Are the Gospels Historical?
In the wake of the movie The Passion of The Christ many have asked if the Gospel accounts are reliable sources of information on the death of Jesus, or on His life and teaching for that matter. Some scholars and clergy, even Catholics, have argued that the Gospels are statements of faith and not history, that they were written well after the fact, even as late as the second century, and that they therefore represent the teachings of the developing Church not the events as they actually occurred. This view, unfortunately, has also found its way into parish catechetics and homiletics, as evidenced by efforts to explain away the miracles, healings and exorcisms of the Lord.

These "theories", however, run counter to the witness of the Gospels themselves, the testimony of the Fathers and the constant and unanimous teaching of the Church. Consider, for example, what St. Luke reports he was doing in writing his Gospel.

Luke 1:1 1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

St. Luke also affirms, at the beginning of his Acts of the Apostles,

Acts 1:1-2 1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

Although the Gospel of John was certainly written in the late 90s, as even the most orthodox scholars admit, and probably edited into final form by a disciple (as the words themselves suggest), it clearly proclaims the eyewitness testimony of the apostle himself.

John 21:21-24 21 When Peter saw him,  he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” [i.e. St. John] 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23 The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” 24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

While the Church does not, in fact, guarantee the genuineness of the names associated with the Gospels, only the divine inspiration of the texts, the testimony of early witnesses firmly associates them with the New Testament personages to whom they are ascribed: the Apostle Matthew, Mark or John Mark, associated first with St. Paul and then St. Peter, Luke, the physician and companion of St. Paul, and the Apostle and Beloved Disciple John. In the middle of the second century St. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, writes

we find it recorded in the memoirs of His apostles that He is the Son of God,

clearly indicating the ascription of the texts to apostolic personages directly associated with Christ. Eusebius of Caesaria, in his ecclesiastical history written in the late 2nd century, says of Mark's Gospel,

And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter's hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them. Nor did they cease until they had prevailed with the man, and had thus become the occasion of the written Gospel which bears the name of Mark. And they say that Peter when he had learned, through a revelation of the Spirit, of that which had been done, was pleased with the zeal of the men, and that the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches. [Church History Bk. II, Ch. XV, 1-2]

Further on, he explains the history of the Gospels in greater depth,

6. For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence. 7. And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry. 8. And this indeed is true. For it is evident that the three evangelists recorded only the deeds done by the Saviour for one year after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, and indicated this in the beginning of their account. 9. For Matthew, after the forty days' fast and the temptation which followed it, indicates the chronology of his work when he says: "Now when he heard that John was delivered up he withdrew from Judea into Galilee.'' 10. Mark likewise says: "Now after that John was delivered up Jesus came into Galilee." And Luke, before commencing his account of the deeds of Jesus, similarly marks the time, when he says that Herod, "adding to all the evil deeds which he had done, shut up John in prison."  11. They say, therefore, that the apostle John, being asked to do it for this reason, gave in his Gospel an account of the period which had been omitted by the earlier evangelists, and of the deeds done by the Saviour during that period; that is, of those which were done before the imprisonment of the Baptist. And this is indicated by him, they say, in the following words: "This beginning of miracles did Jesus " ... 12. John accordingly, in his Gospel, records the deeds of Christ which were performed before the Baptist was cast into prison, but the other three evangelists mention the events which happened after that time. 13. One who understands this can no longer think that the Gospels are at variance with one another, inasmuch as the Gospel according to John contains the first acts of Christ, while the others give an account of the latter part of his life.  And the genealogy of our Saviour according to the flesh John quite naturally omitted, because it had been already given by Matthew and Luke, and began with the doctrine of his divinity, which had, as it were, been reserved for him, as their superior, by the divine Spirit. 14. These things may suffice, which we have said concerning the Gospel of John. The cause which led to the composition of the Gospel of Mark has been already stated by us. 15. But as for Luke, in the beginning of his Gospel, he states that since many others had more rashly undertaken to compose a narrative of the events of which he had acquired perfect knowledge, he himself, feeling the necessity of freeing us from their uncertain opinions, delivered in his own Gospel an accurate account of those events in regard to which he had learned the full truth, being aided by his intimacy and his stay with Paul and by his acquaintance with the rest of the apostles. [Church History Bk. III, Ch. XXIV, 6-15]

The number of Patristic quotes could be multiplied to show that all the Fathers took the Gospels as historical accounts upon which they could reliably base the elucidation of doctrine from the words and deeds of Christ Himself. For good reason, therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this history, expressing the Church's constant faith in the truth of the Gospels,

126 We can distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels:

     1. The life and teaching of Jesus. The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, "whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up." [Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum 19; Acts 1:1-2]

     2. The oral tradition. "For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with that fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed." [DV 19]

     3. The written Gospels. "The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus." [DV 19]

Finally, the Catechism gives special mention to the circumstances of Jesus' death, since the Passion, Death and Resurrection are the foundation of the Christian faith. To deny the veracity of the accounts is tantamount to denying the faith, placing it on the sands of human opinion, or retroactive wishful thinking by the early Church,  rather than history.

573 Faith can therefore try to examine the circumstances of Jesus' death, faithfully handed on by the Gospels and illuminated by other historical sources, the better to understand the meaning of the Redemption.

Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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