Last time I addressed personal experience and when it was desirable with respect to evidence. Our friend Vinny responded by claiming that we have no evidence. Is that the case?
I want to point out up front that this is of necessity a thumbnail sketch of the existing evidence. Whole books have been written on just parts of this question. I’ve written on this topic before as well. What follows is a summary case.
Different Kinds of Evidence
First we have to consider that there are different kinds of evidence. In a murder trial, the defendant can be found guilty without any eye witnesses based on his weapon being used in the crime, his prints being found at the scene, his DNA on the victim, a lack of an alibi, and plenty of motive. A man can spend the rest of his life in jail – maybe worse – without a single eye witness to the crime.
It is claimed that the Gospels don’t count as eye-witness evidence. If that is true, they can still be evidence. But I don’t think it’s true that they aren't eye-witness evidence.
Let’s address the names attached to the Gospels. It is true that the names of the authors do not appear in the documents. The fact that they are anonymous does not mean no one knew who wrote them.
The earliest mention of the Gospel writers that we know of exists only as a quote by Eusebius. He quotes Papias (circa ad130) as attributing Matthew and Mark to the traditional authors. The Muratorian Canon then mentions Luke and John (ca 170) followed by Irenaeus (ca 180) who put all four together (Against Heresies 3.1.1) (the “numerology” is in regard to the rightness of there being four gospels (3.11.8), not in the names of the authors). As Roberts points out, the minimal discussion of authorship implies that the matter was pretty much settled, at least for the author and his audience.
Would it be nice if the authors identified themselves? Sure. But we have the traditional names appearing quickly enough that the community could reasonably be expected to know who wrote these Gospels. Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, if someone was going to fake the authors’ names, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are unlikely choices. Fake gospels bear names like Peter, Thomas, and Mary. Who would fake a name like Mark? As Roberts said, “…the anonymity of the biblical Gospels bears the stamp of truth whereas the pseudonymity of the noncanonical Gospels suggests their falsehood.”
History tells us that Mark’s Gospel is really Peter’s. Matthew and John, also, were likely either written by apostles or from their teaching. So three of the canonical Gospels originate with apostles. What about Luke?
Luke was not one of the original disciples; neither was Paul with whom he is associated. So Luke’s Gospel starts out with a statement of the care Luke took in preparing his work. He claims to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3) – in other words, he’s examined the facts, spoken to witnesses, checked out stories, and presents an “orderly account” of the ministry and passion of Christ.
That Luke and the others wanted to give an honest account of Christ’s life is demonstrated by the things they included that could easily have been excluded that cast Jesus or the apostles in a less than ideal light.
Some examples: Christ’s baptism and rejection by His family; the discovery of the empty tomb by women; the apostles’ repeated inability to understand Jesus and their frequent jockeying for position. Was it really necessary to repeat the story of Peter denying Christ in all four Gospels? The authors of these works were clearly trying to keep everything truthful – meaning we can trust them.
Explaining the Facts
Lastly, the story that has been passed down to us is the only one that explains the facts. Secular history tells us that the followers of Christ began to proclaim His resurrection in the same city in which He was killed. It also tells us that His formerly timid followers were willing to die in defense of this belief.
We know that His Jewish followers departed from many cherished beliefs after they began proclaiming this resurrection – including abandoning the Sabbath and worshipping Jesus as God. (Don’t let the Old Testament give you the wrong idea; the post-exile Jews were very strongly monotheistic and shunned any form of idolatry – as Antichous Epiphanes learned.)
The Gospels explain all of this in a way that nothing else can.
Facts and Doubt
These are the facts. Yet some people still doubt. How can these be facts if people doubt them?
The truth is, facts are not always indisputable – even in science. I work in the medical field; I’ve learned that there is great variety in how diseases are treated, and it can all be backed up with some sort of data. The hard sciences are no better. General relativity is as well-attested as any theory out there, and still there are scientists who don’t believe it and are desperately trying to find another explanation for the data. That’s life.
I’m sure you believe in relativity. Millions of people believe in relativity, evolution, the existence of electrons, and more without examining any data at all – much less performing any experiments themselves. They believe what someone told them – someone who also never performed any experiments themselves.
Christianity is not like that. We don’t have fifth generation word of mouth. We have the records of people who either were eye witnesses or spoke to them. As evidence goes, that’s not bad.
I would love to have rock solid evidence that no one could deny, but that’s not what we’ve been given. However, we also have not been given myths made up around campfires by fishermen strung out on peyote. We’ve been given solid, sober account from trustworthy sources that have demonstrated the ability to transform those who trust them.
The Resurrection: A Story No One Would Make Up
What is Faith?
Bruce, FF. The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament
Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