Historicity of Jesus

Preface: Jesus of Nazareth was one of the most influential individuals who ever lived. Western thought has been heavily colored by his teachings, several continents are marked with buildings erected in his honor, and over a billion people profess allegiance to him today. However, what do we really know about him? Is there sound, early historical documentation for his life and teachings, or did believers just make up stories and doctrines long after he and his immediate disciples had passed from the scene?

Some time ago I was asked to teach a short, informal class on this topic, and made up a handout to serve as class notes. Here I have edited that handout, and added some lengthy footnotes (endnotes) and an Appendix to deal with ancillary topics.      Four classes of documents are examined: Paul’s letters, the Gospels, the writings of other early Christians, and the works of non-Christian historians. We find that key teachings about Jesus in Paul’s letters can be traced back to the original followers of Jesus such as Peter and John. While the precise times of the compositions of the Gospels are not known, there are substantial grounds to believe that they were written only a few decades after the events, and were based on oral traditions that date back to the time of Jesus.


( 1 ) The World of Jesus and His Followers

( 2 ) Authenticity of the New Testament Text

( 3 ) Paul’s Writings: The Earliest Documents About Jesus

( 4 ) The Testimony of the Gospels

( 5 ) Luke the Meticulous Historian

( 6 ) John the Accurate Geographer  

( 7 ) Differences Among the Gospels

( 8 ) Significance of Textual Variants

( 9 ) Settling of the New Testament Canon

( 10 ) Mention of Jesus Christ in Extrabiblical Literature


APPENDIX: Historical Accuracy in the Gospel of Luke


( 1 ) The World of Jesus and His Followers


Timeline for Jesus and Followers


Jesus lived in Judea and Galilee, which were was part of the Roman Empire. We have many writings which describe events and customs of that time, to give historical context to Jesus’ life.

Map of Holy Land – shows many places that Jesus went. https://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/CP051GOSPELMAPS.htm


Map of Eastern Mediterranean Sea – location of Paul’s missionary journeys.


Map of Eastern Mediterranean Sea – location of Paul’s missionary journeys.

( 2 ) Authenticity of the New Testament Text

The New Testament has 27 books total, in the following groupings:

  • Historical Books—The four Gospels which each tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), plus the book of Acts. The first three Gospels have many passages in common, and are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels.
  • Letters by Paul–Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon [1]
  • Letters by other disciples of Jesus–Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

( 2.1 ) Many ancient physical copies of New Testament have been found

(2.1.2) Some early physical copies of New Testament texts

130-150        Rylands Papyrus with verses from John 18

175-225        Papyrus fragments of many individual N.T. books have been found dating to 175-225, e.g. large fragments of Matthew, Luke, John, and smaller portions of Romans, I Cor., II Cor., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thes., Titus, Hebrews, Revelation

~ 300             Portions of nearly all N.T. books found

~ 350             Physical copies of whole N.T.: Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus

Sir Fredrick Kenyon wrote that the effect of the discovery of the papyrus fragments is “to reduce the gap between the earlier manuscripts and the traditional dates of the New Testament books so far that it becomes negligible in any discussion of their authenticity. No other ancient book has anything like such early and plentiful testimony to its text, and no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound”.  [Fredrick G. Kenyon, The Bible And Modern Scholarship. London: John Murray, 1948, p.20 ]

(2.1.1.) Compare copies of New Testament to the time gaps for other ancient texts

For many ancient texts like the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Demosthenes, Julius Caesar, and Tacitus, there is a gap of 1000 years or more between the dates the works were originally composed, and the dates that the earliest physical copies we have were written. Also, the existing number of these physical manuscripts is sometimes less than 10.   In contrast, with the New Testament we have dozens of physical manuscripts dating back to within 150 years of the time of original writing.

List Manuscript Time Gaps

(2.2) Quotes from New Testament books appear in other early Christian writings

(2.2.1) Early Church Fathers (See Timeline)

Church Fathers: Respected Christian leaders and writers within the mainstream Christian tradition, typically before about 500 A.D. They were in touch with the oral traditions passed down within the churches from the apostles.

“Apostolic Fathers”: Wrote about 90-150 A.D. Typically had direct contact with disciples of disciples of the original apostles. For instance, Ignatius and Polycarp were taught by the Apostle John himself. Irenaeus was then taught by Polycarp.  Clement’s letter (96 A.D.) to the Corinthians is so close to Paul’s thinking that it reads like something that Paul might have written.

(2.2.2) Extensive appearance of verses from the New Testament in writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

This indicates that the New Testament documents were in circulation 100-150 A.D. and thus were composed before that time [2] :

“The authors known as the Apostolic Fathers wrote chiefly between AD 90 and 160, and in their works we find evidence for their acquaintance with most of the books of the New Testament. In three works whose date is probably round about AD 100 – the ‘Epistle of Barnabas’, written perhaps in Alexandria; the Didache, or ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’, produced somewhere in Syria or Palestine; and the letter sent to the Corinthian church by Clement, bishop of Rome, about AD 96—we find fairly certain quotations from the common tradition of the Synoptic Gospels, from Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Titus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and possible quotations from other books of the New Testament. In the letters written by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, as he journeyed to his martyrdom in Rome in AD 115, there are reasonably identifiable quotations from Matthew, John, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and Timothy, Titus, and possible allusions to Mark, Luke, Acts, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. His younger contemporary, Polycarp, in a letter to the Philippians (c. 120) quotes from the common tradition of the Synoptic Gospels, from Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, I Peter, and I John.”

[ from F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?, 1981 (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids) p. 13. ]

(2.2.3) Explicit references to Paul’s letters by Apostolic Fathers

In a letter to the church at Corinth, Clement of Rome (~ 96 A.D.) refers to the letter (I Corinthians) that Paul had sent them, advising them to pick it up and re-read it.

In a letter to the Christians at Philippi, Polycarp (~140 A.D.) reminded them of the letter that Paul had written them, and recommended they study it in order to be built up in their faith.

These references show broad familiarity with Paul’s writings among the early Christians. In particular, they establish that Paul did write his epistles to those two churches, since the Christians in Corinth and in Philippi already knew of these letters.

( 3 ) Paul’s Writings: The Earliest Documents About Jesus

Although the Gospels contain the most information about Jesus, there is general agreement that Paul’s letters were composed around 50-65 A.D., which is earlier than the Gospels. That gives them high value for historical trustworthiness. We have seen above the evidence from the writings of the Church Fathers that Paul really did write his letters in that early time frame. Two of his letters (Galatians and I Corinthians) contain explicit references to his receiving information from Peter and James and other direct disciples who had seen Jesus after his resurrection.

( 3.1) Galatians 1-2 : Paul visits other apostles just a few years after the Resurrection

In Galatians 1-2 Paul describes how he made two visits to Jerusalem to talk to Peter and other apostles there. The overall topic that Paul is addressing in this passage is whether he is correct in teaching that Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians were not obligated to keep the traditional Jewish customs, hence the mention of circumcision and not giving into “false believers”.  Since this position was at that time still controversial among some of the original apostles (Peter, John,  James, etc.), Paul here is trying to convince his readers that he has a mandate from God for teaching it. Hence, he stresses his direct revelation from God, and wants to minimize his dependence on the other apostles. However, to maintain his credibility among the Christians of that era who would be acquainted with the facts, he has to (somewhat reluctantly, it seems) acknowledge the contacts he did have with these original apostles. This circumstance lends credibility to what Paul writes here in Galatians:  this passage provides solid support for the chain of testimony (i.e. Peter, etc. to Paul to Paul’s audience) about the life of Jesus,  even though that was not Paul’s motive for writing it.

DISCUSSION TOPIC #1: Read the passage below. Relate this reading to the timeline, for the timing of Paul’s two visits (35-38 A.D. and c. 48 A.D.) relative to the date of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Gal 1:13-2:9 (NIV):

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [i.e. Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.

2 Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. 4 This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

6 As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. 7 On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. 8 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.

 Approximate Dates for Events in Galatians 1-2:

DATE                     EVENT

___30____         Jesus crucified, raised from the dead, appears to his disciples near Jerusalem and in Galilee.

__31-35_             Paul encounters people around Jerusalem who are convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead, and he has them arrested and punished.

__33-35___        Paul becomes a believer in Jesus, after Jesus appears to him.

__36-38____     Paul first meets with Peter (“Cephas” is the Aramaic form of “Peter”) and James (Jesus’ brother), and heard from them in person about Jesus and the Resurrection.

___48____         Paul meets with the apostles at Jerusalem again, including Peter, James and John.

Paul engaged in severe persecution of the church in the Jerusalem area around 31-35 A.D., then had a vision of Christ which turned him into an ardent follower of Jesus. This conversion experience, on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, is described in Acts 9. Within three years, he visited Jerusalem and spent 15 days with Peter (Paul uses Peter’s Aramaic name, “Cephas”) and also saw Jesus’ brother, James. This would have been around 36-38 A.D. So within six to eight years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul got to hear Peter’s first-hand experiences of Jesus’s life, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and ascension. It is hard to get more historical than that. What Peter shared with Paul essentially agreed with what Paul had already learned from his encounters with other Christians over the years, and with the special revelations that God had given to Paul.

( 3.2) I Cor 15 : Paul receives teaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection from other apostles

In I Corinthians 15 (written about 56 A.D.), Paul describes the teaching on the Resurrection that he had received from the Jerusalem apostles during his visits, and that he had taught the Corinthians when he first came to them about 50 A.D. Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to many people, sometimes to a whole group at a time. Some of these people were well-known personages in the early church, like Peter and Jesus’s brother James. These men knew Jesus well, and were convinced by numerous appearances after his death that he had been raised from the dead.

I Corinthians 15:1-8 (NIV):

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. [I Cor.15:1-8]

The wording in this passage indicates that this was a well-established creed, which had been composed some years earlier to cover the essential facts in a form that was easy to memorize [3]. In other words, by the time Paul heard this creed from the other apostles (c. 37 A.D.), people had known about the Resurrection for several years, long enough to compose a formal statement of it. Only about twenty years passed between Jesus’ death and resurrection (30 A.D.) and when Paul first told the Corinthians about these events (50-51 A.D.).

The Christians in Corinth in 56 A.D. knew perfectly well who Peter and James were and what they stood for; in fact some of the Corinthians ( I Cor 1:12) considered themselves to be disciples of Peter rather than disciples of Paul. Corinth was a cosmopolitan port city, and travel around the Mediterranean was relatively safe and common under Roman rule, so there was a fair measure of awareness about important developments in other cities. Paul would likely have been exposed as a liar and lost all credibility with the Corinthians if these historically-based statements in I Cor. 15 were not true.

Paul in these passages uses Peter’s native Aramaic name “Cephas”. Elsewhere in I Corinthians (9:5) Paul makes an off-handed reference to the apparently well-known fact that “the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas” took their wives along with them when they traveled. This jibes with Mark 1:30, which indicates that Peter was married. Obviously Peter was a real man who was a close associate of (the historical) Jesus. Ditto for John, and Jesus’ brothers such as James.


Underline all the witnesses listed in the I Corinthians 15 passage above who encountered the risen Jesus. How likely is it that these people would be easily fooled as to whether it was really Jesus, and whether he had really died and really been raised from the dead?

(3.3) Paul’s Portrait of Jesus

In his epistles, Paul typically focuses on exhorting his followers to keep on believing and practicing what he had already taught them, and on correcting various pressing doctrinal and behavioral problems. Paul’s references to specifics about Jesus’s words and deeds are sparse, but they can be found in his writings. Paul writes that Jesus was born of a woman and born under [the Jewish] law (Gal. 4:4); that he was a descendent of Abraham (Rom. 9:5) and of David (Rom. 1:3); that he was betrayed on a particular night, and on that night he instituted a memorial meal of bread and wine (I Cor. 11:23-25); that he was crucified (I Cor. 1:23, Phil. 4:8, etc.); that he was buried and then raised from the dead and appeared to his followers (I Cor. 15:1-7). Thus, Paul corroborates key aspects of Jesus’ career (human birth, betrayal, Last Supper, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances) which are described in the Gospels. In a few cases Paul cites the sayings of Jesus, such as his words at the Last Supper (I Cor 11:24-25), his teaching that gospel preachers have a right to material support (I Cor. 9:14; cf. Luke 10:7), and his teaching on marriage and divorce (I Cor. 7:10-11; cf. Mark 10:9).

Besides acknowledging the humanity of Jesus, Paul in a number of passages refers to or implies the pre-existence and exalted nature of Jesus: e.g. Phil. 4:5, II Cor 8:9, I Cor 8:6 (cf. John 1:3), Col. 1:15-19, Gal. 4:4. Paul repeatedly puts Jesus Christ (“the Lord”) on a similar level as God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor. 12:4-6, II Cor. 13:14). It was the “Lord of glory” who was crucified (I Cor 2:8). [4]

(3.4) The Significance of Paul’s Testimony

We could stop right here, as far as discussing the historicity of Jesus. Historical evidence in the ancient world hardly gets any better than these passages from Paul’s writings. It is beyond reasonable doubt that Paul wrote these letters, and that he actually met and talked with known church leaders within 6-8 years of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. These leaders knew Jesus very well before his death, and claimed multiple encounters with him after his Resurrection. Also, Paul was in the business of arresting and imprisoning Christians within 1-4 years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime. Paul would of course have interrogated these people and therefore knew that they believed (strongly enough to go to prison for it) that Jesus of Nazareth not only existed, but had been raised from the dead. These interrogations and arrests occurred mainly in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, where people in general would know whether or not Jesus was an actual teacher who had been crucified.

Thus, the historical evidence is clear that Jesus of Nazareth really existed, died on a cross and was buried, and that his disciples reported compelling visions of him after his death. His followers would normally have been expected to scatter and go rebuild their shattered lives after their leader was executed as a criminal. But instead, very shortly after his death, they went around claiming that he had been raised from the dead. And nothing could force them to deny their testimony of the risen Christ. They were jailed and whipped and killed and driven into exile because of their testimony to the Resurrection. People frequently die for a cause which they think is true, but they almost never die for a cause which they know to be a lie. [5]

(4) The Testimony of the Gospels

While we can glean many facts about the life and work of Jesus from Paul’s letters, the Gospels give us a much more complete picture of what Jesus did and what he taught.

We don’t know for sure who wrote the four Gospels or when they were written. While early church traditions link these writings to the disciple Matthew, Mark (an associate of Paul and of Peter), Luke (a physician and associate of Paul), and to the disciple John, the authorships are not stated in the texts themselves. There are various strands of evidence which support some of these traditions, e.g. that Mark was an associate of Peter and wrote primarily for a Roman audience. For simplicity, we will refer to them here by their traditional names.

Dates for the final composition of the Gospels are typically taken to be in the range of 60-95 A.D. People in the first century relied heavily on oral, rather than written, transmission of knowledge, so they were well-practiced in memorizing and passing along important content [5B]. Although the time gap here (30-65 years) between the events and their committal to writing is longer than with Paul’s epistles, this gap is still very short compared to the recording of many other events in ancient history. For instance, Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. but the earliest history we have which describes him [6] was composed about 50 B.C, a gap of more than 250 years. Craig Blomberg [7] points out:

That we have four biographies of Jesus within 30 to 60 years of his death is nothing short of astonishing by ancient standards. No other examples from antiquity have been preserved of this abundance of information from multiple authors and writings so close to the people and events being described. To reject a priori the New Testament Gospels as potential sources of excellent historical information about Jesus of Nazareth is to impose a bias on the study of history, which, if consistently applied elsewhere, would leave us completely agnostic about anything or anyone in the ancient world!

An examination of the texts shows that most of the content of Mark is incorporated nearly verbatim in Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke share some additional material (mainly sayings of Jesus, referred to as “Q”). This suggests that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke both made use of Mark (or of the tradition that lay behind Mark) and of the Q sayings collection. Matthew and Luke also include material (deemed “M” and “L”) which is unique to each of their Gospels. Luke explicitly states (Luke 1:1-4) that he is working from prior written accounts, perhaps with additional oral testimony. John seems to be based on its own tradition – – it contains a rather different set of the acts and words of Jesus than appears in the other three gospels, although it starts to converge with them at the end, with the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

There are grounds for believing that the Gospels were written only a few decades after the events, and were based on oral traditions that date back to the time of Jesus. Some of these reasons are:

( a ) As noted above, quotations of Gospels by other Christian writers date back to less than a hundred years after the events. This indicates the Gospels themselves were composed only a matter of decades after the time of Jesus. In that timeframe there would still be people around who were taught by direct eyewitnesses, who would know if the material in the Gospels were true or not.

( b ) Although there are different emphases, the Jesus of the Gospels generally matches what we know of Jesus from Paul’s letters.

( c ) Genre: As C .S. Lewis has pointed out, fictional stories written in ancient times did not include a lot of irrelevant details. The details that were inserted in legends nearly always had some literary purpose, for instance, to develop a plot or illustrate a moral principle. The Gospels contain many details of geography and events, such as the description of 153 fish being caught (John 21) or Jesus doodling with his finger in the dust (John 8), that don’t serve any literary or doctrinal purpose. The person compelled to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of crucifixion was not just “a man”, but was specified as “Simon, from Cyrene”.  A reasonable explanation for the writer including those details is that they actually happened.

( d ) Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic, a Semitic tongue similar to Hebrew. This was the vernacular for residents of Judea and Galilee. The Gospels were written in Greek, the language of most educated people in the eastern Mediterranean at that time. However, some Aramaic expressions have been retained in the Gospels, showing a connection to the earlier Palestinian Jewish roots of the gospel [8]. Often the Gospel writer will translate the original Aramaicism into Greek for his readers, as in Mark 5:41: “He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’)“.

( e ) Jesus stands out as a distinctive personality, unlikely to have been merely the literary creation of believers decades later. The Gospels contain some features which are largely absent in later Christian writings. Blomberg notes, “By far the most common title Jesus uses for himself in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is “Son of Man”, a title that occurs only once in Acts and once in Revelation in all of the rest of the New Testament. The synoptic Jesus regularly teaches about the kingdom of God, speaks in parables to illustrate it, and casts out demons to inaugurate it. But in the rest of the New Testament, references to the kingdom are rare, exorcisms sporadic, and parables nonexistent.” [9] Conversely, the Gospels lack any mention of some issues which were of burning concern to early Christians, such as whether Gentile followers of the Messiah had to undergo circumcision. If the Gospels were simply made up in order to fit the needs of first-century believers, we would have expected someone to have put words in the mouth of Jesus which would have settled this dispute which nearly tore apart the early church.

( f ) Luke was written by the same author as Acts. We can check the veracity of many historical details in Acts. As noted below, Luke was extremely accurate in Acts, so it is reasonable to assume he is also competent in handling historical material in the Gospel of Luke.

( g ) Many geographical locations are mentioned in the Gospel of John. Sometimes they are described in considerable detail. In recent decades, archaeologists have confirmed the accuracy of these descriptions, as noted below. This builds our confidence that John’s Gospel derived from someone who was intimately acquainted with Judea and Samaria at or close to the time of Jesus, not by someone making all this up a hundred years later.

( 5 ) Luke the Meticulous Historian

The same person wrote Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s gospel begins with a description of how he composed it:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke here shows that he is concerned for historical truthfulness, and has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning”. He stresses that the written material he is working with originated with men who had been actual eyewitnesses of the gospel events. The text of Acts indicates that Luke traveled with Paul to Jerusalem around 57 A.D., where he would have opportunity to interview people who knew Jesus or the original apostles. [10 ]

We can check many details of Acts for historical accuracy, such as the names and titles of various Roman officials in different regions in the 40-60 A.D. timeframe. In the late 1800’s, a British scholar, Sir William Ramsay, had been convinced by contemporary scholars that Acts was riddled with errors. There appeared to be no evidence for several cities, persons, and locations named in Acts, and so skeptics assumed Luke must be mistaken. They accused Luke of fabricating titles such as “politarch” and “first man”. Ramsey traveled to the Middle East and did excavations in Greece and Asia Minor (which is in today’s Turkey), expecting to confirm the inaccuracy of Acts.

To his surprise, he found archaeological evidence again and again which showed Luke to be precisely correct, even on fine points of titles and local customs. Luke’s accuracy is demonstrated by the fact that he names key historical figures in the correct time sequence as well as correct titles to government officials in various areas: “politarchs” in Thessalonica, “Asiarchs” in Ephesus, “proconsul” in Cyprus; and in Malta, the unusual title of “the first man of the island”. Acts 18:12 names Gallio as proconsul of Achaia during Paul’s visit to Corinth around 51 A.D.; an inscription from Delphi mentioning Gallio’s proconsulship was published in 1905. These confirmations of the Bible text led Ramsay ultimately to become a believing Christian.

Norman Geisler states, “In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without error.” [11] The classical historian A. N. Sherwin-White wrote of Acts, “Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”[12] A Wikipedia article lists many points where Acts has been confirmed, and some where scholarly debate continues. [13]

F. Bruce observes, “The accuracy which Luke shows in the details we have already examined extends also to the more general sphere of local color and atmosphere. He gets the atmosphere right every time. Jerusalem, with its excitable and intolerant crowds, is in marked contrast to the busy emporium of Syrian Antioch, where men of different creeds and nationalities rub shoulders and get their rough corners worn away, so that we are not surprised to find the first Gentile church established there, with Jews and non-Jews meeting in brotherly tolerance and fellowship. Then there is Philippi, the Roman colony with its self-important magistrates and its citizens so very proud of being Roman; and Athens, with its endless disputations in the marketplace and its unquenchable thirst for the latest news.” [The New Testament Documents, p.89]

Since we find that Acts is generally accurate in those matters we can check, it is reasonable to posit that the same author likewise made an effort in his Gospel to be accurate in describing the events of Jesus’ life. Of course, any historian makes editorial choices as to how to select and arrange his material, and a historian can be only as good as his sources. We would expect that Luke’s knowledge of events around the time of Jesus’ birth may be less firm than for the events of his public ministry some thirty years later. [14]

( 6 ) John the Accurate Geographer  

John’s gospel mentions many specific places in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, sometimes with great detail added. As with Acts, skeptical scholars of the nineteenth century assumed that if John made historical statements which were not confirmed by other sources, those statements were likely incorrect. It was fashionable to believe that John was written as late as 150 A.D. by someone with no direct connection to eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life.

As with Acts, archaeological investigations in the twentieth century have served to correct excessive skepticism towards the trustworthiness of John. The discovery of Egyptian papyrus fragments of John, some dating to around 130-150 A.D., indicates that John was written in the first century, not in the second. [15]

Also, most of John’s geographical statements have now been confirmed by excavations. Prof Urban von Walde recently made a survey of twenty sites in and around Jerusalem which are mentioned in John but nowhere else in the New Testament. Archaeologists have been able to locate most of them. These spots include Jacob’s well, the Pool of Siloam, the “Stone Pavement” where Pilate made his judgements, and Golgotha (the site of the crucifixion). For 16 of the 20 sites it has been confirmed that John’s gospel gives accurate information, 2 appear likely to be correct, and 2 have not been adequately identified yet. None were shown to be in error. See http://www.is-there-a-god.info/belief/johnandarchaeology/    for more on this study.

For example, John (5:1-8) mentions the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed a lame man. John supplies a number of details about this spot: it was near the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, it had five porches or covered colonnades, and the people regarded it as a place of healing. John depicts it as surrounded by disabled people who hoped to be healed in its waters.

Since no other document of antiquity, including the rest of the Bible, mentions such a place, skeptics assumed that John simply invented the Pool of Bethesda. They argued that the “pool” had a metaphorical, rather than historical, significance. Normally a ceremonial pool would be roughly rectangular, and thus would be surrounded by four, not five porches. Learned men proposed that John made up the five porches to represent the five books of Moses, which Jesus came to fulfill.

However, when archaeologists dug where John said that the pool was located, they found a pool with five porches, just as John described. The pool had an extra colonnade dividing the pool into two sections (see artist’s reconstruction below). Moreover, the pool contained shrines to the Greek gods of healing, showing that this pool did indeed have a reputation in ancient times for healing, as John had indicated.

Pool of Bethesda – model in the Israel Museum, Picture taken by Deror Avi. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pool_of_Bethesda

All this shows intimate familiarity with the areas in Judea and Galilee where Jesus ministered. However, Jerusalem was destroyed and Judea was decimated in the Roman-Jewish war of 67-70 A.D. Many of these landmarks from the time of Jesus were altered after that holocaust. The Gospel is likewise conversant with Palestinian Jewish customs of that era, such as burial practices and laws of evidence. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that the writer or the source of John’s Gospel was a Jew who lived in Judea or Galilee in the middle of the first century and who was concerned for historical accuracy. [16]

( 7 ) Differences Among the Gospels

In the early Christian writings we have, there is a deep concern to maintain a faithful connection to the teaching of the first apostles. For instance, Paul was a fiercely independent thinker, yet he referred back to the core teachings he had received from Peter, et al. (I Cor. 15:3-5), and he felt the need to check his teachings with Peter, James, and John to make sure that he was not “running his race in vain” (Gal. 2:2). Paul did not feel at liberty to make up sayings and attribute them to Jesus (see I Cor 7:10,12,25). A reading of the early church fathers shows a similar desire to maintain the apostolic connection to the teachings of Jesus.

Even with an underlying desire for accuracy, however, if the material which went into the Gospels was maintained in oral form for several decades, there is the distinct possibility that alterations could occur. A characteristic of genuine eyewitness testimonies is that some details get garbled, while key events are largely retained. For instance, if four people witness a traffic accident and are independently interviewed two weeks later, they will tell four different stories. Different witnesses will mention different details, and likely there will be outright contradictions as to the colors of vehicles, the exact order of events, etc. That does not mean no accident occurred.

Opinions differ widely on the significance of the apparent discrepancies which are found among the Gospels. Much depends on the presuppositions of the reader. An atheist will likely be driven by his presuppositions to regard the reports of miraculous healings by Jesus and of his resurrection as necessarily untrue. Thus, it is natural for skeptics to propose alternative theories as to how such notions might have later developed within groups of believers to meet their psychological needs. If the Gospels are utterly mistaken on such fundamental items, there may seem to be little merit attempting to resolve contradictions on more secondary issues; these discrepancies seem like just further evidence of the untrustworthiness of the Gospels.

While most theists hold that the vast majority of events occur according to the regularities which we deem natural laws, they also allow that the God who created and sustains physical reality could bring about the occasional miracle such as the Resurrection. Believing the Gospels to be correct on the major events of Jesus’ life, Christians tend to be more open to the possibility of finding reconciliations for lesser discrepancies among the Gospel texts. [17, 18]

This is what historians normally do with competing accounts. It is common for a modern scholar to find apparent discrepancies among multiple sources which treat the same event or person in ancient history, and it is part of his or her job to look for potential harmonizations of the different ancient accounts rather than to simply assume they are all erroneous. Most ancient historians include some supernatural events in their accounts, yet this does not automatically disqualify them as having historical value. It is reasonable to approach the Gospels in a similar spirit.

A large number of apparent discrepancies can be resolved by recognizing that different biblical authors may include or omit a different set of details around the same event. For instance, both Luke (Acts 1:3) and Paul (I Cor. 15) indicate that there were a number of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and John notes that they occurred in both Galilee and the vicinity of Jerusalem. Different Gospel writers may have described different encounters with the risen Christ, according to their knowledge or their editorial purposes. For instance, absent input from the other Gospels, Luke 24 would seem to suggest that Jesus’ final ascension occurred right on Easter Sunday. However, Acts 1 (written by the same author) states that forty days elapsed between the Resurrection and the Ascension. It is possible to construct an account of the post-Resurrection appearances which harmonizes all of the Gospel data [19].

There are many differences among the stories of the Resurrection which appear in the four Gospels, yet there is a core of agreement among them all. For instance, they all agree that Jesus died, that his corpse was sealed in a tomb, and that as of Easter morning the stone had been rolled away from the door of the tomb and the body was absent. Also, that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women; this is a detail which is unlikely to have been invented later, since women in those days were not considered to be competent witnesses. If the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were a fabrication by his followers, we might expect them to portray the risen Messiah as shining with glory or performing outstanding miracles to vindicate himself. Instead, in all three Gospels where Jesus appears to his followers he typically looks like a very ordinary guy and mainly just chats and eats with them.

Evangelical scholars have written books which treat various difficulties in the Bible and propose resolutions, e.g.:

Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 2001).

Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Baker Books, 2008).

Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (B&H Academic, 2016)

Lists of proposed resolutions of apparent contradictions in the Bible are available on-line from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry ( https://carm.org/matthew-mark ) and from Apologetics Press  ( http://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx ).


( 8 ) Significance of Textual Variants

Whenever a long book is copied by hand, minor changes tend to creep in. A copyist might misspell or substitute a word, put words out of order, omit a word or a whole line of text, or take it upon himself to smooth out what seemed to him to be an odd wording. These changes are called “variants”. Over the course of more than a thousand years, thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been copied, each with hundreds of pages. So naturally, hundreds of thousands of variants can be found in comparing all these pages from all these manuscripts. That is just an expected byproduct of having so many manuscripts copied and recopied so many times.

