So, how can we know that the Gospels can be trusted? Well, we can begin by looking at the witnesses that still lived at the time of some of the earliest writings in the New Testament.
(A quick run down of things that you need to know about the Gospel. The exact dates of their writing is unknown, but heavily believed to be written within the first century A.D. The earliest Gospel is believed to be Mark, disciple and writer for the apostle Peter. The rest of the Gospels were written shortly after by their respective authors. There is theorized to be an early source that was circulating along the first generation of believers that historians have named "Q". This source is believed to be a somewhat quick rundown of the life of Jesus. The Gospels were written to give the first believers a more in depth look at the life of Christ from their point of view. The exception being Luke a disciple of Paul. He wrote his two books Luke and Acts for a supposed believer named Theophilus, Luke 1:3. He spent some time following the apostles and getting their accounts of the life and miracles of Jesus. Some of which he alludes to being present for. It's interesting to note that he also seems to reference the other Gospels in the first two verses in Luke. And possibly the existence of "Q". Luke 1-2. It may be that he is also referencing incorrect gnostic theology infecting the early church. I will discuss those pieces of apostate garbage later, but for now I have digressed way too much.)
In my digression I mentioned the existence of "Q". This shows that an even earlier version of the Gospels were in circulation at the writing of the Gospels. So, what does that mean? It means that the witnesses of Jesus's miracles and life were still around. These witnesses would then be able to discredit any exaggeration or outright lies written within the Gospels or "Q". Here is what Dr. William Lane Craig has to say about it,
Since those who had seen and heard Jesus continued to live and the tradition about Jesus remained under the supervision of the apostles, these factors would act as a natural check on tendencies to elaborate the facts in a direction contrary to that preserved by those who had known Jesus.We also get an extra biblical source at least confirming the existence of Jesus in Jewish historian Josephus, who lived in the first century A.D. He also lends support for the belief these early believers and witnesses at the very least believed in the miracles of Christ. Here is what he wrote concerning Jesus in the year 93 A.D.,
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.Here it sounds as if Josephus himself found the evidence so compelling that he was a believer or at the very least on the fence. The date of the writing places it the life of John, the Apostle. This places it still in the time frame of the first generation of believers in Christ. The witnesses of Christ seemingly agreed with what they read and taught because they let it stand and didn't raise a fuss over any lies. The higher ups in the Jewish faith, who opposed Jesus and His apostles, said their piece and still the Christian faith grew like wildfire. This itself is evidence that the majority of witnesses were in agreement about the credibility of what the apostles and their disciples were saying and writing. If they were lying and making it all up it seems far more likely Christianity would have been dead on arrival. It wouldn't take long for the witnesses to discredit these claims.
- Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63
(Based on the translation of Louis H. Feldman, The Loeb Classical Library.) Taken from the websitehttp://www.josephus.org/testimonium.htm
So, we now move on to the apostles. How can we be sure they just didn't write down some stuff and get some people to go along with it?
I want to first establish the answer to the easy part of that question. The Bible makes it quite clear that being a Christian in the early days of the faith. For the very first example of this we turn to Acts 7:58-60
This verse also gives us the first glance at Saul who later becomes the apostle Saul. A bit more about him later. For now we want to focus on the persecuted not the persecutors. Now I don't really believe any reasonable argument could be made against the persecution of Christians, even the accounts recorded in the Bible, but in case there is anyone out there that believes that early Christians had it easy:
"Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition - repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, - where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of "hating the human race."
This is from the site: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/christians.htm. It's from the book "Annals" by a Roman historian of the first century named Tacitus. There is some evidence of Christian persecution outside of the Bible.
So, we are left asking ourselves: why in the world would these witnesses subject themselves to such horrid atrocities? The obvious answer is that they were so convinced by what they had been told and seen that any threat or torture was not enough to get them to recant. I believe there is a preponderance of evidence at this point that the witnesses and existence of a man named Jesus, who had many followers who believed Him Christ, can be reasonably believed. Next I want to look at the fascinating person named Paul. A witness who claimed to have seen the risen Christ. This man keep in mind was a torturer and killer of Christians as seen above in the book of Acts when he went by the name of Saul.
Now we must first figure out if the person Paul ever existed. We can look to the Bible and clearly see that the Bible states he existed. Now to understand how that can be used as evidence one must understand the New Testament. This is not just a book that is half of the Bible. It is a collection of letters written to churches in various cities in the Roman Empire. It's not a book that some people decided to just sit down and write. Now, it must be understood that these letters were copied and passed around by believers. How does this provide evidence of Paul? If Paul didn't exist it seems far more likely these letters would never have survived. The early Christians would have been left wondering who this Paul guy is.
For some proof outside of the Bible we have early Church writings concerning Paul (and also Peter and other apostles.). These writers lived in the time of the apostles and had some arguments concerning the meaning, worth, and credibility (concerning authorship; odd debate to have if you made someone up) of the letters they had from the apostles.
One of such writings of Ignatius of Antioch who lived from 35-110 A.D.
“You are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, the deservedly most happy, at whose feet may I be found, when I shall attain to God; who in all his Epistles makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.”This quote and a full argument, concerning Paul and what we know about him, can be found here: http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/thompson/paul-historical.html. (it's also, quite obviously, and argument concerning Islam's beliefs on Paul)
Now this quote actually brings me to my point about Paul. We know that he existed and apparently was greatly feared by the apostles in the early days because of his penchant for slaughtering Chritians. As evidenced in Acts 8:1-3,
Now to summarize the rest of the story Saul on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christian Church there he encounteredthe Risen Christ, changed his ways and became Paul. Now, what makes a man intent on killing Christians suddenly completely change his life and join the very faith he was so enthusiastically persecuting? A lie? He may have seen opportunity in joining a startup faith that was heavily persecuted which he knew firsthand. That just seems highly doubtful. Maybe it's all a lie about him being a hunter of Christians. We have no evidence of that; only evidence of it being true. Maybe he fell off his donkey and hit his head really hard. Possible, but how many people have become the complete opposite of who they used to be because they hit their head and hallucinated? From his writings he seemed to be of sound mind. The only difference is that he was a fervent believer and follower of Christ. So, passionate about his belief, so confident, he died for it. Which is evidenced by the quote above from Ignatius, who lived in the time of the apostles writing to people who also would have known the apostles personally. This taken together lends credence to the Bible and the faith when taken as a whole.
We are left at this point a good argument that a man who murdered, tortured, and imprisoned Christians had a life changing experience that ended with him joining those he previously hated. It ultimately ended with him dying for that belief. It seems more likely that this would be the case if Christianity were true. Thus, we have a good argument for Christianity. Next we will look at the rest of the apostles and what evidence we have of their martyrdom.
It's at this point where it's obvious that I will first point out that the Bible is a source of evidence that the apostles died as martyrs. I want to quickly answer a quick question people ask. What makes the difference that the apostles were martyred? Other religions have their fair share of martyrs. What difference is their between Simon Peter dying for his beliefs and a follower of another religion dying for their beliefs? The difference is that the apostles died not for something they believed, but for something they knew. If I was killed tomorrow for being a Christian it would be for my beliefs. They claimed to have seen, converse, eat, and watch the Ascension of the Risen Christ. That means that if they were lying about everything then they died knowing they were dying a meaningless death. They weren't without reason. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:
They were very aware and even believed that if they were mistaken that we are the most to be pitied amongst the lost (read: damned). It seems here that it's likely that the apostles were true believers. They believed in what they saw; and if they were deceived then we are the worst of the damned. What sales pitch! "Come join our faith! We promise death and torture! And, hey, if we are wrong God may just have a special place for us in hell!"
Why would they use this as propaganda for their fledgling faith? The only reasonable answer is that the faith is real. They had a message so important that they told people no matter the consequences. Now, there is not any real debate whether they truly believed or not. Most scholars and historians agree that they were "true Christian believer(s)" (hat tip to "The Masque of the Red Death" and Vincent Prices and of course Edgar Allan Poe.).
So, really here we have no actual reason to believe that they weren't murdered for being Christians. We know from earlier that persecution was very real and fierce. We saw evidence of Paul's martyrdom and his killing of Christians before his own conversion. But just so we have some extra evidence and not just a logical conclusion I will provide some evidence.
I want to, of course, be honest in this argument of sorts, so I will confess that the evidence of martyrdom is only clear on a few of the apostles; one of which being Paul. Sean McDowell wrote his doctoral dissertation on the extensive research he did on the apostles and had this to say:
While we can have more confidence in the martyrdoms of apostles such as Peter, Paul and James the brother of John (and probably Thomas and Andrew), there is much less evidence for many of the others (such as Matthias and James, son of Alphaeus). This evidence is late and filled with legendary accretion. This may come as a disappointment to some, but for the sake of the resurrection argument, it is not critical that we demonstrate that all of them died as martyrs. What is critical is their willingness to suffer for their faith and the lack of a contrary story that any of them recanted.This was taken from: http://magazine.biola.edu/article/13-fall/did-the-apostles-really-die-as-martyrs-for-their-f/. He goes on to talk about the evidence of their martyrdom in the early church fathers' writings. The same that mentioned Paul's death. At this point the question arises, well how can we be sure that they didn't just make it all up? Really we can't be 100% sure, but it can be reasoned that they are telling the truth.
First, these people lived during the time of the apostles and we're disciples of them. They were writing to others that were of the same group of people that they were. If they were lying it seems more likely that these letters to each other would be conspiratorial in nature and not spoken of as truth. You would also then have to account for the fact that many of the church fathers, too, died as martyrs.
So, now, we are left with good reason to believe that the apostles were true believers and did not have any nefarious hidden agenda in their teachings and even went so far as to die for what they believed. We focused on Paul and saw that a man went from killing Christians to becoming one, preaching as one, being tortured and dying as one. He based this extraordinary turnaround on the belief, a seemingly truly held belief as evidenced above, that he saw Christ alive, well and Divine. We also showed that the Gospels were widely believed and held to be reliable by the apostles and Church fathers. The earliest manuscripts we have of them date between the late first century A.D. to the second century A.D. Comparisons of the earliest texts we have to today's Bible shows only minor differences. Spelling, grammar, synonyms used. The so-called major differences are times, numbers, other logistical type differences. The most major difference is the story of Christ saving the prostitute from being stoned. The story containing the famous verse, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.". Taken from: http://www.gotquestions.org/John-7-53-8-11.html
It certainly seems as if, somewhere along the way, a scribe added this story of Jesus into John’s Gospel in a place he thought it would fit well. Most likely, the story had been circulating for a long time—it was an oral tradition—and a scribe (or scribes) felt that, since it was already accepted as truth by consensus, it was appropriate to include it in the text of Scripture. The problem is that truth is not determined by consensus. The only thing we should consider inspired Scripture is what the prophets and apostles wrote as they “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).If you follow the link provided it gives the history of this chunk of Scripture. In all honesty, the verses need to be dropped and left in a footnote explaining it's controversy. It's false and an embarrassment. We know it's false and still taught. It's been a stumbling block for Christians not well educated about their own faith. So, that's it. That's the differences between our earliest manuscripts and modern Bible. We can trust the earlier manuscripts we haven't found is just as likely to be as similar. The reason being that this is people's faith. They would have every reason to be precise, but no reason to lie. If they believe it to be God's Word they wouldn't seek to change it, but to cherish it.
Now, we reach the big one. Did Christmas actually resurrect from the dead? The arguments made for and against His resurrection have to be made in an argument to the best explanation manner. Unless a body proved to be Jesus of Nazareth is recovered or the Second Coming happens it is impossible to prove either claim. But, what if anything makes us think that the Resurrection claim is the best explanation?
This question, when glanced at, makes it seem like we believers have an enormous task in front of us in showing the Resurrection is the best explanation. We don't, not really. If you re-read what has been written about so far in this post, the argument has already been made, mostly. Reliability of witnesses, reliability of the witness accounts (the Bible), lack of evidence against the witnesses (when the apostles first made the claim the Romans and Jewish pharisees could have easily quelled the religious rebellion going on by producing thebody of Jesus. They didn't.), and the claim itself. Why make such a fantastic claim. Especially one so easily defeated by a dead body. Paul's claims showed what they thought if Christ didn't resurrect. If they stole the body then said they are the least of the damned, and then died for the lie, one must grudgingly admire such commitment to a lie that gained them nothing.
Billy Graham makes a point, incidentally, about the weirdness of the Resurrection claim:
...because they were overwhelmed with disappointment by Jesus’ arrest. They had hoped He would overcome the power of the Roman government and establish a new kingdom, and now their hopes of this vanished.(Retrieved from: http://billygraham.org/answer/why-were-jesus-disciples-so-frightened-after-he-was-arrested-and-crucified/)
This point is that the popular view in that era was that the Messiah would come and overthrow the Roman Empire and establish an eternal reign on David's throne. As Christians know today, that is what comes next after the Second Coming. Not so back in the age of the apostles.
Real quick I want to go over a slight piece of negative evidence that slightly weighs in the favor of the Resurrection as well. We have never found a body. The tomb is believed to have been found. You can visit it if you ever go to Jerusalem. No correspondence has been found suggesting a conspiracy related to stealing Jesus's body. Conspiracy theories abound regarding His body being stolen, but no evidence. The only evidence we have favors His Resurrection, both negative and positive. The only thing left to the naysayers is to hypothesize conspiracy theories or to say that one day we will find His real tomb and His remains inside.
The case(s) have been made. What's left is a decision to make that will affect you for all eternity no matter the outcome. In my opinion the evidence weighs heavily in favor of the Christian claim. If you agree then pray for Christ to come into your life, forgive your sins, to give you a new heart. Get yourself a Bible and read it. Study it. Ask questions about things that you are not sure about. If you still have questions then ask. You can ask me. I would be ecstatic to answer any questions. If you don't feel comfortable asking me you can try here: http://www.gotquestions.org. Another great place, I mentioned in the introduction is: http://www.logicandlight.org. Another spot: https://stream.org/category/god/. They have 4 subcategories you can check out. For advanced research: http://www.reasonablefaith.org. Check out the popular articles and debates. These take time to read, but the intellectual fulfillment and ,most importantly, the Truth you are exposed to are well worth it. One last thing that I found last night worth a read after reading my post as a sort of supplemental dose of evidence is this article: http://www.theblaze.com/contributions/6-shocking-new-discoveries-about-jesus-of-nazareth/.
There are countless other resources at your disposal that I don't have the time or space to list here. I have offered myself to answer your questions or point you to a place that can answer your questions if I am unable. The decision is yours, but it is important. Ask questions, investigate, learn as much as you can, but know that you don't have forever to decide. Also, know that it is a decision that affects your eternity. I believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior and when investigated and researched with an open mind and an honest attempt anyone with a sound and rational mind would find the Truth and Purpose in Christ. I hope you found this as enlightening as much as I found it funny to write.
Sorry about the quotes. I have them correct in the draft screen, but for some reason they look weird when I posted them.