Unbelievable? Is There Enough Evidence Beyond the Gospels to Make Their Testimony Reliable?

During an interview on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, a caller asked about corroboration and wanted to know if there was enough evidence beyond the Gospels to verify the reliability of their testimony. I began by helping him understand the nature of evidential corroboration and the limited information typically offered by such evidence. Every piece of corroborative evidence typically addresses (and verifies) only a “touchpoint”, a small aspect of the testimony from which we infer the “reasonability” of the larger account. Corroborative evidence is always limited; it only addresses a small aspect of the event under consideration. Even with these limits, however, the Gospels are still well corroborated. I’ve written a chapter about this in my book, Cold-Case Christianity, but here is a brief summary of the evidence “beyond the Gospels”:

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Were the Early Christians Really Persecuted?

In Cold Case Christianity, I discuss the evidential value of the martyrdoms of the original eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus. When evaluating the reliability of these witnesses, their potential bias can be assessed on the basis of their willingness to die rather than recant their testimony. Many skeptics, however, doubt these martyrdoms occurred in the first place. The deaths of the Apostles are recorded by a variety of ancient authors; some of these accounts are, admittedly, more thorough and reliable than others. Critics of Christianity have accused early Christians of inventing these apostolic martyrdom stories. In fact, some skeptics have denied the systemic persecution of early Christians altogether in the first two centuries. Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, has written a book, (The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom) challenging the early persecution of Christians (including the Apostles) prior to the 3rd Century. I think her task is daunting, however, given the impressive cumulative case demonstrating the dramatic mistreatment of the earliest Christians:

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Rapid Response: “The Gospels Are Unreliable”

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone made the following claim: “Even if the events recorded in the Gospels came from eyewitness accounts, why should we trust what eyewitnesses tell us? Even modern-day witnesses are notoriously unreliable and are often wrong about what they claim to have seen. Why should we trust ancient eyewitness accounts?” How would you respond to such an objection? Here is a conversational example of how I recently replied:

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Rapid Response: “The Gospels Have Been Altered”

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone made the following claim: “I can’t believe what the Gospels say because they were altered over the years.” How would you respond to such an objection? Here is a conversational example of how I recently replied:

“I understand the objection, because that was one of my first doubts as a skeptic. I held two suspicions as a committed atheist (I didn’t examine the Gospels until I was in my thirties). First, I didn’t think the Gospels were written early in history, because they contained so many miraculous stories. I was a committed philosophical naturalist and I rejected miracles. So, I figured the Gospels must have been written late in history, after all the people who knew the truth about Jesus were already dead and gone. Secondly, even if the Gospels were written early, I suspected the supernatural elements were inserted later. I believed the earliest versions of the Gospel accounts were probably much less supernatural. Maybe, in the first versions of the story, Jesus was a simple guy who was a good teacher, but not a miracle worker. He didn't walk on water and didn't rise from the dead; all those elements, in my opinion, were inserted later.

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Why Making a Case for the Bible Is More Important Than Arguing About Politics

We’ve just experienced an unprecedentedly contentious and polarizing political season. Throughout this time, I’ve been tempted to enter the fray, especially on social media, where I’ve observed several heated exchanges between my friends and family members. I refrained from commenting or arguing about politics, however, and a few of my followers have asked why I’ve been so silent on the issues that seem to divide our nation. It’s not that I don’t have a view I would like to share, and it’s not that I feel incompetent to express my views. I simply understand the real battle: If everyone held an accurately informed Christian worldview, the number (and degree) of disputes over the issues facing our country would be dramatically reduced. In other words, if people took the Bible as seriously as they took their political positions, we’d probably agree on almost everything.

If you’re in disagreement with an unbelieving friend or family member, you shouldn’t be surprised. They probably reject the Bible (and what it teaches) altogether. If you’re in disagreement with a believing friend or family member, you also shouldn’t be surprised. They may not take their Bible any more seriously than an unbeliever. They may not be reading it, or might not be reading it seriously enough to develop an accurately informed Christian worldview. In either case, our disagreements are rooted in our view of the Bible; if we disagree, it’s because we either don’t understand or don’t accept what the Bible teaches.

