Five reasons atheists are wrong about the Gospels
Have you been told that the stories of Jesus are unreliable – made up by desperate disciples wanting to make a new religion, decades after Jesus' death? Wasn't Jesus just a good teacher, and all the Christian stuff added on later by deluded people wanting to use him for their own ends?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people around today who do believe this. They've often cobbled together their knowledge via a mish-mash of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code together with the ramblings of some extreme, and usually ill-informed, well-known atheists. It means that some people call the gospels 'fairytales' and dismiss the Bible as invention.
However, there are good reasons to think that the Gospel accounts of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are based on personal and eyewitness accounts from the time that he was alive. Here are five reasons why some of the popular ideas about Jesus and the Bible are wrong:
1. There is good supporting evidence that the gospels are historical, eyewitness accounts
This evidence comes in a number of forms. Richard Bauckman's 2006 book 'Jesus and the eyewitnesses' broke new ground when it challenged the 20th century idea that the Gospels were created by unreliable oral traditions. A summary of his ideas is available on his website. Essentially, he points out that those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' life would have been in the early Church for many years, and would have accurately shaped and formed the Gospels.
The Gospels do claim to be historical reports: both at the beginning of Luke's Gospel and the end of John's it is said that they are based on what actually happened. Additionally, some points often made against the reliability of the Gospels may actually give more support to their historical validity. For example, small differences in the historical narrative may be due to different perspectives of the witnesses; after all, if four witnesses in a courtroom all gave exactly the same version of the whole event, you might question its authenticity. However, you'd expect witnesses to agree on the important details.
2. The early Christians trusted the four Gospels of the Bible
A number of early Church writers confirm that the four Gospels were considered to be the authentic records of Jesus' life and words. In around AD120, the Bishop Papias wrote about the creation of Mark's Gospel: "Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote accurately but not in order as many things as he remembered of the things said and done by the Lord," (Eusebius, History of the Church, quoted in Messiah, Paul Barnett.)
Irenaeus wrote 'Against Heresies' in about AD180, in which he said that the Gospel is 'quadriform', ie in four parts. He said that "Matthew composed his Gospel in Hebrew, then Mark wrote of the preaching of Peter... Luke wrote the Gospel preached by Paul, and John the disciple composed the Gospel when he was living in Ephesus,"(Against Heresies, 3.1.1).
In the Muratorian Canon, which is also 2nd Century, the four Gospels were spoken of, and Luke and John named. The four Gospels together were also found in Egypt in Papyrus 45, which is dated to the early 3rd Century.
3. The Bible wasn't put together at the Council of Nicea
Contrary to common 'wisdom', there was no church council that mulled over which Gospels to include in the canon and which to exclude (ie the Gnostic Gospels), as if at one point, these were all considered equal. As we saw in the last point, from the earliest records we have, the Church said that there were four Gospels. The official canon became more important later on, due to the later 'Gnostic Gospels'. If 'alternative' Gospels are kicking around, the Church obviously has to officially confirm which books were reliable and which were not. But these decisions didn't take place at the Council of Nicea – if you think that, you've been reading too much Dan Brown! In fact it was progressive, and started early in the Church's history, before most of the non-canonical books and 'Gnostic Gospels' were written.
4. Early Christians thought Jesus was God
There's a bit of a myth floating around that the early Church just thought Jesus was a nice teacher, and rogues later created the idea of Jesus as divine and messed around with the Gospels to suit their beliefs. This doesn't fit with the facts. The Bible's New Testament contains the earliest recorded writings of Christians, and they contain the belief that Jesus is God. There are direct statements in the Gospel of John, and various books written by Paul (e.g. Colossians and Philippians).
The Bible also has numerous accounts of Jesus being worshipped – which would have been blasphemous to the Jews who wrote the accounts, unless Jesus was considered to be God.
Even people outside the Church recorded this belief. Pliny the younger, a Roman writer, said in the 2nd Century that the early Christians sang "a hymn to Christ, as to a god."
5. There are references to Jesus from historians close to his time
Josephus, a Jewish historian close to the Romans, said that Jesus was a teacher, he performed miracles, his followers said he was the Messiah, and he was crucified (Jewish Antiquities, 18:63-64). It is estimated that this was written in the first century, which means that just 70 years after his crucifixion, a Jewish man recorded that Jesus lived, along with the bare bones of the story. Other references include Tacitus and Pliny the younger (see a list here).
Short lists such as this can never answer these questions thoroughly. For an accessible introduction to the reliability of the Bible, try Amy Orr-Ewing's Why trust the Bible? or Paul Barnett's Gospel Truth. Or, if you're an looking for something more scholarly, you can try Jesus under Fire eds Michael J Wilkins and JP Moreland, or Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham.
Heather Tomlinson is a journalist who has worked for various national newspapers and Christian publications. You can read more articles supporting the truth of the Christian faith on her blog.