Jesus and the Gospels

by Dennis Ingolfsland

The question, “Who do people say the son of man is?” (Matt. 16:13), while originally posed by Jesus to the disciples, is still the subject of much debate today.

Most evangelical scholars are remarkably agreed in their views about Jesus; however, non-evangelical “scholars” differ widely. Some of the latter say Jesus was a non-religious Jewish Cynic. Some say he was a Jewish holy man who was not much different from the holy men of other religions. Some say he was a social reformer who fought against the oppressive social structures of his day.  Others see Jesus as a religious reformer who condemned the religious corruption of the temple system.  Still others have seen Jesus as a political revolutionary who sought to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine.

These varying appraisals of Jesus, presented widely to the public by way of books, articles, debates, workshops, video teleconferences, and even TV programs, raise at least two questions. First, how is it that scholars, reading the same Gospels, can come up with such widely diverse views of Jesus? Second, does it really matter?

Let’s look at the second question first. Suppose an apologist tries to talk to a woman about Jesus and she says, “Don’t you know that modern scholarship has proven that Jesus was an itinerant Cynic sage who wasn’t even interested in religion?” The apologist opens his Bible and tries to show that the Gospels do not support such a view, only to be informed that modern scholarship has demonstrated that the Gospels are a collection of oral stories that were changed over decades of telling and re-telling until they were finally written down long after the disciples of Jesus had died.  The apologist protests that Matthew and John were eyewitnesses of Jesus, only to be informed that the Gospels are really anonymous and that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were added later by a scribe to increase the credibility of the books.

If the apologist doesn’t know how to answer objections like these he may resort to, “Well, I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. If the Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it.” If the person to whom the apologist is witnessing is polite, she may respond with, “Well, I’m glad your religion works for you” while thinking, “How incredibly ignorant these fundamentalists are.”

If one is “to be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 NASB), he or she needs to understand and be able to counter modern non-evangelical views of Jesus. This article will (1) provide a very broad generalization of how non-evangelicals view the Gospels and the story of Jesus, and (2) critique this view point by point.

A Non-evangelical view of Jesus and the Gospels

The non-evangelical view of Jesus and the Gospels holds that those who saw or heard Jesus naturally told stories about him. These witnesses passed on bits and pieces of what Jesus had said and done to their friends, family, and others. Down through the decades these stories were changed in the process of retelling. Everyone knows of the game in which someone tells something to a person at the head of a line who then repeats it to the next one in the line and so on. By the time the story reaches the last person it has changed completely. This is how it was with the Jesus stories, or so the non-evangelical theory goes.

According to this theory, early Christians often used the Jesus stories to address problems in their churches. For example, if there was a problem with adultery in the church someone might recall a story about how Jesus excused a woman who was charged with adultery. As they retold the story, these early Christians added and changed parts of it to better address the needs of their particular congregation. Non-evangelical scholars sometimes refer to these early churches as “creative communities” because of the creative ways in which they adapted, changed, and created Jesus stories to make them more relevant to their own “situation in life.”

These scholars say that about A.D. 70 an anonymous author we have come to know as Mark—a name added by a later scribe just to add credibility to the Gospel— collected some of these stories. The stories attributed to Mark had already been expanded and elaborated—in fact, some were nothing more than pious fictions!  Since the eyewitnesses of Jesus were dead by this time, there was no one with firsthand knowledge of Jesus who could say, “Wait a minute, it didn’t really happen that way!”

Those who hold the non-evangelical theory maintain that Mark didn’t really care much about what Jesus said or did anyway. Mark was just a man who wanted to communicate a theological message, so he collected, arranged, modified, and yes, maybe even created some of the stories recorded in his Gospel. By the ‘80s or ‘90s A.D., Mark’s Gospel had come to the attention of two other anonymous authors we have come to know as Matthew and Luke.  These authors decided—quite independently—to use Mark as the basis for their own Gospels. They copied Mark, sometimes word for word, adding stories here and changing stories there. For example, these scholars say that both Matthew and Luke added birth stories and a considerable body of Jesus’ teachings that are not in Mark. However, since the birth stories in Matthew and Luke are quite different from each other, and since the added teachings of Jesus are grouped together in Matthew but scattered throughout Luke, most of these scholars do not think Matthew and Luke used each other’s Gospels as sources.

