The Reliability of the Gospels: Are the Gospels Historically Accurate?

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: September 22nd, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

The New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—stand as the foundational texts of Christianity, chronicling the life, teachings, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These ancient writings have been the subject of unwavering faith and intense scrutiny throughout history.

For believers, they offer profound spiritual insights and a roadmap to salvation. For scholars, they present a historical puzzle.

What is the historical reliability of the Gospels? Do they faithfully preserve the eyewitness testimony of Jesus's life and ministry? Are they the products of collaboration, adaptation, or independent authorship? How does that influence the reliability of the Bible? 

The Reliability of the Gospels - Are the Gospels Historically Accurate

Methodology and History: Gospels as Sources

The primary sources are the basis of work for every modern historian. They, are, as Natalie Z. Davies writes, “a magic thread that links us to people long since dead and with situations that have crumbled to dust”. However, magic has its limits! 

Beginning with the Enlightenment, scholars started to look more closely at the historical reliability of the Gospels. In other words, the Gospels became just another historical source - a document that can be studied like other historians study accounts about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Are the Gospels historically reliable? 

To determine this, we must first establish our criteria for "accuracy" and "reliability." A story aligning with past events can be deemed historically sound, while a story that fundamentally contradicts historical reality indicates an unreliable account."

In The New Testament, Dr. Ehrman notes that the ideal situation would be to have sources that:

  • Are numerous, so they can be compared to one another
  • Derive from a time near the event itself
  • Were produced independently of one another
  • Do not contradict one another
  • Are internally consistent which suggests a basic concern for reliability
  • Are not biased toward the subject matter

As it turns out, the historical reliability of the Gospels is far from the ideal. To be honest, there are some positive sides! We do have four different accounts of Jesus’ life that were based on earlier sources. However, other facts show why the New Testament is not reliable.

Are the Gospels based on the Eyewitness Testimonies?

According to the Church’s tradition, all four Gospels were based on the Eyewitness testimony. Are the Gospels eyewitness accounts? Many scholars doubt it. 

The New Testament Gospels were written several decades after Jesus’ death by anonymous people who lived in different parts of the Roman Empire. There is no internal evidence to support that, for instance, an interpreter of Peter named Mark, or a traveling companion of Paul named Luke, wrote the Gospels. 

Moreover, the titles of the Gospels were only added later. In other words, they were not part of the original documents. The structure of the titles (The Gospel according to Matthew) suggests that later scribes inserted it into the existing text. 

Furthermore, the evangelists were educated urban Greek-speaking Christians. Jesus’ earliest followers were Aramaic-speaking peasants from the rural areas of Galilee. Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John know Jesus? Most scholars doubt it. 

Nevertheless, I will refer to the authors as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for convenience’s sake!

But, where did they get their information about Jesus’ life? The simple answer is the oral traditions! 

Telling Stories about Jesus: Oral Culture and Gospels

Every analysis of the historical reliability of the Gospels comes down to oral traditions. After Jesus died, his followers, equipped with the belief in his resurrection and the imminent end, and to convert others, told stories about his life. These stories were retold week by week, month by month, year by year, decade by decade. 

Evangelists gathered and revised these narratives, resulting in four distinct accounts of Jesus' life. Nevertheless, the passage of decades during which the stories were orally transmitted introduced what we might call "historical imperfections." In essence, individuals altered, appended, and (sometimes) fabricated stories concerning Jesus.

For cultural anthropologists, this phenomenon is hardly unexpected. Their research into oral cultures has consistently revealed the inherent susceptibility of traditions to undergo modifications over time. A compelling illustration of this principle can be found in Jan Vansina's seminal work, Oral Tradition As History.

This is the pattern we encounter within the Gospels. These accounts reveal inconsistencies, spanning from minor variations to substantial disparities. An illustrative case, which falls into the category of minor discrepancies, is the narrative surrounding the death of Judas.

Judas’ death according to Matthew 27:1-5

Judas’ death in Acts 1:18

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.

There are other differences in the Gospels that, from the standpoint of many critical scholars, can be classified as contradictions. Each of these contradictions raises pertinent questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Do you want to know more about discrepancies and contradictions in the Gospels? Check out Bart’s captivating study “Jesus Interrupted”! 

Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Know Each Other?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they share many of the same stories - often in verbatim. Because of that, most historians hold to some kind of literary dependence between them. 

One theory is that Mark’s Gospel served as one of the sources for both Matthew and Luke. This is also called a “Two sources hypothesis” and it represents the most popular solution to the Synoptic problem.

Many of my students often jump to the notions of conspiracy and collaboration. However, this presumption is not accurate. In the context of antiquity, it was customary for writers to draw from different sources to craft their narratives. 

