Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trial of Jesus Christ and The Last Supper

The Sources

Now, one comes to the first mystery:   How reliable are the Gospels as historical documents?  They are virtually the only historical records that we have for the trial of Jesus.

The Case for Christ
The Case for Christ
One can find countless defenders of the accuracy of the Gospels.   Some, the Biblical literalists, simply state that since the New Testament is the Word of God, there is no reason to doubt it.  Others state that even if the Gospels did not exist, we (i.e., Christian believers) would know in our hearts that Jesus existed, that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, that he was buried, and that he arose again after three days.  Committed theologians, who, after all, have a vested interest in the presumptive validity of the Gospels, go to great lengths to date the writing of the Gospels much closer to the events than the evidence would seem to warrant.  An example of this is the collection of interviews by Strobel (The Case for Christ, 1998), a journalist turned minister, wherein a number of Protestant authorities convince the interviewer that much of what we know about Jesus is eyewitness testimony.

Some very interesting sources about the trial of Jesus have ingenious explanations for their acceptance as an historical record.   For instance, an exhaustive two-volume account of the trial of Jesus (by that title) by Chandler (1925) simply states that the Gospels are accurate because for centuries so many people have believed in them.  They are, in effect, validated by the mere fact that so many people for so many years have said that they are valid history.

Treatise on the Gods
Treatise on the Gods
Others, both objective and not so objective, worry about the Gospels as accurate history, spending a good deal of time dating their composition and examining their inconsistencies.   The foremost of these is Michael Grant (Jesus: An Historians Review of the Gospels, 1977), who presents a careful analysis that leads him to conclude that the essence of the Gospels is accurate, but that the details are ambiguous.  The great skeptic, H.L. Mencken, in his Treatise on the Gods (1946), finds that the Gospels are based largely on myth and hearsay.

A.N. Wilsons biography of Jesus pursues a quite different and creative approach to the validity of the Gospels.   The mistake, he says, is to read them as history.  While they undoubtedly contain historical information, they are a unique form of narrative that attempts to communicate a complicated mixture of legend, prophecy, fact, and faith.  We do not read them properly, he says, particularly the most important of the Gospels, the non-synoptic Gospel According to John.

Wilson also draws our attention to the Letters of Paul, wherein Jesus is not portrayed so much as a teacher, but as a divinity, the Son of God in the literal sense.  He suggests that Paul was very likely a spectator at the crucifixion, and his references to Jesus are those of an eyewitness. 

The controversy of when the Gospels were written, by whom, and where, is an intense one.   If the majority of authorities are correct, Jesus died in 30 AD, Pauls first letters were written about 51 AD, and Mark, considered the earliest of the Gospels, was written about 69 AD.  Luke and Matthew were written some ten to fifteen years after Mark, and the Gospel of John was written towards the end of the first century, about 95 AD.  One can find a great deal of variation in these dates.  It is important to note that while Paul wrote within twenty years of the crucifixion, the Gospels themselves were written some thirty-five to sixty years after the event.  Given the relatively short life spans of people in that era, it is difficult to imagine that any of the Gospel writers actually knew Jesus, although, if the dates are correct, it is possible that Mark was an eyewitness.  He would have been older than the life span of the time, but not impossibly old.

Clearly then the Gospels must be based in large part on oral tradition from the time of Jesus, written and amplified some considerable time after Jesus death.   Some find the Gospels difficult to accept as valid, but there is nothing inherently invalid in oral history. 

Some personal connections have been suggested.   Tradition has it that Luke was the companion of Paul, and that Matthew was the companion of Peter, but there is no evidence to support these apprenticeships.  If this were true, then at least two of the Gospels would be based on eyewitness testimony.  While there are those that propose that John was the John who was one of the Disciples, most historians place the writing of that Gospel much later than the time that John the Disciple could have lived.  The Gospel of Matthew is sometimes represented as the writings of the disciple named Matthew, but here again one is faced with the fact that Matthew would have been very, very old at the time his Gospel was written.  If the Disciples Matthew and John are the authors of their respective Gospels, the appearance (or publication) of them must have happened well after they were written.  One would have to find a reason for their being withheld from distribution for many years after their composition.

Mark appears to have been the source for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, although some have suggested that the latter two Gospelers used a second source, known as Q, which is now lost.  

Finally, there are inconsistencies in the accounts of the four Gospels, and a great deal of folklore has developed over the centuries about the events in the New Testament.  Many assume that the account of Jesus birth in a stable, for there was no room in the inn, is from the Gospel of Luke.  Reference to a stable does not appear in any of the Gospels. It is based on the assumption that if one has a manger, then one must have a stable.  The cattle, donkeys, and sheep in attendance at the birth of Jesus are a charming embellishment.  If these inconsistencies were not enough, there are the Apocrypha, various Gospels not included in what we know as the New Testament, having been rejected as sacred texts by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, some of which (The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James) give elaborate accounts of Jesus childhood.

However, the Gospels often contain small details that seem unlikely to have been inventions, or remnants of an oral tradition.   John, for instance, mentions the name of the man who had his ear cut off at the time of the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, a detail that is pointless if it is not true. 

Whatever the problems of authorship, accuracy, and interpretation of the Gospels, it is clear that there was a first century teacher named Jesus who was tried, convicted, and executed.   Despite the assertions of a very few that Jesus never existed, there is more than sufficient evidence to support the existence of such a man at such a time.

In order to seek the solution to the first mystery, the accuracy of the Gospels, it is worthwhile to examine them and see how they contribute to the overall story presented earlier.