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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible

Don Stewart :: Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate?

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Question 12

Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate?

The four gospels have many references to people, places, customs and events. While it is not possible to independently verify everything that it records, it is possible to see if what it records matches up with what we know about first-century life in that part of the world.

The Gospels Should Be Investigated the Same Way as Other Documents

It is important to note that the four gospels were written in the same way as other documents in the ancient world. Consequently, they should be examined the same way as these other documents. These writings are the straightforward accounts of the people who walked and talked with Jesus. They were observers of the things that He both said and did. The men who wrote these books made them public at the time they were written. They were circulated among both believers and unbelievers.

Every aspect of the composition of the New Testament is the same as other historical writings of that period. Therefore, we need to investigate their claims as we would any other historical record.

The Evidence Shows They Are Trustworthy

When we do this, we find that they match up with the well-known history of that period. The following points need to be made:

  1. Names or Likenesses of New Testament Characters Have Been Found on Statues or Coins

    There are a number of individuals who are mentioned in the New Testament whose likeness has been found on either statues or coins. Others have their names on a coin but with no likeness of them. They are as follows:

    • The Caesars

      Four different Caesars are mentioned in the New Testament; though only three of them by name.

      Augustus, the Roman Emperor who ruled from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14, was the Emperor at the time Jesus was born (Luke 2:1). His image is found on coins and statues.

      The Roman Emperor Tiberius, A.D. 14-37, ruled during the time of Jesus’ public ministry ( Matthew 22:17; Mark 12:14-17; Luke 3:1; Luke 20:22-25; Luke 23:2; John 19:12, 15). His likeness is also found on statues and coins.

      The Roman Emperor Claudius ruled from A.D. 41-54. He is the one who ordered the Jews to leave Rome. (Acts 11:28; 17:7;18:2). Coins and statues also bear his likeness.

      Nero, while he is not named, is the Caesar to whom Paul appealed. His is referred to in the following places: Acts 25:11,12, 21; 26:32 28:19, Philippians 4:22. He reigned from A.D. 54-68. His likeness has been found on coins.

    • The Herods

      There are a number of Herods mentioned in the New Testament. The evidence shows that they too were historical characters.

      Herod the Great was ruling Judea at the time Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1). He was the evil ruler who ordered the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem. His name has been found on coins.

      Herod Antipas was called Herod the Tetrarch in the New Testament (Luke 3:1). Coins carry the inscription “Herod the Tetrarch.” There are also inscriptions on bronze coins which read “Herod the Tetrarch to Gaius Caesar Germanicus.”

      Herod Agrippa I was ruler of Judea from A.D. 27-44. He is the one who persecuted members of the early church (Acts 12:1-23; Acts 23:35). Coins have been found with the inscription, “The Great King Agrippa, Friend of the Caesar.”

      Herod Agrippa II, the son of Herod Agrippa, ruled the area of Galilee from A.D 56-95. Paul appealed to him before going to Rome (Acts 25:13-26). His likeness is found on coins.

    • Other New Testament Figures

      Aretas IV was the King of the Nabateans from 9 B.C.—A.D. 40. He was the governor in Damascus who attempted to arrest Paul (2 Corinthians 11:32). Coins have been found with his likeness

Pontius Pilate Was Prefect of Judea

For many years there were questions about the existence and the actual title of Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus. In later Roman writers, as well as almost all Bible reference works, Pilate is referred to as the “procurator” of Judea. According to the New Testament, he is called a “governor;” not a procurator.

In 1961, on the coast of Israel in the town of Caesarea, the discovery was made of a two by three foot stone that had a Latin inscription written upon it. The translation of the inscription reads as follows:

Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberieum to the Caesareans.

This is the first archaeological evidence for the existence of Pilate. What is interesting about the inscription is the title that he is given—Prefect of Judea.

We now know that the title “Procurator” was not used at the time for the Roman governors. This title only came into usage at a later time. During the reign of the emperor Claudius, A.D. 41-54, the title of the Roman governors shifted from Prefect to Procurator. Although the later Roman writers gave Pilate the incorrect title, the New Testament did not. It calls him a governor—not a procurator.

The Burial Box of the High Priest Caiaphas Has Been Found

A stunning example of extra-biblical confirmation of the existence of a New Testament character is found in the discovery of the bones of the High Priest Caiaphas. The New Testament says that Caiaphas is the one who presided over one of the trials of Jesus. Matthew writes:

And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. (Matthew 26:57 NKJV)

In 1990, the bones of Caiaphas were discovered in a limestone ossuary, or burial box, that was found in the old city of Jerusalem. The inscription on the ornate burial box read, “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” These were the first physical remains that have been discovered of a person mentioned in Scripture.

These are a few of the many examples that could be given of extra biblical confirmation of New Testament characters.

The Cities Existed Where the Gospels Say They Did

The gospels also record various places where the ministry of Jesus took place. We find that the cities that are mentioned in the four gospels are known to have existed in the first century. The exact location of almost all of them have been firmly established. This includes such cities as Nazareth, Cana, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Tiberius. In other words, we are dealing with real places.

The Houses and Structures Mentioned Actually Existed

There were certain physical structures that are mentioned in the gospels that are now known to exist. For example, we have a number of references to synagogues where Jesus taught.

However, for a long time there were no physical remains of any first century synagogue that was discovered. This led critics to deny that Jesus actually taught in synagogues. Yet this is no longer the case. A number of first-century synagogues have now been discovered.

In the city of Capernaum, ruins have been found that may have been the actual house of Simon Peter. A fifth century church was built over the remains of a first century house. If these are the ruins of Simon Peter’s house, then this is the place where Jesus stayed while in the city of Capernaum.

The Writers Knew the Local Customs of the Times

The customs that were practiced in the first-century are consistent with that which is recorded in the four gospels. In fact, we find that these customs are related in a way that is minutely accurate. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we read the following account:

Soon afterward Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the town gate, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother (who was a widow), and a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and those who carried it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” So the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. (Luke 7:11-15 NET)

At the time of Christ, there were different customs with respect to women walking in a funeral procession. In Judea, the area around Jerusalem, the custom was for the women to walk behind the funeral procession. The casket led the way with the women following behind.

However, in the Galilee region, the custom was reversed. The women walked in front of the funeral procession with the casket trailing behind. The description given by Luke demonstrates the minute accuracy of his account.

Luke says that Jesus began to talk to the mother of the dead child, and then touched the coffin of the dead man. At that time the funeral procession stopped—because it was following behind her and the coffin. This would have only been true in the Galilee region. If this story would have been placed in Judea, then it would not have happened this way—the women would have followed the procession. The fact that Luke incidentally notes that the procession stopped when Jesus touched the coffin shows the minute accuracy of his account.

Conclusion: the Gospels Fit the Historical Evidence

Therefore, when all the evidence is considered, we find that the gospels match up with the known history of that time. The people were real people, the cities existed, the customs were exactly as stated, and the events actually occurred.

Summary - Question 12
Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate?

The four gospels give an accurate portrayal of people, places, customs and events in the land of Israel in the first century. We know that the people mentioned are historical characters—they actually did exist. In addition, the places match up geographically with what we know about first century Israel.

The customs fit well with the times. Events recorded are also consistent with what we know occurred. The gospels are not only accurate, they are minutely accurate. Consequently, their testimony concerning anything they record should be taken seriously.

How Does the Apostle Paul Testify to the Accuracy of the Four Gospels ← Prior Section
Is the Book of Acts Historically Accurate? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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