Can the Gospels Be Called Historical Documents?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1999





This essay is concerned with whether the Gospels can be called ‘historical documents’. It shall be argued that history has nothing to do with faith but with objectivity, facts and reality, and the four Gospels in general do not belong to that category. Historical information will not confirm or deny what is essentially not visible in human history, and the Gospels are mainly concerned with proclamation of faith. Hence, the claim that the Gospels can purely be called ‘historical documents’ cannot be supported.



Bible, theology, Gospels, historical documents, faith, objectivity



If no historical truth can be demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths. That is: Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary thruths of reason… That then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make a leap. (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing) [1]

This reference to an ”ugly ditch”, made by Lessing over two centuries ago, signals the ‘problem’ of faith and history that theologians and historians face when assessing religious documents, such as the four Gospels. Few would today argue that the Gospels were not more or less written from within a faith perspective, that is, the proclamation of the “good news” about Jesus from Nazareth as it was received and written down by the authors of the Gospels. The problem arises when the accounts take on a religious perspective and make claims that go beyond the ‘natural’ sphere of historical truths, leaving the reader to wonder whether what is written is a historical fact, an interpretation of a historical fact, or something made up to support the underlying faith perspective. As noted by both Strauss in the nineteenth century and Bultmann in the twentieth, how can one logically accept the modern world-picture and at the same time give credence to the world of the gospels with its supernatural happenings, such as miracles, demonic agencies, angelic visitations, voices from heaven, and so on?[2]

A few hundred years ago, the historicity and validity of the Gospels were not doubted. The modern man, however, must in the light of new theological, archeological, and historical discoveries question the traditional view of the Gospels as historical documents. The aim of this paper is to reject that view, and it shall be argued that the Gospels can not be called historical documents. However, this does not mean that no ‘historical truths’ can be extracted, as Lessing seems to argue. Rather it implies that these ‘truths’ are inconveniently interwoven with faith-inspired interpretations and mythological aspects to suit the proclamation purposes of the Gospels, and are hard - but not impossible - to ‘dig’ out. To justify this view, it is necessary to first look at the meaning of the term ‘historical’ and how it can be applied to the Gospels.

First, it should be noted that by ‘historical documents’ we do not refer to something written in the past, in the ‘history’. If that definition had been applied, surely the Gospels would have been historical since they undoubtedly were compiled within the first century after the death of Jesus. Instead, according to Johnson, the term historical often refers to ‘what really happened’, opposing the fictional which is made up. In short, historical equals ‘true’ and non-historical ‘false’. Johnson argues that the problem is that even the most material historical data, such as inscriptions, inevitably result from interpretation by participants or observers of events. Hence, historical knowledge is “limited to what this fragile skein of evidence allows”.[3] He realises though, that what is important is that the serious historian knows and acknowledges that historical knowledge deals only in degrees of probability, and never with certainty. This is also acknowledged by Paul Tillich, who tells us that the ideal of historical research is to reach a high degree of probability, but that it in many cases is impossible.[4]

Does this mean that there can be no historical documents, as we can never be certain what is true history but are only able to deduct historical facts in terms of degrees and probabilities? As Johnson says: “history is a product of intelligence and imagination. It is a mode of human knowing and an interpretive activity”.[5] Basically, Johnson and Tillich mean that although we can be certain of some historical facts, such as that World War II did occur, we can never be completely certain about, for example, what events triggered the war and why. These are all subject to interpretation and modification by historians. If these arguments are true, it follows that the Gospels can not truly be called historical documents - not because of their extraordinary stories or religious implications, but simply because they pertain historical facts that would have been interpreted and modified according to the authors’ own intelligence and imagination. Still, the door is left open for some material to be historically true in the four Gospels, and, as further proposed by Johnson and Tillich, the question of historicity becomes a matter of to what degree they can be called historical documents. For example, it could be argued that the death and resurrection of Jesus did occur, although it may not have been historically correctly recounted in the texts. Hence, those who want to find the degree of historicity must try to analyse, identify, and remove the non-historical elements. How can this be applied to the Gospels?

