Volume 8 - Issue 3

The gospels and history

By David Wenham

The story told by the gospels is an exciting one and, according to Christians, a supremely important one. They describe one who changed the course of the world through his amazing teaching, his powerful acts, his purity and compassion, his death and resurrection; one who lived a perfect human life and who revealed God; one who claimed to be and showed himself to be the Son of God and Saviour of the world.

But the story’s excitement and certainly its importance are drastically diminished if Jesus of Nazareth was not as the gospels describe. The critics who question the reliability of the gospels may try to assure us that we can retain Christian faith without retaining the ‘old-fashioned’ view of the gospels as trustworthy records of Jesus’ life and ministry. But the instinct of the ordinary man or woman in the street who sees scholarly doubts as undermining the Christian gospel is sounder: the Christian gospel is not a set of abstract ideas or ideals, but is good news about a historical person and historical events, and if the historicity of that person and those events is questioned, then the gospel ceases to be good news.

How then are we to react to the questionings of the gospel critics? One option is simply to dismiss the whole business as a devilish distraction. It can be argued that negative gospel criticism has no solid basis and that it is the product of western rationalism and anti-supernaturalism; it may therefore be safely ignored. Such an attitude is understandable, and may in some situations be quite sensible: when the church is faced with urgent questions about Christian living and witness in the world, we cannot and must not spend all our time arguing directly or indirectly with those who are prejudiced against the gospels and who seem determined to doubt everything they can. Instead we must take the gospels at face value and get on with the task of preaching and applying what they say. If we do so, the message of the gospels will be seen to be relevant and powerful, and this in itself will be a strong argument for their reliability and inspiration.

However, it would be very unwise to ignore the questions and ideas of the critics altogether. Their ideas about the gospels are not all obviously the product of prejudice; often the critics are wrestling with features of the gospels that need explaining—such as the divergences between the different gospels—and it has to be admitted that their explanations have considerable plausibility. Given this situation, the person who believes and wishes to proclaim the gospels to be true and trustworthy must wrestle with the same problems as the critics and provide alternative and better explanations, demonstrating—and not just denouncing—the prejudices of those who question the truth of the gospels. To put the matter biblically: we must ‘be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Pet. 3:15).

There are many straightforward points that can be made in defence of the reliability of the gospels. For example, (1) the gospels were written within the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries and are not folk traditions that evolved over many centuries. (2) Tradition has it that the gospels were written by followers of Jesus (i.e.Matthew and John) or by people closely in touch with the apostles (i.e. Mark and Luke). (3) Certainly many of the gospel traditions were known and were being preached at a very early date; witness the apostle Paul writing in the 50s ad (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:10–11; 11:23–26; 15:1–7). (4) Despite the claims of many critics, the gospels do not seem strongly to reflect the interests and the situation of the early church (as might be expected if they were the creation of the early church), but they appear to reflect an earlier period; thus, for example, there is not a strong emphasis on the Gentile mission in the gospels. (5) The evangelists are evidently intelligent writers, and they say explicitly that their intention is to give us fact not fiction in their gospels (Lk. 1:1–4; Jn. 19:35). (6) Where Luke’s accuracy as a historian can be checked in parts of the book of Acts, archaeological evidence repeatedly confirms his account. (7) It is true that there are some perplexing differences between the gospels. But the differences are far outweighed by the similarities, and many of the differences are only such as might be expected from different accounts of the same event.

There is weight in all these points, and other arguments could be added. But anyone familiar with gospel criticism will know that the matter is very much more complex than such an over-simplified list of points might suggest. The evidence does not all point conveniently and obviously in one direction, and even those who agree on the essential historicity of the gospel tradition may disagree about particular problems of interpretation. An interesting case in point is R. H. Gundry’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel (reviewed later in this issue of Themelios): Gundry believes that the gospels are trustworthy, but he considers that Matthew (though not Mark or Luke) has quite deliberately written a ‘midrashic’ semi-historical gospel. This is, to say the least, a controversial opinion, and many readers will consider that his arguments for his view and for its acceptability are unconvincing. But Gundry’s book certainly makes clear the continuing need for study and thinking about the gospels, as does H. H. Stoldt’s book on the synoptic problem (also reviewed below), which is one more in a stream of books challenging the common opinion that Mark’s gospel was the first to be written.

One recent concerted attempt to come to grips with the question of the gospels and history is the Gospels Research Project of Tyndale House, a biblical research centre in Cambridge. This project was set up some years ago under the leadership of a former editor of Themelios, Dr R. T. France (who was later succeeded as co-ordinator of the project by the present editor). The project has so far produced two volumes of essays under the title Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels.1 The essays, written by an international team of contributors, look at a wide variety of questions: there is discussion of broad topics such as history in John’s Gospel, the ‘criteria of authenticity’, and the nature of the gospel tradition; and there are also studies of particular questions and passages, e.g. of the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives, the interpretation of the parable of the sower, Mark 10:45, the empty tomb tradition, the nature of the resurrection body according to Paul, etc. The Research Project is continuing its work, and a third volume should be published in 1983 looking particularly at the question of ‘midrash and historiography’ in the gospels—the question raised by Gundry and other scholars.

It should not be thought that a project like this will simply ‘solve’ all the historical questions surrounding the gospels. As has been observed, many of the questions are complex (as are some of the essays in the volumes!). But the hope of those involved in the project is that it will clarify many problems and help to show ‘that serious historical and literary scholarship allows us to approach the gospels with the belief that they present an essentially historical account of the words and deeds of Jesus.… We are convinced that a recovery of that belief will prove liberating both in the scholarly enterprise, which has so often seemed locked in a straightjacket of rationalistic assumptions and arbitrary historical scepticism, and also within the church, which needs to hear, to see and to follow the Jesus of the gospels’ (from the preface to vol. II, p. 7).

Most readers of Themelios will not be able to do in-depth research into gospel historicity (though hopefully some may take up that challenge). But it is important for all theological students to be familiar at least with some of the arguments and evidence, so that we can use the gospels confidently as the Word of God, knowing that their historicity has not been discredited and that the Jesus we follow really was as important and exciting as the gospels suggest.

Editorial notes

We welcome the publication of the first issue of a new quarterly journal EVANGEL. The journal is an evangelical publication, edited by Dr Nigel Cameron of Rutherford House in Scotland. Its level is between the academic and the popular and it is intended for ‘thoughtful Christians, and particularly those with preaching and teaching responsibilities’. It places particular emphasis on biblical exposition. The first issue includes J. Alec Motyer on ‘Covenant and Promise’, John Webster on ‘The Legacy of Barth and Bultmann’, James Philip on ‘Preaching in Scripture’, etc. The rates are £4.25 per year (£3.75 for students) or $12, and the address is EVANGEL subscriptions, Rutherford House, 17 Claremont Park, Edinburgh EH6 7PJ, Scotland, UK.

1 Gospel Perspectives I (1980) and II (1981), eds R. T. France and D. Wenham, are published by JSOT Press, Dept. of Biblical Studies, The University, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK, and are available to IFES/TSF members direct from the publishers at £4.95 and £5.95 (UK) or £5.50 and £6.50 (elsewhere) or through other booksellers.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall