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I was reading this article and assuming the data provided by the website correct I came to my mind as to how historically valid is the testimony of the life of Jesus in the new testament is as the following statement was made in the conclusion:

FOR MORE THAN THREE CENTURIES THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH HAD NO NEW TESTAMENT. Not until the Muratoriun Canon (350 A.D.) did the Christian church begin to compile a New Testament that resembles the one we have today. This canon did not include the letter to the Hebrews or those we know as James, 3 John, and 1 and 2 Peter (EXHIBIT A). It did include the Wisdom of Solomon (now part of the Catholic Old Testament) and the Apocalypse of Peter (no longer used).

The historical evolution of Gospels is described in detail here and the detailed information about the New Testament papyri is tabulated here

Thus can these Gospel faithfully record the actual life of Jesus in the way he lived and the things he claimed and believed?

P.S : This question is different from previously asked question since this question asks whether the Gospels provide the exact glimpse on the life of Jesus the way he lived as against the prior question which only questioned the authenticity of the Gospel.

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I don't think this question is all that different from the "previously asked question". Marking this as not constructive. –  coleopterist Mar 8 '13 at 14:36
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I think this question is fine as long as it sticks to objective facts. Just because it is a topic of debate doesn't mean it is not constructive. –  American Luke Mar 8 '13 at 15:22
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Were I to answer this question (it's currently closed) I would likely proceed along the lines of Easter as a historical event. The Gospels are secondary sources, but much of the New Testament consists of primary sources (mostly Paul's letters) which are far better from a historical method perspective. –  Jon Ericson Mar 11 '13 at 18:25
    
@JonEricson See my meta about this. I may be wrong but it seems they are shying away from anything having religious implications. –  fredsbend Mar 11 '13 at 18:57
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closed as not constructive by Sardathrion, Mark C. Wallace, Felix Goldberg, coleopterist, Affable Geek Mar 11 '13 at 16:04

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3 Answers

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As a Christian myself, I regret to inform you that the answer is "No".

There are two events in the Gospels that scholars almost universally agree most likely did happen: Jesus' baptism and his Crucifixion. This is chiefly due to the logic that they both appear in all of our older sources, and they'd both be bad things to make up if you are a Christian partisan. There is no real agreement on anything else. Not only that, but there isn't even agreement on the details of the crucifixion itself (e.g., why it was carried out).

Here's how the folks over at Wikipedia currently describe the current state of things:

While in the 1980s and early 1990s scholars had hoped for an emerging consensus on a portrait of Jesus, not only has no consensus emerged, but the scholarly views have diverged and fragmented into a set of irreconcilable portraits

They divide the current mainstream views into about 5 different categories, but really if you dig down it looks like every notable scholar has their own view, and they often incorporate bits of several different categories.

A very good introduction for laymen on the problems with taking biblical text at face value is Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible, and Why. The author, Bart D. Ehrman, is a proponent of Apocalyptic prophet view of Jesus, so of course he has his own angle. However, reading at least the first four chapters of that book will give you a very good idea of what the issues are.

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The book misquoting Jesus has a stanford lecture video youtube.com/watch?v=7cK3Ry_icJo . The book is available here archive.org/stream/Prof.BartEhrman-MisquotingJesus/… –  Ali Mar 9 '13 at 20:25
    
Contraversy where history clashes with a lot of folks' religous beliefs is to be expected. However, there was a rather lot of it around this particular answer, and some of it was (annoyingly) well-founded. As a result, I've taken a step back and totally rewritten this answer, basing it directly on the wikipedia exposition on this subject. It doesn't change the ultimate answer, but it does mean its just reporting the existing state of scholarship. If you have a disagreement with that, you probably need to go talk to the scholars in question. In the meantime, I deleted the obsolete comments. –  T.E.D. Mar 11 '13 at 18:51
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This is a much more balanced answer. I've suggested a few edits and I have some minor quibbles, but ultimately it reflects current scholarship. I would like to direct both you and @Ali to a question on Biblical Hermeneutics: Bart D. Ehrman - respected critic? The textual criticism issues of the Gospels are very real. However, this is balanced by the rather remarkable variety of manuscripts we have. The more copies you have, the more chance a scribe will make a mistake! –  Jon Ericson Mar 11 '13 at 19:14
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I still do not think Ehrman is a good introduction as Jon's link above shows. He really does become quite partial on some things. I liken him to the Oprah or Dr. Oz of Hermeneutics. He got famous and now it's sticking. –  fredsbend Mar 11 '13 at 20:00
    
"why it was carried out" lacking agreement seems completely irrelevant as to whether the event occured. By your logic, US never invaded Iraq in 2003 because sources fully disagree on "why". –  DVK Feb 9 at 18:55
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Excluding the claims that Jesus was resurrected, I say that there is no reason to doubt the events detailed in the Gospels.

