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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate?

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Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 13

The four gospels have many references to people, places, customs, and events as they record the life of Jesus. The evidence from the New Testament is that the writers of the four gospels have desired to give us a truthful historical portrait of Jesus and His ministry. The four gospels writers were also in a position to do this.

This being the case, questions that naturally arise, “Have they given us a picture of Jesus that matches us with known reality? Did the people actually exist? Are the places real places? Did the events really occur?”

1. The Evidence Shows They Are Trustworthy

While it is not possible to independently verify everything that the four gospels record, it is possible to see if what they record matches up with what we know about first-century life in that part of the world.

When we do this, we find that what they have written does indeed match up with the known history of that period. The following points need to be made about this very important issue.

2. The People Actually Existed

The people that the four gospels mention were historical figures. There is no doubt about this. For example, Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Tiberius Caesar are known to have truly existed. Consequently we are dealing with real people who really lived at that time and place in history.

3. 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” rather than 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 Pontius 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 many of the later Roman writers gave Pilate the incorrect title, the New Testament did not. It calls him a governor, not a procurator. Thus, in its description of Pilate the New Testament is accurate.

The Two Herods Were Historical Characters

The gospels mention two people by the name of Herod. We have the listing of Herod the Great as well as Herod the Tetrarch.

Herod the Great

Herod the Great was the ruler of Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. He is mentioned in connection with the birth of Christ. We read of this in Matthew:

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star as it arose, and we have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 NLT)

From a number of sources, we know that Herod the Great existed. First century writer Flavius Josephus tells us much of Herod’s history. Also coins have been discovered that have the inscription “Herod the King.” At the site of Masada, where hundreds of Jews went to their deaths in defiance of the Roman army, a potsherd has been found that says Herod, King of the Jews. Consequently, his existence is unquestionably confirmed.

Herod the Tetrarch

During Jesus’ public ministry, some thirty years later, another Herod is mentioned. He is known as Herod the tetrarch. We also read of him in Matthew. It says,

At that time Herod, ruler of Galilee, heard the news about Jesus. (Matthew 14:1 God’s Word)

Once more, we are dealing with genuine history. We know that Herod the Tetrarch existed because of the writings of first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as well as coins that were minted that have inscribed the words, “Herod the tetrarch.” The gospels are once again found to be accurate.

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 about him and gives the following description:

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.” This was 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 point is simple. The people whom the gospels mentioned were real people. They were not mythical 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 has 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 that existed during a definite time in history.

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.

However, in the Galilee region, the custom was reversed. The women walked in front of the funeral procession. The description given by Luke demonstrates the minute accuracy of his account. 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. Many other examples could be given.

The Events Actually Occurred As the Gospels Say They Did

There is non-biblical confirmation for some of the events recorded in the four gospels. We can give the following example.

Luke tells us of a census that was to be taken for the Roman world. He explains what occurred in this manner:

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to his own town to be registered. (Luke 2:1-3 NET)

From secular sources we know that this type of census did occur on a regular basis in the Roman Empire. While there is an issue with respect to the timing of the census to which Luke gives reference there is no doubt that such a census took place. Again, we have further evidence of the accuracy of the gospels.

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 actually existed where the New Testament says they did, the customs were exactly as stated, and the events, like the enrollment of the people recorded by Luke, in fact occurred.

The fact of their historical accuracy has important implications for us. If the writers were correct in the references we can check out, then they should be given the benefit of the doubt in matters we cannot check out. This is a reasonable way in which to deal with this issue of historical reliability.

While it ultimately comes down to faith, it is certainly reasonable and intelligent faith that is exercised toward believing in the historical accuracy of the gospels. Indeed, it is not blind faith!

Summary – Question 13
Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate?

Jesus Christ came to this world at a certain time in history. His three year public ministry is recorded in four written works known as “gospels.” In these gospels there are a number or references to people, places, customs, and events. Since Christianity is a religion that claims certain events took place in history these historical references must be accurate. As we look at the evidence we will discover that the gospel writers were indeed historically correct in their references.

The four gospels give an accurate portrayal of people, places, customs, and events in the land of Israel in the first century. For one thing, we know that the people mentioned are historical characters; they actually did exist. Indeed, secular history records the existence of such people as the Caesar’s, Herod the Great and Herod the Tetrarch, Caiaphas the High Priest, and Pontius Pilate. Therefore, the characters in the gospel accounts were actual people who lived at a certain time in history. There is no doubt about this.

In addition, the places mentioned by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John match up geographically with what we know about first century Israel. Most of the cities where Jesus’ ministry and miracles took place have now been identified with certainty. In other words, there were such cities as Bethsaida, Capernaum, Nazareth, and Bethlehem and we now know their geographical location.

The customs also fit well with the times. In fact, the recording of certain customs by the gospel writers demonstrates their minute accuracy. This indicates that they had to have been present to know these specific customs and laws at the time. Indeed, only those living at that era would have known these unique customs of the times.

Events recorded in the four gospels are also consistent with what we know occurred at that particular time in history. From secular history we know that a census, or enrollment, was taken of the people. Thus, the story of Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem to enroll in the census makes historical sense.

In addition to all of this, there is nothing found in the four gospels which would not fit with that time and place in history. Everything recorded is consistent with what we know of the times. This is important to note. We do not find anything that would not fit that historical period. This gives further indication that we have firsthand testimony of the things which took place. In other words, we have eyewitness testimony.

Consequently the historical testimony of the writers of the four gospels should be taken seriously. Realizing this gives us confidence in everything else they wrote. Indeed, if they were accurate in their historical references they should be given the benefit of the doubt in the other things which they recorded about Him. This includes His words as well as His miraculous deeds.

In sum, there is every reason to believe that the gospels are what the church has always believed them to be; the reliable, historical accurate Word of God.

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