The main historical sources we have regarding Jesus’ life and ministry are the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the Book of Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament. As we’ll cover in this and other posts, these sources
- Were written shortly after Jesus’ ministry, not hundreds of years later, as some have argued
- Are basically reliable from a historical standpoint
- Largely contain first- and second-hand accounts, and are not the products of centuries of legend, as some have argued
- Have come down to us reliably over the centuries, with their original meanings intact and without significant modification
For today, we’ll focus on the fact that these books were written shortly after Jesus’ ministry and that they contain first- and second-hand testimony. They are not legendary books created by people hundreds of years after Jesus’ walked the earth.
One thing to remember, the gospels and Acts are separate books, written by different people at different times. As such, they represent different—and typically corroborating—sources. For someone who is not a Christian, it is easy to think of these as all parts of one book, because they are all found in the New Testament. That would an error.
The Books and Their Authors
The word “gospel” is derived from the Old English expression, god-spell, which means “good news.” The first four books of the New Testament are referred to as gospels, and they tell about Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. These books are:
- Matthew: By tradition, this gospel is believed to have been written by a disciple of Jesus, a tax-collector named Matthew (also called Levi). Today, some believe it to be a first-hand account of Jesus’ ministry (written by Matthew), while others posit that it was written by an associate of Matthew who captured his testimony.
- Mark: The Book of Mark was, many believe, written by a follower of Peter. Peter was a disciple of Jesus. As such, this book apparently provides a second-hand account, using a primary source (Peter). Around 125 A.D., church historian, Papias, wrote that Mark had accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness accounts.
- Luke: Luke was a historian who wrote his gospel for someone named Theophilus, likely a person of some importance in the first century. Luke was a companion of the apostle, Paul, and is considered by some scholars to have been a conscientious historian.
- John: John was a disciple of Jesus, so his book is considered to be an eyewitness account (though this is a matter of dispute). It seems to have been written by John, or by scribes who worked with John and captured his testimony.
A fifth book, Acts, describes the early history of the church and its founding. It tells how the disciples of Jesus helped to spread the early church. It also relates the story of Paul, a Jewish leader who worked to persecute Christians. Paul had a life-changing conversion event, became a Christian, and played a key role in spreading Christianity to the non-Jewish “Gentiles.”
Acts was written by the historian, Luke. Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts are considered to be a two-volume set, with both books written for Theophilus.
When the Books Were Written
Most scholars believe that these books were written during the mid to late first century, A.D. Jesus’ crucifixion was between 30 and 33 A.D., and most scholars say that the gospels and Acts were written no later than:
- Mark: In the 70’s
- Matthew, Luke, and Acts: In the 80’s
- John: In the 90’s
So, at the latest, these books were written from about 40-60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. That may seem like a long time, but it really isn’t. Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, reminds us in that book (p.33) that the earliest biographies we have for Alexander the Great were written by Plutarch and Arrian more than 400 years after his death, and that they are considered reliable by modern historians.
A period of 40-60 years is short by comparison, and far too short for legendary material to develop. Add to that the fact that we’re dealing with first- and second-hand accounts, and the material becomes even more well-grounded.
Other scholars have convincingly argued that the gospels and Acts were written even earlier than the dates above, perhaps by as much as 15-20 years. For example, Strobel, citing scholarly opinion, outlines that Acts fails to describe Paul’s death in about 64 A.D., most likely because it was written before Paul was killed. Acts is basically part II of Luke, so Luke must have been written even earlier.
In addition, it appears that Luke used part of Mark as a source, so Mark must have been written earlier still. All of this could have gospel material being written down 20-30 years after Jesus, rather than 40-60 years.
In other posts, we’ll cover even earlier material, dating from 2-5 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. This material, in the form of religious creeds, also shows that the belief in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah was there from the beginning, and did not come about after centuries of legendary development.
So, to sum all this up: The gospels were written very early in the church’s history, not later. The belief in Jesus as a divine, resurrected Messiah came about quickly and spread rapidly during the first century. It was not the product of centuries of legendary development. In other posts, we’ll explore the gospels more deeply, focusing on their historical reliability…and more.
Image Attribution: By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons