Two Very Different Books on the Reliability of the Gospels

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

March 1, 2016

I have just finished reading Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016), and Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016).

And I can’t imagine two books about Jesus more different from one another.

Not surprisingly, in his new volume (released again right before Easter!) Ehrman continues his life-long campaign to attack the reliability of the canonical gospels and to raise doubts about their authorship and origins.  Time and time again he asserts that the gospels were late, anonymous productions, written by authors with no connections to the historical Jesus.  I will be offer a full review of Ehrman’s book at a later point.

In contrast to Ehrman, Pitre’s book is a breath of fresh air. The goal of his book is to defend the notion that Jesus claimed to be God. And he accomplishes this goal by laying a strong foundation for the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels as eyewitness sources for the life of Jesus.

Pitre tackles the authorship of the canonical gospels by making two simple observations: (a) The Gospel titles support the traditional authorship of the canonical gospels, and (b) the testimony of the church fathers supports the traditional authorship of the canonical gospels.

These are not new observations, but Pitre presents them in a manner that reminds the reader how important (and compelling) they are.

As for the titles, Pitre points out the obvious (but for Ehrman, problematic) fact that “there is a striking absence of any anonymous Gospel manuscripts. That is because they don’t exist. Not even one” (17). On the contrary, our earliest gospel manuscripts contain the titles that attribute these books to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Moreover, if the Gospels had circulated anonymously for more than a century (as Ehrman argues), then we would expect them to have a variety of different titles. Surely, we couldn’t expect them to circulate anonymously for this length of time and then suddenly all early Christians use precisely the same title.

Pitre comments on Erhman’s suggestion the titles were added later:

This scenario is completely incredible. Even if one anonymous Gospel could have been written and circulated and then somehow miraculously attributed to the same person by Christians living in Rome, Africa, Italy, and Syria, am I really supposed to believe that the same thing happened not once, not twice, but with four different books, over and over again, throughout the world? (19)

And, when it comes to the testimony of the early church fathers, the same type of consistent testimony emerges.  Pitre writes:

When the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament are taken into account, there is not the slightest trace of external evidence to support the now popular claim that the four Gospels were originally anonymous. As far as we know, for almost four hundred years after the lifetime of Jesus, no one–orthodox or heretic, pagan or Christian–seems to have raised any serious doubts about who wrote the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (53).

In sum, Pitre provides a wonderful contrast to Ehrman and highlights the reasons that Christians for thousands of years have always understood these gospels to have been written by the names attached to them.

I have a few minor quibbles with Pitre here and there (at one point, p.18, he seems to confuse P52 and P66), but he has written a very helpful book that is accessible to a lay audience interested in these critical questions.

I encourage you to read the book and then give it to your skeptical friend.