The Enlightenment period represented the beginning of methods of analysing the Gospels that came to be termed historical criticism and inspired a ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’. This was a period of liberation from the shackles of dogma, superstition and priestcraft, and critical history progressed steadily against other claims of the church. It did not take long for historians to challenge the sacred stories of the Bible.[6] The Gospels came to be recognised as confessional documents, not historical documents, expressing a certain faith in relation to some historical events and sayings. The attempts to ‘rescue’ the ‘real’ Jesus from the distorted Gospel texts have since these early years of historical criticism seen the presentation of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, a violent revolutionary, a member of the Qumran sect, a gay magician, and so on[7]. Although most scholars today reject these findings, their variety reveals the difficulties in ‘rescuing’ historical facts in the Gospels. Johnson explains why these difficulties exist by referring to three main problems with historicity in the Gospels:

The first problem is that little evidence has survived from outside observers concerning the stories told in the Gospels. Jesus is only sporadically mentioned in a few other primary sources, such as the writings by Josephus, the Talmud, some Roman literature, and Gnostic literature. Still, even the most critical historian can confidently assert that Jesus was a Jew who worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death[8]. However, the few known references give little historical credence to the Gospels, which Drews realised in the beginning of this century, stating that “the attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus is hopeless if there are no other historical sources for it than the gospels”.[9]

The second main problem is that a high degree of authorial bias must be taken into account when assessing the Gospels due to the faith conviction by those confessing Jesus as Lord. Michalson states that in religious matters even the slightest bit of doubt is extremely alarming for anyone interested in historical truth[10], further indicating the problem with assessing the historicity of religious documents. For Lessing[11], truth in religious matter does not hang on the occurrence or non-occurrence of specific historical events that, if true, would further complicate the historian’s assessment of the Gospels.

The third problem emphasises the impossibility to locate the Gospel writings precisely, either geographically or chronologically. The dating of the Gospels is entirely a matter of scholarly deduction, and history is very much depending on chronology. If the very sequence of events cannot be determined, questions of causality or even influence can scarcely be raised. Hence, Johnson concludes that the Gospels “are not adequate to the task of reconstructing the history of the movement that produced them, but more than adequate to the task of defining the historical movement they in turn produced”.[12]

Brown expands the list with problems, one being to recognise that the Gospels were originally in Greek and that most scholars agree that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Thus he concludes that already from the beginning there must have been modification of historical facts since no translation can be exact.[13]

These problems strengthen the argument that the Gospels cannot be called historical documents. Some may claim that the strong similarity between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthews) would at least indicate that they in some respect are dealing with historical facts. However, modern theologians have concluded that they are all literally interdependent. That is, Matthews and Luke draw much of their contents from the Gospel of Mark, and spice up their Gospels with material from an unknown source, commonly regarded as ’Q’. For the historian, one main source is not acceptable for determining historical facts, hence rejecting that claim[14]. Others try to defend the historicity and validity of the Gospels by arguing that God inspired their production and that they hence must be true. This claim, however, has no relevance in the assessment of historicity. As mentioned, history deals with ‘what really happened’ and that can for a historian not be supported by claims based on faith convictions.

Are we then left with a complete rejection of the Gospels as having any degree of historical validity? No. Practitioners of historical criticism realise the above mentioned difficulties and problems with finding historical facts in the Gospels, and have developed various methods to maximise the probability of sections within the Gospels to be historically true. Form criticism, source criticism and reduction criticism are some tools widely used by scholars to succeed with the task of finding what is commonly referred to as ‘authentic’ (rather than ‘historical’) material.[15] It is not the purpose of this paper to go into detail about how these methods function or are applied, but rather to recognise that there is a general agreement that some material in the Gospels can be quite reliably said to be historical after using these kinds of methods. Scholars argue, for example, that it is highly probable that Jesus was baptized by John, and this is justified by that John was recognised as a baptizer and preacher by Josephus; that the independence of the baptism movement is attested in documents outside the Gospels; and the probable embarrassment felt by the Gospel writers about the event implying that John was superior to Jesus or that Jesus was in need of repentance from sin.[16] Combining these factors with form, source and redaction criticism suggests that the event has some historical credence, although details involved in describing the events, such as God speaking from Heaven, are considered less credible when assessing historicity.