This creates a problem, however, because Matthew and Luke are sometimes word for word identical to each other. How is this possible if they never saw each other’s Gospel? Non-evangelical scholars answer this question by theorizing that Matthew and Luke must have used another source besides Mark. They call this hypothetical source Quelle (German for source), often abbreviated as Q.

According to most non-evangelical scholars, therefore, Matthew and Luke used several sources for their Gospels including Mark, Q, and other sources which had been modified, changed, or created to meet the needs of their “creative communities.” Since all these writers were more interested in communicating a theological message than they were in historical facts about Jesus, they added and changed the Jesus stories even more in order to make their point and to address the problems and needs of their own churches.

Non-evangelical scholars generally hold that the Gospels have been so elaborated, changed, and fictionalized that they contain relatively little historical information about Jesus. These scholars believe that their job is to peel away the decades of “encrusted tradition,” much like one might peel an onion, in order to come to the small core of truth about Jesus.

The problem is that non-evangelical scholars who are convinced, for example, that Jesus never thought of himself as the Messiah will dismiss evidence to the contrary as part of that “encrusted tradition.” These scholars, thinking Jesus was a non-religious Jewish Cynic, will dismiss any evidence to the contrary as part of that “encrusted tradition.” In the end, it is hard to keep from wondering if many of these scholars did not “find” the Jesus they were looking for in the first place.[1]

Evaluation of the Theory

In summary, the theory outlined above—we will call it the “critical theory” for lack of a better term—holds that the Gospels contain decades of “encrusted tradition” that must be sifted through in an attempt to discover the kernel of truth about the historical Jesus. While this theory may sound convincing, it is seriously flawed.

No Check on Distortions?

The critical theory assumes that early Jesus stories were told and retold by people who didn’t have firsthand knowledge of Jesus and had no way to check on whether the stories were true. Such a view ignores the evidence that these early Jesus stories were not only passed on from person to person, but also by the disciples and other eyewitnesses of Jesus.

In order to counter the argument that the original disciples and other eyewitnesses of Jesus would have been able to correct distortions in the Jesus stories, some of the more radical critical theorists have asserted that Jesus’ original disciples didn’t care much about him after his death and quickly disbanded. The evidence, however, does not support this argument.

First, regardless of whether the critic believes the Bible is inspired, even the most radical critics agree that Paul wrote Galatians sometime between A.D. 49 and 56. In Galatians 2:9 Paul makes it clear that, far from losing interest in Jesus, there was still a church in Jerusalem in the late 40’s A.D., and that Peter, James, and John were leading it.

Second, even the most radical skeptics agree that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians about A.D. 55. In 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul implies that by A.D. 55, Peter, the Lord’s brothers, and the other disciples were still in ministry just as Paul was.

Third, the idea that the disciples of Jesus continued to preach and teach about Jesus after his death finds strong support in the book of Acts. Although scholars of ancient Greco-Roman history have authenticated the historical reliability of the book of Acts,[2] some critics continue to deny its reliability. There is a way around this impasse, however. The critics accept a principle known as multiple independent attestation. This principle asserts that if information about an event or saying is attested in two or more ancient independent sources, then that information is more likely to be historically reliable.

According to the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples were the main teachers in the church at Jerusalem after Jesus’ death.[3] This is supported independently by Paul in Galatians 2:9.[4] Also, according to Acts, the Jerusalem church was still in existence under the leadership of James, the half brother of Jesus, as late as A.D. 58 when Paul was arrested.[5] The church’s existence at this time is substantiated by Romans 15:25-32, and even the most severe critics agree that Paul wrote Romans in about A.D. 57.

