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Apologetics: Do the New Testament Writers View Their Work as History? Or Religious Fiction?

Apologetics: Do the New Testament Writers View Their Work as History? Or Religious Fiction?

Obviously Christians and non-Christians disagree about whether the New Testament Gospels are reliable witnesses to history. This is especially true when it comes to the most important claim they make−that after being crucified and placed in a tomb, Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day. But how do the Gospel writers view their own writing? As historical fact? Or some kind of legendary fiction?

Regardless of whether one accepts the resurrection as fact or fiction, a careful reading of primary biblical sources reveals that the Gospel and other New Testament writers saw themselves as reporting factual history.

“Eyewitnesses from the Beginning”

Consider, for example, the opening words of Luke’s Gospel:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.  - Luke 1:1-4

A few things stand out here. For one, Luke makes clear that he is attempting what others have also ventured to do – put together a narrative (an orderly account) of things that actually happened in history. Furthermore, Luke follows typical Greek and Roman procedure for writing history. He consults eyewitnesses of the events in order to verify the truth of what he writes.

In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, New Testament scholar and historian Richard Bauckham demonstrates clearly that the Gospel writers either were witnesses of the events of Jesus’ life (including his empty tomb and later appearances), or relied on the eyewitness accounts of those who experienced these events firsthand.[1] Furthermore, as they compiled their eyewitness accounts, they followed well-documented procedures for writing history in the first century Roman Empire.[2]

The Tradition Behind the Gospels

Consider also another example, this time from the opponent of Christianity who converted to the faith after his own encounter with the risen Christ–the Apostle Paul. He writes in his first letter to the church in Corinth (modern Greece):

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  - 1 Corinthians 15:1-9

Paul uses a very specific Greek word (paradidomi), which we translate as “delivered.” The word carries the idea of passing on a carefully preserved body of truth from one person to another.[3] Elsewhere in the New Testament we’re told that Paul visited eyewitnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb and appearances–Peter (Cephas) and John (see Galatians 1-2, Acts 9, 15). During these visits, it’s almost certain that Paul received the eyewitness testimony of those who saw Jesus.[4] This most likely took place shortly after the resurrection–perhaps as early as three years after.[5] What this means is that Paul received the unanimous testimony of the eyewitnesses a few years after the event rather than decades after – thus ruling out the possibility of a legend, which takes multiple generations to develop.

It’s also noteworthy that Paul gives a list of specific witnesses, apparently in order of occurrence. Many scholars note that the early church knew by heart the names of the witnesses–in fact, these words that Paul writes may not be his own, but instead the very words of Peter (Cephas) and John themselves.[6]

In order to add weight to the claim that Jesus was truly raised, Paul is also careful to point out that while some of the 500 witnesses had died by this time (Paul wrote this letter about 20-25 years after the resurrection), most of those who saw Jesus were still living.[7] The fact that such an abundance of witnesses was still alive meant that anyone doubting the claim of Jesus’ resurrection were free to do their due diligence and cross examine those who saw him alive. It also meant that witnesses were alive at the time when the Gospels were written.

Finally, Paul admits that Jesus even appeared to himself–a former persecutor of the church (see Acts 9, Philippians 3, Galatians 1). This experience not only led to the conversion of a skeptic–it also led Paul to lose everything, suffer unspeakable persecution, and even die a martyr’s death at the hands of the Roman empire. Paul was literally “dead serious” about the historicity of what he preached and wrote.

Regardless of where we stand on the historicity of the Gospels and the New Testament, we have to at least admit that their authors had no doubt in their minds about what happened Easter morning–so much so that they would lose even their own lives for their message.


[1] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Bauckham is a highly respected expert in his field, and his book represents a trend in recent scholarship toward taking the Gospels more seriously as historical documents. He gives an overview of the central role of Peter’s witness in Mark’s Gospel, as well as the evidence for the witness of other characters in the Gospel accounts.

[2] Ibid., 116-124.

[3] Gerhard Kittel, Ed. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume II  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 171.

[4] See Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove: Invervarsity, 2010), 318-339.

[5] See Licona, but also N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 319.

[6] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 226-232.

[7] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 447-448.

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