Are the Biblical Narratives

of Easter Week Reliable?

Many today say, "No!" but I have come to see that the answer is "Yes!" I gave up a career in astrophysics to spend the rest of my life in biblical studies because Jesus really did rise from the dead. Let me tell you about it.

The academic world today rejects miracles, and if miracles cannot occur, the biblical narratives cannot be trustworthy. No modern person, it is said, can believe in the miraculous world of the Bible and yet use automobiles, antibiotics, and computers, for all of these were developed by those who believe in a world of strictly natural causes. But this is mistaken. Many scientists and engineers believe in the God of the Bible; I belong to an organization of 2500 such people. In any case, it is the world God made that allows modern technology, not to mention intelligent beings and life itself. Recent discoveries show that the universe and time had a beginning; that the universe is incredibly carefully designed so as to allow life to exist; that life itself has such complex and functional machinery that it could not have arisen in a mindless universe; and that our environment here on earth is very probably unique in all the universe. If we live in a God-made universe, there is no reason why he cannot do miracles should he choose to.

But if we examine the biblical narratives of Easter week without a presumption that miracles cannot occur, we find that they look very good indeed. They compare quite favorably with other historical narratives from the ancient world, e.g., the writings of the Greeks Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius, the Romans Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, and the Jew Josephus.

Until the age of printing, all writings had to be copied individually by hand, allowing for many copying errors. But today we can run off thousands of identical copies on a printing press. So how can we trust what the Bible says? But in fact, if we can trust the text of any ancient document, it is the Bible. The surviving manuscripts of the New Testament from before the age of printing number over 15,000; the manuscripts of all these other historians taken together are only about 200.

The earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament come about 200 years after the events they narrate. For the other historians, the gap is over 700 years. And based on surviving evidence, the biblical narratives were copied at least as carefully as those of the other historians.

But who wrote these works? We need to know whether the authors are reliable. Even an accurately copied text of an unreliable or falsified history will only lead us astray. Although the letters of the apostle Paul tell us he is the author, our main information on Easter week comes to us from the four Gospels, which are anonymous in their texts. Yet the names of the traditional authors are the only ones which appear in the titles of the surviving manuscripts, are the only ones which are attested by early Christian authors, and are very surprising if indeed someone else wrote these works. Who would have chosen the rather obscure Mark and Luke (not even apostles) if he were inventing names? Or who would have chosen Matthew from among the apostles? The other ancient histories we are considering are not anonymous, but in most cases we have only the author's word for it as to who he is. Accepting the traditional authors for all these works, John and Matthew were Jesus' disciples for most of his public ministry, and participants in many of the events they record (like Pliny, Xenophon, Polybius and Thucydides). Paul, having been on both sides of the controversy, was in a situation similar to Josephus. Luke and Mark were associates of Paul and Peter, respectively, and report on events before their time but with living eyewitnesses (as do Tacitus, Suetonius and Herodotus). None of the biblical writers is in the position of Plutarch, or of Josephus, Suetonius and Herodotus for their earlier material, where eyewitnesses were no longer living. The New Testament situation is thus comparable to the best cases among ancient historians.

A survey of the events of Easter week shows that a large number of these were reported by all four Gospel writers, and many more by three or two of them. This is much better than most of the events that historians regularly accept from antiquity, which are often reported only by a single source. The apostle Paul does not give us a detailed account of the life of Jesus, yet in his letters to established churches, he repeats the substance of Jesus' teaching regarding his return, describes the institution of the Lord's supper, speaks of Jesus being crucified by Pontius Pilate and the Jews, and gives a list of occasions on which Jesus appeared after his resurrection.

Several pagan writers refer to Jesus, including the Romans Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Suetonius, and the Syrian Stoic Mara. Tacitus mentions that Jesus lived in Judea when Tiberius was emperor and Pilate was governor. All four sources note that he was a controversial teacher. A claim to be Messiah was ascribed to him, as the Roman historians only know him by his title "Christ," which they take to be a name, and Mara calls him a king. According to Tacitus, he was put to death by Pilate; Mara blames the Jews. According to Pliny, who was conducting trials of Christians before AD 115, Jesus' followers worshiped him as God, though they would not worship the gods.

