I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone tell me that the Gospels are unreliable. Sadly, they are usually just parroting what they have heard from their popular atheist heroes. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says, “The gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mentioned almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’s life.”
The late Christopher Hitchens agreed with Dawkins. He wrote that the New Testament is “a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.”
In a recent talk, Dr. Timothy McGrew demolished these assertions. Specifically, McGrew outlined two ways external evidence can be used to corroborate the Bible. First, we could look at non-Christian sources to see if they corroborate major events in the gospels (e.g. Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion). These kinds of sources do exist, but they will only take you so far. There is a limitation on what we can expect from them. For example, a non-Christian source will never admit that Jesus rose from the dead. If a non-Christian source confirmed the resurrection, then it wouldn’t be a non-Christian source. McGrew says,
There is a word for people who became persuaded that Jesus rose from the grave after His death by Roman crucifixion. That word is “Christian.”
Second, we could look at incidental details within the Gospels that reveal the writer’s knowledge and reliability in these matters. McGrew continues,
But by examining the Gospels in detail—seeing how they deal with the details of their contemporary history—we can test the knowledge and the honesty of the four evangelists.
Fortunately, we know a lot about the setting and events of first-century Palestine because we have the writings of first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Using these sources (and others like them), we are able to verify many incidental points of contact. Simply put, the Gospel writers get hard things right. If they didn’t know the contemporary culture, these incidental details would be extremely difficult to fake.
McGrew highlights eight seemingly inconsequential details that confirm the reliability of the Gospels. Let me give you one.
In Matthew 2:22, we are told a tiny detail concerning a tetrarch named Archelaus.
But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.
King Herod had just died, and his eldest son Archelaus was reigning in his place. It was pretty common for a son to take over the reign of his father at that time. But there is an added detail that is thrown into the text. Matthew tells us that Joseph was “afraid” to go to Judea when he found out Archelaus was ruling. We are not told why he was afraid, only that he was afraid. And if this were all we had to go on, we would be left hanging.
However, Jospehus gives us more detail. Josephus recounts a confrontation that took place at Passover between a group of Jews and some Roman soldiers. In Antiquities of the Jews 17.9.3, Josephus writes,
But those that were seditious on account of those teachers of the law, irritated the people by the noise and clamor they used to encourage the people in their designs. So they made an assault upon the soldiers; and came up to them, and stoned the greatest part of them: although some of them ran away wounded, and their captain among them. And when they had thus done, they returned to the sacrifices, which were already in their hands.
The Jews who stoned the Roman guard ran and hid in the temple. In response, Archelaus sent his whole army to surround the temple and then killed the 3,000 men hiding inside. After killing these men, Archelaus cancelled the Passover festival and ordered all the Jews to return home.
Now Archelaus thought there was no way to preserve the entire government, but by cutting off those who made this attempt upon it. So he sent out the whole army upon them, and sent the horsemen to prevent those that had their tents without the temple, from assisting those that were within the temple, and to kill such as ran away from the footmen, when they thought themselves out of danger: which horsemen slew three thousand men: while the rest went to the neighboring mountains. Then did Archelaus order proclamation to be made to them all; that they should retire to their own homes. So they went away, and left the festival; out of fear of somewhat worse which would follow.
Josephus tells us why Joseph and all the other Jews were afraid. They were afraid because the new ruler of Judea had just ordered the killing of 3,000 Jews. It is quite reasonable to think that Joseph heard the news about these terrible events and changed his course from Judea to Galilee.
Here we have an external story—external evidence—that helps us confirm an otherwise incidental detail from the Gospels. Matthew doesn’t give all the backstory; he only gives a small, insignificant detail. But when we understand the backstory, Matthew is corroborated.
What should we conclude about these corroborated details? The Gospel writers cared about getting the details right—even when it came to incidental details. And if they can be trusted when it comes to small, incidental details, then they can be trusted when it comes to big, important details.