Here we are at Easter weekend, celebrating the greatest miracle of all time: God's raising Jesus from the dead. This event led to the beginning of the Christian Church and the promise of everlasting life for those who unite in faith with Jesus. But now, over 2,000 years later, people frequently ask: did the resurrection of Jesus really happen? And what about all the other miracles attributed to Jesus during his ministry. Did they actually take place? Or were the miracle stories we find in the Gospels merely literary fiction -- fictitious events inserted into the Gospels by their writers in order to promote their own religious faith?
How do we know whether something really happened or is literary fiction? If we were not there to witness an event personally, we must rely on what someone else tells us. Obviously, none of us was living 2,000+ years ago to see for ourselves whether or not the Gospel miracles were for real. So we must rely on what eye witnesses recorded or what early historians wrote. And that is what we have in the Gospels.
History is not merely the recording of facts. Chronicling facts is not the same thing as history-writing. Recorded history reflects the "selection" of the facts that were deemed to be of the greatest importance and worthy of being written about, and the "interpretation" of those facts in the light of the total outlook and philosophy of the historians who did the selection and the interpretation. And this is exactly what the Gospel-writers did; they selected and interpreted the facts they thought were of crucial importance. (For more details, see The Miracles Stores of the Gospels by Alan Richardson, SCM Press, London, 1963, p. 124.)
What we read in the Gospels are the earliest records we have of what happened during the life of Jesus, so let's take a brief look at Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, the original Gospel writers, and what they wrote.
The Gospel of Mark, written by John Mark, a historian, is the oldest of the Gospels, written about A.D. 65. Mark combined many personal, eye-witness reports of Peter with other written and oral testimony from Rome, where orthodox Jewish thought would have been somewhat influenced by the Babylonians.
Luke was Paul's personal physician, traveled with him on some of his missionary journeys, and cared for Paul when he was imprisoned. In addition to Mark's Gospel, Luke relied on stories he heard when traveling with Paul and documents from: Antioch, a center of Hellenistic influence and liberal Judaism; Caesarea, home of traditional Jewish theology and where Paul was captured and taken in chains to Rome; and Corinth, a commercial center of ancient Greece known for moral corruption. Luke put the finishing touches to his Gospel in about A.D. 80 when he was in Corinth.
Matthew was a scholar and theologian with a special interest in the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. He also used Mark's Gospel as a source, plus some written documents from Jerusalem, a stronghold of traditional Judaism, and Antioch. Matthew finished his Gospel around A.D. 85 while in Antioch.
John's Gospel was written much later than the other three, sometime between A.D. 100 and 110. John was an evangelist -- a Billy Graham of his era. (See, for example, John 20:31.) He wrote from a different perspective than the other three Gospel writers, his purpose being theological rather than biographical. John didn't just record events and sayings, but interpreted them in the light of theological development. There were many Johns in the New Testament, and scholars have never been able to nail down for certain which this John was. The speculation has pretty much been narrowed to John the son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve, or John the Elder, a disciple and admirer of the Apostle John. This Gospel is direct in style and simple in expression. The location from where John's Gospel was written also is uncertain, but the strongest case is for Ephesus, a racial melting pot and commercial center.
So, in the four Gospels we have writers of different backgrounds, relying on various resources from several geographic locations, concentrating on individual specialties and purposes for writing. This information raises several questions.
If Mark's Gospel is the oldest, and Luke's is the next oldest, why is Matthew's Gospel first in the New Testament? Because the books of the New Testament were placed in the order of their popularity among the early Christians -- the first being the most popular, and so forth. If Mark was the historian and his Gospel considered the most reliable of all, why was Matthew's so popular? Because Jews were hungering for the fulfillment of their ancient prophets, and that is what Matthew was most interested in -- the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Those who say we have no proof of the miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus, are wrong. We have the historical and theological records of the original Gospel writers. There is no reason to suggest that just because the early Gospel writers were Christians their writings should not be taken seriously. This would be the same as saying that someone who votes Republican could never be trusted to write about a Republican president or that a Democratic historian could not write anything reliable about a Democratic president. There is no reason to suspect that the original Gospel writers were not credible historians. They selected and interpreted the facts they thought were of crucial importance, including the miracles of Jesus, and wrote about them in their respective Gospels.
Millions of people from all parts of the world will celebrate Easter because they, like I, believe what the early Gospel writers wrote about: that Jesus was raised from the dead and life eternal with Jesus in the kingdom of heaven is ours through faith in Jesus. Hallelujah!
Follow William B. Bradshaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BradshawBud