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Are the gospels (and especially claims on the identity of Jesus in the Gospels) comparable(equal) to contemporary works of contemporary historians like Tacitus and Josephus, in terms of objectivity( claims are not too far reaching conclusions), historical accuracy(telling only what really happened) and quality of research( time spent on writing work, number of members in this team that makes up the work in question) they did? In other words can I trust on the claims of identity of Jesus and historicity of the events? Can you give some reasons why gospels are equal with the documents of those historians? For example in this author claims that quote;

It increasingly appears that the "biblical Jesus" and the "historical Jesus" are one and the same!

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The question is "Are the gospels historically reliable?" –  Ryan Frame Sep 9 '13 at 19:58
but also claims on identity of Jesus; are claims same in gospels as in the documents of historians at that time? –  alvoutila Sep 9 '13 at 20:00
Iraneus, Papias, and Tertullian were all bishops from later centuries. They weren't eyewitness accounts. This is sort of a false premise. –  Affable Geek Sep 10 '13 at 1:41
Is it true that documents written by historians at the time like Josephus and Tacitus does not include too far-reaching conclusions eg. Passion events & who Jesus was said to be? In other words are gospels equal with the documents of Tacitus and Josephus in terms of objectivity and the historical accuracy of the events and claims about identity of Jesus? –  alvoutila Sep 10 '13 at 8:51
Nobody has ever accused Jospehus of objectivity in his polemic Annals of the Jewish War. –  Affable Geek Sep 10 '13 at 11:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Ultimately, everybody has an agenda.

Remember that "history" in the modern almost journalistic sense of the word was not really even a concept at this time. The point was not to convince "scholars" but regular people.

So, who then are the contenders as "historians?"

  1. Tactitus gave us the first mention of the Christians, and provides external evidence of Pontius Pilate as the procurator of Palestine who had Jesus executed. His agenda in writing, however, was mostly to vilify Nero, blaming him for the destruction of Rome in 64 AD. Nero, of course, had alrady blamed the Christians - so Tactitus' agenda would be to exculpate the original scapegoats. By being non-Christian himself, however, he answers modern charges of being too interested a party.

  2. Flavius Josephus also mentioned the Christians, but again, really only in the course of his agenda. Josephus was a nothing more than a traitor to his own Jewish cause. Although he fought with the Jews, when he was caught, he turned traitor. Eventually becoming a Roman citizen, he wrote a story about the war that modern historians find to be questionable in some places - but again, because of his agenda. In passing, however, he too mentions the Christians, but his agenda isn't really focused on them.

  3. The Gospel writers were all eyewitnesses to Jesus. Did they have an agenda? Sure! The saw a dead man become not a dead man. They heard his message, and their lives were transformed by it. Of course they are biased! But, and this is a big but, they had the most most information about Jesus. Their agenda is to make Jesus known, and they all died really horrible deaths to do that. By modern standards of 'history,' their primary accounts would be discounted because they are too close to it.

    Mark (who studied Peter) had probably written down his Gospel by 68 AD (before the Temple was destroyed), Luke (who studied under Paul) by the early 70s, and Matthew, who was an eyewitness and disciple by the mid 70s. John's Gospel may have been the last - written at the latest, by around 95 AD. Each of these was an eyewitness.

  4. Later Christian "historians" like Papias, Iraneus, and Tertullian were all Christian bishops who based their histories on the Gospels' record. Papias is the earliest of the three, writing in the early 100s. Tertullian lived from about 160 - 225, and Iraneus (Bishop of Lyon) lived about the same time, dying in 202. Each of these men (and Eusbeius, who should also be in the category as well) lived well after the events of the New Testament. These men saw the Gospels as primary accounts, and wrote their own works as secondary ones.

    Later historians, using many sources - not just the Gospels - compiled their accounts in later centuries. They never claimed to be eyewitnesses. But, they also never claimed the four canonical Gospels were fundamentally more "accurate" than any of the other sources. Canonization wasn't even really discussed until Iranaeus - and Iraneus was the one saying that these four canonical Gospels were the best sources he found.