Skeptics sometimes throw these vast numbers of variants around to suggest that we have no idea what the original text actually said. That is false. Textual criticism is the science of critically examining variant texts and using rational principles to work back towards the original writing. Textual criticism is routinely applied for ancient texts, and even for the works of Shakespeare. More manuscripts means more variants, which means more raw material for textual critics to work with, which means greater certainty about what the original text was. So the “hundreds of thousands of variants in the New Testament manuscripts” is good news, not bad news, as far as ascertaining the original wordings.

In the case of the New Testament, for practically all verses we have a very clear idea of what the original texts said. This is because we have manuscripts that were copied less than 150 years after the original documents were penned. As Kenyon noted above, “no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.”

By comparing earlier and later manuscripts, we can typically see where a particular variant got started, and then how it propagated into families of later and later texts. Modern bibles acknowledge in footnotes the spots where there is disagreement as to what the original text was, so readers today can see exactly where there are uncertainties. For instance, in most modern bibles it is clearly noted that the ending to Mark’s gospel shown in Mark 16:9-20 is missing from the earlier manuscripts and was thus probably not part of the original document, and that the same is true for the story in John 8 of the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery. Most of the other uncertainties in the New Testament texts involve only a few words or just one word, as noted in the footnotes in most Bibles.

Scholars generally agree that no important point of doctrine is affected by these textual variants. Every key teaching of the New Testament on the person and work of Jesus is supported by many verses. Therefore, if the original text of one relevant verse on a teaching is unresolved, that does not affect the overall consensus on that teaching.

The New Testament has been preserved in more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. There are approximately 300,000 textual variants among the manuscripts, most of them being the changes of word order and other comparative trivialities. Nonetheless, for over 250 years, New Testament scholars have argued that no textual variant affects any doctrine.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textual_criticism

Blomberg writes, “The consensus among textual critics is that in the modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament we have, either in the text itself or in the footnotes upwards of 97% of what the original authors wrote reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and that no doctrine of the Christian faith depends solely on one or more textually uncertain passages” [20]

( 9 ) Settling of the New Testament Canon

The New Testament “canon” is the list of books which are considered to be inspired and authoritative, not merely edifying and informative.

The very earliest Christians (up to about 150 A.D.) probably did not think about this too clearly – they had recent, clear oral teachings passed down in the major churches so they did not feel such a need for written documents [21]. After about 150, the thread of oral tradition was weakening, and the rise of heretics with their rival scriptures made it necessary for the mainstream Christians to define which books were authoritative.

By then, the four Gospels, Acts, and most of Paul’s letters were widely circulated and read by Christians. There were also other books that were highly esteemed, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Some of the books that fall at the very end of our New Testament were not universally accepted as authentic in the second century.

Some dates for various early lists of authoritative books are given in the timeline below:

Timeline for Development of New Testament Canon

Justin Martyr (c. 150 A.D.) cites from all four Gospels, and describes them as “memoirs of the apostles.” He notes that in the regular Sunday meetings, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read” (1 Apol 67.3). By this time the written Gospels are treated on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures. More specifically, Justin notes that these memoirs “were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them” (Dialog 103). This wording is consistent with an understanding that two Gospels (Matthew and John) were attributed directly to apostles, and two (Mark and Luke) attributed to associates of apostles.

Justin’s disciple Tatian combined the four Gospels in a harmonized text called the Diatessaron about 160, showing acceptance of these four as authoritative. For Irenaeus in 180, it was axiomatic that there were four and only four Gospels. The “Muratorian Canon” is usually dated about 170. It lists four gospels (Luke and John are explicitly named; the names of the first two are missing from the fragment we possess, but may safely be assumed to be Matthew and Mark), Acts, all thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, two letters of John, and Revelation.

For our purposes, it is not important that there were disagreements over some of the books at the very end of the New Testament like II Peter or III John, which may not have been circulating as widely among Christians before that time. It is clear that by about 180 A.D. there was general agreement on the vast majority of the N.T. books, especially the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters. Those happen to be the books that give us the best information about Jesus and his historicity. [22]

( 10 ) Mention of Jesus Christ in Extrabiblical Literature

Paul’s writings, which date to within about twenty years of Jesus’ lifetime, contain a number of references to the life and words of Jesus. Paul also includes some passages (e.g. I Cor. 15:3-4, Rom 1:3-4) which cite creedal sayings that date back to the very earliest Christian community. The four Gospels were likely written in the 60-95 A.D. timeframe but are based on earlier traditions. At least five fairly independent sources (Mark, Q, M, L, and John) went into these gospels. References to the life and teachings of Jesus occur in the writings of other Christians (“Church Fathers”) which start to appear about 95 A.D.

Nature of Biographical Reportage in the Ancient World

Around 100 A.D., references to Jesus start to appear in non-Christian sources. It is helpful to calibrate our expectations as to what mention of Jesus we are likely to find in contemporary Roman annals. There is no particular reason why the death of a rabbi in Judea in 30 A.D. would be written up in chronicles of the time. Writing of any kind was much rarer than today, and only a small fraction of what was written in the first century has survived to be discovered today. For the vast majority of men and women in the ancient world, even those who had some public visibility at the time, we have no accounts, especially records written within the lifetime of the person.

Bart Ehrman observes of the ancient world in general, “We have no records, not only of Jesus but of nearly anyone who lived in the first century. We simply don’t have birth notices, trial records, death certificates – – or other standard sorts of records that one has today” [23]. For instance, Pontius Pilate was arguably the most important figure in Roman Palestine for the decade (26-36 A.D.) during which he governed Judea. Ehrman notes, “And what record from that decade do we have from his reign – – what Roman records of his major accomplishments, his daily itinerary, the decrees he passed, the laws he issued, the prisoners he put on trial, the death warrants he signed, his scandals, his interviews, his judicial proceedings? We have none. Nothing at all.” [24]

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, c. 93 A.D.

The first clear non-Christian reference to Jesus is found in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Our copies of Antiquities of the Jews, written around 93 AD, include two references to Jesus. In one passage (20:9.1) , Josephus describes how the Jewish leaders killed James, the brother of “Jesus, who was called Christ”. Nearly all scholars take this passage in Josephus to be genuine.

There is another passage (Antiquities 18:3.3) which describes a Jesus who was accused by the Jews and executed by Pontius Pilate. While there are various opinions, most scholars believe that this passage contains an authentic kernel which makes reference to the historical Jesus, although later Christian copyists added verbiage stating that Jesus was the Christ and that he rose from the dead. [25] It is not credible that Josephus would have made those statements. These interpolations may be stripped away to yield a “neutral” version of this passage, reading something like this:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of those who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up to this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. [26]

Josephus also wrote about John the Baptist, noting that he baptized and preached to large crowds, then was imprisoned and executed by Herod Antipas (Antiquities 18:5.2). This is an independent confirmation of the New Testament description of the existence and fate of John the Baptist, although there are some differences in the two accounts. In his day John the Baptist was probably a greater public and political sensation than Jesus was, which led to Herod the tetrarch arresting John as a political threat and eventually killing him. Nevertheless, the first mention of John in literature outside of the Gospels is this passage in Josephus, written some 60 years after John’s death. This again illustrates the paucity of contemporary written reports in ancient times.

Pliny’s Letter, c. 112

During his time as governor of Pontus and Bithynia (111-113 A.D.) Pliny the Younger wrote a letter (Letters 10.96-97) to the emperor Trajan regarding the Christians who had become so numerous in his region that the worship of the traditional gods was being neglected. Pliny was killing anyone who was accused of being a Christian and who did not deny his or her faith. He wrote to seek the emperor’s advice on some fine points of his policy. From his interrogations of Christians, Pliny learned:

…that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. [27]

Christ was worshiped “as a god” with a responsive hymn sung to him. Followers of Jesus were committed to high standards of moral integrity. Part of their weekly devotion was to meet to “partake of food” – this may refer to the formal Eucharist or to an additional communal meal (“love feast”) that was apparently practiced by the early Christians.

This letter shows that by 112 the Christian faith had made deep inroads as far as the northern reaches of Asia Minor. Since this faith began among the Jews of Palestine, it would have taken some decades for it to become adapted to the Greek cultures of Asia Minor and to spread and eventually to displace the ingrained traditional religious practices in this distant region. Hence, this letter indicates that belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ began no later than the middle of the first century, within the lifetimes of those who knew Jesus directly.

Tacitus’s Annals, c. 116

The respected Roman historian and senator Cornelius Tacitus wrote extensively on the history of Rome and its empire. In his Annals (written about 116 A.D) he discusses the great fire in 64 which destroyed much of Rome when Nero was emperor. The people suspected that Nero had set the fire. In order to deflect suspicion from himself, Nero accused the local Christians of setting the fire, and then proceeded to arrest them and to kill them via horrendous tortures:

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 Tiberius 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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. (Annals 15.44)

Here Tacitus affirms a number of items that are consistent with the New Testament narratives. Christ was crucified (“suffered the extreme penalty”) under the governor Pontius Pilate of Judea. Very soon after that, “a most mischievous superstition” broke out in Judea, and within thirty years had gained a multitude of converts in Rome. Presumably this “superstition” included belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, indicating that the Resurrection was being proclaimed in Judea within just a few years of Jesus’ death. This passage gives such a negative portrayal of Christianity and Christians (“abominations…a most mischievous superstition…evil…hideous and shameful…criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment”) that it is unlikely to be a later Christian interpolation. [28]

If these three sources (Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus) which date to within 60-85 years of Jesus’ lifetime were the only mention we had of Jesus Christ, this would be regarded as fairly substantial documentation by typical standards of ancient history. Of course, Paul and the Gospels provide even earlier and more complete evidence for the life and teachings of Jesus than these extrabiblical references.


[1] Some scholars question whether the Pastoral epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) were actually written by Paul. Nearly all agree that Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon were written by Paul. This issue is largely irrelevant to our discussion here, since the seven non-controversial epistles contain the richest historical references to Jesus.