The first thing that should be mentioned is the possibility of textual 'perversion' from the original texts. Historians commonly use a method called the bibliographical test. The test is quite simple and is meant to show the relative reliability, as textual preservation is concerned, to other historically accepted manuscripts.

First, the you must choose a few manuscripts to compare. We will of course include the new testament gospels (as a whole but we could split it up but that is a lot of work). Then lets throw in Homer's Iliad, from which we gain much knowledge of ancient Greece, and the writtings of Tacitus, from which we gain much knowledge of ancient Rome.

After choosing the manuscripts we compare the earliest known manuscripts and the total number of manuscripts and the similarities between manuscripts. A more complicated version also considers where the manuscript was found, which is significant for ancient times for a number of reasons (but I am disinterested in makeing this answer too long simply because I will likely not get much rep from it ;)

Bibliographical test of the NT gospels and others

    Manuscript              Earliest known fragment         Earliest known complete copy           total number      Accuracy to each other
     NT                  Rylands manuscript ~100 years      codex Sinaiticus ~400 years             over 5800               99.5%
     Iliad                     ~500 years                          ~500 years                       over 1200               95%
     Tacitus                   ~800 years              None exist (a number of books are missing)   less than 10            >90%

On the exact numbers of Tacictus I am being lazy but I am sure that is about right. Check up on it in the various sources I have provided about Tacitus.

The kinds of numbers on Tacitus are typical for ancient manuscripts; The Iliad stands out in a class of its own while the gospels stand out in a class above that. Having over 5000 manuscripts with the earliest completed copy being a mere 400 years in from the events, in addition to high accuracy, is impressive. This is a good indication that there is very little perversion in the texts. To make things better there are 10's of thousands of manuscripts from roughly the 10th century in Latin vulgate that match with the same accuracy, further, translators will tell you that they are pretty true to the Greek manuscripts as well. Also, Codex Vaticanus is significant because it is nearly complete and dates 100 years earlier than Sniaiticus. If this is not enough to trust that there is little or no perversion then I don't think anything will be for any ancient text.

There is another important thing to consider, regarding the manuscripts and authorship dates. Most scholars agree that the NT was written in this order. Epistles, synoptic gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Gospel of John, Revelation. It has been highly argued and supporting this claim right now is outside the scope of this question and possibly the site as well. Consider the following quote from a wikipedia article:

The earliest works which came to be part of the New Testament are the letters of the Apostle Paul.
[further states]
... the discovery of some New Testament manuscripts and fragments from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, one of which dates as early as 125 [I believe this particular manuscript is from John], disproves a 3rd century date of composition for any book now in the New Testament.

This quote sums up the concensus that is derived from the shear volume of manuscripts, their location found, the significance of codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (being complete and nearly complete NT copies), and the widely accepted order of authorship. That concensus is that none of the NT books could have been written later than the 2nd century. Combine this with the bibliographical test and it is a very compelling case to consider the narratives of the Gospel as historical. All that might be left is determining if there was a motive to lie, but that is not your question, but can be answered and has been by many.

Now we should consider non-biblical texts verifying the stories (because after all the gospels give a religious message which may have hidden motives). Tacitus, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger together make a good case that the gospel writers were sticking to the actual history, because they all match well on a few key points. The most notable being that Jesus was often called the Christ, his followers were often called Christians because he was called Christ, he was executed under the leadership of a man named Pontius pilate for political reasons, and he had a relatively short time frame of influence although was largely influential. There are a few other manuscripts that detail Christianity and coraborrate with the stories in the Gospel, however, I am trying to keep this short.

