A Simple Way to Check Integrity of the Gospels
Integrity of the Gospels, for many, is the first step in accepting its believability. Checking the integrity of the Gospels and its accounts can be as simple as comparing one Gospel account to another, a process known as “literary analysis.”
Sounding complicated and boring, even intimidating – it is not! Chances are, literary analysis in its simplest form, is part of a normal routine personal activity. It happens naturally when reading a text such as books, magazine articles, Internet blogs, marketing ads, instructions, maps, etc. and mentally breaking it down to understand it better. Almost anyone can do it at a basic level…and it can be fascinating.
In the case of the Gospels, literary analysis can be as simple as comparing two or more Gospels for such things as word usage, meaning, consistency, historical accuracy, theme, etc. Performing any type of comparisons or cross references is a basic literary analysis technique.
A very close cousin to literary analysis is known as “textual criticism,” another term that seems intimidating and boring…and it probably is for most people. This technique is probably best reserved only for literary experts who are so inclined.
Understanding the theme is a key component by determining the central idea of the writing. For the Gospels, is the theme intended to chronicle the birth, life, trial and execution of Jesus in the Judean Roman province – historical? Is the theme intended to teach a message of love and forgiveness – philosophical? Or perhaps, is the theme intended to convey a belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah exemplified by fulfillment of prophecies and Resurrection – salvation?
Determining the genre of the Gospels is key – are the Gospels fiction or non-fiction? Consider if the content is about real people, places and events (non-fiction) vs. content that is an invented story (fiction) written often for philosophical or entertainment purposes. To help figure this out, a reader can rely on some commonly recognized literary characteristic guidelines.
Fictions involve characters who are not real although they could believably be real people with resemblances to real persons. As a setting, the work may include real places, periods and events, but the story is always imaginary, artificial, not real. A big clue is the purpose of the author – was the intent to be entertaining, amusing, or enjoyable reading?
Non-fictions, on the other hand, are written with the intention to be informative about real people, places or events based on historical, geographical or biographical facts. The central figure of the Gospels is Jesus – was he a real historical person? Non-fictions may also reflect the author’s recollection of witnessing events or facts often influenced by personal experiences.
Characters in the story: who are they – their gender, background, age, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, etc.? What did these characters say or how did they behave in various situations such as adversity, conflict, competition, challenges, interaction with others, etc.? Does it ring true – are their behaviors under the various circumstances what is to be expected by a normal person?
By now, natural investigative curiosity has kicked in…that urge to verify historical, geographical and biographical information to see if it is historically accurate. In the case of the Gospels, was there a conspiratorial effort requiring coordination between four authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Gospels works of antiquity are multiplied by a factor of four authors written under varying times, places and circumstances thus setting direct answerability to the highest level.
Fact checking is very simple today using topical searches on the Internet to find reliable, unbiased secondary sources such as encyclopedias, historical websites, university library websites, etc. Texts of antiquity can even be referenced via the Internet such as by Jewish historian Josephus, Caesar Augustus , and Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. The more knowledgeable about the subject matter, the better the analysis.
Performing literary analysis and literary criticism of the Gospels are a form of the scientific methodology. First, reading what has been written (observation); then gathering information (evidence, research, intuitive analysis) to identify the premise, determining the theme (hypothesis); and finally performing an assessment to see if it all stands up to scrutiny (testing, retesting).
Using a scientific methodology approach allows for repeating the process to gain confidence in the outcome or conclusion. For some, a conclusion one way or the other about the integrity of the Gospels may come quickly; for many it will likely take longer.
In the end, the conclusion will be one reached on a personal level perhaps influenced by opinions, even biases weighed against observations, evaluation and factual accuracy. Are the Gospels fictional or non-fictional? If they are found to be non-fictional, then the bigger question becomes: is the central message of the Gospels believable?
Updated November 12, 2022.
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