Is the Bible true? From a faith perspective, the Bible is true in the sense that it reveals what its authors believed to be true about God, humanity, and the world. It is also true in terms of its message of hope and salvation that has been received and experienced by people throughout time and space. And it is true because it continues to be a living text that shapes the lives of those who consider it as a source for their understanding of God. But is the Bible entirely factual? The answer to that question is more complicated.
For most of Christian history, questions were seldom asked about the historical reliability of the Bible. During the period in which the books of the Bible were written, copied and eventually collected in what is called the canon, and during the Medieval Period, in which religious truth was the only truth, the historicity of the Bible was never under question. However, with the coming of the Renaissance, when Christian humanists began to be concerned with the texts of the Bible in the original languages, and then when the Scientific Revolution opened serious questions about what the Bible says about the universe, there followed the period of the Enlightenment in which critical challenges to the historical reliability of the Bible were being made. Such questions were especially concerned with discrepancies in the four Gospels of the New Testament.
Are there discrepancies in the Gospels? The answer is yes, and here are just a few that relate to important events in the life of Jesus. In reporting the baptism of Jesus, both Mark and Luke state that the voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved son,” indicating that Jesus is the only recipient of this revelation. Matthew records that the voice says, “This is my beloved son,” implying that more than Jesus hears the voice. John does not even narrate the baptism of Jesus, a very peculiar omission. When we consider how each narrative treats Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, we find that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus does this at the end of his ministry. In John he does this at the beginning; the timing of which is historically unlikely. While all four Gospels tell of the death of Jesus, they vary somewhat in the details about the crucifixion. John even narrates that Jesus dies on a different day than he does in the other three stories. Finally, in the empty tomb scene, while two messengers appear in Luke and John, one messenger appears in both Matthew and Mark. However, in John these messengers appear after Peter has come to the tomb and not before. And although the resurrected Jesus appears in Matthew, Luke, and John, he never does in Mark. What are we to make of these inconsistencies as a challenge to the historical reliability of the Gospels?
First, we must recognize that the Gospels were not written to record history as are historical accounts written in the modern world. The Gospels were composed for the primary purpose of encouraging faithful discipleship in those who chose to follow Jesus as God’s Messiah, but they were not written for the purpose of historical information as modern biographies are.
Second, the Gospels are theological interpretations of Jesus’ life. Jesus was a real historical figure, who lived as a first century Jew, and who died on a Roman cross. These facts are historically accurate. Yet, in their encounter with Jesus, his closest followers experienced him in a much different way than did others. They experienced him as God’s Messiah, and this experience shaped the way they told his story. Thus, the Gospels are interpretative theological representations of a real historical figure and real historical events, even if the facts are not always accurate.
Third, those discrepancies that we might find troubling were not troubling to these ancient authors. They did not live in an age of science and rationalism, and they were not concerned to get all the facts correct. Indeed, they altered, and even created facts to suit their theological story-telling purposes. While modern historians could never get away with writing history in this way, the ancients accepted this way of telling history.
How are historically conscious people of faith to read the Gospels? We read them from a faith perspective, meeting Jesus through the stories, and finding our place in his story. In this encounter with Jesus we are asked to follow him in faithful discipleship. It is this way of reading and living the Gospels that expresses the real truth of their stories.