars, famines, and earthquakes, but interestingly, He says the end is not yet, but these are just the beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:4-8).  As I described in the previous article, these kinds of things happened leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, but Jesus says that this is not the end.  If Jesus was intending to say that the final judgement was drawing near when the events of the fall of Jerusalem started happening, this would be a confusing passage indeed.  However, I do not believe that is what He is doing, and I see more evidence of that as the passage goes on.

Matthew 24:14 says that the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  Though the disciples were certainly prolific in their preaching, they did not travel significantly outside the Roman Empire.  In fact, after nearly two thousand years, this gospel has not yet been proclaimed to all nations, so it was certainly not the case by 70AD.  No, the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem are separated significantly from the coming of Jesus for final judgement.

WordObj50Matthew 24:36-51 provides a fitting end to the passage and yet further indication of the distinction between the timing of the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgement.  To give a little context, Matthew 24:32-34 says to learn a lesson from the fig tree, seeing leaves and tender branches, and knowing that summer is near.  This is paralleled with seeing “these” things and knowing that “he” is near.  It also says that this generation would not pass away until all “these” things took place.  It is tempting to suggest that “these things” refers to both the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of Jesus, but the final passage of the chapter suggests otherwise.  It starts out by saying that no one knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.  A comparison is then made with the days of Noah, for as they were unaware when the flood swept them away, no one knows when the Lord is coming.  It goes on to encourage readiness, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  A comparison is also made with a faithful servant and a wicked servant, again emphasizing the unexpected nature of the Lord’s return.

WordObj51aSo, the question naturally presents itself: can we consistently claim that the coming of Jesus is both expected and unexpected?  Stark seems to think so, as he suggests that “Jesus knows it will happen soon, has promised that it will happen before the last of his disciples tastes death, but he does not know the precise date or hour that it will occur within those boundaries.” (The Human Faces of God, p.187).  I find this hard to believe.  On the one hand, Jesus gives detailed descriptions of what would happen leading up to the fall of Jerusalem (as explained in more depth in the previous article), so much so that people in Judea were supposed to be able to see the signs clear enough to know exactly when to flee (Matthew 24:15-16).  Then, on the other hand, the coming of the Son of Man, which is allegedly inextricably linked with the fall of Jerusalem, is supposed to remain ambiguous.  If I am one of the people like in Noah’s day or like the wicked servant, I do not need to stay awake, I just need to wait for the signs before I get my act together.  No, I see the events as separate, even if that is not immediately obvious.

WordObj52That is another question worth answering, though; namely, why are these ideas linked if they are indeed separate?  Well, as I explained in the previous article, prophets in the Bible sometimes used telescoping in their prophecy.  The idea was to give a short-term prophecy that would be fulfilled relatively soon and then a long-term prophecy at the same time.  When the short-term prophecy came to pass, it would give credibility to the long-term prophecy.  Having been almost two thousand years since Jesus gave the prediction of His coming, it can be easy to doubt that it will ever be fulfilled, as some people certainly think.  However, what Jesus has done in predicting telescopically is ensuring the fulfillment long-term prediction through the fulfillment of the short-term prophecy.  When that generation saw the fulfillment of Jesus’ first prediction, they would be encouraged to spread the gospel of the kingdom, which is part of the second prediction coming to pass (Matthew 24:14).

As for the claim that Jesus’ prediction was imprecise and not that impressive, I think the detail presented here and in the previous article suggests otherwise.  Furthermore, the timeframe for the fall of Jerusalem was quite accurate and should not be overlooked based on assumptions that Jesus intended for a lot more to happen around 70AD than actually did.  It is strange, because in complaining of the fact that some stones of the temple were left on another, Pinnock ignores the fact that, even if there were a few stones left on each other (an overly literalistic interpretation), this is still a fairly precise prediction.  There had been many wars involving Jerusalem over the preceding thousand years, but the temple had only been destroyed once.  However, this is a case of “even if”, because as Norman Geisler points out, “archaeologists have discovered the stones to which Jesus referred, and there was literally not one left upon another.  I (Norm) saw them on a recent trip to Jerusalem.” (Norman Geisler and William Roach, Defending Inerrancy, p.54).

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WordObj54cWith all this talk of what the Bible does and does not do with reference to prophecy, it is significant to point out that these accusations often rest upon unproven assumptions.  While the skeptical and liberal views may appeal to the so-called “assured results of modern criticism” (JB Payne, in Inerrancy, p.103), they provide considerably less assurance when examined critically themselves.  The claim is often that the text demands that we understand predictive prophecy in the Bible to be the product of various historical and cultural factors, even if Bible-believing Christians find that hard to stomach.  However, I cannot help but think that the prophecies are often straightforward and it is rather the scholar who finds it difficult to stomach the fact that the prophecies seem to be the product of God speaking.  Since I have offered good reasons for thinking that this objection fails, we are left with reason to honestly consider the positive evidence for God having spoken through the prophecies of the Bible.