[2] The “The Development of the Canon of the New Testament” website, http://www.ntcanon.org/table.shtml , is an excellent resource for exploring patristic citations of New Testament passages. This site has a master table of all citations by all the early Fathers; clicking on each of the Fathers’ abbreviated names in this table (e.g. Ig for Ignatius, Po for Polycarp, etc.) takes the user to an article which spells out the actual New Testament citations by that Father.

The Apostolic Fathers clearly regarded the Gospels and the Epistles as fundamentally reliable, since they sprinkle quotes from these books throughout their writings. However, it is not clear at this stage that Christians viewed these books as unique, inspired, inerrant Scripture. They usually do not cite these New Testament books with the same reverence they show for the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, they seem to treat these books as essentially an extension of the oral teachings passed down from the Apostles.

Clement of Rome, writing on behalf of the church at Rome to the church at Corinth c. 96 A.D, stated that Paul had written his letter (I Corinthians) to the Corinthians “under the inspiration of the Spirit”, and Clement quotes some passages from the Gospels. However, Clement reserves “It is written” or “the Lord saith” for citations from the Old Testament Scriptures. Clement was writing only about 30 years after the deaths of Peter and Paul. The oral tradition from church leaders who had been appointed by the apostles was so strong and clear in his day that there was little need for recourse to written statements of the faith:

The apostles have preached Christ to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth from God, and the apostles from Christ. Both of these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the Word of God, with the full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labors], having proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterward believe. [I Clement 42]

The first patristic citation from a New Testament book which is preceded by the authoritative formula “It is written” occurs in the Epistle of Barnabus (c. 100-130): “…as it is written, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’ “. This is an exact quotation from Matthew 22:14.

Papias was a bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. He wrote about 95–120 A.D. Some fragments of his work have survived in the form of excerpts by later writers. In Papias’ day, it was still possible to encounter men who had had direct contact with the original apostles. Papias eagerly sought to hear from such men when they passed through his region:   “And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice.”

Papias elsewhere reports that the apostolic teachings had been written down in authoritative books. He states Mark had written a Gospel which accurately recorded Peter’s teachings (although Papias notes that some of the events in Mark’s narrative may not be in correct chronological order), and also that Matthew had written down Jesus’ “sayings in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language” (it is not clear what Papias means here; this may refer to an Aramaic draft of the Q sayings of Jesus). Nevertheless, for Papias around 100 A.D., the “living and abiding voice” of oral tradition seemed more compelling than any “information from the books”.

By 180 A.D. there was far greater emphasis on the New Testament documents. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies, III:1.1), after the apostles had first proclaimed “the plan of our salvation” by oral preaching, this message was “at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith”. Irenaeus then goes on to list the four canonical Gospels and to validate them by linking each one with an apostle (e.g. Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul, etc.). Irenaeus quotes from all four Gospels, Acts, twelve letters of Paul, I Peter, I & II John, and Revelation. He refers to the Gospels and the other apostolic writings as “Scripture”, on the same revered level as the Old Testament books.

It should be noted that the high value which second-century Christians placed on oral traditions does not support the notion that administrative successors to the apostles (e.g. the current bishop of Rome) have an automatic ongoing teaching authority, which stands in parallel with the apostolic Scriptures. Clement and Irenaeus valued the succession of bishops and deacons within the churches only for their capability to pass down the key points of what the apostles had actually, recently said and which were widely known among the churches (cf. Acts 26:26). This gives no basis of authority for some later church leader (whether in apostolic succession or not) to promulgate dogmas which were never taught clearly and publicly by the original apostles.

In the time of Clement and Irenaeus and Tertullian (c. 100-200 A.D.), various major churches had leaders who had been taught by previous leaders who had (within just a few rounds of succession) been taught directly by the apostles. Irenaeus named Rome, Smyrna and Ephesus as examples, but does not limit it to them. Tertullian [Prescription Against Heretics, 36] mentions Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Rome as examples of churches in various regions of the Empire whose leadership had been appointed by apostles. The apostles of Jesus lived and taught well into the second half of the first century. John probably survived till around 100 A.D. Polycarp, who had been taught directly by the apostle John, was still alive in the middle of the second century; as a young man, Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp. Thus, in the second century it was reasonable to hold that the leaders of the major churches were faithfully transmitting what the apostles had taught in the late first century.

However, as time wears on, oral traditions tend to become attenuated or distorted, and so by the third century the apostolic Scriptures became the only sure link to what the apostles actually taught. This is common sense, and was the view of the third and early fourth century church fathers. For instance, Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century stated:   “With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith, no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures. We must not let ourselves be drawn aside by mere persuasion and cleverness of speech. Do not even give absolute belief to me, the one who tells you these things, unless you receive proof from the divine Scriptures of what I teach. For the faith that brings us salvation acquires its force, not from fallible reasonings, but from what can be proved out of the holy Scriptures .”    Athanasius put it this way: “The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.” For more on this see http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/03/calvin-contra-rome-on-scriptur-1.php .

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_reliability_of_the_Gospels :

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 … contains a Christian creed of pre-Pauline origin. The antiquity of the creed has been located by many Biblical scholars to less than a decade after Jesus’ death, originating from the Jerusalem apostolic community. Concerning this creed, Campenhausen wrote, “This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text,” whilst A. M. Hunter said, “The passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability.”

[4] As with nearly every topic discussed here, one can find a range of opinions on the specific interpretations of these verses.

[5] By normal historical standards, there is excellent documentary evidence that Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught in the first decades of the first century, and that he was killed by crucifixion and buried; almost immediately afterward, his followers reported compelling encounters with Jesus in a resurrected form. Despite horrendous persecution, these followers went about proclaiming that Jesus was Lord and the Son of God.       This demonstrates that Jesus’ followers were convinced that he came back to life. However, a detailed analysis of whether these followers were correct in their belief in the Resurrection is outside the scope of this discussion. Skeptics propose, for instance, that the Resurrection was perhaps some kind of hoax or delusion. Two popular treatments of this subject are The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace. The Case for Christ was adapted as a 2017 movie with the same name. Strobel was an investigative journalist at The Chicago Tribune. Wallace is a homicide detective in California. Both men started as atheists, and both applied their professional investigative skills to assess the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. As a result of their investigations, they both became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth actually died and actually rose from the dead and appeared to his followers.     A scholarly treatment of the subject, weighing in at 740 pages, is N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.                       A brief on-line discussion of the evidence for the Resurrection by William Lane Craig is here:


[5B] Skeptics sometimes compare the early period of oral transmission of the gospel to a game of “Telephone”. In this game, the first person in a line is told a sentence, and then each person whispers what they heard into the ear of the next person, and so on down the line of ten or twenty players. The person at the end of the line then speaks aloud the sentence as it has come down to them. This final product is often hilariously different than the original sentence.

However, this is not an apt comparison. The events of Jesus’ life were witnessed by many people, who then would have discussed them collectively. This would be a corrective to filter out the individual misremembrances which are key to the game of Telephone. Also, we are so used to writing down (or videoing with our phones) anything of note that we have largely lost the skill of systematic memorization which was common in ancient times.

Timothy Paul Jones elaborates on the strengths of ancient oral traditions in Misquoting Truth (Intervarsity Press, 2007), pp. 84-94. He notes that literacy was not universal, and the hand-copying of books was tedious, so the normal way that important stories were transmitted was via memorization and verbal repetition, rather than by writing something down. People took this seriously and were much more used to carefully committing material to memory than we are today.  According to Jones:

Especially among the Jews, important teachings were told and re-told in rhythmic, repetitive patterns so that students could memorize key truths. As a result, it was possible for a rabbi’s oral teachings to remain amazingly consistent from one generation to the next. Here’s how a Jewish philosopher named Philo described this sort of process: “[The leader’s] instruction proceeds in a leisurely manner; he lingers over it and spins it out with repetitions, thus permanently imprinting the thoughts in the souls of the hearers.”

These rabbinic patterns of rhythm and repetition are present throughout Jesus’ teachings.

The creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 bears all the hallmarks of deliberate composition by Jewish believers within about five years of Jesus’ lifetime. As we have noted, Paul would have heard this from the original apostles, and then passed it along to the Corinthians. It summarizes the key teachings of the Christian faith, namely that Jesus died for our sins according to the Old Testament Scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead, and he appeared to numerous followers. Paul’s language in this passage (“I handed over to you what I also received”) shows that he is consciously passing along a defined oral tradition. The repeated use of “and that” indicated that this creed was originally composed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews in Judea and Galilee. These same three key points about Jesus appear also in the Gospels, even though they were written several decades later. This demonstrates the capability of intentional oral tradition to retain essential elements of stories, even though some details may get changed with time.

[6] Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) wrote his Bibliotheca historica between about 60 and 30 B.C.

[7] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, B&H Academic (2016) pp. 18-19.

[8] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Jesus

[9] Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, p. 44

[10] There are three sections in Acts (16:10-17, 20:5-21:18, 27:1-28:16) where the narration changes from the usual third-person (“…they…”) to the first person plural (“…we…”). The “we” sections tend to contain more narrative details. For instance, the account of the storm-tossed voyage in Acts 27 is probably the most detailed maritime narrative in all of classical literature, describing which directions the wind was blowing, how many fathoms deep the water was, how many anchors were deployed, the reinforcing of the ship, cutting loose the lifeboat, etc., etc. This has long been understood to indicate that the author was part of the action at those points. It seems that Luke traveled with Paul to Macedonia and eventually to Philippi (16:10-17) and then they parted company. It may be that Luke remained in that area while Paul went on to Greece and to other regions. The “we” narration picks up again (20:5-21:18) after Paul returns to Philippi. They traveled together to Jerusalem around 57 A.D., and then to Rome. Since this was only 27 years after Jesus’ death, presumably this gave Luke a chance to talk with some people who had personally heard and seen Jesus in action.

