By Tim McGrew
The Four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – provide us with a wealth of information regarding Jesus of Nazareth. But skeptics have long charged them with both internal contradictions and external historical blunders. How can we tell whether they can be trusted?
Merely answering criticisms, though that task is important, will not give us a reason to take these documents as reliable historical works. To build a positive case we need to look closely both at the documents and at our other sources of information about Palestine in the first century. And when we take that close look, several patterns emerge. First, the four evangelists get hard things right. They display an intimate knowledge of the physical geography and of the shifting political landscape. And we can tell how difficult that is by seeing how badly early forgeries fail that same test.
Second, we can test our four Gospels for consistency by looking at the way the character of Jesus comes out in the narratives. Each Evangelists has special interests and emphases. If they were merely relaying legends or making up myths, we would not expect any more similarity in their portraits than we could find between two fictional characters – between Legolas and Robin Hood, for example. But in fact, Jesus as the four Evangelists reveal him is the same character, with the same manner of teaching, the same habit of drawing examples from the physical surroundings, the same likes and dislikes, and the same way of driving home his key points. Where myth and legend would tell us to expect many different characters wearing the same name, the Gospels present us with only one.
Third, we can check our methodology by looking at how other religious books fare when we bring them to the test. The Book of Mormon affords a good point of comparison. It purports to give us accounts of historical events, and we can check to see whether our other historical evidence confirms or disconfirms those accounts. How will it fare when we evaluate it by the same standards we use for assessing the four Gospels?
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