e-mail
password
 
 
 

Home > Primary Sources
 

ABOUT THE SOURCES

  • WHAT are the most historically authentic and reliable sources about Jesus?
  • WHEN were the primary biographies of Jesus (Gospels) selected, and others rejected?
  • HOW were the primary biographies of Jesus (Gospels) selected?
  • What criteria/tests were used to determine the historical authenticity/accuracy of the primary biographical sources?
  • Were the biographies of Jesus reliably preserved?
  • Are there credible sources about Jesus outside his biographies
  •  

    What are the most historically authentic and reliable sources about Jesus?

    The most trustworthy records of the events and statements of Jesus were of either direct or indirect eyewitness testimony. Four biographies about Jesus have withstood the test of scrutiny and time. Throughout history, only these four biographies of Jesus (Gospels) have been included in the Holy Scriptures (The Bible) officially recognized by Catholics and Protestants.

    These biographies include only the Gospel (“good news”) according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew, an eyewitness disciple of Jesus wrote his biography of Jesus in Hebrew around 80 AD, intended for Jewish audiences. Jesus’ disciple, John, sought to be more unique in his content rather than merely repeating the other three biographies. Mark, an interpreter for Jesus’ disciple Peter, scribed his biography of Jesus likely between 50 and 70 AD. Paul’s close companion, Luke, an educated physician researched various events and documented his report in the remaining Gospel.

    These biographies were all written within the same century as Jesus lived. The remaining Canon (list of what to include) of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book was given to any church by the apostles, and that was when John wrote the Apocalypse (Revelations), about A.D. 98.

    Alternative biographies of Jesus (e.g. Gnostic Gospels, Gospel of Thomas, Phillip, etc.) were proposed starting in the second century and beyond. Yet these documents were rejected by church leaders, who had already firmly determined the official source biographies.

    WHEN were the primary biographies of Jesus (Gospels) selected, and others
    rejected?

    According to scholar F.F. Bruce:

    “At a very early date it appears that the four Gospels were united in one collection. They must have been brought together very soon after the writing of the Gospel according to John. This fourfold collection was known originally as 'The Gospel' in the singular, not 'The Gospels' in the plural; there was only one Gospel, narrated in four records, distinguished as 'according to Matthew', 'according to Mark', and so on.

    About AD 115 Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, refers to 'The Gospel' as an authoritative writing, and as he knew more than one of the four 'Gospels' it may well be that by 'The Gospel' he means the fourfold collection which went by that name.

    By the time of Irenaeus, was bishop of Lyons in Gaul about AD 180, the idea of a fourfold Gospel had become so axiomatic in the Church at large that he refers to it as an established and recognised fact as obvious as the four cardinal points of the compass or the four winds.”

    Then again, in 240AD, Origen, an influential teacher in Alexandria, Egypt confirmed the four Gospels, as recorded by historian, Eusebius for his Church History.

    "Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first written was that according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language. Secondly, that according to Mark, who composed it in accordance with the instructions of Peter, who in the catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, 'She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, salutes you, and so does Mark, my son.' And thirdly, that according to Luke, for those who from the Gentiles came to believe. After them all, that according to John."

    Even today, new biographies emerge (eg. Gospel of Judas), and they continue to be rejected as unreliable source documents about Jesus. They have no authoritative value. Serious students or followers of Jesus choose to base their understanding of Jesus using the biographies known as the Gospel (“good news”) according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

    HOW were the primary biographies of Jesus (Gospels) selected?

    Primary sources should include the following categories:

    • Contemporaries of Jesus

    • Eyewitnesses of Jesus

    • Items written within same century as Jesus

    • Preponderance of academic consensus

    • Copies and manuscripts in hand today

    Primary sources should not include the following:

    • Items written more than 100 years after life of Jesus

    • Controversial and without academic consensus

    • Missing, non-existent copies and manuscripts

    According to Jesus Central Scholar, John Ortberg:

    “Church leaders developed essentially three criteria to evaluate these different documents:

    First criterion: Does this document have roots connected to one of the Apostles? Was it written by an apostle or by a student or associate of one of the Apostles? … It is important to understand that most scholars would agree that all these books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were written within maybe 30 to 60 years after Jesus died. In other words, they were written while there were still eyewitnesses around who could challenge every word that was in them. They had to meet the task of being read by people who were alive when Jesus was around, and who would be able to say, "No. I was there," if something was inaccurate.