    Even today, a primary account of an event that transforms a person is going to be biased. Ask a New Yorker about 9/11, and there will be a bias. Ask a Palestinian, or a member of Al Qaeda, and it will be equally biased. Indeed, I would argue that every account will be told from a certain perspective. Was Mohammed Atta a terrorist? a common criminal? or a martyr for Muslim cause? There is no way to be neutral, nor is there any need to be.

The point, then, is not to ask "who to trust," since none of these accounts directly conflict. The only difference is in the fullness of the information (hint: the Gospel writers tell you a heck of a lot more about Jesus), and the agenda. To ask, "Are Tacitus and Josephus more 'unbiased'?" is thus still a flawed question, because in the end, every account has a bias. The question is, are the biases explicit, and do they interfere? Neither Tacitus nor Josephus really have much bearing at all on this.

And the Gospel writers? Of course they are biased. That's the point. They were transformed! They had a story to tell. The only question is, do you believe their stories? I know that my life has been transformed in the same way by the same man who died and then came back. Personally that is the kind of evidence I need.

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What do you mean by flawed premise? I have corrected those historians as Tacitus and Josephus. –  alvoutila Sep 11 '13 at 19:07
This was answered on the first edit. The question was improved, but obsoleted this answer. –  Affable Geek Sep 11 '13 at 19:38
Ok. When I said "historians" I meant persons like Tacitus and Josephus not those "historians". Why? Because I tend to think that whether they are as accurate telling those things that I mentioned as Tacitus and Josephus? So is it possible to deduce that Iranaeus had works of eg. Tacitus and Josephus as a reference source? Do you know what were those other sources? What do you mean by "best sources"? Can you tell more about that. And finally who was Iranaeus? –  alvoutila Sep 11 '13 at 19:40
So, first off, if you are going to use the term "history," then I need to know by what standards you want to define that. Nobody in the 1st Century had what today we would call standards of evidence that a modern historian would use today. So, the next question is, whose accounts do you trust? Do you trust the eyewitness accounts (each of the Gospel writers knew Jesus directly or a direct follower) whose agenda was shaped by the fact that they saw a dead man become an ex-dead man, or do you trust the accounts of people with other agendas? –  Affable Geek Sep 11 '13 at 20:13
Tactitus had a Roman (albeit anti-Nero) agenda, and saw the Christians as a depised group that still maanged to be a pawn of his greater enemy, Nero. –  Affable Geek Sep 11 '13 at 20:14

The primary reason the Gospels hold more gravity is that the authors had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

A historians perspective is often hearsay, where an eyewitness account holds more weight in our court system, it is simply more credible.

Few people are willing to die for something that they hope to be true, no one is willing to die for something that they know is not true. These witnesses died knowing that their testimonies were true.

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And written by Spirit Filled men under that inspiration. Mere historians do not have the Spirit of God. –  Matt Sep 9 '13 at 23:48
Referencing Luke 1:2-3 (accounts of eye witnesses and careful investigation), 2 Peter 1:16-18 (eye witness of transfiguration), 1 Cor. 15:3-7 (eye witnesses of resurrection), and similar passages might add weight (or at least more flavor) to this answer. –  Paul A. Clayton Sep 10 '13 at 15:09
@Rick. Gospels hold more gravity also, because there were critics who would have said no, if authors had included too far-reaching conclusions about Jesus. That is what I have heard from the Hyvä kysymys(Hyvä kysymys : Kuka Jeesus on?( about at 4:12-)) - program in finnish broadcaster tv7. This was said by a dean Rainerma. –  alvoutila Nov 5 '13 at 21:57

I can scarcely disagree with Affable Geek when he says everyone had an agenda. I am also very much in agreement with his assessment of Tacitus, Flavius Josephus and later Christian "historians." Therefore, I do not propose to reiterate the reasons those historians can not be regarded as entirely reliable.

