I frequently run across fundamentalists who claim that anyone who takes an unbiased look at the evidence will be persuaded that Jesus really was who he claimed to be. They like to tell stories of confirmed atheists who set out to disprove the Bible and wind up being overwhelmed by the evidence in favor of the fundamentalist view. The most popular writer in this genre currently is Lee Strobel who describes his journey from skeptic to Christian in “The Case for Christ.” Rather than addressing the details of Mr. Strobel’s arguments, I would like to suggest an analogy based on my interest in Civil War history.
If I wanted to find out what happened at the battle of Gettysburg, I could look at reports, letters, and diaries written shortly after the battle by soldiers of every rank from private to general in both armies. I could also find contemporaneous reports in the pages of newspapers and magazines of various political perspectives. These documents can be compared with memoirs written after the war. Even with all this information, there are still debates among historians about what actually happened and why.
Now suppose that the only available accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg are four anonymous documents written twenty to fifty years after the battle by Confederate partisans. All of the documents are ascribed to officers who served on General Robert E. Lee’s staff who believed that he was the greatest military genius that history has ever known. There are no accounts from anyone on the Union side and there are no accounts from Confederates like General James Longstreet who questioned how General Lee handled the battle. Moreover, suppose that keepers of these documents made it their practice to destroy contrary accounts of the battle when they had the opportunity to do so.
It is difficult for me to imagine that any responsible historian would feel confident that he had a fair and unbiased picture of what went on the battle. The best that can be said of the accounts is that they represent the writers' understandings of the battle at the time they were written. It is possible that the writers of the accounts were eye-witnesses to the battle, that they had accurate and complete recall of the events years later, and that they were scrupulously honest in reporting those memories, but there is no evidence to establish this. The writers may simply have wanted to share their admiration for General Lee by writing down those stories that they had heard about the battle that reflected his importance. They may have had no way to verify any of the details of those stories.
This is the trouble with claiming that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can be relied upon as historical documents. The most that can be said about the New Testament accounts of Jesus is that they reflect the writers’ understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ life some twenty-five to seventy-five years after he died. We can only speculate about the actual historical events that led to that understanding.