Q & A With Dr. Craig: Establishing the Gospels’ Reliability
Q: I noticed that in many of your debates and articles, you put a lot of stock and faith in the Gospel narratives. I do consider myself a Christian but have a big doubt. How do we really know if those Gospel narratives are really all that reliable? Sure, they are historical, but are they true or not? I could write a paper about how big foot, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus came to my house and watched TV with me, then thousands of years later people stumble upon my documents and consider them to be true. The discovers of the ancient Joe documents then say, “Well, we consider it truthful because there are about 26,000 complete copies and fragments of these ancient documents that have been found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Plus, there are only about 680 copies of the Odyssey by Homer, which makes the Joe narratives completely reliable.” Sure, they are historical but, definetly not true. What makes the Gospel narratives truthful and not fake? If I can get this question answered, I can finally have faith that God has truly risen Jesus from the dead, and know that I will go to heaven. If you or maybe one of your assistants can answer this question, that would help me a lot. Thank you. —Joe
Dr. Craig’s Answer: I’m glad for your question, Joe, because it surfaces a number of misconceptions that are widely shared by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Your fundamental question is: how do we know that the Gospel narratives are historically reliable? You correctly observe that that question is not to be answered by appeal to the abundance and age of the manuscripts of the Gospels. The idea that the abundance and age of the manuscripts of the Gospels is evidence for their historical reliability is a misconception fostered by popular Christian apologetics. It’s true that the New Testament is the best attested book in ancient history, both in terms of the number of manuscripts and the nearness of those manuscripts to the date of the original. What that goes to prove is that the text of the New Testament that we have today is almost exactly the same as the text as it was originally written.
Of the approximately 138,000 words in the New Testament only about 1,400 remain in doubt. The text of the New Testament is thus about 99% established. That means that when you pick up a (Greek) New Testament today, you can be confident that you are reading the text as it was originally written. Moreover, that 1% that remains uncertain has to do with trivial words on which nothing of importance hangs. This conclusion is important because it explodes the claims of Muslims, Mormons, and others that the text of the New Testament has been corrupted, so that we can no longer read the original text. It’s awe-inspiring to think that we can know with confidence that when we pick Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, for example, we are reading the very words he wrote almost 2,000 years ago.
But, as you say, that doesn’t prove that what these documents say is historically accurate. We could have the text of Aesop’s fables established to 99% accuracy, and that would do nothing to show that they are true stories. After all, they are intended to be fables, not history. People in the future would say something similar about the Joe narratives, no matter how many copies existed.
Now, as you point out, the Gospels are intended to be history. That is the import of your comment that the Gospels “are historical” even if they are not true. That is to say, the Gospels are of the literary genre of historical writing. They are not of the genre of mythology, fiction, or fable. This is an extremely important insight. Something of a consensus has developed within New Testament scholarship that the Gospels are closest in genre to ancient biographies ( “Lives,” as they are called, as in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans). Though differing in certain respects from modern biographies, such as lack of concern with strict chronology, ancient Lives did have a historical interest in presenting truthfully the life of the subject. That will make them very different from a deliberate fiction, such as you envision being written by yourself. The Gospel writers were trying to write a historical account about real people, places, and events…
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