Proposals have been made disputing that the “we” passages actually denote the narrator’s personal participation. For instance, it has been suggested that the “we” expressions are merely a Hellenistic convention for sea travel. However, this proposal falls apart upon scrutiny. It is clear within the text of Acts itself that there are plenty of maritime travel passages where “we” does not appear. Conversely, within the three “we” sections, “we” do much more than just sail from one place to another. Also, recent scholarship has debunked the claim that the first person plural was a standard literary convention for narrating a maritime voyage. See e.g. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998 and Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1-23:35, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2014. Relevant discussion from the Keener volume is quoted here http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-we-passages-in-acts.html .  

[11] Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1999), 47.

[12] A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 189.

[13] “Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles”,   https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_reliability_of_ _Acts_of_the_Apostles

[14] For further discussion see below in Appendix 1: Historical Accuracy in the Gospel of Luke

[15] One reason that earlier scholars assigned the composition of John to some proto-Gnostic Greek author in the second century was that some of the themes in this Gospel, such as the Logos and the cosmic clash between light and darkness, were thought to be unlikely to be associated with a first-century Palestinian Jewish follower of Jesus. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 showed that the notion of epic conflict between the representatives of light and of darkness was present among Jews of that time and place.

The notion of the Logos as the organizing principle of the universe was established in Greek philosophy centuries before the New Testament was written. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, writing about the time of Jesus, brought this concept into Jewish thought. He saw the Logos as the eternal first-born of God, through which God created and sustained the world. With John’s generally high Christology, it would be quite natural for him to take one step beyond Philo and apply this Logos terminology to the Messiah (John 1:1-3), perhaps as a means to help Greeks relate to the gospel message. We can already see in Paul’s writings c. 60 A.D. (e.g. I Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-17) the notion that the universe was created “through” the pre-existing Son of God. John’s Jesus, while he is the unique Son of God, is nevertheless fully human. He is subject to thirst and fatigue, he gets angry, he weeps, and he dies a human death.

As we have noted, whether or not John the disciple authored or partly narrated the Gospel which bears his name is only marginally relevant to whether this work reflects genuine historical traditions of Jesus. However, several early church Fathers state that the disciple John lived to an old age and spent decades in Greek-dominated Asia Minor. This would have given him ample time to interact with Hellenistic thinking and to deepen his reflections on the nature of the Son of God.

[16]   The synoptic Gospels are dominated by parables, dialogs, or pithy sayings of Jesus which might easily have been committed to memory by his disciples, particularly since he probably repeated the same teachings many times. However, the synoptics, Acts, and especially John contain some long speeches for which there is no obvious mechanism for verbatim transmission. It is of course possible that God supernaturally brought Jesus’ or Paul’s or Mary’s exact words to the minds of the New Testament authors some 50-60 years later (cf. John 14:26). But the form of these speeches can also be understood within the context of ancient historical writing.

There were no quotation marks in ancient Greek, so the sharp distinction which modern reporters draw between direct and indirect quotations did not exist in that literature. Thus, the monologues which appear as direct quotations in an English Bible can be taken to be paraphrases of the basic meaning of things Jesus and other speakers said. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides stated explicitly that this is how he reported speeches by public figures:

I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

[see: https://www.peteenns.com/on-ancient-historians-and-how-they-have-to-make-things-up/ ]

Thus, the variations in wording for the same speech by the same person among the different Gospels would not be considered as “discrepancies”, according to the norms of ancient literature.

[17] This article by Furman Kearley gives an overview of on the nature of apparent contradictions in the Gospels and reasonable approaches to resolving them:


[18] Among believers, there is a range of opinion on how significant are these differences among the Gospels. Some Christians shrug off inconsistencies such as the order of Jesus’ three temptations or how many angels were seen at the empty tomb as the expected and inconsequential fallout from the intervening decades of oral traditions. These differences, even if they involve minor but actual discrepancies among the Gospel writers, do not impair the transmission of the core gospel teachings such as those listed by Paul in I Cor. 15:3-8.

This was the attitude of the earliest Christians. As noted above [2], Papias (c. 100 A.D.) acknowledged that some events in Mark may be appear in incorrect chronological sequence, but that does not affect Mark’s overall accuracy. The Muratorian Canon, apparently written in Rome c. 170, acknowledges each Gospel presents different points, but claims that the key teachings still come through: “Though various elements may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by the one sovereign Spirit all things have been declared in all [the Gospels]: concerning the nativity, concerning the passion, concerning the resurrection, concerning life with his disciples, and concerning his twofold coming; the first in lowliness when he was despised, which has taken place, the second glorious in royal power, which is still in the future.” [ http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian-metzger.html ]

Tertullian, writing about 200 A.D., likewise held that chronological discrepancies among the apostolic Gospels were not something to fuss over, as long as there was agreement in the central matters of the faith:

I lay it down as my first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom the Lord himself assigned this job of publishing the gospel… Of the apostles, John and Matthew first instilled faith into us; and the apostolic men Luke and Mark renewed it afterwards. These men all started with the same principles of the faith: the one and only creator God, and his Christ was born of the Virgin and came to fulfill the law and the prophets. Never mind if some variation occurs in the order of the narratives, provided that there is agreement in the essential matter of the faith… [Against Marcion 4.2]

Similarly, John Calvin was not bothered by minor discrepancies in the Bible. He held that the New Testament writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit; this ensured that the key doctrines of the faith were effectively transmitted via the text, but the writers were not prevented some making some small human mistakes. For instance, Calvin acknowledged that Hebrews 11:21 (following the Septuagint) mistranslated the Hebrew original of Gen. 47:31, and that Matt. 27:9 mistakenly attributes to Jeremiah a passage which is actually from Zechariah. [see http://postbarthian.com/2017/03/05/the-errors-of-inerrancy-8-the-protestant-reformers-would-not-affirm-biblical-inerrancy-martin-luther-john-calvin/ ]

Neither Paul nor the Gospel authors claim that their writings are inerrant. Paul acknowledges that some of what he writes is just his opinion, not a direct word from the Lord (I Cor 7:12). Acts 23:5 shows that Paul was not omniscient and that he could make a mistake in his public speaking. Luke (1:1-4) describes the composition of his Gospel as being mainly the prosaic evaluation of prior written accounts.

According to Isaiah 55:11, the word of God will infallibly accomplish its purpose. According to II Tim. 3:15-17, the purpose of the Scripture is to communicate key doctrines about God and principles for godly living. It can accomplish this purpose without being correct in every historical detail.

However, conservative Christians today often devise chains of reasoning that argue for the literal inerrancy of every statement in the New Testament books. This motivates them to try to rigorously reconcile any apparent discrepancy among the Gospels.

[19] Here https://answersingenesis.org/jesus-christ/resurrection/christs-resurrection-four-accounts-one-reality/ is one such proposed harmonization of the post-resurrection appearances.

An extensive analysis and harmonization by J. P. Holding  of the accounts of Jesus’ arrest and trial is here:  http://www.tektonics.org/gk/jesustrial.php

Mark Roberts notes that, despite the claims of skeptics, there is agreement between Matthew and Luke on the key facts of the Nativity, with no actual contradictions: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/the-birth-of-jesus-hype-or-history/

[20] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels [revised 2007], p. 333.

[21]  See excerpts from Papias in endnote [2]

[22]    The mainstream Christian church was highly decentralized in this period. The different major churches operated essentially autonomously. Irenaeus noted c. 180 that there were a number of churches throughout the Mediterranean basin which had been founded by one or more of the original apostles (in the 45-80 A.D. timeframe), and which had had a defined succession of leadership since that time. “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of those men to our own times.” (Against Heresies, III:3.1)

Irenaeus specifically names the churches at Rome, Smyrna, and Ephesus as examples. In Smyrna, Polycarp was taught by apostles (especially John, who was active in Asia Minor in the late first century), was installed there as bishop, and then lived to a very old age there in the middle of the second century as a direct, living link to apostolic teachings. Moreover, Irenaeus himself as a young man had met and listened to Polycarp: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time.” (Against Heresies, III:3.4)

Thus, there were a number of largely independent centers for maintaining apostolic traditions, which could cross-verify with each other. In terms of information theory, this would be like a data storage network of redundant, separate but linked nodes. This was a relatively robust data structure for preserving the fidelity of the apostolic teachings.

The point here is that it was not some small central committee which dictated which books were in and which were out of the canon. Rather, it was the collective judgement of a number of independent apostolically-ordained centers, using apostolic criteria, which settled the core of the New Testament canon well before the end of the second century. The churches may or may not have been correct on their assessment of authorships of the four Gospels, but they would have known whether the material in the Gospels matched the oral traditions handed down from the apostles.

As noted earlier, some of the books at the end of the New Testament were not widely circulated and accepted in the second century. The apostolic origin of James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John were seriously disputed by some mainstream Christians even into the fourth century. On the other hand, there were books used by some second century Christians which were not included in the final 27 book cannon. These rejected writings included the Acts of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas.

According to Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism :

Gnosticism … is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious ideas and systems, originating in Jewish milieus in the first and second century AD. Based on their readings of the Torah and other Biblical writings, these systems induced that the material world is created by an ignorant emanation of the highest God, trapping the Divine spark within the human body. This Divine spark could be liberated by gnosis of this Divine spark. The Gnostic ideas and systems flourished in the Mediterranean world in the second century AD, in conjunction with and influenced by the early Christian movements and Middle Platonism.

A collection of Gnostic and related texts was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. These manuscripts probably date from the third and fourth centuries. The dates of their original compositions is not clear; they may range from the late first century to the third century. Many opinions exist as to the relationships among the various strands of gnostic and Christian thought in the first and second century. It is possible that some genuine sayings of Jesus are embedded in e.g. the Gospel of Thomas. However, these writings lack the early external attestation of the canonical gospels and they also lack the clear historical linkage to the first apostles inherent in the writings of Paul.

