Christianity is an historical religion. We make claims of history. Unlike other religions from the ancient world, the central story of our faith is based in fact, not myth.
If you were to ask an ancient Roman about when Hercules lived, he may say something like, “In the days of legend that came before,” but he could not give you a specific date. A great deal of ancient Greeks and Romans in the 1st Century understood that the stories in their mythologies really did not happen.
But if you asked a Christian when Jesus lived, they could point to a specific time in history, beginning when Augustus Caesar was Emperor of Rome and Herod the Great was King of Judea through the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Pontius Pilate was procurator, after which He ascended into Heaven. We pinpoint the events of Christ’s life that remind us that these are not mythological, but historical events. This is why the only other human named in the Apostles and Nicene Creed besides Jesus and Mary is Pilate.
The Gospels are the main source of our historical information about Jesus. How historical are they?
This is a large question about which many books have been written. This article will attempt to give a brief answer.
It is important to remember that we have to read each book of the Bible in its proper context. Leviticus is a book of law. The Psalms are a collection of poems. When we read the Gospels, we have to remember that they are not like modern biographies.
Modern biographies look for journalistic detail. If you were to write a biography about Robert Downey Jr., you would have to make sure that all of the events of his life are in the proper order and that all of the quotes were exact. If you wrote that Iron Man came out before Sherlock Holmes or if you quoted one of his movie lines as “I am Iron Person,” you would be rightly criticized as a bad biographer.
People in the ancient world did not write this way. Jesus did not have a group of reporters who were taking down quotes for print in articles later. The Gospels were written years later. However, they are based on the eyewitness accounts. Only the author of the Gospel of John claims to be an eyewitness to the events. Luke states at the beginning of his Gospel that he is not an eyewitness, but he is basing his account into an orderly narrative based on the eyewitness accounts.
The Gospels are salvation history.
They are faith and fact testimonies. They are historical accounts of the words and actions of Jesus. John tells us that not everything about Jesus’ life and ministry gets written down (John 21:25). The Evangelists had to pick and choose what parts of the Jesus story to put to writing and in how much detail. Their ultimate goal was not simply to catalogue events. John tells us the purpose of his Gospel, which is the purpose of all the Gospels, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) The Evangelists take this mountain of material from the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and they arrange them in a way that gives the reader an experience of who Jesus is as the Savior.
It is also important to remember that the Gospel writers were interested in putting the events of Jesus’ life into logical, not chronological order. Evangelists were not as interested in presenting a precise timeline of Jesus life as they were with presenting the events of His life in an order that helps explain who He is.
Take the story of catching the great number of fish. Peter and others are on the water all night, but catch nothing. They head in to shore in the morning but Jesus tells them to go back out and cast their nets. They do and they catch so many fish that the nets are strained. This miraculous moment prompts a dramatic reaction from Peter.
This story can be found in both the Gospels of Luke and John. However, Luke puts this story at the beginning of his Gospel when Jesus first meets Peter and John puts it at the end of his Gospel. Both stories focus on Peter. In both stories, Jesus tells Peter about his special destiny. Luke tells Peter that he will now “catch men.” (Luke 4:10). In John, Jesus tells Peter that he will shepherd His flock.
It is possible that Luke puts this event at the beginning of the Gospel because it is here that he is introducing the reader to Peter and he is using this story to explain to the reader Peter’s importance. It is possible that John puts the story at the end of the Gospel because now that Jesus is returning to the Father it is important to let the reader know the role Peter will play as the Church continues.
Or it is possible that this event occurred twice, once at the beginning of Christ’s ministry and once at the end and that each Evangelist chose to report on one and not the other.
The main point is that when we read the Gospels, we remember that they are taken from historical events but are placed in an order that fits with the way the Evangelists’ plans to show us who Jesus is.
And it is important to remember that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were universally accepted by the Christian Church very early on. They were completely accepted as in keeping with the historical and apostolic tradition. It is interesting to note, as Pope Benedict XVI has, that the four Gospels are always listed in this order from the earliest times.
I encourage you to do more reading on the many books that are out there to go into more depth. But it is important to remember that the Gospels are written to inspire faith and that they are based on the solid foundation of historical fact.
Copyright 2021, WL Grayson