A number of years ago, I did a presentation at the University of Toronto on the Bible’s reliability. The talk was titled “Good News or Fake News: can you trust the Bible?” After 30 minutes of presenting, several students had come up to the front to ask clarifying questions. One of the students, a bright-eyed chemistry major in her third year of study, walked up to me, shook my hand and very matter of factly said, “I think you showed pretty persuasively that the Bible isn’t fake news, but that doesn’t mean it’s by default good news.”
The statement somewhat took me aback. In a way, however, she was right. The Bible could be an accurately transmitted, generally historical reliable collection of ancient books, but what made its particular message “good”?
The worldview questions that our culture asks has shifted somewhat. As the age of modernism in the 19th and 20th centuries slipped into post-modernism in the early 2000s the question of “what comes next” was on contemporary sociologists and philosophers’ minds. Along with the movement of cultural labels came a change in the way that people started to ask questions about the world around them. “Is it true?” all of a sudden started to be replaced with, “is it good?” Of course, these two questions are inextricably related but aim attention on slightly different areas of focus. This is, in a way, what the student who came up to me after my talk was highlighting. She was far less concerned with the reliability of the information surrounding the Bible and more interested in its authentic contribution to whether the gospels––containing “the good news”––were indeed, good.
Of course, as I’ve already stated, a part of this question is wrapped up in the gospels’ objective reliability. The “good news” of the gospel found within the gospels is that of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But the reality of both the facts and significance surrounding these events is contingent, both historically and theologically, on the trustworthiness of the gospel accounts. The case for the central point of Christianity itself cannot and must not be divorced from robust evidence for the reliability of Scripture, particularly (although not limited to) the reliability of the four-fold gospels.
The practical application of the real-world significance of the gospel message can be drawn out from the trustworthy details found within the four biographies of Jesus’ life we refer to as the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
“The Devil is in the Details”
“The Devil is in the Details” was attributed to U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, coined during a talk at Columbia University. Although it is the more commonly known phrase, it was initially a play on words from an older idiom, “God is in the detail.” However, the meaning of both is true: more often than not, it is the small and easily overlooked details that, when compounded with one another, make up the significance of the whole picture. When we’re talking about historical documents, “the devil is in the details,” rings true. Historians search through written sources and archaeological facts to try and look for the appearance of truthfulness that corroborates and confirm the events ancient accounts claim to be describing and discussing.
When we come to the gospel writings, we are fortunate that they are chock full of helpful detail and juicy tidbits regarding the stories of Jesus. For example, when sifting through the particulars of a recorded event, either ancient or modern, we should be continually asking ourselves: does the author show familiarity with the times and places they claim to be describing and writing about? The details regarding the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” can give away the reliability or unreliability of a recorded event. Unlike modern times, where information concerning geography, culture, landmarks, and agriculture is at our fingertips with one click away, discovering and recording this information during the time of Jesus, could only accurately be described by an individual who had either been at these locations in the claimed time frame, or at minimum, connected with someone else who had. These often amount to the details we, as modern readers, tend to skip over or not fully recognize. But, the reality is that a very prominent indicator that speaks to the reliability of the gospel accounts is their familiarity with the times and places they’re talking about.
The geography in the gospels, for example, speaks volumes about the accuracy of the recording of the events. All four gospels specifically mentioning trips “going up” (Matt 20:17,18; Mark 10:32, 33; Luke 2:4, 42, 18:31, 19:28; John 2:13, 5:1, 7:8, 10, 14, 11:55, 12:20) to Jerusalem, which reveals authenticity if for no other reason than Jerusalem had an elevation of 750 metres above sea level, and therefore, travelling to Jerusalem would have been a trip upwards. Similarly, as Mark and Luke mention, leaving Jerusalem is then correctly described as “going down” (Mark 3:22; Luke 2:51, 18:14).
