Apologist Nick Peters looks at certain elements within the Gospels and epistles and asks whether their content is reliable

This is the second part of a two-part series. To read the first article ‘Are the New Testament documents reliable?’, click here.

In a previous article, we looked at the question of the text of the New Testament manuscript and asked whether or not they had been handed down reliably. From this point, it will be assumed that the New Testament manuscripts have been handed down reliably enough that their contents can be known to accurately reflect what their author originally said. Now the question is whether the manuscripts themselves can be said to be reliable.


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Biography of Jesus

While the New Testament opens with the Gospels, the Gospels are not the earliest piece of literature. That would be the epistles: the letters ascribed to Paul, Peter, John and others, which compose the majority of the New Testament. 

The manuscripts we are examining here will be seven of the letters attributed to Paul. These are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Some of the other letters attributed to Paul are believed to be copycat writings by many (but not all) scholars. For this reason, the only epistles under consideration are the ones that almost no New Testament scholar disputes.

In looking at these letters, one can get a basic outline of the life of Christ and of Christian doctrine. One can see that Christ was born of a woman and born under the law (Galatians 4), that he instituted a supper with his followers (1Cor 11), that he was crucified (many passages) and that it was as a passover lamb (1 Cor 5) specifically. There are many references to his resurrection and 1 Cor 15 also mentions his burial and his multiple appearances.

Why does Paul not say more? Paul is not writing to give a biography of Jesus and in the ancient world, he is more filling in the gaps. The ancients assumed a large amount of background knowledge when content was being shared. 

There was no need to talk about what happened in the life of Jesus since those stories were well known to his audience, being preached and passed along in an oral tradition that would eventually be written down in the Gospels. Paul’s letters are more incidental in that they are meant to deal with specific problems and incidents that took place in the life of the Church.

Gospel accounts versus epistles

It is also interesting how different the Gospels and the epistles are. The Gospels, which did come later, don’t put into Jesus’ mouth any sayings that would be used to deal with problems that the early Church dealt with that were not found in the context of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus never says anything about circumcision being necessary for salvation or how to handle food offered to idols. 

Jesus is also regularly called the Son of Man in the Gospels, but he is hardly ever called that in any of the epistles. He is hardly even called that in the book of Acts – a book indisputably authored by one of the Gospel writers.

If the early Church were just making up sayings of Jesus, it would be easy to make up sayings where he said something authoritative on problems of Gentile relationships in the wider Mediterranean world. It would be easy to make statements about what to do with food offered to idols. It would be easy to make statements about what to do if a person has an unbelieving spouse who leaves them. In 1 Cor 7, Paul is clear on when he is getting information from the Jesus tradition, but he also shows that sometimes, he is using his own judgement as an apostle.


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Oral tradition 

The Gospels are remarkable documents written in the genre of a Greco-Roman biography that give an account of the life of Jesus. Some might ask why they weren’t written down earlier. In the modern world, when a famous person dies, their body is barely buried by the time a biography is written about their life. Why would a new religion wait so long to write about their teacher, founder, and Messiah? 

The reason is that in the ancient world, oral tradition was very reliable. Writing was costly and it would only reach those who could read and those who had the opportunity to listen to a reader. It also took a long time. Thus, you had two methods. You could write an account down which was extremely expensive, took a long time, and required literacy or access to someone with it, or you could go with oral tradition which was quick, instantaneous, reliable, free, and could work with anyone who spoke the language. 

That the life of Jesus was written still in such a short time (and I contend that the Gospels, at least the synoptics, were written pre-70 CE) is remarkable.

One reason the Gospels are often dated late is because of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Surely this could not be written before the fact. However, if it was not, it is a wonder why the accounts would also include parallels of the end of the world, since everyone knows that the world did not end in 70 CE.


There are a number of archaeological findings that confirm the New Testament accounts, such as Peter’s house, the Pool of Bethesda, Caiaphas on an ossuary, a boat like the kind that would be used when Jesus walked on the water to meet his disciples, and even the fact that all of the people’s names contained in the Gospels were common names at the exact time the events were said to have happened [this information is based on a survey of names found on graves during the time of Jesus’ life]. Later writers would probably have used names which were common at a later date if they were inventing the stories out of whole cloth.

Interestingly, the place to go to determine the accuracy in these accounts is largely the book of Acts. Acts is a connection between the Gospels and the epistles. It was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke and who, for the benefit of this article, will be presumed to have been a man named Luke.

If anyone was a reliable historian of the ancient world, it was Luke. For example, in Acts 28, Paul is on a ship that crashes and the people on board make it to the island of Malta and meet someone who is called the First Man of the Island. This term was not known outside of Luke’s writing until recently in history when archeologists discovered an inscription using this term. It turned out to be the accurate title for that figure. 

In his Gospel, Luke makes reference to specific tetrarchs by name. Again, he gets the details correct. When Gallio is the proconsul of Achaia, Luke records it and it can be determined through archaeology when that was and that can be a barometer of sorts for measuring anything else in the book of Acts.

Anyone wanting to learn about the accuracy of Acts is invited to check a number of references. Many of these will be listed below as well as some for the Gospels. Ultimately, the main decider of this is the resurrection of Jesus. That information is discussed in a separate article here.


Nick Peters has mentored under apologists Michael Licona and Norm Geisler and currently attends seminary, pursuing a degree in philosophy. Nick has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-function form of autism, which has become a guiding force in his ministry to disabilities within the Church. Nick’s apologetics focus is on the historical Jesus, biblical scholarship and evidence for the resurrection.


Recommended Reading

         The Book of Acts in the setting of Hellenistic History by Colin Hemer

         Can We Still Believe The Bible by Craig Blomberg

         Trusting the New Testament by James Patrick Holding

         Cold-Case Christianity by J Warner Wallace

         Acts commentaries by Craig Keener

         Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham