When I have shared the gospel with people, some of them have asked how we can really know much about Jesus. Because I was an atheist before my conversion to Christianity, these are questions I once struggled with myself. Yet the most traditional answers are sometimes the best ones.
Some voices today have come up with more novel answers, such as the DaVinci Code—which is just a novel. Others appeal to the Gospel of Judas, but it comes from the late second-century, perhaps a century and a half after Jesus lived, and few scholars find much authentic historical memory of Jesus in it. Perhaps most shocking is the alleged “Secret Gospel of Mark,” a work supposedly discovered in the twentieth century, alleged to be based on an original from the late second century. Many recent scholars have argued that this work is a twentieth-century forgery. Those who depend on later “Gospels,” from the second century to the twentieth century, often neglect the most obvious and substantial sources about Jesus: the Gospels in our Bible.
Granted, these Gospels were written by Christians—but we learn the most about ancient sages from the circles most likely to preserve information about them, namely their followers. That is true about Socrates, Jesus, and most ancient rabbis (or in other parts of the world and eras, about Buddha or Muhammad).
These Gospels also should be taken at least as seriously as other biographies from antiquity (which often treated philosophers, politicians and generals). Biographers claimed to write mostly accurate works, especially when writing about characters of the recent past, as the Gospels were. In fact, very few ancient biographies were written as close to the time of their subjects as the Gospels were; historians often depend, for example, on Arrian’s centuries-later biography of Alexander, but the Gospels range from just one to two generations after Jesus’s public ministry. (Both used earlier sources, but the Gospels were written within living memory of some eyewitnesses. The Gospels differ from modern biographies, but most scholars today recognize that they fit ancient biographies.)
When Luke wrote his Gospel, probably shortly over a generation after Jesus’ ministry, written accounts about Jesus were proliferating. Luke tells us that “many” had written about Jesus (Luke 1:1). Most of these sources have been unfortunately lost (the surviving, so-called “lost gospels”—both gnostic and apocryphal—are significantly later). Nevertheless, one of Luke’s main sources, the Gospel of Mark, remains, and many scholars reconstruct much of another source based on where Matthew and Luke overlap. We can often compare these sources and see how Luke used them.
Moreover, Luke had oral traditions going back to eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2). Because ancient education at all levels and throughout the Mediterranean involved considerable memorization, we would expect eyewitnesses to have preserved much information about Jesus, more than enough to fill a gospel. In fact, a primary role of disciples in this period was to learn and propagate their teachers’ messages; even disciples who came to disagree with their teachers were expected to accurately report their views. This was true whether the schools emphasized written instruction (for the highly educated) or merely oral memorization. (Completely illiterate bards, in fact, wandered around repeating from memory such works as all of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.) To act as if Jesus’ disciples would have forgotten and replaced his teachings is to make them completely unlike other disciples in antiquity.
It is thus not those who privilege the Gospels as sources of information about Jesus who treat them differently than other comparable ancient works, but those who neglect the Gospels as such sources. We should keep in mind that some written sources were already emerging during a generation when Jesus’ closest eyewitness followers remained in positions of leadership in the church (cf. Gal 1:18-19; 2:9). These sources are much closer in time to the events they narrate than were most ancient biographies.
Moreover, Luke assures Theophilus that he has “thorough knowledge” of the events that he narrates (Luke 1:3). How would he have acquired this? Although the matter is disputed, many scholars interpret the “we” in some passages in Luke’s second volume, Acts, in the most obvious sense: that Luke traveled with Paul. (This was the normal sense in ancient historical works; I argue for this at greater length in my Acts commentary.) If this is correct, Luke stayed in Judea for up to two years, and would have had plenty of opportunity to talk with eyewitnesses and those who knew them (Acts 21:15; 24:27; 27:1). The next best thing to us going and consulting the eyewitnesses today is depending on a writer from that era who did just that.
Luke also writes to confirm accounts that Theophilus had already heard (Luke 1:4). Normally one does not fabricate a lie and then appeal to one’s audience’s knowledge that it is true. Rather, Luke is confirming accounts that already, some time in the church’s second generation, were widely known.
That is partly why so many narratives in the Gospels overlap, rather than telling completely different stories. It is also why these accounts do not directly address some pressing issues of later generations, such as whether Gentiles should be circumcised. The Gospel writers were preaching, using Jesus as their text, but they did not depart far from their text.
They were not simply writing sermons or epistles, but biographies; ancient biographers freely communicated lessons through their biographies, but they chose to draw lessons based on the information they had, rather than making up their illustrations. (Even speeches often drew their illustrations from historical events, the sort recorded in histories and biographies.) Novels (which flourished more in the later period of the apocryphal gospels) were usually romances and were usually interested only in entertainment, not in historical information or (usually) even moral lessons.
Luke’s historical preface invites us to confidence in what the Gospels teach us about Jesus.
Craig S. Keener is author of The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009).