Are the gospels reliable?

We will consider this in two sections.

(A) Is what we have what was originally written?

The two reasons for accepting the reliability of an ancient text are:

1. The time span between the original autographs and those earliest copies.

2. The number of copy manuscripts we have.

Scholars give greater weight to the accuracy of early copies because there has obviously been less time for error to creep into them. They also give more weight to texts of which they have many copies from various parts of the world. This is because they can compare them and, by spotting discrepancies, spot any errors.

With that in mind, consider how the New Testament (NT) fares alongside other ancient works that we happily consider to be accurate and historical today. The time span is considerably less and the number of copies considerably more. It is for this reason that only 0.5% of the NT is uncertain.



Date written

Earliest copies

Time Gap

No. of copies



800 BC

c. 400 BC

c. 400 yrs




400 BC

c. AD 900

c. 1300 yrs



Gallic wars

100-44 BC

c. AD 900

c. 1000 yrs




AD 100

c. AD 1100

c. 1000 yrs



Natural history

AD 61-113

c. AD 850

c. 750 yrs



AD 50-100

c. 114 (fragment)

c. 200 (books)

c. 250 (most of NT)

c. 325 (complete NT)

+ 50 yrs

100 yrs

150 yrs

225 yrs


No. of surviving manuscripts from which reliability of copy can be ascertained.

No. of lines in doubt when comparing manuscripts.







5366 (Greek manuscripts in whole or part)



Comparing the New Testament (NT) with other ancient works.[1]

But couldn’t someone have altered all the copies?

Copies would have existed in the period preceding the writing of the earliest copies we now have, and it is clear that these were quickly distributed and further duplicated throughout the civilised world. The possibilities of consistently altering or adding to these manuscripts, scattered across an area as wide as the Roman Empire, are negligible to the point of being beyond belief. Moreover, the letters we have from early church leaders in the period before our earliest NT copies, quote the majority of the NT, validating the accuracy of the later manuscripts.

The copies we have really can therefore be compared to gain an accurate record of what was originally written.

Doesn’t the process of translation mean error has crept in?

As can be seen, contrary to what is commonly thought, we can go back to the earliest manuscripts to ensure that translations are accurate and haven’t been distorted or changed down the centuries. Not only that, but the majority of good translations are made and checked by committees of scholars, from a diverse range of backgrounds, to protect against error and bias.


The New Testament that we now have is an accurate account of what was originally written. Our next question must therefore be whether what was originally written was an accurate account of the events that actually happened, for if it was, then we must sit up and take notice.

(B) Did the authors write accurately?

The four gospels came into circulation between 30 and 70 years after the events described. They are therefore of a similar distance to the events as the 1940’s to 1970’s are from us today. Also:

1. The gospels were written by or recorded from eyewitness.

2. They lack a sense of collusion and polish.

3. The writers claim to be recording historical fact.

4. They idolised someone who prioritised honesty.

5. They appeal to antagonists who witnessed the events.

6. The events themselves were deeply memorable.

7. They were verifiable.

8. They were recorded within a culture that was used to accurately memorising teaching anyway.

9. It is likely that notes would have been made as the events happened from which the gospels were written.

10. The persistent preaching of the events would have kept them fresh in people’s minds and so free from distortion over time.

To consider these points further, why not read one of the gospels yourself? Perhaps most importantly, consider the fact that:
  • In being persecuted for their faith the writers had nothing to gain by lying except death.

But hasn’t the church just chosen texts that suit its purposes?

It was only certain eyewitnesses and friends of Jesus who would be able to record all he said accurately. In compiling the NT, the early church therefore included only books that were already widely accepted to have been written by, recorded from, or authorised by these particular people (apostles). There was therefore no particular agenda. Moreover, the church’s rejection of certain books was not therefore to fabricate historical truth, but protect it. And there is no cover up in this. The books that were left out are available for anyone to read.

Yet surely the miracles demonstrate the gospels are just myth?

Some claim the gospel writers weren’t writing history because Jesus’ miracles seem simply unbelievable. However, this is exactly the point. If God really was seeking to communicate with you and me in Jesus, isn’t it likely that he might perform the unbelievable to wake us up to this fact? From a scientific viewpoint, the only possible explanation there could be to such miraculous intervention in the laws of science, is that they are the work of the one being who created the entire universe, and therefore upholds and controls the laws of science themselves. To presuppose the gospels are unhistorical because they record miracles is to presuppose Jesus is not who he claimed before you’ve even considered him – a dubiously circular argument.


We can rely on the history and teaching of the NT we have today not just as much as the most reliable other 1st century documents, but substantially more so. The gospels we read today are the gospels that were written back then, accurately recording real events.

(C) For further thought.

Following Jesus’ teaching, Christians regard the Bible as inspired by God. They believe that God oversaw the efforts of its writers in such a way that what they wrote reliably conveys truth from him. This is not so far fetched. We are communicative beings, so it is highly likely our maker is. And what better way to communicate is there, than a book that can stand the test of time, be studied, checked, and discussed.

As you read the gospels, do consider this also. Consider how profound they are, the sense they make of life, how consistent their message is, and most importantly, consider the amazing person of Jesus himself. The gospels themselves bear testimony to the fact that they are from God, and that the man they speak of is more than merely a man.

[1] McDowell, Josh. New evidence that demands a verdict, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999); Cunningham, Richard. The Discovering Christianity course, (Leicester, IVP)