That’s why I spend more time making the case for the reliability of the Bible to unbelievers, and the correct interpretation of the Bible to believers, than I do arguing about our respective social. Moral or political views. If my goal is agreement, it’s more important to address the cause of our disagreement than the disagreement itself. It all comes down to helping people understand why it’s important to take the Bible seriously:

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Rapid Response: “I Think the Disciples Lied About the Resurrection”

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone said, “I can’t trust what the New Testament says about Jesus. I think the disciples (or whoever wrote the Gospels) lied about Jesus and the Resurrection.” How would you answer such an objection? Here is a conversational example of how I recently responded:

“When I was an atheist, one of the reasons I rejected the claims of the Gospels was a similar distrust in the testimony of the authors.

Rapid Response: You Can’t Trust the Gospels Because They Were Written by Christians

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone said, “I can’t trust what the New Testament says about Jesus: after all, it was written by biased Christians. I can only believe what’s been written by ancient non-Christians, and they don’t say much about Jesus.” How would you answer such an objection? Here is a conversational example of how I recently responded:

“When I hear someone demand an ancient non-Christian authority, I immediately recognize the objection for what it is: a complaint about the historical reliability of the Gospels. Some skeptics think you can’t trust the New Testament because it was written by people who were friends of Jesus. They assume those who were close to Jesus would lie about (or exaggerate) the details of his life and ministry. But the Gospel accounts have to be assessed based on their own historical merit, and we have to remember the nature of their authors. Let me give you an example from a case I worked many years ago.

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Rapid Response: You Can’t Trust the Gospels Because There Are Variations Between the Ancient Manuscripts

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. How would you respond if someone said, “I don’t trust the Gospels because I know we don’t have the originals and there are tons of ‘variants’ between the ancient manuscripts we do have”? Here is a conversational example of how I recently responded to this objection:

“I understand this objection; there are many places in the Gospels where scribes over the centuries made small changes, either intentionally or unintentionally, resulting in a different word or passage. These resulting variations can seem problematic, for sure. Some skeptics claim we can't trust any of the New Testament because of the presence of these differences.

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Jesus’ Authority Was Based in His Deity

In Cold-Case Christianity, I make the case for the reliability of the New Testament Gospels based on a template we use to test eyewitnesses in criminal trials. This book traces my own personal journey as I investigated the Gospels and ultimately became a Christian. When I first started considering the words of Jesus, I was only interested in gleaning some wisdom from an ancient sage. But the more I read through the Gospel narratives, the more I realized Jesus spoke and taught as though He were God Himself. Jesus possessed more than the authority of a wise teacher; He demonstrated a power and authority that can only be described as Divine:
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4 Reasons We Should Accept the Gospels As Eyewitness Accounts

In the movie, God’s Not Dead 2, I was asked to defend the historicity of Jesus and the eyewitness reliability of the Gospels. Many skeptics reject the eyewitness authority of the Gospel accounts, even though the early Church selected and embraced the canonical Gospels based primarily on the eyewitness authority of their authors. Some critics even argue the Gospels were never intended to be seen as eyewitness testimony, in spite of the fact the earliest students of the apostles (and first Church leaders) repeated the content of the Gospels in their own letters, affirming the eyewitness status of their authors. As a cold-case detective who examines eyewitness accounts every day, I investigated the accounts in my book, Cold-Case Christianity; A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. My investigation led me to conclude the New Testament gospels should be considered eyewitness accounts for four reasons:

1. Eyewitness Authority Was Affirmed By the Gospel Authors
The authors of the Gospels proclaimed their authority as eyewitnesses (or as chroniclers of the eyewitnesses), and the earliest believers embraced the traditional authorship of the eyewitnesses. The Gospel authors (and their sources) repeatedly identified themselves as eyewitnesses:

2 Peter 1:16-17
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

John 21:24-25
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

Luke 1:1-4
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

2. Eyewitness Authority Was Confirmed By the First Believers
The early believers and Church Fathers accepted the Gospel accounts as eyewitness documents. Papias, when describing the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, for example, said, “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.” In addition, Papias, Ireneaus, Origen and Jerome affirmed the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel by the tax collector described in the account, written for the Hebrews in his native dialect.

3. Eyewitness Authority Was Foundational to the Growth of the Church
The eyewitness authority of the Apostles was key to the expansion of the early Church. The apostles were unified in the manner in which they proclaimed Christ. They repeatedly identified themselves, first and foremost, as eyewitnesses:

Acts 2:23-24, 32
“This man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”

4. Eyewitness Authority Was Used to Validate New Testament Writings
Even Paul understood the importance of eyewitness authority. He continually referred to his own encounter with Jesus to establish the authenticity of his office and writings. Paul also directed his readers to other eyewitnesses who could corroborate his claims:

1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

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