    Second criterion: To be included in the Canon, the contents of the book had to be consistent with the kind of teaching that Jesus did. … (for example, some) have argued that the "Gospel of Thomas" ought to be taken more seriously. Here's one of the reasons why it wasn't. Is this consistent with the teachings of Jesus? I want to read for you the very last part of the Gospel of Thomas:

    Simon Peter said, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

    Third criterion: In order for a book to be included in the Canon of Scripture, it had to have widespread influence in churches both in Israel, in Asia Minor, in Rome and so on and had to have continuous acceptance and use by the church at large. "

    What criteria/tests were used to determine the historical authenticity/accuracy of the primary biographical sources?

    According to author and journalist Lee Stroebel, in what he calls a "Journalist’s personal investigation of the evidence for Jesus," he concludes that the biographies of Jesus stand up to the same types of tests which are applied to evidence or testimony submitted in a courtroom:

    • Intention test – biographers stated or implied their intention was to accurately preserve history.

    • Ability test – Biographers were educated and practiced in oral tradition which enabled memorization until content could be written.

    • Character test – Seems like authors were men of integrity.

    • Consistency test – The biographies are sufficiently diverse to show they were independent, and alike enough to show they were all trying to describe the same thing.

    • Bias test – Authors had nothing to gain by misrepresenting the truth, and actually were in jeopardy of their lives for communicating their materials.

    • Cover-up test – Authors did not try to cover up or omit items that were difficult to explain (such as miracles). The most "credible" biographies would have tried to leave out such.

    • Corroboration test – People, places, and events mentioned in the biographies are consistent with other historical recordings of the day.

    • Adverse witness test – There is no historical evidence that contemporaries of the authors made attempts to discredit or criticize the biographies for being factually inaccurate.

    Were the biographies of Jesus reliably preserved?

    The four primary biographies of Jesus are included in the Bible’s "new testament" section. As again described by Journalist Lee Stoebel, an unprecedented number of copies have survived compared to other works we consider trustworthy. According to documentary evidence, the new testament has survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, and in a purer form than any other great book. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the new testament, and if other languages are considered, there are about 24,000 manuscripts. Next to the new testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad, which was the bible of the ancient Greeks, composed in 800 BC. There are fewer than 650 manuscripts of the Iliad, dating from the second- and third-century AD. With regard to first-century historian, Josephus, we have 9 Greek manuscripts of his work, the Jewish War, and these copies were written in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries.

    Like all ancient manuscripts, to preserve important materials, copies were made, first in Papyrus manuscripts and later in more sturdy parchment, made of skins. The earliest known papyrus fragment about Jesus is from the biography of John, dated from 100 to 150 AD.

    Are there credible sources about Jesus outside his biographies?

    Yes, historians starting from the time of Jesus have included references to Jesus within their historical references. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) wrote in his "Jewish Antiquities":

    "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, (if it be lawful to call him a man,) for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. (He was the Christ;) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, (for he appeared to them alive again the third day,) as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."
    [Note: Interpolations, possibly added by others, are indicated in parenthesis.]

    Also, the first century Roman historian, Tacitus (56-120 AD), wrote:

    "Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberias at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome..."

    BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Comay, Joan and Brownrigg, Ronald. Who's Who in the Bible. Bonanza Books, New York, New York. 1980.
    McAllister, Dawson. A Walk With Christ to the Cross. Roper Press, Inc, Dallas, Texas. 1980.
    Stroebel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1998.
    Unger, Merrill F. The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois. 1993.
    Bruce, F.F.. The Canon of the New Testament, Chapter 3 in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (5th edition; Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 1959).
    Marlowe, Michael. Website http://www.bible-researcher.com
    Ortberg, John. Jesus and the DaVinci Code, 2003.