Then there is matching with Archeology. Some have praised Luke as one of the most accurate articles on places such as cities, islands and countries. This wikipedia article (which you should definately read over) states:

There is no archaeological evidence supporting the existence of a historical Jesus or any of the apostles, although various other details mentioned in the gospels have since been verified by archaeological evidence, such as the actual existence of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, the procurator who ordered Jesus' crucifixion,[161] and the Pool of Bethesda.
Luke's reliability as a historian is questioned. Thomas Howe examined Luke's description of Paul's sea journeys, including Luke's references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands, and stated that he could not find any mistakes. However Powell states that Luke’s knowledge of Palestinian geography seems so inadequate that one prominent scholar was led to remark “Jesus route cannot be reconstructed on a map, and in any case Luke did not possess one”.[163] Powell states that “if Luke intended to write history he did so poorly, but he did not so intend. Luke was a theologian, not a historian.[163][163] A narrative which includes supernatural phenomena such as angels and demons is problematic as a historical source."

Concerning the first part, it is not necessarily a bad thing for the Christian that there is no archaeological evidence for Jesus' existance. That would likely include his bone which would invalidate the Resurrection. However, I should note that I have heard of an ossuary that has inscribed in Aramaic "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Which is very significant if it is genuine. I have not looked into its possible genuiness, but that is why I have provided the link to get you started on it yourself if you want.

Now in the other part where two persons basically say the exact opposite could require a book of its own to support or debunk one and the other. So follow the links and look into it yourself if you like.

So my personal conclusion based on the items above is this:

You can trust the historicity of the gospels because:

  1. The bibliographical test demonstrates that there is very little liklihood of perversion
  2. The close time frame of the manuscripts and fragments further attests that there may have been eye witnesses living during authorship.
  3. Outside sources demonstrate that Christianity (followers of Christ) was wide spread by the close of the 2nd century, which means that it was already a popular belief before legend or other could have changed it. They futher corraborrate with particular stories that are in the Gospels.
  4. The archeology supports it indisputably in some areas and more so depending on who's opinion you want to take.
  5. I am inclined to say the ossuary of James is at least partially significant.
  6. There are many arguments showing that the supposed authors had very little reason to lie and even fake, after-the-fact authors, had little reason as well because they were both persecuted (this is outside the scope of the question though).

Sources not already linked
* For bibliographical test
* Rylands manuscript
* Codex Sinaiticus
* Codex Vaticanus
* covers Bibliographical test well although it is a biased site
* Tacitus on Christ
* Josephus on Christ
* Pliny on Christ
* Annals of Tacitus

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I'll freely admit you can compare the Gospels' historical value very favorably to that of the Iliad. That isn't saying as much as you seem to think it is though. –  T.E.D. Mar 8 '13 at 22:12
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@TED I realize the Iliad is not much of an historical work. But it is the second rated manuscript on that test. The only one better (anywhere) is the NT. Almost everything else is in the 5 to 50 manuscripts range like Tacitus. The Test by itself proves nothing. It is only meant to show unlikelihood of perversion by way of legend, and scribal error. Other methods of perversion are possible but these are lightly addressed in the answer because they really do not threaten the historicity of the NT because of the accuracy and date of authorship relative to the events. –  fredsbend Mar 8 '13 at 22:19
    
@T.E.D With this in mind, imo, nearly all of ancient history is suspect of perversion by way of legend and scribal error because there is very little corroboration through manuscripts as close the the events as the NT. Only the NT actually passes the bibliographical test, imo. –  fredsbend Mar 8 '13 at 22:24
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@T.E.D. No the test does not test for fact. It tests for the possibility that legend or scribal error could have changed the text we have now from the original text that was written. The test works on any written text, whether claiming to be factual or not. You could run in on Harry Potter if you want. It would yield that the author is still living, we have the original work, and there is 99.9% accuracy in millions of copies all within 10 years of the original. Pretty safe to say the text has not been changed by legend or scribal error. –  fredsbend Mar 8 '13 at 23:09
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@T.E.D. and fredsbend: as it turns out, how much of the Iliad is historical is still an open question among historians. The answer certainly lies somewhere between "all" and "none". Even so, I prefer Luke (the author of Acts in the New Testament) over Homer as a historian! (And I prefer Tacitus over Suetonius as well.) –  Jon Ericson Mar 11 '13 at 22:35
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To start, I'm going to correct the O.P's quote.

FOR MORE THAN THREE CENTURIES THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH HAD NO NEW TESTAMENT. Not until the Muratoriun [sic] Canon (350 A.D.) did the Christian church begin to compile a New Testament that resembles the one we have today.

There are a few flaws in this conclusion. First of all, the text in all caps is just wrong. The church had the New Testament from the time it was written. Quoting Wiki here,

For the Orthodox, the recognition of these writings [the Canonical Gospels, Acts, letters of the Apostles, and Revelation] as authoritative was formalized in the Second Council of Trullan of 692, although it was nearly universally accepted in the mid 300's.