The Gospel of John stands apart from the Synoptic Gospels in content and stylistic approach. Notably, the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John exhibits a profound departure from the narratives found in the Synoptics.

John's Gospel uniquely depicts Jesus moving about Galilee while openly asserting his divine nature—a distinctive feature not present in Synoptics. Consequently, the prevailing consensus among historians leans toward the notion that John composed his account independently of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

How Reliable are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

Are the gospels historically accurate? To be candid, I've often considered this question somewhat peculiar. As one delves deeper into the intricacies of historical methodology and historiography, it becomes evident that every historical source carries inherent complexities and challenges. If historical sources were without flaws, I would be out of the job!

Narrative sources come with biases, errors, perspectives, and ideologies. With regards to the Gospels, E. P. Sanders notes: “There are no sources that give us the 'unvarnished truth'; the varnish of faith in Jesus covers everything.”

Are the Gospels historically Accurate - Why the New Testament is Not reliable

The Historical Reliability of Mark

William Wrede was the first to question the historical reliability of Mark. He noted that the author’s theological perspective is embedded within the core of the narrative. Even though Mark is our earliest source, it contains episodes from Jesus’ life that likely never happened.

A notable example would be Jesus’ entrance in Jerusalem (Mk 11:1-11). In Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart convincingly proved that Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entrance represents a “distorted memory”. Moreover, Mark wrote his account around the time Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E. The politically electrified atmosphere certainly colored his narrative.

The Historical Reliability of Matthew

Matthew was written some 50 years after Jesus’ death and it also contains episodes from Jesus’ life that probably never happened. Take, for instance, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to his assertion, most historians believe Jesus was born in Nazareth. In other words, the historical reliability of Matthew is not that great. Another point to make is that the famous sermon of the mountain (Mt 5-7) hardly represents Jesus' ipsissima verba.

Take Another Look:

Did you think three wise men visited baby Jesus? Think again! It's a common misconception based on the number of gifts they brought. Matthew's account doesn't specify their number. Maybe one arrived without gifts. The mystery lingers! 

The Historical Reliability of Luke

The Gospel of Luke was composed 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ death. Despite Luke’s knowledge of ancient historiography, his account can’t be taken at face value. The most famous example of Luke’s inaccuracy is the census of the whole empire (Lk 2:1-21).

However, no empire-wide census ever occurred. Luke used it as a rhetorical device to dislocate Jesus’ birth from Nazareth (where he was likely born) to Bethlehem.

The Historical Reliability of John

The historical reliability of John is under the strongest criticism of modern historians. The Gospel of John was written at the end of the 1st century C.E. It’s the most theologically advanced Gospel and it contains a lot of legends and myths. 

The case in point would be John’s overall portrayal of Jesus. Only John mentions Jesus’ words of divine identity such as: “I and Father are one (Jn 10:30)”, and “Before Abraham was born, I am (Jn 8:58).”

Did You Know?

Most scholars question whether the historical Jesus talked with Nicodemus - as depicted in the Gospel of John? Compelling linguistic evidence raises doubts! 

But, Wait a Minute! The Gospels Know their Geography! 

The New Testament Gospels indeed display admirable knowledge of Palestinian geography and archeology. Take, for instance, the pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2. Before the 19th century scholars didn’t think this pool existed. However, in 1888 a German archeologist Conrad Schick discovered it. 

Does that mean that Jesus healed a paralyzed man? Of course not! Just because a geographical location is historically accurate, it doesn’t mean that the story located there actually happened. I could give you a fabricated story about my latest trip to the Adriatic Sea while naming accurately every single location or building.

To be honest, I never thought much of this argument. The historical reliability of the Gospels can’t be decided based on the knowledge of Palestinian geography. We have to carefully analyze stories in our sources by using historical-critical methods.

Summing up Conclusions

In our quest to discern the historical reliability of the Gospels, we've traversed a landscape fraught with challenges, debates, and scholarly inquiry. While it’s undeniable that the Gospels are not devoid of historical problems and complexities, they remain our most significant windows into Jesus' life. 

The Gospel accounts are not mere works of pure myth or fabrications. They are historical documents rooted in the social, religious, and cultural contexts of their time. Yet, like any ancient historical source, they come with inherent limitations, including questions of authorship, transmission, and interpretation.

To categorically dismiss the Gospels as wholly unreliable is to overlook the valuable insights they offer. Through careful analysis and critical examination, we can glean a profound understanding of the historical Jesus—a figure whose influence has reverberated through centuries.

Do you want to know more about early Christianity and the historical origins of the Gospels? Join Bart’s course “The Unknown Gospels and embark on an amazing intellectual journey!

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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