There are three integral questions for this test of historicity: (1) Are the witnesses close to the events in question, (2) do the accounts contain internal contradictions, and (3) did the bias of the author distort their reporting of events?
1. Are the witnesses close to the events in question?
The NT authors claimed to be either eyewitnesses themselves or using eyewitness testimony. Luke writes that he collected his information from firsthand “eyewitnesses” (Lk. 1:2). Peter writes that he did not follow “cleverly devised tales.” Here he uses the Greek word muthos (or “myths”). Instead, he claims to be an “eyewitness” of Jesus (2 Pet. 1:16). Paul said that he saw Christ “with [his] own eyes” (1 Cor. 9:1). John claimed that he saw Jesus “with [his] eyes” (1 Jn. 1:1), and he finishes his gospel with the fact that he personally saw the events himself (Jn. 19:35; 21:24). This is why historian F.F. Bruce writes, “The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of… first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and again. ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ was their constant and confident assertion.”
The disciples wrote the gospels in the first century. Alexander the Great’s earliest known biography comes 450 years after his death from Arrian in AD 130. Emperor Tiberius’ earliest known biographies come from Tacitus and Suetonius 70 to 80 years after his death in AD 110-120. But the NT documents were all written within a generation of Jesus’ death. Even agnostic critic Bart Ehrman writes that “most scholars” agree on a first century dating of the four gospels. This is far closer to events of Jesus’ life than other ancient biographers.
2. Do the accounts contain internal contradictions?
If four gospels gave the exact same account of Jesus’ life, critics might charge them with collusion, claiming that they worked together to get their story straight. But this isn’t what we find in the Bible. Instead, we get four distinct and separate accounts.
Furthermore, while the NT documents might apparently disagree in regards to the peripheral issues, they firmly agree in regards to the core historical facts. In the same way, legal eye-witnesses may slightly contradict one another in court, but their similar core testimony will be acknowledged as true. For instance, imagine that three witnesses are brought into a court of law to testify against a man accused of robbing a gas station. Here are their three testimonies:
WITNESS #1: “I saw a pale-skinned man with a snake tattoo on his right arm attempt to break into the back door of the gas station, while holding a gun in his right hand. This happened at midnight.”
WITNESS #2: “I saw a Mexican man with a skull tattoo on his left arm break into the side of the gas station, while holding a knife in his right hand. This happened at 12:30.”
WITNESS #3: “I saw an Asian man with a snake tattoo on his left arm break into the garage door of the gas station, keeping his gun tucked into his belt. This happened around 12:15 at night.”
As you look through these three accounts, you will notice a number of superficial details that appear to contradict one another.
DISAGREEMENT #1: Was the man Asian, Mexican, or Caucasian?
DISAGREEMENT #2: Where and what was his tattoo? Which arm was it on? Was it a skull or snake?
DISAGREEMENT #3: Was it the side door or the back door?
DISAGREEMENT #4: Was he carrying a gun or a knife?
DISAGREEMENT #5: When did the crime occur? Was it midnight, 12:15, or 12:30?
If we were going to get picky, we might think that these three witnesses saw three different crimes altogether. On the other hand, if we drop the details for a moment, we find that their overall description is quite clear. That is, while these witnesses disagree on superficial details, they fully agree on the central details. For example, all three accounts agree that a man broke into the same gas station. They all agree that he was armed with a weapon of some sort, and they all agree that this was done after midnight. They also all agree that he was a man, rather than a woman. Moreover, even though these accounts are difficult to harmonize, it’s still possible to do so. Let’s consider a possible harmony below:
- Perhaps the man had a light-skinned complexion. Both Asians and Mexicans can have light-skinned complexions; it might have only been an assumption that they had a dark complexion.
- The man could have been biracial. Perhaps one parent was Mexican and one parent was Asian. Therefore, one witness was correct and so was the other.
- It’s possible that the crook had multiple tattoos. He could have had two snake tattoos—one on each arm. On the left arm, he could have had a skull tattoo with a snake slithering through the empty eye sockets.
- The terms “side door” and “back door” could be perspectival language. From the perspective of one witness, the door to the gas station was on the side of the building, but from another’s perspective, the door was on the back of the building. Another possibility is that the man tried breaking into both doors. Note: Witness #1 claimed the man only attempted to break into the side door, but this wasn’t successful.
- Perhaps the man had two weapons. It isn’t impossible (or unlikely) that a burglar would be carrying two weapons to rob a gas station. Maybe he was carrying a gun and a knife.
- It’s possible that it took the man 30 minutes to break into the gas station. Maybe the building was locked up tight, and it took him a while to kick the doors in. The three witnesses appear to disagree on the time of the break in, but maybe each one witnessed the criminal at three different times.
While these witnesses might appear to contradict each other, this is only the result of multiple points of view—each witness emphasizing a different perspective. In the same way, the four gospels only appear to contradict each other, while in reality they describe the same events of the life of Christ. This shouldn’t cause us to throw them out as sloppy history; it should cause us to believe that they were authentic separate histories. Here the problem wasn’t too much information regarding the crime, but too little. Similarly, the more we discover about history and archaeology, the more we verify and explain the biblical account.
