This post is based on the Grace New Testament Commentary for Luke 1:1-4.
Science Cannot Prove History
In the movie Religulous (which I recently reviewed), Bill Maher challenged Francis Collins (the leading geneticist of the Human Genome Project) to scientifically prove that Jesus really lived, died, and rose again. This is not really an area of expertise for Francis, but he did a decent job of stating something about how the Four Gospels are historically reliable. Maher scoffed at this of course, but then moved on to some other topic.
But guess what? Maher is somewhat right. It is impossible to scientifically prove that the events of the Gospels are true. This is not because Jesus did not live, or the events recorded in the gospels did not happen, but because it is impossible to scientifically prove any historical event. By definition, historical events cannot be scientifically proven. You cannot scientifically prove that George Washington was the First President of the United States, that Michael Jackson recently died, or even what you had for breakfast this morning. Why not? Because to prove something scientifically, it needs to be observable and repeatable. Historical events, while observable by the people who happen to see it, are not repeatable.
History Can Still Be Learned
But this doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about history. We learn about and study history all the time, and for the most part, believe that what we read really happened. Generally, we come to learn about history through the accounts of the eyewitness. They saw something happen, and then they tell stories or write about it. Then others listen to what they say, or read what they wrote, and write history.
Are the Gospels Reliable History?
When we come to the Gospel of Luke, this is what he says he is doing. He is not an eyewitness to the events he writes about, but he has carefully investigated these events, and records what he has learned.
Of course, who is to say Luke is a reliable historian? For that matter, how do we know any historian is reliable? Well, to help in this area, historians have come up with various tests to help determine the accuracy of an account. I don’t have space to get into them here.
But various historians, many of them “secular”, have stated that based on the various tests for historic reliability, the Gospels are some of the most historically reliable documents of that time period. The Gospel writers can be shown to be more reliable than such historians as Josephus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Thucidydes, and Julius Caesar. World renowned archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, after setting out to prove that the Gospels were full of errors, concluded that “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.” Similar quotes from other historians and scientists could be multiplied.
But let’s be honest. Just because Ramsay and numerous other scholars say the Gospels are reliable, doesn’t mean they really are. I’m sure Gospel critics could stack up numerous quotes from many famous archaeologists, historians, and scientists who say the Gospels are full of errors. And I’m sure they have their own research and documentation to prove it.
So…Are the Gospels Reliable or Not?
So where does that leave us? Are the Gospels accounts historically reliable or not? Personally, I think they are reliable. I think that the events recorded in the Gospels actually happened. But you want to know what else? I think that the entire question is the wrong question. Debates and argues about the historical reliability of the Gospels would have surprised the Gospel writers. They would have listened to such arguments, scratched their heads, and said, “What are you doing? That’s not why I wrote at all!” The purpose of the Gospels is not to provide a historical reliable account of the life of Jesus. I think this is a by-product; but it is not their purpose.
The Purpose of the Gospels
So what is the purpose of the Gospels? If it was not to give us a historically reliable account of the life of Jesus (though I think they do provide us this), why were they written? Simply this: life change.
Take Luke, for example (since that’s the book under discussion). He is writing specifically to Theophilus. As I mentioned in the commentary, most believe that his title indicates he was a high ranking public official. As we study through the Gospel of Luke, we are going to see that it is a very political book. Luke constantly takes things that Caesar promised the people, and shows how these things can only be provided and accomplished through Jesus. For a high ranking public official in the Roman Empire, these ideas are treasonous. Imagine how the mind and heart of Theophilus must have raced as he read this volatile book by Luke! Luke was challenge the Lordship of Caesar! He was challenging the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome! As Theophilus read this book, he was faced with a choice – to accept or deny the message, to live as he had up until then, or to change and live in light of what Luke wrote.
And the challenge is the same for us today. We may not be high-ranking public officials, but the challenge of Jesus remains. You cannot read about Him and come away unscathed. Just as watching any movie or reading any book changes a person, so also, studying and reading about Jesus will change you.
So Let’s Read!
So frankly, if someone tells me they believe the Bible is full of errors, and they don’t believe in the historical accuracy of the Gospels, my typical response is, “OK.” I don’t argue. Then I say, “You want to read it anyway? We could discuss it together if you want.”
I don’t know where you stand in your view of Scripture and the reliability of the Gospels, but regardless of your view, I invite you to join with me in learning about Jesus. It’s where the only true “CHANGE” is found.