[23] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, Harper- Collins (2013), p. 29.

[24] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p. 44.  After noting that we have some coins and one inscription from Pilate’s reign, Ehrman continues (pp.44-45):

And what writings do we have from him? Not a single word. Does that mean he didn’t exist? No, he is mentioned in several passages in Josephus and in the writings of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo and in the Gospels. He certainly existed even though, like Jesus, we have no records from his day or writings from his hand. And what is striking is that we have far more information about Pilate then about any other governor of Judea in Roman times. And so it is a modern “myth” to say that we have extensive Roman records from antiquity that surely would have mentioned someone like Jesus had he existed.

It is also worth pointing out that Pilate is mentioned only in passing in the writing of the one Roman historian, Tacitus, who does name him. Moreover, that happens to be in a passage that also refers to Jesus (Annals 15). If an important Roman aristocratic ruler of a major province is not mentioned any more than that in the Greek and Roman writings, what are the chances that lower-class Jewish teacher (which Jesus must have been, as everyone who thinks he lived agrees) would be mentioned in them? Almost none.

I might add that our principal source of knowledge about Jewish Palestine in the days of Jesus comes from the historian Josephus, a prominent aristocratic Jew who was extremely influential in the social and political affairs of his day. And how often is Josephus mentioned in Greek or Roman sources of his own day the first century CE? Never.

[25] The Wikipedia article “Josephus on Jesus” summarizes the various arguments around this passage.


[26] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, p. 61.

[27] — – “Pliny the Younger and Trajan on the Christians” in Early Christian Writings


[28] The Early Christian Writings web page discusses arguments for and against the authenticity of this passage, and concludes, “As to the reliability of that source, following normal historical practice, it is prudently assumed to be accurate until demonstrated otherwise. The reference from Tacitus constitutes prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus.”         – – from “Cornelius Tacitus” in Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tacitus.html

[30] [Note from Appendix] Another, fairly exhaustive examination of the claims and counter-claims regarding the “enrollment” statement in Luke 2 concludes that the wording is ambiguous; there several credible interpretations which do not involve historical error on Luke’s part.   http://www.christianthinktank.com/qr2.html


APPENDIX: Historical Accuracy in the Gospel of Luke

There are some statements in Luke’s Gospel (though fewer than in Acts) which are subject to testing from nonbiblical sources. We will examine some of these statements here.

Date of the Start of John the Baptist’s Ministry

There was no single numbering convention for dates in ancient literature, so the usual way for a historian to designate a year was to define it in terms of the reigns of significant rulers. This is what Luke does in 3:1-2:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Luke is locating his narrative in a particular time and place. This is not a “long ago and far away” fairy tale. Luke here names eight notable individuals: the Roman emperor Tiberias, six local rulers, and John the Baptist.

Luke, along with the other Gospels, describes John the Baptist as baptizing large crowds while forcefully exhorting his hearers to practice righteous living. Herod saw John as a political threat, and so he imprisoned and eventually executed John. This general picture of John (with some differences in details and emphasis) was corroborated by the Jewish historical Josephus. Tiberias, Pontius Pilate, the tetrarchs Herod and Philip, and Annas and Caiaphas are well-attested in other sources. While Annas had been deposed by the Roman rulers of Judea from the formal high priest office some years earlier, he continued to exercise much of the power of that position, so Luke is correct to name both Annas and Caiaphas.

Lysanius of Abilene

“Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene” is more controversial. Abilene was a small principality north of Israel, centered on the city of Abila. There was a tetrarch named Lysanius who apparently ruled an area which included Abilene from 40 B.C. to about 35 B.C., when he was executed by Mark Antony. This, of course, was many decades before the time of John the Baptist. The region of Abilene is referred to by Josephus as “tetrarchy of Lysanius” when it was given by the Roman emperors to Herod Agrippa around 40 A.D.

There is not a clear reference in the nonbiblical literature to a later ruler named Lysanius in the time of John the Baptist (c. 27 A.D.). Therefore, many modern scholars believe there was no such ruler, and so Luke was mistaken to name “Lysanius” as the tetrarch of Abilene at this time. Luke may well have read sources that referred (as Josephus does) to “Abilene, the tetrarchy of Lysanius” and taken that to mean that a “Lysanius” was the actual ruler of Abilene at that time. Since Abilene was a small region, well-removed from any action related to Luke’s gospel narrative, it is understandable if Luke did not inquire more closely.

One the other hand, there is archeological evidence suggesting that there was in fact a second tetrarch named Lysanius at the time of John the Baptist. An inscription has been found in Abila, which may be translated as, “For the salvation of the August lords and of all their household, Nymphaios freedman of Eagle Lysanias tetrarch established this street and other things” [Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum 4521]. Without going into all the scholarly disputes, the likely meaning of this is that a man named Nymphaios who had been given his freedom by “Lysanius the tetrarch”, probably after completing years of faithful service, dedicated some public works (including a temple) to the emperor Tiberius and his mother Livia. Upon the death of Caesar Augustus (Octavian) in 14 A.D., Tiberius became emperor (with the title Augustus) and Livia (who had been Octavian’s wife) received the honorific title of Augusta. These two together were the official joint heirs of Caesar Augustus and are honored elsewhere as the “August lords”. No one else in Roman history is referred as the plural “August lords”.

Thus, it is likely that this inscription dates to a time between the death of Augustus in 14 A.D. and the death of Livia in 29 A.D., and that it refers to a tetrarch Lysanius within or close to that time range, not to the Lysanius who died 50-75 years earlier. Illustrious names were often recycled within dynasties – – there were many Herods and Ptolemies – – so it would not be surprising to find a later Lysanius on the throne of Abilene. Thus, Luke was probably correct in naming a Lysanius as the tetrarch of Abilene in the days of John the Baptist.

Timothy McGrew describes and refutes several other alleged historical errors in Luke’s Gospel. [ http://apologetics315.s3.amazonaws.com/files/04b-mcgrew-alleged-historical-errors-in-the-gospels.pdf ]

Quirinius and the Census

During the last three years of Jesus’ life, he preached to crowds of thousands, and nurtured over a hundred disciples (Acts 1:15). This sizeable group of disciples, between themselves and the next generation of believers they taught, might well be expected to maintain credible oral traditions of the dramatic public events which they had personally witnessed c. 30 A.D. However, the conception and birth of Jesus were private affairs in obscure locations, some 30 years prior to Jesus’ public ministry. Thus, it should not be surprising if Luke or Matthew did not have complete information to work with on the Nativity.

One of the most controversial passages in Luke’s writing is his description of the census which was the occasion of Joseph and Mary being in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, thought to be around 4-6 B.C.:

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. [Luke 2:1-5, NIV]

(The NIV includes this footnote: [a] Luke 2:2 Or This census took place before   )

Luke has been charged with making a multitude of errors in this passage. It is claimed that:

( a) No census in Roman times would require people to travel to the homelands of their distant ancestors.

( b) Women and children would not be involved in a census, so Joseph would not bring along his pregnant wife.

( c) There was no single census of the entire empire under Augustus.

( d) According to the biblical narrative this census and the birth of Jesus took place during the reign of Herod the Great, while his realm was a client kingdom, not a Roman province, and Rome would only have a census conducted in a province.

( e ) No census of Herod’s realm in this time period (c. 4-6 B.C) is noted in other ancient literature.

( f) The well-known census under Quirinius took place when he was governor of Syria in about 6 A.D., which is ten or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

The first three questions deal with procedural issues about the census, and may be dealt with by examining the text and other ancient literature:

( a ) Obviously, no general Roman census would require people to travel to the lands of their distant ancestors. This would involve untold thousands of people criss-crossing the Mediterranean world every few years. However, Luke does not claim that to be the case. He merely states that, “Everyone went to their own town to register”. This would simply mean one’s home town, however that was construed by the authorities (e.g. birthplace, or recent permanent residence) or a place where one owned a tract of land which might be confiscated if it were unclaimed during a census.

A papyrus containing a decree of 104 A.D. by C. Vibius Maximus, the Roman prefect of Egypt, has illustrated this principle: “The enrollment by household being at hand, it is necessary to notify all who for any cost whatsoever are away from their administrative divisions to return home in order to comply with the customary ordinance of enrollment.”

Luke does not spell out why Joseph chose to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for this census and how that was connected to him being of “the house and line of David “. Historical records and archaeology indicate that Galilee was largely emptied of inhabitants around 730 B.C. when the Assyrians conquered that region and relocated the people. There was a surge of immigration by Jews from Judea (where Bethlehem is located) into Galilee during the first century B.C. It is entirely plausible that Joseph was born in Bethlehem (David’s home town) and later moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth (which is in Galilee) and/or had inherited some family farmland or a threshing floor back in Bethlehem. It appears that Joseph owned no farmland in Nazareth, since he supported his family by laboring as a carpenter.

It is seems that Joseph had extended family in Bethlehem with whom he and Mary could lodge. There is no archaeological evidence that the town of Bethlehem supported a public inn at that time, and (despite the wording in the King James Version) Luke does not use the Greek word for “inn” in his story of the Nativity. Rather, he uses the word for “guest room”. The NIV correctly translates Luke 2:7b as, “…She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Ben Witherington explains, “Archeology of the area shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves as the back of the house where they would keep their prized ox, or beast of burden, lest it be stolen. The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the relatives did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house.” [ http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/12/no-inn-in-room-christmas-sermon-on-lk_09.html ]

( b) A Roman census involved a man’s wife and children, as well as his property . [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_censor#Census ] That this practice extended to the provinces is shown by another Egyptian papyrus from the time of Tiberius Caesar: “I register Pakebkis, the son born to me and my wife, Taas­ies and Taopis in the 10th year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator [Emperor], and request that the name of my aforesaid son Pakeb[k]is be entered on the list”.

Again, we don’t know all the details for the case of Joseph and Mary. Apart from requirements of the census on one’s family, Joseph may not have wanted to leave behind his fiancée who was pregnant under questionable circumstances.

(c) Luke 2:1 does not mean that Augustus, in some specific year, ordered a simultaneous census across the entire Roman empire. That is not the way it was done. Different provinces were on different schedules. Luke knew that as well as we do. Scholars have explained that this verse describes a general policy promulgated by Augustus (without a specific timeframe), that enrollments for taxation should be extended to all provinces in the empire.

Date of Jesus’ Birth Relative to the Census

As noted, the first three objections (a, b, c) listed above are readily resolved. The other three issues (d, e, f) all involve the timing of the census. Herod the Great, who was king over Judea and Galilee, died in about 4 B.C. Matthew states that Jesus was born while this Herod was still alive, perhaps in 4-6 B.C. After Herod the Great’s death, his kingdom was divided among his sons. Herod Archelaus ruled Judea, while Herod Antipas received Galilee. Luke 1:5 mentions that a “Herod, king of Judea” was in power when John the Baptist was conceived, which was more than a year before Jesus’ birth; Luke does not specify which Herod this is, but it is commonly assumed to be Herod the Great.

In 6 A.D. Achelaus was deposed by Caesar Augustus, and Judea was reclassified as a Roman province under direct Roman rule. The Roman governor (prefect) of Judea was largely subject to the governor (legate) of the larger province of Syria. Quirinius become governor of Syria in 6 A.D., and he proceeded to conduct a Roman census of the new province of Judea. This stirred up a revolt under “Judas the Galilean”, and spawned the Zealot movement which ultimately led to the catastrophic Jewish-Roman war of 67-70 A.D. Thus, this census was memorable. Luke was aware of this census, mentioning it in Acts 5:37. There Gamaliel (c. 32 A.D.) refers to it as “the” census, even though there had been other enrollments since then.

The text of Luke 2:2 (“This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria”) can mean that the enrollment of Joseph and Mary was this census of Quirinius in 6 A.D., which was the first Roman census to be imposed on Judea. However, this census occurred at least ten years after Herod’s death in 4 B.C., while Jesus is thought to have been born before Herod’s death. Some critics conclude that Luke made a mistake here by placing Jesus’ birth during Quirinius’ census.

However, a mistake of this magnitude seems odd considering how well-informed Luke generally is on Herodian history. Many of Luke’s readers would know that Quirinius’ census of Judea as a Roman province occurred after the reign of Herod Archelaus, and thus long after Herod the Great’s death. Furthermore, Rome would not conduct a direct census in a client kingdom like Herod’s. Rather, the puppet king was expected to manage that sort of matter internally, and just pay Rome a lump tribute. Luke risked losing his credibility if, at the very start of his narrative, he asserted that Quirinius conducted a census in Judea while Herod the Great was still ruling there.

Accordingly, scholars have reexamined the text of Luke to ascertain if that is really what he is saying. A straightforward solution is to agree that Luke is placing the birth of Jesus at the census of Quirinius in 6 A.D., and to take “Herod, king of Judea” in Luke 1:5 to be Herod Archelaus, not Herod the Great. Mark Smith describes why this is a reasonable hermeneutical approach. [“Of Jesus and Quirinius”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol. 62, No. 2 (April 2000), pp. 278-293. Available on-line at http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722645?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents ]. Archelaus did rule over just Judea, unlike his father who ruled all of Israel, including Samaria, Galilee, and Peraea. Although Archelaus’ formal title was “ethnarch”, Josephus calls him “king”, apparently reflecting popular parlance. His coins named him as “Herod”, not “Archelaus”, and the ancient Roman historian Dio Cassius calls him “Herod of Palestine”.

On this view, the conception of John the Baptist was announced (Luke 1:5-21) towards the end of the reign of Herod Archelaus, while Jesus’ birth 1-2 years later occurred after Quirinius had replaced Archelaus. This removes any conflict with known historical facts, though this approach is harder to reconcile with Matthew’s account. The resulting birth date of 6 A.D. for Jesus can fit with other chronological markers, such as a possible 29 A.D. inauguration of John the Baptist’s ministry. (Presumably Jesus’ baptism by John occurred a few years after that, and the start of Jesus’ great Galilean ministry occurred yet another year or two later, perhaps around 32-33 A.D. This view entails marking the start of the reign of Tiberias Caesar [Luke 3:1] by his sole rulership after the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., instead of marking it by the start of his joint rule with Augustus in 12 A.D.)

Other interpretations of Luke 2:2 have been proposed. For instance, the Greek word for “first” can also mean “before”. As shown above, the NIV includes this in a footnote as an alternative reading for this verse: “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria”. In this view, Luke uses the notorious Quirinius census as a well-known marker, but notes that Joseph’s census was not this one, but some earlier enrollment, presumably done under Herod the Great. While there is no record of such a census of residents of his realm, it is possible that Herod conducted a systematic enrollment or assessment. He exacted heavy taxes, and kept a tight, repressive hand on the people. This interpretation is described in http://www.conservapedia.com/Luke_and_the_Census , and is defended at length by Brook Pearson in “The Lucan censuses, revisited”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly (April 1999), http://www.academia.edu/26047721/The_Lucan_Censuses_Revisited  . Herod imposed on the residents of his realm an oath of loyalty to himself and also to Augustus; Augustus required such oaths elsewhere in the empire at about this time [30]. It has been suggested that the “enrollment” mentioned in Luke 2 in the time of Herod was related to this loyalty oath, rather than for immediate purposes of taxation.

A third approach to the question of the census is to posit that Quirinius held a position of leadership in Syria twice, and that an enrollment under Herod the Great may have occurred during Quirinius’ earlier term of office. The records of Syrian administration show no room for Qurinius to have been full legate during the reign of Herod, but it is suggested that he held some other position of authority in the area at that time. Underpinning this thesis is the discovery in 1764 of an inscription which could indicate that Quirinius held authority in Syria on two separate occasions. However, the meaning of this inscription is not clear. This approach at explaining Luke’s reference to Qurinius is now less popular among evangelical scholars than it used to be.

Assessment of Luke the Historian  

Luke spells out in 1:1-4 how he composed his Gospel. Luke is writing after “many” others have already written down accounts of “the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. This likely puts him sometime in the 65-80 A.D. timeframe, almost certainly after Mark’s gospel was composed. Luke states that he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning”. Apparently he felt he could improve on these prior writings, stating that his goal was to produce an “orderly” account, so that his reader “may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

So Luke is sifting through prior written accounts by Christians, and perhaps drawing on discussions with Paul and interviews with people who knew the original apostles, trying to reach back to the events of Jesus’ lifetime, some 40 to 80 years earlier. This is the ordinary spadework done by a historian. Luke does not claim to be writing inerrant history, so we need not be alarmed if there turn out to be a few historical mistakes in his writings. His accuracy, like that of any ancient historian, should be judged as a whole.

No ancient historian is held to a standard of 100% accuracy. Modern scholars have found numerous errors in nearly all ancient histories. This does not, however, justify disregarding these writings as important guides to what actually happened.

For instance, the writings of Josephus are known to contain various errors and contradictions. Archaeological investigation at the site of Masada indicates that key aspects of Josephus’ grand tale of the unified, disciplined mass suicide of the Jewish defenders probably didn’t happen. Magen Broshi of the Israel Museum writes of Josephus’ accuracy:

Was Josephus always correct? Certainly not. His inaccuracies range from vagueness to blatant exaggeration. Shaye Cohen accuses him of “inveterate sloppiness”. The index to Cohen’s book goes so far as actually to include entries for “exaggeration”, “inconsistency and sloppiness” and “corrupt transmission of names and numbers”. Indeed, even if it is accepted that copyists were responsible for not a few of his mistakes (some of which have been hinted at already), it still cannot be denied that he was by nature somewhat negligent. The list of scholars who have deprecated his errors is long but suffice it to mention here the accusations of two eminent archaeologists alone, since archaeology is the central theme of the present discussion. Albright remarks on “how inaccurate Josephus generally was in details . . .” Vincent goes even further. “Il serait superflu”, he maintains, “d’accentuer de nouveau la futilite de toute evaluation fondee sur les chiffres de Josephe.”

[“The Credibility of Josephus”, http://www.centuryone.com/josephus.html]

The existence of these mistakes, however, is not taken to obviate the historical value of Josephus’ writings. Broshi concludes, “It has not been our intention here to prove that he is always exact of correct in every statement, but to show that his data are in many instances accurate, and that they stem from reliable sources to which he had access from the very beginning of his literary career.

Josephus and Luke often treat the same characters and events in first-century Palestine. Josephus is often cited by scholars to confirm or to challenge the veracity of Luke’s assertions. There is a tendency to automatically believe Josephus over Luke in cases where they seem to disagree. However, this bias may not always be justified, considering the extent of errors in Josephus.

Summary of Historical Accuracy in Luke’s Writings

Earlier we described the accuracy of Luke in the Book of Acts as being excellent. While a few controversial issues remain, the vast majority of Luke’s allusions to persons and places have firm external support. Again and again over the past 150 years, skeptics have been proven wrong as additional information came to light which vindicated Luke’s assertions.

As discussed above, objections have been raised regarding Luke’s mention of the census of Quirinius in connection with Jesus’ birth, but there are reasonable resolutions for this.

To specify the date of the appearance around 27-29 A.D. of John the Baptist who ushered in Jesus’s public ministry, Luke (3:1-2) mentions eight notable figures. Of the eight personages named by Luke, seven of the eight (87.5%) have firm external corroboration. The eighth (Lysanius of Abilene) is disputed, but he has no bearing on any event in the New Testament and there is reason to believe that Luke is correct here as well.

All of this demonstrates earnestness and skill in the portrayal of past events. This in turn should give us reasonable confidence that Luke accurately handles the material from his (eyewitness-based) sources regarding the life and teachings of Jesus, even if he imposes his own sense of order upon it.