Even more on point is Jesus’ use of typography in his parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–31) that starts by saying that “a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” and “a priest was going down that road.” This is significant because Jericho is the lowest city on earth, over 250 metres below sea level. Going from Jerusalem to Jericho involves the descent of a whole kilometre. To describe this trip as “going down” is more than just an expression, it is factually accurate. The story also assumes Jesus’ audience is aware of a direct route from Jerusalem to Jericho, which is precisely what we find in the archaeological record and would have been a well-known rout to the locals in Jesus’ immediate audience.
It may seem inconsequential, but it says a great deal about the truthfulness of where the information is coming from. Namely, it shows evidence of local knowledge of the places and times discussed. Suppose we compare the biblical gospels with later apocryphal gospels. In that case, we find that unlike the numerous place names, the accuracy of the description of typography, and distance between locations seen in the biblical records, these non-biblical writings reveal a conspicuous lack of such detail. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, names Judea once with no other place names given. Others like the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Mary name no locations. Although the Gospel of Philip does name Jerusalem four times, along with Nazareth and the Jordan, this is hardly noteworthy. Jerusalem was already a very well known geographical location in the second century when the Gospel of Philip is thought to have been written. Nazareth became famous as the home of Jesus, and Jordan was the main river in the area. None of these descriptions gives any type of noteworthy familiarity with the places Jesus lived, taught at, or visited during his earthly ministry.
And we don’t have to stop with geography. The biblical gospels also match with local terminology within Jewish and Gentile regions, popular names of individuals for the time and location, Jewish colloquialisms, botanical descriptions, and usage and examples of proper financial transactional practices the specific areas in question. Corroborating details (what are sometimes referred to as “undersigned coincidences”), references to Jesus, James, and others by writers outside of the New Testament, and even the argument from fulfilled prophecy, all add up and point to the genuineness of the biblical gospel accounts.
This is not what we would expect from people who were making-up these stories years later in different locations, which is precisely what the evidence points to for later apocryphal writings.
None of this proves that the gospels are true, but they give us an unparalleled level of confidence and convincingly demonstrate that the gospels show the exact sings of trustworthiness we expect to see if they are indeed true. If the gospel authors managed to get the smallest of details correct concerning their story of Jesus’ life, is it that much more of a stretch to then conclude they got the more significant details correct as well? I do not think so. The particulars have the air of reliability painted all over them.
So what is the significance then?
This brings us full circle to the statement by the student who addressed me after my talk at the university. Just because the Bible “isn’t ‘fake news’… doesn’t mean it’s by default ‘good news’.” There is some truth to that particular charge. However, I think it can be pretty comprehensively shown that the gospels are accurately recorded eyewitness accounts of true events that took place at the beginning of the first century AD; the gospels are no less than that, but they are also so much more. The gospels (and the Bible as a whole, I would argue) are about Jesus — Jesus the first-century Jewish itinerant preacher, Jesus, the religious teacher who was crucified by Pontius Pilate, Jesus the Rabbi who predicted his death and resurrection numerous times and then did that very thing.
The reality is that the details that make up the gospel accounts signify not only historical facts but eternal truths. The significance of the “good news” found within the gospels is rooted in their historically objective reliability. The presentation of Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1), “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), “the Word become flesh and taking up residence among us” (John 1:14), whom we should all be certain concerning these things that are taught (Luke 1:4), is something worth our sober consideration. It should be taken seriously because the presentation of Jesus in the gospels is one that can tell us how awful the bad news is that it makes the good news so good. It explains who we indeed are and who God truly is.
If Jesus is the Word who is coeternal with God and the one who has come to save the world, then the question of the gospels’ trustworthiness is not a mere issue of historical interest. If the picture of Jesus in the gospels is historically accurate, it logically requires that we take Jesus’ question to his disciples of “who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:13–16, Mark 8:27–29, Luke 9:18–20), and his command to “follow me” (Matt 16:24–26) very seriously.