Not only did the Jerusalem church continue to exist under the leadership of the apostles, but members of the Jerusalem church maintained contact with other churches as well. According to Acts, Peter traveled to Caesarea and elsewhere,[6] Philip preached in Samaria,[7] Barnabas preached in Antioch and Cyprus,[8] and Paul, who had been in contact with leaders in Jerusalem, preached in Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth, among other places.[9]

The notion that early believers and churches had interaction with each other as Acts contends, is supported independently by numerous strands of evidence.  For example, Paul writes that Peter traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch,[10] Phoebe traveled from Cenchrea to Rome,[11] Timothy traveled from Ephesus to Corinth,[12] Onesimus traveled to Colosse,[13] a whole delegation of people traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch, and Paul himself journeyed to numerous cities. In fact, the entire New Testament as well as extrabiblical letters from Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and others testify to the fact that early Christian churches did not exist in isolation from each other.

Several summary points may be drawn here: 1) The evidence shows that the apostles continued to preach about Jesus in the decades after his death.  2) The Jerusalem church under the leadership of the apostles continued to be influential in the decades after Jesus’ death. 3) The churches did not exist in isolation from each other. 4) The evidence, therefore, does not support the assumption that no one cared about Jesus or that no one was available who could verify the accuracy of early Jesus stories.

It is also important to note that ancient writers who wrote about the Gospels do not provide evidence in support of the critical theory. There seemed to be no dispute among early church leaders that Mark wrote down accurately the information he got from Peter, that Matthew and John were written by the disciples of Jesus, and that Luke was written by the physician who followed Paul. And far from being the product of decades of “encrusted tradition,” the book of Luke actually claims that among its sources were eyewitnesses of Jesus.[14] Critics, of course, bend over backwards to discredit these claims—largely, one suspects, to keep the critical theory intact.

No Eyewitnesses?

Most scholars believe that Mark, the first Gospel, was written between A.D. 70 and A.D. 100—40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death. Many non-evangelical scholars assume that the eyewitnesses of Jesus would have died by this time and that the Gospels, therefore, were written too late to provide good historical information about Jesus. This is simply an inaccurate assumption. We know of many people in the ancient world who lived to old age. For example, Cicero, Livy, Augustus, Tiberius, Seneca, Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus were all said to have lived beyond their sixtieth birthday. Juvenal and Epictetus apparently lived into their 70’s, and Polycarp even lived into his 80’s.

Regarding the assumption that the Gospels were written too late to provide accurate historical information, the critics are often inconsistent. For example, they rely on Jewish historian Josephus to provide them with important information about the historical, social and religious climate during Jesus’ life, knowing full well that Josephus wrote from A.D. 70-100—the same dates they assign to the Gospels![15] Furthermore, Roman historians think nothing of using Tacitus, Suetonius, or Dio Cassius to reconstruct Roman history, but these writers were often further removed in time from the events they wrote about than the Gospel writers were from Jesus! Historians do not disregard these sources simply because they were written 40 or more years after the fact.  Incidentally, good reason exists to believe that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all written less than 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that will have to be pursued in a separate article.

Creative Communities?

Ever since the early 20th century, critical scholars have followed German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann in asserting that the Gospels were theologies, not biographies, and that the Gospel writers were not particularly interested in biographical facts about Jesus. According to the critics, the Gospel writers were actually more interested in solving the problems in their own churches by creating or embellishing the Jesus stories they included in their Gospels.

This assumption is contrary to the evidence.  First, recent computer analyses comparing numerous ancient biographies have confirmed that the Gospels do, in fact, fit the genre of ancient bios or biography.[16] And while ancient biographies were often written to make a point, they were not fictions. Writers of ancient biographies did not ignore historical facts.

Second, while it is true that the Gospel writers were writing to make a theological point, it is a logical fallacy to assume that they were therefore not concerned with the historical facts. If their “facts” were not true, the point they were making would be moot. Suppose, for example that one were to write a story to make the point that John F. Kennedy was the Son of God. To demonstrate this point, one could write about his claims, his miracles, his atoning death and his resurrection. The problem is, no one has ever claimed that JFK did miracles, saw himself as the Son of God, or rose from the dead. If the facts were not true, the point would be moot.

