Can we really trust that Jesus said and did all that, or have the Gospels been distorted?

The audio version of this post also appears as an episode on ‘The Pulse Podcast with Matthew Ruttan,’ available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or TuneIn.

The Bible is the world’s number-one best seller, year after year. Fifty copies are sold every minute. It’s also the most shop-lifted!

But can we trust it? Is it reliable? More specifically, do the Gospels accurately preserve the sayings and stories of Jesus, or have they become distorted over time?

In the words of Amy Orr-Ewing, “Is the Bible mere fantasy, or is it fantastically true?”[1]

The reason I ask these questions is because there are some critics, cynics and skeptics who concede that although we may be able to trust that some of the shorter sayings of Jesus have been remembered with accuracy—after all, they’re short and memorable like ‘do unto others…’—we can’t have that same level of confidence with longer stories, and certainly not with the longer speeches Jesus makes like those we find in the Gospel of John.

Weren’t Jesus and the disciples uneducated and untrained? Isn’t memory unreliable?

Some have made the accusation that passing down biblical stories or sayings is like a children’s game of telephone. Picture a bunch of six-year-olds at a birthday party sitting in a circle. One has an original message which they whisper to the child sitting beside them. They in turn pass it on to the person beside them until it goes all the way around the circle. When it comes to the final child, they announce what they have heard. Inevitably, the message has become distorted—and is usually pretty comical—which is why the game is so fun. An original message like “You have nice hair” distorts and becomes “Your apple is a grizzly bear.”

Some critics say that this is how the biblical stories and sayings have come down to us, rendering them unreliable. This is both inaccurate and a gross mischaracterization about how religious teachings have been preserved.

Let me offer five points of clarification. Let me also say that my focus is going to be on the Gospels in the New Testament, with a special word for the Gospel of John. Other points could be made for the Old Testament and for the rest of the New Testament, but my focus here is on the sayings and stories of Jesus from the Gospels.

1. Education

It is wrong to assume that Jesus and his disciples were uneducated and couldn’t read or write. This has sometimes been argued. “How could uneducated fisherman from the backwaters of Galilee read or write anything?” they wonder. The answer is that they weren’t as uneducated as people assume.

Jesus and the disciples—who either wrote down or passed along the stories and sayings of Jesus—would have been encouraged as Jews to learn how to read. Their ultimate motivation would have been to study the word of God which was preserved in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. This learning happened both in the synagogue and sometimes in the home. A German scholar named Rainer Riesner points out that “elementary education for boys until at least the age of twelve was widely practiced in Jesus’ day…”[2]

The fact that Jesus was a first-born son may also have played into his own education so that he could take his place in the family business. Towns like Nazareth, Sepphoris and Capernaum would have had more business, trade and travel than people generally assume, meaning that there would have been an interest in and benefit to reading and writing so that individuals and families could engage in commerce in the marketplace.

We should note a historical detail which is so obvious that we almost miss it. Jesus is often called “Rabbi.” It is a word meaning “my teacher” or “my master.” The disciples were called just that: disciples. Although the title “Rabbi” was an informal title before the year 70 A.D., this was a term—along with “disciple”—which implied learning and education. Dr. Craig Evans explains: “In the Jewish setting, an illiterate rabbi who surrounds himself with disciples, and debates Scripture and legal matters with other rabbis and scribes, is hardly credible.”[3] Just think about how often Jesus quoted the Old Testament Scriptures and how he demonstrated an astounding and comprehensive knowledge of them in the process. He and his disciples were not uneducated.

2. The preservation of important sayings and stories

The idea that the transmission of the Scriptures was ‘a sloppy process of word-of-mouth telling and re-telling’ is inaccurate. This notion is implied when people compare it to the child’s game of telephone. In response, I’d like to share a few words about memory and oral tradition, and then move on to preserving important sayings and stories in written form.

a) Memory and oral tradition

We live in a technological era. We don’t really have to use our memories because we don’t need them as much. If people are literate (and most people are), they can quickly and easily write something down if they want to remember it. We have computers, smart phones and cheap paper. We don’t have to use our mental memory muscles very much. Therefore, they can get flabby. But memory muscles are capable of great things when used and exercised.

I don’t say what I’m about to say to sound special (I’m not), but I have endeavoured to commit hundreds of Bible verses to memory. I say this simply to tell you that it’s possible, and that when you start to use those memory muscles, they become stronger and capable of greater things. When I was living in Toronto one of the Bible study groups at my church committed all sixteen chapters of Mark’s Gospel to memory, word for word.

In Jesus’ time the culture was highly illiterate, unlike today. Therefore, people made a significant effort to commit important information to memory. We hear about boys committing whole books of the Torah (either Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy) to memory in preparation for Bar Mitzvahs. Just imagine boys memorizing huge swaths of Scripture before turning thirteen. Today, kids can barely remember when their math assignment is due. Why? Because when they don’t depend upon or use their memory muscles very much they become flabby.

Psychologists have studied what is called “recollective memory.” This involves one’s ability to recall certain kinds of information over time—details which show marks of having been preserved by someone who was actually there, and details that show signs of frequent rehearsal. Professor Richard Bauchkam concludes that the Gospel stories have certain characteristics which suggest they were most likely preserved in a similar way so that they could be more easily remembered and passed on. Rainer Riesner argues that over eighty percent of the sayings in the Gospels are in this easily-remembered form.

We need to take seriously the fact that it was customary for people to remember and carefully transmit important information over long periods.

b) Written records

Having shared a few thoughts about oral tradition and memory, let’s move more directly to the tradition of writing down important religious sayings and stories.

With respect to writing down sayings and stories, and also to copying manuscripts, this was a high and holy task, not something which was done haphazardly. Do you recall the “scribes” so frequently mentioned in the New Testament? These were a certain kind of religious scholar. One of their responsibilities was to copy religious texts.

It was common for two scribes to watch over the shoulder of another as he copied and preserved a text. Perhaps an old manuscript was wearing out and needed to be replaced, or perhaps another copy needed to be made and sent to a synagogue or religious community in another region. But it was a very deliberate and holy process. If even a single letter was incorrect, it would be pointed out.

One of the main figures in the early Christian movement was the apostle Paul. He also contributed many letters that are in the New Testament. When Paul talks about ‘handing on’ or ‘receiving’ a tradition, he is using technical words used in both Hellenistic schools and rabbinic academies to describe a formal process of carefully passing on important teachings.[4]

This is the tradition from which Jesus and the disciples come. Some of those stories and sayings that have been preserved were about final judgment and an almighty and perfect God. This was the God to whom they pledged their lives. Many of them became martyrs, dying for their faith. Do you think that people who were that devoted to God would lie about him, or treat the Messiah and his words haphazardly, knowing that they would ultimately have to give an account of their lives and face God himself on Judgment Day? Not likely.

In his novel In the Beginning, Chaim Potok tells about a Jewish boy who remembered people celebrating a religious festival in the synagogue and actually dancing with scrolls from the Bible as a part of their worship.[5] This is a picture of people who supremely valued the word of God carefully preserved. The Jewish people have long been called “The People of the Book.” This was (and is) a designation also carried by Christians. We are also “The People of the Book,” meaning the Bible. I’ve never danced with a Bible, but it’s a beautiful image. It reminds us about the dynamic and living nature of the written word, and of the love between God and his people.

On second thought, I do often kiss my Bible. But that’s a discussion for another day.

During a recent sermon I took us through John 5:1-18 which recalls the healing of a man at the pool of Bethesda. In the T.V. adaptation of that scene in The Chosen, one of the disciples is standing behind Jesus watching it all happen. As the scene unfolds, he pulls out a writing utensil and writes it down. Although these shows obviously take some poetic license, there’s every reason to think that this is the kind of thing that would have happened. In fact, Richard Bauckham explains that “it does seem unlikely that no one would have even noted down Jesus traditions in notebooks for the private use of Christian teachers.”[6]

Let me add another contextual factor which would have motivated the disciples in their work. If Jesus had gathered disciples around himself who increasingly believed that he was God’s Son and the long-awaited Jewish Messiah (as he did), it would be perfectly normal and certainly expected that they would remember and write down what he said. Put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say that you were a part of God’s people and you had been awaiting a Saviour for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Let’s also say that you became convinced that he had arrived and was standing in your midst. As you watched him say and do incredible and world-changing things—things that would bless people for all time—don’t you think you’d want to preserve them for others? Of course you would.

As a small sidebar, I should point out that Jesus himself considered the Old Testament Scriptures to be the authoritative word of God. The Saviour trusted the Scriptures. Why do I think this? Because Jesus thought it and said as much. Here is a blog I wrote which provides more explanation.

3. The Gospel of John

So far I have been speaking about the sayings and stories in the Gospels generally. But let me offer a specific word about the Gospel of John.

The reason I pause here is because this book preserves many of Jesus’ longer speeches. As a result, critics think it less likely that they could have been remembered or preserved with accuracy. John also records speeches and events that are not found in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), making people wonder if this hasn’t all simply been made up after the fact.