These writings were not first accepted in the fourth century, they were universally accepted. They were seen as scriptural far before then. Even before the NT was written, the Church had a set of creeds, confessions of faith, and hymns. These can be easily dated back to less than five years after Jesus' death/Resurrection. The most famous of them is written down in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (Wiki article). The point here is, the early church had its beliefs set downright from the get-go. The claim that the Church had no unified system of beliefs until the fourth century is rather incorrect.


Now to the meat of the question: Thus can these Gospel faithfully record the actual life of Jesus in the way he lived and the things he claimed and believed? I'm going to focus this answer on these two questions:

  1. Have the gospels been preserved accurately?

  2. Did the original gospels accurately describe what actually happened?

I'm going to analyze the text itself rather than the events here (this is History SE, not Christianity SE). (Fredsbend has written a good answer about other aspects)


Have the gospels been preserved accurately?

The Gospels are commonly thought to be written in this order:

  • Mark -about A.D. 70

  • Matthew and Luke -about 80

  • John -about 90

However, this doesn't really work. The Gospel of Luke is addressed to "Theophilus". The Acts of the Apostles (also written by Luke) is also addressed to Theophilus. However, Acts refers to a "former book".

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach Acts 1:1 (NIV)

This is referring to the Gospel of Luke. So, the Gospel of Luke was written before the acts of the Apostles. Now, the Acts of the Apostles ends abruptly with Paul the Apostle (the central figure of the latter half of the book) under house arrest in Rome (A.D. 62)(Acts 28:30). This implies that the book was written before Paul's death. Thus, the latest that the book could have been written was A.D. 62. Now, the Gospel of Luke was written before the Acts of the Apostles and incorporates some parts of the Gospel of Mark. Give a year for each book and the Gospel of Mark was written (at latest) in A.D. 60, possibly even in the fifties. That's less than thirty (possibly twenty) years after Jesus' death (A.D. 30-36). For an event to be recorded that soon after it happened was rather uncommon for that period of history. We don't usually doubt accounts of Alexander the Great, yet the earliest manuscripts mentioning him (the Diodorus) were written in the first century B.C, well over three hundred years later. But here we have an account written in the same generation! Some claim that the average lifespan was about 35 years at that point in history, but that is including infant mortality, which was quite prevalent. The average lifespan once age 15 was reached was almost sixty years. In that little time if the Gospels had included something contrary to what happened, anyone could have gone and refuted it, "I was there and that's not what happened." However, there are no records of anyone disputing the content from that time.

We don't have the original Gospels. The earliest manuscript that we have is a part of the Gospel of John from about A.D. 100-150. So, how do we know that the Gospels weren't changed in those two-three generations? Well, first of all, the church always had a high bar of excellency when it came to copying manuscripts. In the five-thousand plus Greek manuscripts of the NT surviving today, there is only .5% variance. That's 99.5% accurate! Of the slight error, no major doctrines are affected. you can pretty much assume that even less error occurred in that short time-span of less than one-hundred years. Now, the time between the original manuscript and the earliest surviving copy might seem a lot. However compared to other historical documents, it is relatively short. For example, Josephus wrote The Jewish War in about A.D. 75. We have only nine Greek manuscripts, one Latin manuscript, and a few Medieval Russian manuscripts of it. Of these, the earliest was written in the fourth century and the next was written in the tenth century. As far as number of manuscripts surviving, the NT has more surviving manuscripts than any other work of classical antiquity. The runner-up (as you might call it) is the Illiad, with less than 650 Greek manuscripts remaining.

So, this answers the first question, "Have the Gospels been preserved accurately?" Yes, what we have today is the practically the same text that was originally written two millenia ago (give or take a few years :P).


Did the original Gospels accurately describe what actually happened?

This is a large question in itself, but I will try to consolidate my answer to a few main points.

First of all, we have to look at the intentions of the Gospel writers. What were they trying to write when they wrote the Gospels? Let's take a look at the Gospel of Luke.

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4 (NIV)

You can see that Luke clearly intended to write an accurate account about what had happened. The Gospel of Luke is the only Gospel to have a preface like, that but the styles of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark are quite similar. It is only reasonable to presume that they had similar intents. The Gospel of John is a little different in style, yet we do find a verse in it stating its purpose.

