Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

By Mark D. Roberts
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2007). 202 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Kelly Osborne
19.2 (Fall 2008) : 278-281

With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard University, Mark D. Roberts (hereafter MR), senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, is one of the brave souls helping to stem the tidal wave of disinformation about Jesus flooding our world. One need only look at the best-selling success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (New York, Doubleday, 2003) and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York, Harper-Collins, 2005) to see how widely views hostile to traditional and specifically biblical Christianity are promoted, purveyed, and consumed by a reading public that seems more anxious than ever to find ecclesiastical cover-ups, edgy portrayals of Jesus, or some new spin on what has been in existence and known for hundreds of years.

In his stand against false views and misinformation about Jesus, MR gets straight to the point in the title of his “blook”—a book based on a blog (21- 23)—Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For a Bible-believing Christian the obvious answer is “Yes, of course, we can trust the Gospels!” But MR writes for readers “who don’t have specialized academic knowledge and who don’t want to wade through a much longer volume” (23), and includes those who are “troubled by negative views of the Gospels” as well as those “unfamiliar with the Bible” (20).

The book as a whole does a good job of answering the question posed in its title, but MR does narrow the focus to whether the canonical gospels offer “reliable historical information about Jesus of Nazareth” (13, MR ’s emphasis). In chapter 1, he relates how his personal experiences during undergraduate days at Harvard University initially caused his faith in the historical accuracy of the canonical Gospels to be shaken, but later strengthened, as he wrestled with historical and critical issues raised in class by some of his theologically liberal professors (14- 19). His method is to state the issues in the form of fifteen FAQs (= Frequently Asked Questions; note the typical blog terminology), to which he responds with one short chapter devoted to each question (25-195). Sample questions/chapter titles are: Chapter 2, Can We Know What the Original Gospel Manuscripts Said? Chapter 9, Are There Contradictions in the Gospels? Chapter 10, If The Gospels Are Theology, Can They Be History? Chapter 11, Do Miracles Undermine the Reliability of the Gospels? Chapter 13, Does Archeology Support the Reliability of the Gospels? His procedure is clear, the discussion concise, the style informal and the eventual overall answer to the book’s central question (“Can we trust the Gospels?”) is a simple and solid “Yes” (195). For all of this, MR’s efforts should be applauded and commended.

Because the book is intended for a wide popular, as opposed to a scholarly or academic, readership, and because it is published by Crossway Books, a well-known conservative evangelical publishing house, it is imperative that the issues and problems raised regarding the reliability of the Gospels be dealt with clearly and accurately. This MR does well in chapters 2 and 3 (Did the Evangelist Know Jesus Personally?), giving a brief but useful introduction to key matters of NT textual criticism (25-37) and arguing for the traditional authorship of the Gospels (39-51).

In chapter 4 (When Were the Gospels Written?), however, MR begins to give this reviewer some cause for concern over whether to recommend his book. He allows for a late date for the composition of Matthew, Mark and Luke, namely, A.D. 65-85, 60-75, 65-95, respectively (54-58). The implication of these dates is that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke used, i.e., copied from, M ark’s Gospel and a hypothetical “sayings of Jesus” source, designated by modern scholars as Q. This scenario for the origin of the Synoptic Gospels is generally known as the Two Source or Two Document hypothesis. MR makes explicit use of this hypothesis in chapter 5 (What Sources Did the Gospel Writers Use?) as he tries to show that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark and Q. Even among conservative evangelical scholars today, unfortunately, such views on Gospel chronology and origins are routinely espoused, even though the earliest external evidence we have for Gospel composition points to independence from one another and the order as they appear in our Bibles (see R. L. Thomas and F. David Farnell, The Jesus Crisis, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998, Introduction, Chapters 1 and 3).

According to MR, the Gospels fit the genre of Hellenistic biography and therefore cannot be expected to record the ipsissima verba (Latin for “his own words”) or the precise words of Jesus, but only the ipsissima vox (Latin for “his own voice”) or general content of what Jesus said (84-92). MR actually illustrates this principle with, not the words of Jesus, but with the voice which comes from heaven when Jesus comes to be baptized by John, and Matthew’s account has, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17, NRSV), whereas Mark (3:11) and Luke (3:22) have “You are my Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased” (86-87). MR’s dismissive attitude toward harmonizing the differences leads him to say,

It would be pretty hard to argue that the voice from heaven said the same sentence twice in slightly different ways (though I expect this argument has been made somewhere). No, it seems more likely that Matthew and Mark used slightly different words for the same vocal event (86-87).

