The Gospels: The Gospels and Us
The witnesses to Jesus’ life and their associates affirm that they correctly
passed on Jesus’ teachings to us. Can we believe their testimony?
Where do we stand if we disbelieve?
Jesus did not write any of the Bible. Neither does the risen Christ speak directly to all the church today. We live about 2,000 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry ended. We don’t have tape recordings of what Jesus said. We may even lack the exact wording of his teaching.
Of course, the issue is not over exact words or whether the Gospels contain Jesus’ precise statements. The issue is whether the Gospels give us God the Father’s word as taught by Jesus and as faithfully described and applied by his authorized representatives, the apostles and their co-workers.
We cannot run and hide from our dependence on those who wrote the New testament Gospels. They are unique individuals in the history of the church. These writers saw Jesus’ mighty works and heard his words, or they worked closely with people who had. Only these individuals were in a position to pass on to us the correct Jesus traditions.
Those who had been with Jesus in the flesh, such as the original apostles, said they witnessed his words and teaching. Because they saw and heard Jesus, they believed (John 20:24-29). But what about those living after the apostolic age—perhaps in our day? On what basis can we believe? Jesus said of us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (verse 29).
We have not personally heard Jesus teach what is written in the Gospels. We did not experience his miracles. We did not observe his crucifixion and resurrection. Nor can we prove in a scientific sense that they occurred. We are called on to believe without having seen what we must believe in.
What are we to do? We must see Jesus Christ through the writings of the eyewitnesses and their associates. We have the choice of either believing or rejecting what the witnesses and their co-workers said of Jesus. If we spurn their testimony, we have no foundation or authority for what we believe as Christians. It is that simple.
Critical scholars do not accept the claims of the witnesses or Gospel writers. They want corroborating, scientific proof. Robert W. Funk, the Jesus Seminar’s founder, says the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions about Jesus’ words are not determined “by prior religious convictions, but by the evidence.” Seminar member Marcus Borg writes, “One cannot settle historical questions by ‘belief.’“
However, there is no escaping belief. All attempts at a ‘scientific,’ critical-historical analysis of Jesus’ teachings must ultimately fail. Everyone begins with certain beliefs about what could or could not happen.
By what test can we determine whether Jesus arose from the dead? Or that the disciples talked with the risen Jesus? Or that Jesus’ miracles occurred? Or that statements in the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus’ life? No scientific, historical or critical analysis can discover to everyone’s satisfaction the yea or nay of such things.
Judging the Bible through human logic forces critical scholars into circular reasoning. They must first decide what they think Jesus taught or how he spoke. For example, would he talk about a climactic end of the age? Or would he predict his own death? Then the seminar analyzes the Gospels to see if they fit the portrait of Jesus it has constructed.
The Gospel writers do not ask us to enter into this spiral of intellectual uncertainty. They simply say to individuals through the ages: Put your confidence in what we have said about Jesus.
John said he knew he was telling the truth about Jesus (John 19:35). Luke said his account was an accurate one (Luke 1:1-3). Matthew and Mark also present their Gospels as faithful reflections of the teachings and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Do we have the spiritual ears to believe what they wrote—to believe God directed their witness? (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Luke used eyewitness testimony
Articles about the four Gospels
For articles about specific chapters within the Bible, see archive.gci.org/gospels
The author of the Gospel of Luke probably was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and teachings. Luke, however, puts forth strong reasons why we should consider his Gospel trustworthy. He said his Gospel is solidly based on the teachings of “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Luke also claimed to have had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (verse 3). Because of this, Luke felt qualified to write “an orderly account” of the teachings “most surely believed” among members of the church (verses 3 and 1).
In Acts, Luke commented further on his purpose for writing his Gospel: to deal with “all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up” to heaven (Acts 1:1-2, emphasis ours).
Luke was the equivalent of our modern investigative reporter. According to Acts 21:15 through 27:2, Luke spent considerable time in Judea. He had ample time and opportunity to investigate what he wrote about Jesus. Luke could have referred to various written documents and oral reports detailing the teachings and circumstances of Jesus’ life. As well, he no doubt consulted witnesses and church leaders at the church in Jerusalem.
Luke traveled with Paul and would have known what Paul taught. (Notice the references to “we” and “us” in Acts 16:11-15 and 20:6-16, for example.) He was Paul’s “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) and a fellow laborer (Philemon 24). Luke stood by Paul to the end during his final persecution at Rome, even though others fled (2 Timothy 4:11).
We should consider that Luke’s Gospel was researched and written more than 1,900 years closer to Jesus’ life than were the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar. Whose testimony has the advantage of proximity to apostolic times? The reader can have confidence that Luke based his Gospel on the true apostolic witness to Jesus’ teachings.
Early church teachings
Clearly, the Gospel writers did not create spurious “Jesus sayings.” Nevertheless some critical biblical scholars, such as the Jesus Seminar members, argue that the early church created Jesus’ sayings to justify its teachings.
If this argument were valid, “We would expect to find those needs reflected and dealt with in the Gospels,” writes New Testament scholar Robert Stein in The Synoptic Problem. This need for justification would be, he says, especially true regarding “the most important religious issues that the early church faced.”
The most volatile issue would have concerned the physical circumcision of gentile converts. “If the early church was creating gospel traditions to meet its religious needs,” wrote Dr. Stein, “one would expect to find something on this subject.”
However, no “circumcision materials” exist in the Gospels. The four Gospels contain only a single reference to circumcision, and it doesn’t deal with the controversy in the church (John 7:22-23). The lack of circumcision material in the Gospels is evidence “in favor of the view that the church tended to transmit the Jesus traditions faithfully,” Dr. Stein points out.
On the other hand, the book of Acts deals with the circumcision controversy in detail. The apostles and elders even meet to decide this question (Acts 15:1-29). However, no “Jesus sayings” are cited to justify their decision that gentiles did not need to be circumcised.
A careful reading of Acts shows the church’s teaching on circumcision does not rely on the sayings of Jesus. No “Jesus proof texts” are cited. The church acts in Jesus’ name and by his authority, but does not invent any sayings to prove their point.
Bible scholar Thorlief Boman has observed that there are 24 speeches in the book of Acts. These account for about 300 of Acts’ 1,007 verses. In these speeches, there is only a single saying of Jesus (Acts 20:35). This lack of Jesus’ sayings and stories demonstrates, says Dr. Boman, “that the church did not create sayings of Jesus and read them back upon the lips of Jesus.”
In the words of British biblical scholar, George B. Caird, there is “not one shred of evidence that the early church ever concocted sayings of Jesus in order to settle any of its problems.”
For further reading:
- Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth(InterVarsity, 1995).
- Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Jesus Under Fire (edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland; Zondervan, 1995).
- Richard B. Hays, “The Corrected Jesus, ”First Things 43 (May 1994): 43-48.
Author: Paul Kroll, 1992