Checklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 4

A reader comment (by ‘downtown dave’) on Part 3 of this series suggests that I take a look at Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (hereafter: CFC).  I don’t find Strobel’s case to be persuasive, but the criteria for evaluation of the Gospels that he puts forward in Chapter 2  (“Testing the Eyewitness Evidence” ) seem reasonable and helpful, even if the eight tests he outlines fall short of being a comprehensive list of criteria for evaluation of historical claims about Jesus.  

So, I will note those eight tests here, for future reference when I review my own criteria for comprehensiveness (to make sure I have not left out any important considerations).

This test seeks to determine whether it was the stated or implied intention of the writers to accurately preserve history. (CFC, p.39)

Obviously, if the intention of a writer is to present an entertaining fictional story, then we would not expect the events described to be historically true or accurate accounts of real events.  Also, if the intention of a writer is to present fictionalized history, then we would not expect all of the details in the account to be true or accurate, while we would reasonably expect the overarching events to be historical or actual events.  

The fact that a writer intends to present an accurate account of actual historical events does not prove that the account is true or accurate or reliable, but it does make it more likely that the account will be true, accurate, and reliable, as compared to documents written with the intention of presenting an entertaining fictional story.

Even if the writers intended to reliably record history,  were they able to do so?  How can we be sure that the material about Jesus’ life and teachings was well preserved for thirty years before it was finally written down in the Gospels? (CFC, p.42)

Stobel seriously biases the second question by assuming a thirty year gap between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.  Mark is generally dated about 70 CE (forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion), while Matthew and Luke are generally dated about 80 CE (fifty years after Jesus’ crucifixion), and John is generally dated about 90 CE (sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion).

Matthew and Luke also include stories about Jesus’ birth, so if we assume those Gospels to have been written around 80CE, they were written about eighty-five years after the event of Jesus’ birth.  There is a story about Jesus as a child in Luke, so that story would have been written about seventy-five years after the event.

But setting aside Strobel’s misleading comment, the question is clearly relevant to determining the historical reliability of the Gospels.  Good intentions are fine, but good intentions (such as the intention to write an historically accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus) are not sufficient to ensure that the objective will be achieved.  One must also have the appropriate means, knowledge, and abilities in order to accomplish the objective of composing an historically accurate and reliable account of a person’s life.

This test looks at whether it was in the character of these writers to be truthful.  Was there any evidence of dishonesty or immorality that might taint their ability or willingness to transmit history accurately? (CFC, p.45)

A dishonest person might claim to be presenting an accurate and reliable account of events, but might be lying or stretching the truth in making this very claim.  

Furthermore, if a generally dishonest person has the good intention of composing an accurate and reliable account of events, he or she might well give in to the temptation to introduce false or inaccurate information into the account at various points, because of not having the sort of inner strength or character required to stick to the original intention.  Sometimes it is easier or more pleasant or more in one’s self-interest to be dishonest or to stretch the truth than to be a straight shooter.  Honesty and accuracy can sometimes be difficult or costly in terms of one’s self-interest or self-image.

Note: It may be difficult to apply this test to authors whose identity is unknown, as I believe to be the case with the authors of the four Gospels.

Here’s a test that skeptics often charge the Gospels with failing.  After all, aren’t they hopelessly contradictory with each other?  Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various Gospel accounts?  And if there are, how can anyone trust anything they say? (CFC, p.45)

I believe there are problems with the Gospels in terms of each of the first four tests outlined above, so although skeptics might tend to focus on Test 4, some of the other tests might well also seriously impact our evaluation of the reliability and credibility of the Gospels. 

When two accounts are logically inconsistent that means that at least one of the accounts must be mistaken.  So, the more contradictions and inconsistencies there are between the Gospel accounts, the more reason we have for doubting the reliability of those accounts.

It is often argued that the Gospels are in agreement on major and general points, and only disa

gree on some of the details.  This may well be true (of the synoptic Gospels), but when it comes to the question of the crucifixion of Jesus and the claim that Jesus died on the cross the same day that he was crucified, the accuracy and reliability of the details becomes very important.  

Agreement on major and general points is not sufficient, for example, to show that Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while hanging on the cross.  Nor is this sufficient to show that Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross.  Nor is this enough to establish that Jesus was on the cross for about eight hours (as opposed to two or three hours).  On these questions reliability and accuracy of details is critical.