Can I Trust the Gospels? A Modest Argument For the Reliability of the Gospels

There are certain topics that come up time and time again when one is having conversations of an apologetic nature in regards to Christianity. Christian apologists of all different fields know that they need to be able to offer answers to some key questions, even if those questions are outside of their field of expertise. “Why should we trust the gospels?” is one of those questions that come up time and time again. I am going to present what I call a “modest” argument for why we should trust the gospels, in particular what they report to us about Jesus.  
Many have addressed this topic and offer scholarly, extensive, and more robust arguments than that which I will offer here. I think these arguments are strong and should be read but I hope to offer a less technical argument that can be quite persuasive. The questions surrounding the reliability of the gospels come from two different angles: (1) are the words we have today the same words the original gospel authors wrote and (2) is the information communicated in the gospels reliable. In this article I will be addressing the latter. 

One of the common apologetic arguments used for the reliability of the gospels is based on the criterion of embarrassment. This argument suggests that if the gospel writers were inventing the accounts contained in their writings they would not have included some of the information that they did because it is embarrassing or goes against their cause. An example of this is found in Mark 13:32 when Jesus states that he does not know the day or the hour in which the things he was prophesying would take place. It is not likely that the author of Mark would have included this if he were trying to make the case that Jesus is God or has ultimate authority, unless of course Jesus actually said this and the author was interested in accurately passing on the teachings of Jesus. There are other accounts in the gospels that have been pointed to that are used to offer a similar line of argumentation. While I find this to be one of several strong arguments for the reliability of the gospels, this argument focuses on what the gospels actually say, whereas the argument I will be offering here, which I first came across in the writings of N.T. Wright, is based on what the gospels do not say. 

The teaching of the bodily resurrection of Jesus became a central teaching very quickly in the early church. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that if Jesus was not raised from the dead Christians ought to be pitied more than any other people (1 Corinthians 15:19). Scholars believe that Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in 55 A.D.[1]  That puts this very important teaching of the resurrection within 25 years of the life of Jesus. An early Christian creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 puts the testimony of the resurrection in creedal form as early as 33-38 A.D.[2] It is interesting to note that while Jesus does make certain references to his resurrection (John 2:19) he does not give extensive teaching on the subject. If Jesus’ sayings were being made up by the gospel writers, why would they not have had him address the teaching of resurrection in more detail considering it was a doctrine they held as of “first importance”?

The example given above has been offered before by others, including N.T. Wright, when he writes, “Considering that the canonical gospels undoubtedly reflect the beliefs and hopes of the early Christians, one of the abiding surprises they present is how little they have to say about the topic of resurrection.” He continues, “This, of course, is an obvious sign (one among many such) that the early church was not so quick to invent ‘sayings of Jesus’ as an earlier generation of scholars liked to suppose.”[3]

Like the resurrection there is another topic that one would expect to find a saying of Jesus on if the authors of the Gospels had a dishonest agenda as opposed to a commitment to accurately reporting the teachings of Jesus. That is the issue of circumcision. The early church had disagreements regarding circumcision and what better way to settle this dispute than by inventing a saying of Jesus to settle the issue? N.T. Wright says in regards to the issue of circumcision in the early church, “…we know that it was one of the fiercest and most difficult controversies in the early church, but nobody ever thought to invent a ‘saying of Jesus’ which addressed it.”[4]

There are additional examples that one can point to such as spiritual gifts and eating meat offered to idols that could also be brought up. These were issues that the early church was wrestling with, if the authors of the canonical gospels were willing to input their theology into the mouth of Jesus it’s very hard to believe that they would not have reported him teaching on these issues. This argument should lead us to trust the gospel writers unless given a reason not to, instead of the more popular approach in which the gospel writers are “guilty until proven innocent”.

With the examples provided above, one finds good reason to believe that the gospel writers were not simply inputting their own theology into the mouth of Jesus. Rather, it seems that they acknowledge that Jesus did not speak as much about some topics which they would better understand after his death and resurrection. While initially it may be tempting to dismiss such a simple argument, when one gives it an honest hearing, the argument can be quite persuasive if one does not have prior worldview commitments which keep them from considering the possibility of reliable gospel accounts.

[1] For a case on the dating of this letter see D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament  2nd ed.(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005): 447-448.
[2] See comments on this by resurrection scholar Gary Habermas in Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000): 109.
[3] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003):  401.
[4] N.T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006): 73.