The Best Argument Against the New Testament Gospels

There is an increasing rise in biblical skepticism emerging quickly in our culture. In fact, most conversations about faith in Jesus frequently start with a rejection, not of Jesus, but the reliability and consistency of the Bible. The circulating objection sounds like this:

The Bible has been changed over time because too many people have altered it, and a lot of books were left out. So, the Bible can’t be trusted because too many people had their hands on it and messed it up over time. I believe that the Bible is an excellent moral book with ethical principles to live by, but it’s not for me.

This argument sounds complete, but it doesn’t take the issue far enough.

Here is the best case against the reliability of the Bible, the New Testament Gospels in particular:

There is a 30-year time frame between the events of Jesus and the actual writing down of the events in the Bible. (Thirty years with no written documentation.) This statement means our Gospel accounts are based on memories of people who experienced events decades before they wrote anything down.

Can we trust what was said in the events of Jesus was written down accurately thirty years later (60 years if we count the Gospel of John), based on memory alone?

Hard to say. If our New Testament manuscripts don’t accurately reflect what happened in the time of Jesus, then all of it can be thrown out as unreliable information.

To strengthen the case even further:

Today’s protagonist in Bible skepticism is Bart Ehrman. He states:

“The Gospels pose problems for historians since they are written long after the facts they narrate by people who had not witnessed the events they describe, and who relied on inconsistent oral and written traditions about Jesus.”

How can we trust the oral traditions of Jesus were recorded accurately decades after the events happened?

We can. Here is my case:

Jesus lived in a day where oral traditions were common and widely practiced because people were uneducated and didn’t read. (Books weren’t commonly published.) So, the need to write down the events of Jesus wasn’t urgent because people were mostly interested in the stories from the eyewitnesses that walked, talked, and interacted with Jesus himself.

Oral tradition was practiced in 3 ways:

  1. The first model of oral tradition is called informal, uncontrolled. It’s informal in that anyone can tell the story, and it’s uncontrolled because no one is overseeing how the stories are being told. Bart Ehrman makes this appeal to corroborate his claims, which is significantly misleading. He compares it to the telephone game where one person gives a comment, and by the time it’s passed down, it transforms into something completely different.
  2. The second model of oral tradition is called formal, in control. It’s formal in that only certain people tell the story, and it’s controlled because there is oversight that is taking place when the stories are told. This model is a very precise way of passing things on orally, and this is how the Jews passed down their oral traditions. It is highly effective, and some of the legal traditions that we see in Judaism is rooted in this model. It’s very rigid and ideal, but does not match what is seen in the New Testament concerning the events of Jesus.
  3. The third model of oral tradition is informal yet controlled. In this model, anyone can tell the story, but if anyone tells the story in the wrong way, then there are elders among the group that will correct the story. So, in this way, the stories always have formal oversight. This model is seen in the New Testament.

The New Testament model for passing along oral tradition is accurate. The oral traditions were widely circulated and held accountable to the Apostles. If someone were to pass along these oral traditions inappropriately or inaccurately, there would have been fierce rejection against it.

Not only widely circulated, they were told over and over until they were written down, so it wasn’t the case where they waited 30 or 60 years and then decided to document the stories. These traditions began at the time of Jesus and continued until officially documented.

***The second-century church called what we now call the Gospels, “Apostolic memoirs.” They were the memories of the Apostles about Jesus.***

Furthermore, the traditions of Jesus are not reliant on one person, but a whole series of people. It wasn’t that one person had the correct account, and from that one person, everything evolved.

Instead, the stories of Jesus were known to hundreds of people, including the people that interacted with Jesus. (The Apostles.) They oversaw what was being said in the churches and areas that were circulating the traditions.

So, there is an essential difference between corporate memory and individual memory. This corporate process is a process of overseen orality. The material passed on would have been retained faithfully because of the corporate nature, the repetition, and the accountability to the original storytellers.

To bridge the gap further:

Paul wrote his first letter in 49 A.D., which shrinks the gap 20 years. Paul writes about his personal conversion experience in Galatians, which happened within 18 months to two years of the crucifixion of Jesus. The gap is now down to a couple of years based on Paul’s experience.

Moreover, he was about the same age as Jesus, so this means that he lived in the hype of Jerusalem when all of the events overshadowed the culture, and he would have heard the stories from the oral traditions before Jesus was put to death. Paul’s presence bridges the gap and even overlaps it.

The final verdict:

Concerning the core ideas Jesus’ teachings, even though it seems there is a significant gap of time between what was said and what was written down that appears to obscure and evolve the events of Jesus, doesn’t exist. The people that recorded the events were the ones that lived it, passing it down in a controlled environment and held accountable for accuracy to preserve the integrity of the stories.

We can have confidence that precisely what happened was documented correctly, and we can be confident that Jesus is who the Bible says he is, and did what the Bible said he did.