First, who wrote it? When we look at all the evidence we are directed to the conclusion that the author was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, sometimes referred to within the Gospel itself as the “beloved disciple.” His name was John and was one of the sons of Zebedee. Professor and theologian J. Ramsey Michaels says: “The identification of the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee is found almost universally in early Christian tradition.”[7]

Irenaeus was an early church father who lived in the second century. He was a follower of Polycarp who personally knew some of the original disciples. He wrote: “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia [meaning, Asia Minor].”[8] A document from the late second century known as the Muratorian Canon also says: “the fourth book of the Gospels is that of John, one of the disciples.”

Within the Gospel itself, there is also evidence of its historical accuracy. Customs and locations match perfectly with what we know about society and geography in the first century in that part of the world. One such example is pointed out by Craig Blomberg. He highlights how the conversation between Jesus and Pilate at his trial “dovetails remarkably with Roman judicial procedure.”[9] Or we could turn our attention to the excavation of the pool of Bethesda in the 1900’s. It was exactly as John had described it in chapter five. These sorts of details strengthen our confidence that this is reliable writing and testimony.

Then there is this sincere plea within the text by the very one who wrote it down: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” (John 21:24).

So, we can conclude that the Gospel was written by one of the twelve apostles who was an eyewitness and who spoke and lived with Jesus himself. We also know that he held a special place of prominence. He was one of the intimates, witnessed the crucifixion and, along with Peter, discovered the empty tomb after the resurrection. He was also a respected person of integrity with a caring heart. After all, Jesus entrusted his own mother to his care while bleeding and dying on the cross (John 19:26-27). Later, the apostle Paul would call him one of the pillars of the church (see Galatians 2:9).

It is commonly held in biblical studies today that John brought together all the sayings and events in their final collated version after Matthew, Mark and Luke had already been in circulation. So, to answer some of the critics, the reason he includes information not found in the others is because (a) he didn’t think it was necessary to repeat stories and sayings which were already well-known and in wide circulation, and (b) he desired to share unique or longer teachings that he himself was privy to as one of the intimates of Jesus. Given his prominent place in the inner circle he would have been able to speak to Jesus about these stories and sayings for both clarity and understanding, especially given their close and trusting relationship. Derek Tovey is a professor and author from New Zealand. He observes: “at every point where the beloved disciple appears [meaning, the apostle John]… the narrative includes items of close detail which suggest ‘on the spot,’ eyewitness report.”[10]

4. Eyewitness Corroboration

Since the sayings and stories of Jesus were being shared so very early—in the lifetime of the apostles themselves—it lends to their credibility. A globally respected New Testament scholar named F.F. Bruce published a book titled The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? He wrote: “It can’t have been so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.”[11] In other words, it would have been very hard to make up lies about Jesus because the eyewitnesses were still alive and could easily squash misinformation or confirm correct information.

As an interesting sidebar, hundreds upon hundreds of fragments of manuscripts—and in some case, full manuscripts—have survived from the early period to this day. Professor Daniel B. Wallace puts this unparalleled tradition of preservation in context: “The New Testament,” he writes, “is far and away the best-attested work of Greek or Latin literature from the ancient world.”[12]

In this section about eyewitness corroboration, let me also share a word about the church fathers who were significant teachers and leaders who lived right after the first generation of apostles. They quoted what we now call the New Testament frequently. If all of the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament that we have today somehow instantly disappeared, we would still be able to reconstruct the entire New Testament with the exception of about twenty verses. Think of that for a minute. Not only do we have thousands of fragments and copies of New Testament writings, but if they all magically disappeared, we would still have 99.75% of the New Testament because that’s how much was quoted in the writings of the church fathers in the generations that followed the apostles. The early writings of our tradition have been incredibly preserved.

5. The intervention of God

This last point will perhaps only be compelling to those of us who are already Christians, but it is perhaps the most compelling piece of information for many of us. Here it is. God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has intervened to ensure the disciples remembered everything Jesus said.

Wait, what?

When we think about the “inspiration” of the Bible, we perhaps first think of that much-quoted verse from Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” According to Bible scholar N.T. Wright, saying that the Bible is inspired by God is a way of saying that the Holy Spirit “guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have.”[13]

However, I’d like to draw our attention to another statement. Another important but much-neglected passage about the inspiration of Scripture is actually from Jesus himself. While speaking to his disciples, he said that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Isn’t that incredible? The Holy Spirit will teach the disciples “all things” and help them remember everything that Jesus has said to them. Not some things, but all things. Creating the world was a miracle; turning water into wine was a miracle; raising the dead was a miracle; and so was the preservation of the Gospels. It was God himself who ensured that the disciples did their work with accuracy and fidelity.

This affirmation that Scripture was inspired by God himself is captured well by Justin Martyr, an early church leader who lived most of his life in the first half of the second century: “When you hear the utterances of the prophets spoken as it were personally, you must not suppose that they are spoken by the inspired men themselves but by the divine Word who moves them.”[14] This belief was everywhere present and carried on into the historic church community.