Apologist Norman Geisler tells a story about one of his colleagues, whose mother had died in a car accident. The man received two phone calls about his mother. The first call told him that his mother was in a car accident, and she was being driven to the hospital in critical condition. The second call told him that his mother was in a car accident, and she was killed on impact. The man was confused, because they were both trustworthy people. He knew that neither person would lie to him, but at the same time, they appeared to completely contradict each other.
As it turned out, the man’s mother had been in two accidents. The first accident left her in critical condition. The ambulance picked her up and drove her to the hospital. As she was being rushed to the hospital, the ambulance got in a second accident, and she was killed on impact. Of course, if a Bible commentator offered a solution like this for a Bible difficulty, he would probably be laughed at. And yet experience demonstrates that these sorts of events are certainly possible.
Finally, consider the words of atheist Richard Carrier in his book Sense and Goodness Without God. He writes, “If what I say anywhere in this book appears to contradict, directly or indirectly, something else I say here, the principle of interpretive charity should be applied: assume you are misreading the meaning of what I said in each or either case.” Consider these words for a moment: If modern atheist books can be misunderstood, then can’t the Bible? If we should give a modern author like Carrier “interpretive charity,” how much more should we give an ancient text like the Bible the benefit of the doubt? Ironically (or should I say hypocritically?), Carrier extends no such generosity to the Bible.
3. Did the bias of the author distort their reporting of events?
Imagine that you die tonight in your sleep. Tomorrow morning a reporter tries to reconstruct your life for an obituary. Where do you suppose the reporter would begin their research? Most likely, he would begin by interviewing your friends, family, and coworkers. If he didn’t consult your friends and family, he would probably miss out on some of the best stories and facts about the person that you were. While it would be important to interview your enemies, it would be just as valuable (probably more so) to interview your friends.
When we approach our study of Jesus’ life, we should adopt a similar posture. That is, we shouldn’t reject the New Testament’s picture of Jesus just because it was written by followers of Christ. If we reject these sources, we would end up throwing out some of our best historical testimony.
Consider an illustration: Imagine talking to Michael Jordan’s mother about her son’s basketball abilities. Of course, Michael Jordan’s mother would probably say that her son was the best basketball player in N.B.A. history. A polite listener might smile and tell her, “That’s very nice, Mrs. Jordan, but aren’t you a little biased in your opinion of your son? You are his mother after all.” Of course, Michael Jordan’s mother is biased, but her statement is also true! In the same way, we shouldn’t discredit someone’s views based purely on their bias, but rather, based on their truth and evidence. This being said, we should accept the reliability of the NT authors for several cogent reasons:
First, the disciples told embarrassing details about themselves in their accounts. In the four gospels, the disciples are dim-witted (Mk. 9:32; Lk. 18:34), uncaring (Mk. 14:32), cowardly (Mt. 26:33-25), doubtful (Mt. 28:17), and Peter is called “Satan” by Jesus (Mk. 8:33). They placed women at the empty tomb in a day when the testimony of women was worthless. They claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead in a day when resurrection was an offensive and bizarre concept (1 Cor. 1:23).
Second, the disciples included “difficult sayings” of Jesus. The disciples left difficult teachings in the NT, even when it would have benefited them to leave them out. Jesus was considered insane (Mk. 3:21), deceitful (Jn. 7:12), drunk (Mt. 11:19), and demon-possessed (Mk. 3:22) by his family and his enemies. Jesus had a lot of disputed and difficult teachings that were (and are) confusing (Jn. 14:28; Mt. 24:34, 36; Lk. 18:19; Mk. 6:5; Jn. 6:53), which led to a lot of his followers to desert him (Jn. 6:66).
Third, the disciples did not place words in Jesus’ mouth. The early church had a lot of theological disputes, but we don’t find answers to these in the gospels, including circumcision, obeying the Law, speaking in tongues, women’s role in the church, and Jew-Gentile relations. If the NT authors were inventing the story, it would have been easy to write that Jesus taught on these issues, but the gospels are strangely silent to these controversies. This shows that the NT writers didn’t feel the freedom to add or change Jesus’ teaching.
Fourth, the disciples abandoned century long beliefs. After the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples abandoned animal sacrifice, the commitment to the Law, strict monotheism, the Sabbath, and a belief in conquering Messiah. These beliefs were over a millennium old, and they were incredibly sacred. Yet these beliefs were abandoned overnight.
Fifth, Jesus’ closest disciples died for their beliefs. While other religions have grown rapidly through the threat of violence, torture, and death, the Christian faith grew under the threat of violence, torture, and death. In other words, persecution gave no reason to believe in Jesus and every reason not to believe in Jesus. While this doesn’t prove the veracity of the disciples, it definitely shows their sincerity.
 Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents. 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981. 45-46.
 Ehrman dates Mark around 70, Matthew and Luke around 85, and John around 95 C.E. Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them). New York: HarperOne, 2009. 145.
 I am indebted to one of Dr. Norman Geisler’s excellent teaching tapes on the subject of inerrancy for this helpful illustration.
 Emphasis mine. Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2005. 5-6.