Among early Jewish sources, Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud refer to Jesus. Josephus says Jesus lived in Judea while Pontius Pilate was governor there; the Talmud is vaguer but consistent with this. Jesus' character is controversial, being viewed rather favorably by Josephus and negatively by the Talmud. Both report that he worked miracles, though the latter explains them as magic. Both note that he gathered followers, who (Josephus says) considered him to be the Messiah. Both the Greek and Arabic versions of Josephus say Jesus was crucified by Pilate. The Greek Josephus and the Talmud also involve the Jewish leaders in his condemnation. The Talmud dates his execution on Passover eve, in agreement the Gospel of John. The Talmudic charge against Jesus is "sorcery" and "enticing Israel to apostasy," in agreement with the Gospel picture of Jesus' trial.

These corroborations are significant in judging the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts of Easter week. The Gospels themselves give hundreds of details, many of which are reported by two, three, or all four of the Gospels. Yet the number of divergences among the Gospel accounts do not suggest that the authors tried to harmonize their accounts. In addition, the apostle Paul, though attempting no narrative himself, corroborates dozens of both major and incidental details found in the Gospel accounts.

The pagan and Jewish sources agree with the Gospels and Paul on the date of Jesus' activities, their controversial nature, his miracles, his claim to be Messiah, and his death at the hands of both Roman and Jewish authorities. This is especially important in view of the fact that many people today seek to deny that Jesus worked miracles, made a Messianic claim, or was put to death by Roman-Jewish cooperation. The historical sources which touch on the subject are all against them.

We have now looked at the four Gospel accounts of Easter week. We have noted the large amount of detail they have in common regarding the events of this period. The divergences they contain suggest they were not contrived to fit one another. To use the divergences to cast doubt on the historicity of events on which they obviously agree is a strange sort of historical methodology. These accounts find some detailed corroboration in the writings of Paul, a persecutor of Christians who himself became a Christian. In fact, significant corroboration occurs in several pagan and Jewish sources as well. This is more than can be said for most events reported from antiquity.

We have also examined the traditional authorship of the four Gospels -- that they were written by two apostles and by two associates of apostles, all with considerable access to eyewitness testimony. The unanimity of substantial evidence for this tradition is impressive. This is more evidence than we have for the authorship of most ancient histories.

We have examined the transmission of these narratives from their original writing to the advent of printing. It appears that they were copied with a care at least equal to that afforded the secular historians, and with a frequency so far exceeding these that a vast quantity of material exists for reconstructing their original readings. If there is any reason for confidence in having substantially the original texts for other ancient historians, we have more for the Gospels.

Of course, we can (if we wish) reject as untrustworthy any narrative containing miracles, but that is really to beg the question at the very places where the existence of miracle may be solved affirmatively. It is also possible for us to set our criteria for accepting the miraculous so high that no evidence from antiquity can satisfy us. This is surely unwise if our concern is to find out what really happened rather than to avoid a certain class of explanations because they are distasteful.

It is also possible to reject the Gospel materials as untrustworthy because of the controversial nature of the events they narrate. Remember, however, that the Gospels themselves make it clear that Jesus' words and actions were most controversial from the very beginning. If history is an attempt to find out what really did happen, we must investigate controversial events as well as ordinary ones. We will often find that some of the most important events are also the most controversial, and that one side of a controversy, sincere or not, may be dead wrong.

We may also claim that the real picture of Jesus would be very different if we had more materials preserved from the opposition. Yet the various forms of opposition had over three hundred years to make their cases before those who claim the name of Christian ever had the political power to oppose them. This damaging evidence could have been buried in jars or taken out of the Roman Empire for safekeeping. Where is it? It is more likely that the opposition had no real case better than "Tell the people his disciples stole the body while you were sleeping," so they chose to ignore Christianity when possible, and ridicule or persecute it when not.

Indeed, it is possible to claim that Christianity is a lie or delusion, but only by the most drastic handling of the historical data. If the disciples were credulous, they certainly were clever enough to make themselves look pretty skeptical in the Gospel accounts. If they were liars, they must have put together the most impressive plot in history, and (as a by-product) created in Jesus one of the most unforgettable characters in fact or fiction.

Are the Gospel narratives of Easter week trustworthy? On the basis of such historical tests as do not beg the question of the miraculous, I believe they stand up as well as any accounts from antiquity.

Robert C. Newman, PhD

Professor of New Testament

Biblical Theological Seminary

Philadelphia, USA

A much more detailed presentation of this material is available for down-loading from the Internet, in the form of a presentation given in a debate held at Cornell University in 1979. See <> under the category "IBRI Research Reports," The Biblical Narratives of Easter Week: Are They Trustworthy?