31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:31 (NIV)

Now, this is more of a theological statement than Luke's, but If you're going to be convinced enough to believe what he says, the theology has to come from accurate history. So, we can conclude from this that the writers of the Gospels did intend to write accurate accounts (think biographies).

Now, they intended to write accurate accounts, but were they able to follow through with their intents? Writing an account of what happened twenty to thirty years later, they could have forgot what actually happened.

However, it is highly unlikely in those (less than) thirty years that the Gospel writers forgot what actually happened. Writing was relatively rare in the Middle Eastern culture where they lived and almost everything was oral. Stories weren't written, they were memorized. In fact, some people would memorize the entire Old Testament (huge). They were able to do so because of this oral culture and being used to memorizing everything. Given this, it's hard to imagine that the Gospel writers forgot how things happened.

A few people have argued that the Gospel writers were dishonest or amoral, but there is no evidence to support this. Rather, on the contrary they are portrayed as people of integrity in the Gospels. Of course, this begs the question, "Did the Gospel writers tell the truth, but paint themselves as good?" A closer reading of the Gospels clearly refutes this, however. The Gospel writers often included details for no apparent reason that were embarrassing or made themselves look bad. For example, Mark has a consistent rather unflattering view of Peter, the head disciple (I'm not advocating the Petrine theory here) (Mark 8:31-33, Mark 14:37, Mark 14:66-72). Other examples include the disciples repeatedly misunderstanding Jesus (Mark 9:2-12), wanting the places at Jesus' right and left hand (Matthew 20:20-24, Mark 10:35-44), and many more. My point is that the disciples told the truth even when it was unflattering.

I've seen a few people using this argument so, here it is. The disciples weren't liars, they just weren't correct either (i.e., they were confused). However, if they were just confused, when they wrote down the Gospels , anyone could have said something like, "hey, I was there too, and that's not how it happened! These Jesus freaks will tell you Jesus worked miracles, but I'm here to say He didn't." There was nothing to keep people from saying this. In fact, the disciples had many enemies who would rather not (understatement) see the Christian religion thrive. They had political and religious agendas that conflicted with it. However, nobody did that and refuted what the Gospel writers said. If they had, Christianity would have died in its infancy. And, surely, the Gospel writers were not the last people alive who had witnessed what had occurred. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15:6 (commonly thought to be written about 53-54 A.D.) states this.

6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

If there were five-hundred plus Christians (brothers and sisters), there definitely would have been more people opposed to Christianity living at the time. It's highly unlikely that all of these hundreds (likely thousands) of people would have died in the next ten years leaving only the Gospel writers.


With these evidences, my conclusion is that the Gospels have been kept true to the originals throughout these two millenia and that the original Gospels did accurately record Jesus' life, how He lived, and what He claimed.

P.s. There are many more proofs for the accuracy of the Gospels that I don't have time to go into today, but if anyone would like clarification on a particular point (or perhaps a point I haven't mentioned), feel free to leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

Sources

  • Josephus The Antiquities

  • Michael Martin The Case against Christianity

  • Lee Strobel The Case for Christ

  • Frederick Kenyon Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament

  • Gary Habermas The Verdict of History

  • John Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus

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Your answer and mine combined make a very, very good answer, albeit long yet still not exhaustive. +1 –  fredsbend Mar 8 '13 at 21:56
    
+1 to you. I have to admit, I learned a bit from your answer. It was very informative. And yes, If I had the time and will, I could have written twice this much. There's a very good case for the historical accuracy of the Gospels. –  American Luke Mar 8 '13 at 22:01
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Wow, this is long. The main issue I have with it is that it appears to present an unsusual and personal view of both the timing of their authorship and their likely accuracy. This stack isn't really a good venue for original work, so I'd much rather see links to respecitble sources (preferably published and vetted in some way) that think this way. Basically, if this is a good argument you are making, you ought to be able to go make the associated wikipedia articles read that way. Then I (and you) can link to them, your answer can be nice and short, and I'll have no further complaint. –  T.E.D. Mar 8 '13 at 22:24
    
@T.E.D. I've added my sources. The main one that I used, though, was The Case for Christ (Very good book, and relatively unbiased). –  American Luke Mar 8 '13 at 22:36
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For more information on how the gospels are dated, please see: How Are The Gospels Dated? I think Luke wrote his gospel (and Acts) after the destruction of the temple and purposely left it out of his account. (I need to update my answer on Biblical Hermeneutics to explain myself, however.) –  Jon Ericson Mar 11 '13 at 23:37
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