But here MR should consult W. Hendricksen’s commentary on Matthew (Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973] 215), who suggests this very thing, namely, that God did indeed speak “in slightly different ways” to Jesus and to John the Baptist (and others? Cf. the review of D. L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002] in TMSJ 15/1 [Spring 2004]). Of course, in circles of scholarship where historical-critical methods are de rigueur, and where MR completed most of his NT training (18-19, 54 n.1), Hendricksen’s commentary may lack reputation. But it is surely not so difficult to believe that God spoke more than one sentence to and about His Son on the occasion of His baptism, unless, of course, one has already accepted historical-critical methods like the Two Source hypothesis.

Chapter 9 gives further evidence that MR’s approach depends on historical-critical methods. Discussing Jesus’ healing of the paralytic (Matt 9:2-8; Mark 2:1- 12; Luke 5:17-26) MR assumes that the Two Source hypothesis is an accurate way to describe how the different accounts were composed (107-8). He then argues that Mark’s “digging through” the roof and Luke’s mention of “roof tiles” are not contradictory, since the latter merely “paraphrased Mark’s text so that his readers wouldn’t worry about how one ‘digs through’ a tiled roof” (108). MR’s opinion is that “Mark’s version is more literally accurate” (108). Later MR states that it is misguided to harmonize these accounts by trying to show that “both Mark and Luke are literally accurate” (109). He suggests that such effort at harmonization is “unpersuasive if not downright silly” (108). But since we simply do not know what kind of roof the house had, does it make more sense to say that there could have been more than one kind of roofing material over the house and give both Mark and Luke the benefit of the doubt in terms of their accuracy, or to say that Mark is more likely to be literally correct and that Luke is careless about the detail? But, someone may ask, why quibble about insignificant details of the text like roof tiles? For the person who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, however, the more important question should be: Precisely which details in the text are insignificant, and who is to make the decision as to which details are important and which are not, and why are they designated thus?

MR is inconsistent when in chapter 10 he argues that, although the Evangelists wrote theologically, they were still concerned about history. He states, “Believe that Jesus was really God in the flesh and you’ll pay close attention to what he actually said and did” (120). True, the kind of roof over the house where the paralytic was healed might not quite qualify as “what he actually said and did,” but, throughout the Gospels, both the location and the responses to Jesus by individuals and groups in both speech and deed are recorded as part of the account of His words and actions. Is the environment given by the Gospel writers as the backdrop to Jesus’ words and deeds less important than the verbal interactions of men and women with Him? Perhaps, but does that mean that these details are recorded inaccurately? Since the Evangelists thought various amounts of background information important enough to include, the topographical, historical, social, and geographical material given in their accounts must not be dismissed as unimportant. The difficulty with historical-critical methodology continues to be that once part of it is accepted, where does one draw the line?

Chapters 11-15, on the other hand, really form the strongest part of the book as they tackle in straightforward, non-technical language such matters as miracles (127-38), non-biblical literary and archeological evidence about Jesus and early Christianity (139-62), whether political ambition caused Christians to change significantly the content of the NT texts (163-72), and why the canonical Gospels ultimately came to be regarded as the only accounts worthy to be part of the NT (173-86). MR concludes with a chapter giving his final, positive answer to the question stated in the book’s title (187-95). General and Scripture indexes bring the book to an end (197-202).

The aim, the tone, the style, and much of the content of this book (chapters 1-3, 11-16), as noted above, are all reasons to appreciate MR’s answers to the FAQs he sets forth, because they will be helpful in countering many of the erroneous ideas and views on Jesus and the Gospels currently being disseminated. In the places this review has noted, however, the work clearly suffers from the effects, and thus the dangers, of historical-critical methodology. This is disappointing, and readers of this journal are strongly urged to exercise great caution in using and/or recommending this book.