Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels
By Lydia McGrew.
Deward Publishing, 2023.
Paperback, 276 pages, $15.99.
Reviewed by David Weinberger.
Millions of Americans who tuned in to the 2023 Super Bowl were exposed to advertisements for Jesus. The ad campaigns aimed to promote faith and love, both of which would do our country good. If recent surveys are to be believed, though, many Americans simply do not think there is good reason to believe in God, at least not the God of Christianity according to the New Testament.
For those who hold such a view, philosopher Dr. Lydia McGrew’s recent Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels uses reason and evidence to defend the reliability of the Gospel accounts. Indeed, McGrew contends not only that there is strong external evidence for the God of the New Testament—sources outside the Gospel accounts that confirm facts mentioned within the Gospels themselves—but that there is also good internal evidence—the information conveyed in the biblical accounts corresponds to what we know about the way truthful people talk and write.
Before reviewing this evidence, it is worth noting that McGrew does not cover some of the standard material one often finds in defenses of the Gospel accounts. Instead she offers original, or at least significantly neglected, arguments on its behalf. And while she succeeds in this regard, it might nevertheless be helpful for readers unfamiliar with this subject matter to grasp some important stage-setting material first, like the fact that there is more historical documentation for Jesus, an itinerant rabbi who lived in an obscure backwater of the Roman Empire, than there is for many major figures in antiquity, including kings, emperors, and military leaders. We have, for instance, more sources for Jesus than we do for either Socrates or Alexander the Great. Not only are there four biographical accounts of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), all likely written within 30-60 years of Jesus’ life, but there are letters written by Paul that are even earlier, as well as citations by non-biblical sources such as Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Seutonius, and the emperor Trajan (among others). By contrast, the earliest biography we have for Alexander the Great is over four hundred years after he lived.
Even though McGrew does not mention these things, she nicely fills in the picture with additional empirical evidence, such as recent archeological discoveries. It turns out that the Gospel writers were remarkably accurate in describing locations, not only in terms of distances among various ancient cities that have subsequently been excavated, but in their detailed descriptions of various buildings, landmarks, and structures. Take, for example, the Pool of Bethesda, where a paralytic is miraculously healed by Jesus as relayed by the Gospel of John (John 5:1-14). In describing this miracle, John notes that the pool had five porticoes. Some critics once believed that John had simply invented this detail (and of course made up the miracle) for allegorical purposes—the five porticoes representing the five books of Moses. But in the late twentieth century, excavations revealed the remains of this pool and found that it did in fact have the five porticoes John described. “So it turns out,” explains McGrew, “that John doesn’t invent these things. He knew that the pool was there and mentioned, simply and casually as a fact, that it had five porticoes.” Furthermore, she adds, because scholars maintain that John’s gospel was likely written in the 90s AD, “it’s worth noting that these structures were broken down when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. After that it would have been much harder to describe them accurately unless one really had been there and remembered.”
Moreover, in addition to accurately describing details like this, the Gospel writers also get many things right with regard to the customs and culture of Jesus’ time. This is no small accomplishment. Palestine at that time was a cauldron of competing Jewish sects, complex layers of both Roman and Jewish power, and complicated interrelationships and practices. Bear in mind, too, that there were no encyclopedias, atlases, or reference books at the time—much less Google—so it would have been extraordinarily difficult for writers repeatedly to get so many cultural facts right, if the accounts were in fact fabrications of events decades after the fact. Nevertheless, writes McGrew, “instead of stumbling, the evangelists move effortlessly and naturally through matters of fact, language, and culture, taking them into account in passing without being showy, just as a person does when he refers to the way things are in his own experience.” Consider, for instance, details John mentions about Jesus’ crucifixion: “The soldiers therefore, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic” (John 19:23). Not only does it turn out that under Roman law soldiers would in fact keep the personal items of prisoners at death, thus corroborating the first statement in the gospel report, John also casually implies that there were four soldiers involved in the crucifixion, which also seems probable given that we now have independent evidence from the historian Polybius that a group of four soldiers did indeed constitute a Roman guard. It is casual details like these, details that we would expect from eyewitness testimony, that the Gospels repeatedly get right.
Furthermore, the internal evidence from the texts themselves is also quite strong. While space constraints limit the consideration of such evidence here, one example is the unified personalities that are on consistent display across the four Gospel accounts. Here again, we may be tempted to overlook this feature as no big deal, accustomed as we are to modern movie and TV series with ongoing character continuity, but the evangelists were writing in a time long before historical fiction had been invented as a literary style, and even today it is no easy task for TV and film producers to achieve character consistency. Moreover, as McGrew stresses, the similarities of these personalities across the Gospels emerge in subtle and incidental ways that would be very difficult to invent. For example, the disciple Peter consistently appears throughout the separate accounts in his impulsive and emotional nature, as well as in his tendency to argue. And so, too, do several other people throughout the individual Gospel reports, including of course Jesus himself. When we add to this fact the many other internal data—including “undesigned coincidences,” “unnecessary details,” and “unexplained harmonies”—the evidence points to the reliability of the New Testament texts as accurate historical documents. Simply put, the Gospel accounts really do seem to retell events that the writers either witnessed themselves or heard from those who had.
And the good news is that none of this needs to be taken on faith. Just read Testimonies to the Truth and follow the evidence wherever it leads.
David Weinberger is a freelance writer and book reviewer on topics related to philosophy, culture, history, and economics. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03.
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