Question of the Week: If the gospels were written 20-50 years after the events they report, how can we know they got everything Jesus said right?
In order to properly address this question, there are some false assumptions behind it that the critics bringing it up hope you don’t catch onto. First, the gospel accounts never claim to be an exhaustive record of everything Jesus said and did. The Apostle John even notes at the end of his biography that the things that were written had a purpose. That you may believe. Summaries of Jesus’ more popular sermons, overviews of His most significant miracles, and collections of His parables make up the majority of the information we’re given in order to come to conclusions about who He was. To claim that the disciples couldn’t remember everything is a straw-man of the gospels as a whole. They never claimed to be giving us everything there was to know about Jesus. They only report the things we needed to know in order to come to an informed conclusion about Him.
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.
John 21:25 (NKJV)
Second, the authors of the Gospels were living in 1st Century Judea. Not 21st Century Europe or the United States. They were a culture that prided themselves on memorization of the entire Old Testament and the commentaries of their Rabbi’s. A poor disciple was noted in the writings of ancient Jewish scribes as one that could only recite 100 pages of their rabbi’s sayings from memory. A good disciple would number over 400. Jesus chose the Twelve Apostles to not only recall the information He shared with them, but used the term disciple in the way a 1st Century audience understood it. They weren’t as prone to distraction as we are today. Their choices for entertainment were fairly limited, and included reciting and listening to each other recall what Jesus said and did. Given the fact they spent 3 whole years with Jesus to receive this information, spent the rest of their lives daily talking about this information, and believed this information were the words of God, it would be dishonest to claim that forgetfulness should be an assumed factor given the background and culture of the Gospel’s authors.
Third, 20-50 years of time for multiple biographies to be formed according to ancient historical standards is an incredibly short amount of time when you compare it to other accounts written at this time. The Roman Historian Tacitus is the primary source for the majority of what we know about the reigns of most of the early Emperors. His book “Annals” reports extensive details about the reign of Caesar Augustus, despite being written a full century after his death. Skeptics of Christianity claim we know plenty about Augustus despite all the sources on him being written over 2-5 times the amount of time between the events of Jesus’ life and the gospels. Likewise, the earliest and most extensive biography on Alexander the Great was Plutarch’s “Life of Alexander.” Alexander of Macedonia lived 350 years before the time of Christ. Plutarch’s biography was written over 100 years after the time of Christ. 450 years took place between Alexander the Great’s death and his first complete written biography. We are fully willing to teach that information in school as reliable history. The reason why is because it is completely reliable information for both Augustus and Alexander. There is no sound historical reason to dismiss the information because of the material being written after the fact. You generally can’t write down things that happened until they actually happen. The only alternative is for them to write these things down before they happened. People who dismiss the gospels as reliable history are either being deceptive about what the gospels are, or inconsistent in how they judge history.
A Reason For Hope is a ministry of Calvary Christian Fellowship of Tucson
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