Where I may, with respect, disagree is in the statement that the Gospel writers were all eyewitnesses to Jesus - or even that just two of them were.

It is now widely known that the New Testament gospels were all anonymous, and remained so until attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John later in the second century. Even conservative commentators accept that the authors of Mark and Luke were not present during the mission of Jesus. And as this Wikipedia article states, the majority of modern scholars believe it is unlikely that Matthew's Gospel was written by an eyewitness. Rex Wyler says in The Jesus Sayings, page 119, that Eusebius applied the name John to the fourth gospel, citing Irenaeus, who allegedly heard this from Polycarp in Smyrna, but points out that no evidence from Irenaeus or Polycarp substantiates these claims. Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 362, that in the last two centuries the majority of scholars have shifted towards the position that John was not authored by an eyewitness. Thus, all four gospels were written by anonymous authors who were not eyewitnesses to the events they wrote about.

Most scholars now believe that Matthew and Luke were substantially derived from Mark's Gospel. In fact, John Dominic Crossan, in The Birth of Christianity, page 110-111, speaks of a massive consensus among scholars in favour of Markan priority, as well as a major scholarly conclusion that the hypothetical 'Q' document was a further important source used by the authors of Matthew and Luke. On page 114, Crossan says that a major presupposition is that John is dependent on the synoptic gospels at least and especially for the passion narratives and the resurrection narratives. The consequence of this is that instead of having four independent accounts of the life of Jesus, we really only have one - Mark's Gospel. Thus the accuracy of the gospel history stands and falls on Mark's Gospel.

Rex Wyler (The Jesus Sayings, page 16) sits at one end of the spectrum of views on the historicity of the gospels, when he says, "A gospel is an uplifting story, not history." This is a more extreme view, that would mean the gospels are less valuable as history than any other available source.

Rhoads, Dewey and Michie say, in Mark as Story, page 2, that scholars argue that a study of Mark, taken by itself apart from any traditions about it, suggests no connection between the anonymous author and the apostle Peter. Raymond E. Brown, whom I have also cited above, says (ibid, page 160) Mark seems to depend on traditions (and perhaps already shaped sources) received in Greek. This, along with strong doubts that Mark was the author of this gospel, means that the tradition that the author wrote down the memoirs of Peter, is unsustainable.

Undoubtedly Jesus was a historical person, and it is not entirely improbable that Mark is based on reliable prior sources, although being in Greek, as Brown suggests, these sources might have been based on even earlier Aramaic sources. This chain of transmission, including the priority of Mark in the other gospels, requires us to conclude that there are inevitable historical errors in the gospel story. Each stage of transmission from an Aramaic original, assuming there to be one, through the Greek sources used by Mark and then to the other synoptic gospels and finally to John provides the opportunity for error or redaction of the earlier source, and we do indeed see differences between earlier and later gospels in passages where one gospel was dependent on the other. Not everything we read in Matthew and Luke comes from Mark or Q. For example, the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are unique to each of those gospels respectively. Brown points out (page 236) that there are many differences from one genealogy to the other, saying there are those who think of Luke as having tradition stemming from Mary (despite 3:23!) and others who try to reconcile the two genealogies. He says, while Luke's list may be less classically monarchical than Matthew's, there is little likelihood that either is strictly historical.

Ninian Smart says, in The Long Search, page 108, though we have the gospels, and other elements of the New Testament, it is naive to look upon them as bringing us an authoritative portrait of Jesus. The "biblical Jesus" and the "historical Jesus" are the same person, but that does not make the biblical presentation of Jesus as reliable as once believed.

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"This chain of transmission, including the priority of Mark in the other gospels, requires us to conclude that there are inevitable historical errors in the gospel story." Please explain this more. –  curiousdannii Mar 2 at 3:44
@curiousdannii Without writing a long article, I have added some citations and explanations that I hope will help. –  Dick Harfield Mar 2 at 6:06

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