The Gospels were written so far after the facts that they are full of legend at best, out right lies at worst. So goes the perception of many people outside of Christianity, and, unfortunately, also of some within Christianity. But this perception is wrong, as illustrated by corroborating evidence from within the writings of early Christians.
Again, this may be a strange place to look at the veracity of the Gospels, but as we saw when we examined contemporary sources outside of Christianity, having other documents support your writing is extremely beneficial in buttressing a truth claim.
As a recap – if you only look at what non-Christian writers, some hostile to the faith, wrote about Jesus you could determine 12 central facts about his life, his crucifixion and the reaction to his death by the disciples (they believed He was resurrected and worshiped Him as God).
Now we turn to the letters of Paul, written so early after Jesus’ life that no one can make a credible claim that legendary material crept into his writings.
The earliest statement about Jesus is most likely from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul quotes an early church creed:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethen at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
This letter was written some time in the mid 50’s, but the creed dates back years before. The most likely place and time Paul would have “received” it was during his visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion. This puts the origin of the creed within eight years to eighteen months of Jesus death, possibly even earlier. Clearly, this is not enough time for legend to take root.
Also of note in Paul’s statement is his reference to all the witnesses of the resurrection, particularly that some are still alive. Many note that he is essentially challenging those who doubt him to go and talk to the close to 500 people who will back up what he is saying.
All of Paul’s letters must have been written before the mid 60’s, since he died thereabouts. So just using his letters which date within 30 years of Jesus’ death we can find out numerous facts about Jesus.
New Testament scholar Edwin Yamauchi says that the following can be known about Jesus from Paul’s letters: a decendent of David, the Messiah, was betrayed, tried, crucified for our sins, buried and rose on the third day and was seen by many people after the resurrection.
The fact that Paul, a “pharisee of the pharisees” coming from the heavily monotheistic Jewish background, worshiped Jesus as God is extremely significant said Yamauchi.
Not only are the Gospels supported by the early writings of Paul, they are supported by the writings of the early church fathers. Just from evaluating the writings of seven church leaders, you find they quote the Gospels 19,368 time (36,289 quoations of all NT books). All but eleven verses of the NT could be constructed simply using their quotations.
By the second century, the four Gospels were already accepted as Scripture with no other candidates meriting anything above a sparse mention. Irenaeus (180 AD) illustrates the obvious nature of the four Gospels by comapring them to the four directions of a compass. He mentions each Gospel, the author and how it came about.
His mentor, Polycarp lived from 70 – 156 AD and had an unshakeable trust in the authenticity of scripture. When he was asked to recant his faith or die, he reportedly said, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He hath done me no wrong. How can I speak evil of my King who saved me?” He was burned at the stake.
The quoting of the NT by the early church fathers also allows us to push the dates of the Gospels and other NT books foward. If we evaluate the writings of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp between 95-110 AD, we see quotations from every book of the NT except Jude and 2 John. However, both books had to have been written before then because Jude was Jesus’ half-brother so he would have been dead by then and 3 John was written after 2 John and it was among the books quoted by Ignatius.
Stepping back from all the dates and facts, think about this in personal terms. What one event impacted you more than anything else? What one person played a huge role in your development as a person? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the second plane hit the World Trade Center, the Challenger exploded, or, if you are old enough, JFK was shot? Important events and special people are entrenched into our memories. We cannot forget things that took place, words they said to us.
Now think about the disciples. Using numerous sources, I have shown that the core principles of Christianity can be traced to within a few years of Jesus death. Do you honestly think that legend could inflitrate the message in that short a period? These people worshiped Jesus as God. He made a bigger impact on them then a thousand 9/11 could make on us. Would you have forgotten something, someone like that? Neither would they.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist by Dr. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek
The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell
A lecture given by Dr. Geisler on March 20, 2006