In Knowing God, J.I. Packer says: “The words of men are unstable things. But not so the words of God.”[15] He had passages like Psalm 119:89 in mind: “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.” Firm, not flimsy. Faithful, not fickle.

What I have just shared about God intervening to help the memory of the disciples is on top of everything we have already explored from a historical standpoint about the preservation of important stories and sayings.

Let me summarize:

  • It is wrong to assume that Jesus and his disciples were uneducated and couldn’t read or write; in fact, they were more educated than people assume
  • The idea that the transmission of the Scriptures was ‘a sloppy process of word-of-mouth telling and re-telling’ is inaccurate. People were accustomed to using memories which had become robust through use; some stories and sayings give evidence of being preserved in a way which makes them memorable; the research about ‘recollective memory’ is compelling; people would have been highly motivated to learn and preserve the teachings of the long-awaited Messiah and Savior; and the disciples were from a tradition of very careful scribal, written transmission of religious teachings
  • John’s Gospel gives evidence within the book itself that it was written by an eyewitness and intimate of Jesus, something confirmed by the early church community; the content of the Gospel is unique on purpose
  • Since the sayings and stories were being shared so very early (in the lifetime of the apostles themselves), it lends to their credibility
  • God himself has intervened to ensure the disciples remembered everything Jesus said

In short, all of this is a long, long way from a child’s game of telephone.

Wrap up

As I bring this to a close, I should point out that much more could be said about the rest of the Bible, including the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament. I could also talk about how, according to the renowned Jewish archaeologist Nelson Glueck, that “it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted a biblical reference.”[16]

Or we could get into the content the Gospels themselves which lend to their ongoing credibility. For example, if the sayings and stories were made up at a later date by individuals who wanted to make Christianity look appealing, why include so many details that make it sound very un-appealing? For instance, why include information that makes the leaders of the early Christian movement (the disciples) look foolish or cowardly instead of perpetually wise and brave? Wouldn’t that undermine their credibility? And why include so many passages about how following Jesus inevitably includes sacrifice, rejection and persecution? That’s not really a recipe for a successful and wide-scale recruitment campaign. It’s all in there because that’s how it happened. There was—and is—a deep desire to pass on what was actually said and done.

The closer you look, the more you find evidence that the stories and sayings can be trusted as authentic.

It’s easy to take the Bible for granted. We pass over stories of persecuted Christians in far-flung regions of the world who long to have a copy to read in their cell. We forget William Tyndale and others who have been tortured and who have given their lives so that we could read it in our own languages. And although God’s people are far from perfect and have been involved in less-than-perfect things, we neglect that lives have been changed and given hope in the midst of the world’s darkness. The words of Scripture have compelled people all over the world to fight poverty, racism, human trafficking, and environmental degradation, to lift up the marginalized, and to advocate for health care, free education, world peace, and the love of neighbour and enemy. The list goes on and on.

As a final thought, let me share a story. Julius Hickerson was a young Christian doctor who could have done well with a ‘normal’ practice. But he wanted to go to Columbia for mission work, tending not only to people’s physical needs, but their spiritual needs too. After two years he felt like it was a waste of time. There weren’t any tangible results. One day while delivering supplies to a village his plane crashed and he died.

Some Coloumbians found his Bible in the wreckage. It was in their own language and was well-marked. In an almost unbelievable turn of events, the locals shared what they were reading with others, and actually established several churches all on their own, simply based on what they had read from Hickerson’s Bible. A few years later, a Christian organization sent missionaries to the same place. What they found shocked them. Disciples of Jesus were already there![17]

This story reminds me of of Isaiah 55:11 where God says that his word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

As we read and study the Gospels, let us be inspired to love the Lord our God just as Jesus taught us: with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, with all our of strength, and with all our minds.

To the glory of God, Amen.

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[1] Amy Orr-Ewing, Is the Bible Intolerant? (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 9.

[2] (Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 2007), 57.

[3] Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 85.

[4] See the discussion in: Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth—and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), 36.

[5] Chaim Potok, In the beginning (New York: Knopf, 1975), 360.

[6] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 289.

[7] Michaels, J. Ramsey. John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) (p. 4). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 227.

[10] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 398.

[11] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 43.

[12] “Has the New Testament Been Hopelessly Corrupted?” by Daniel B. Wallace in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 151.

[13] N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 37ff.

[14] Justin Martyr, “First Apology, XXXVI” in The Church Fathers, loc. 5762, Kindle edition.

[15] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 15

[16] Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy, 1959), 31.

[17] Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995), 125-126.

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