In the case of Jesus, people disagreed about how to interpret his miracles—whether they were from God or from Satan, and people disagreed about what happened to his body—whether it was stolen or he rose from the dead. People also disagreed about Jesus’ death—whether it was an atonement for sin or just the death of a blasphemer. But the facts did not seem to be in dispute.

Third, the evidence does not support the idea that churches created Jesus stories to deal with their problems. For example, one of the most serious issues in the ancient church was whether circumcision was essential to salvation. If the early churches were so creative, one would think that they would have created stories about Jesus saying that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised. There are no such stories in the Gospels. Numerous other examples exist. Paul addressed disputes regarding the suing of other Christians,[17] eating meat offered to idols,[18] women and head coverings,[19] as well as prophecies and speaking in tongues.[20] If the churches were so creative about initiating or embellishing stories about Jesus to solve their problems, we would expect to find sayings of Jesus in the Gospels that addressed these issues. But such is not the case.

Faulty Memory?

The critical theory assumes a high degree of unreliability in ancient people’s memory as stories were passed from person to person. This, however, does not take seriously the fact that memory was a primary method of learning in the ancient world. The memory of ancient people was undoubtedly better cultivated than it is in today’s western world. It is very possible, even probable, that stories about Jesus were taught to new converts[21] and that these were memorized and passed on to others with a high degree of reliability. If significant distortion ever crept in to the stories, the members of the Jerusalem church, the apostles, eyewitnesses, and traveling missionaries would have helped to control errors. In fact, it is only in the second century after the apostles and eyewitnesses were dead, that we begin to see the fanciful distortions and fictions found in the apocryphal Gospels.


According to the critical theory, the Gospels are the result of decades of “encrusted tradition” that must be peeled away to get to the small core of historical fact. In the quest for the historical Jesus, anything in the Gospels that doesn’t fit the quester’s view of Jesus is often rejected as part of this “encrusted tradition.” The result is a wide variety of views about Jesus. However, the idea that the Gospels are the result of decades of “encrusted tradition” actually flies in the face of the evidence. There are many reasons to believe that the Gospels contain reliable accounts of Jesus’ ministry and that they are based either directly or indirectly on eyewitness testimony.

  1. This is precisely the conclusion Albert Schweitzer came to when he evaluated the Quest for the historical Jesus up to his time. I think the same thing has been happening ever since.
  2. See for example, Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990); The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting, ed. by Bruce W. Winter and Andrew Clark (1993); The Book of Acts in its Greco-Roman Setting, ed. by David W.J. Gill and Conrad Gempf (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting, ed. by Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); The Book of Acts in its Theological Setting, ed. by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
  3. Acts 1:12-13, 5:12, 6:2.
  4. For reasons we cannot go into here, almost all scholars believe that the writer of Acts had not seen Paul’s letters and that Acts and Paul’s letters are, therefore, independent sources.
  5. Acts 21:18.
  6. Acts 10; Acts 12:17.
  7. Acts 8.
  8. Acts 11:22; Acts 15:39.
  9. Acts 13-28.
  10. Galations 2:11-12.
  11. Romans 16:1.
  12. 1 Corinthians 16:5-10.
  13. Philemon.
  14. Luke 1:1-4.
  15. The Historical Jesus by John Dominic Crossan (San Francisco : Harper Collins, 1991) is a good example. Crossan argues that the most reliable information about Jesus comes from AD 60 or earlier, which conveniently excludes even the Gospel of Mark. But Crossan provides extensive historical, social, and religious background to Jesus’ life using Josephus who writes about the same time that Crossan says the Gospels were written!
  16. Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1995.
  17. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
  18. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, see also Romans 14:1-24.
  19. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.
  20. 1 Corinthians 12-14.
  21. e.g. Acts 5:21–25, 11:26, 15:35.