On the same terms, the death of Jesus can also be thought of as true history, as argued by Barth[17], but the resurrection and ascension are commonly not regarded as historical events. However, Macquirre states that the historically observable aspect of these events - the rise of a Christian movement - can unquestionably be called a historical event. He sees the ascension as depending on a “mythological conception of the universe” and an event in the consciousness of the disciples rather than in the career of Jesus himself.[18]

The above discussion indicates that the Gospels could be defined as ‘historically interpreted documents of faith’ rather than just ‘historical documents’, which has been shown not to be a valid definition. The final question is what implication this has for the Christian movement, explicitly put forward by Johnson who teasingly asks how one in a sermon simply can declare that: “Jesus said…” without a ten-minute excursus on the problem of the historical Jesus[19]. However, Christianity has never claimed history as a central part of one’s belief. Its faith is not directed towards the historical Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus, or the Christ of Faith. In his book “Life of Jesus”, Strauss claims that faith can survive unscathed the collapse of the historical record[20], and Bultmann often reached very negative results in his historical research into the New Testament but never felt uncomfortable with this, saying that faith has to stand on its own and must not be supported by the work of historical research[21]. One can also say as Lessing: “What does it matter to me whether the legend is false or true. The fruits are excellent”[22].

The conclusion stands firm, though. History has nothing to do with faith but with objectivity, facts and reality, and the four Gospels in general do not belong to that category. Historical information will, as noted by Lockwood[23], not confirm or deny what is essentially not visible in human history, and the Gospels are mainly concerned with proclamation of faith. Hence, the claim that the Gospels can purely be called ‘historical documents’ cannot be supported.


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Brown, C., (1976). History, Criticism & Faith, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester.

Drews, A., (1912), The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus, Watts & Co., London

Johnson, L.T., (1997), The Real Jesus, HarperSanFransisco, New York.

Lockwood, R., (1998.) “How much can historical documents prove?”, The Skeptical Review, Jan/Feb.,

Macquarrie, J., (1997). Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, Trinity Press International, Philadelphia.

Michalson Jr., G., (1985). Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: A Study of Theology and History, Pennsylvania State University, US.



[1] G. Michalson Jr., (1985). Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: A Study of Theology and History, Pennsylvania State University, p.1.

[2] J. Macquarrie, (1997). Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, Trinity Press International, Philadelphia, p.71.

[3] L.T. Johnson, (1997), The Real Jesus, HarperSanFransisco, New York, pp.81-85.

[4] G. Michalson Jr., Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: A Study Of Theology And History, p.95.

[5] L.T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, pp.81-82.

[6] L.T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, pp.59-60.

[7] Ibid., p.86.

[8] Ibid., p.123.

[9] A. Drews, (1912), The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus, Watts & Co., London, p.123.

[10] G. Michalson Jr., Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: A Study Of Theology And History, pp.24-25.

[11] Ibid., p.31.

[12] L.T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p.104.

[13] C. Brown, (1976). History, Criticism & Faith, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, p.126.

[14] L.T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, pp.107-108.

[15] J. Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, pp.71-73.

[16] L.T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p.124.

[17] J. Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, p.406.

[18] J. Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, p.410.

[19] L.T. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p.65.

[20] J. Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, p.229.

[21] Ibid., p.296.

[22] G. Michalson Jr., Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: A Study Of Theology And History,  p.49.

[23] R. Lockwood, (1998.) “How much can historical documents prove?”, The Skeptical Review, Jan/Feb.,