George Rawlinson (1812-1902) was Camden Professor of History at Oxford University for twenty-eight years. The celebrated work, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World (3 vols.), produced over a span of thirteen years (1862-75), was one of his notable achievements. Too, his translation of Herodotus (in collaboration with his brother, Henry, and Sir John Gardner Wilkinson), became the standard version of that classic.
In 1859, Rawlinson delivered a series of eight lectures in the famous Bampton Series at Oxford. The general theme explored on that occasion was “The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records.”
My copy, an 1877 edition, contains 225 pages of text, with 211 pages of notes that reference 306 sources, both ancient and contemporary. To say that Rawlinson was a competent judge of what constitutes genuine history would be a gross understatement.
In his initial lecture, Professor Rawlinson introduced four Canons (rules, principles) for the determination of true history, as opposed to mythological narratives. Here we introduce these in an abbreviated, though accurate, fashion (39ff), with some supplementation of our own. The four degrees proceed from the strongest to the weaker.
When a particular event has been described by a “credible witness” who had the means of observing that which he depicts, his testimony may be considered to possess the “highest degree of credibility.”
If multiple eyewitnesses describe a situation, and these significantly agree with one another—though varying in minor details—the case becomes even stronger. The question now is: do any of the New Testament books fit into this category?
When a writer records an event, having obtained his information directly from eyewitnesses, his testimony must be considered as probably true. This is designated as the “second degree” of historical credibility. This happens repeatedly in the modern world as journalists and biographers interview those who were first-hand witnesses to certain occurrences or with people of special interest.
The third level of evidence has to do with oral tradition. Suppose an event is considerably distant from the one who records it, and the writer obtained the information through oral tradition. If the data represent events of public notoriety—especially those important enough to have affected national life, or have been commemorated by the establishment of ritualism—the events probably are true to a substantial degree. Oral history is regarded as fairly reliable for at least 150 years—perhaps even longer.
When the traditions of one society support those of another—especially those of a remotely distant and antagonistic people—the probability of the reality of the events is greatly increased. This is even more the case if it can be shown that there has been no collusion between the two groups.
How does this relate to the New Testament records? Marvelously. The New Testament passes the credibility test with flying colors.
Do the Gospel Writers Pass the Test?
There were eight known New Testament writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, and Jude (the writer of Hebrews is unknown). Let us look carefully at these men.
Peter, John, and Matthew were in the original apostolic company; they were with Jesus during his ministry for three and one-half years. They were by his side virtually day by day, hence they wrote as eyewitnesses of the things they saw and heard.
James (not the brother of John; cf. Acts 12:2) was a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13; cf. Galatians 2:9), and a half-brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19; cf. Acts 1:14). At first he and his brothers did not believe on Christ (John 7:5; cf. Matthew 13:57), but later he happily acknowledged himself as “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). James’ credibility is extremely high, because something overcame his natural reticence to endorse his brother’s claims. Only the Savior’s resurrection explains that turnaround. Too, since Jude was a brother of James, and thus also a half-brother of Jesus, he too overcame an initial disbelief and acknowledged Christ as Lord (Jude 1).
Mark was the son of Mary of Jerusalem, and the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). She must have had a close relationship with the apostles, because Peter went immediately to her house when he was released from prison (Acts 12:12ff).
The familiarity of this family with the apostles is confirmed by Peter’s reference to Mark as his “son” (1 Peter 5:13), suggesting a spiritual relationship (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2). Thus, Mark himself would have been a witness of many of Jesus’ deeds. Several ancient writers (e.g., Papias, Irenaeus, and Tertullian) testify that Mark’s Gospel reflects Peter’s influence.
Luke was a Greek whose Gospel narrative was grounded in the eyewitness testimony of those familiar with Christ “from the beginning” (Luke 1:1-4). After studying Luke’s writings carefully, Sir William Ramsay—once a skeptic himself—declared that “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (1979, 81).
Saul of Tarsus (Paul), of course, was a scholar of no meager ability. He was contemporary with Christ and became acquainted with at least some of the apostles (cf. Galatians 1:18). His defenses of Christianity are classic (see Acts 22; 26). Though there is no evidence that Paul saw Christ face-to-face before that encounter on the Jerusalem-to-Damascus road, he had ample opportunity to know the facts regarding Jesus’ miracles, teachings, and influence.
Of course, all of these eight men were inspired of God, but in this brief piece, we have examined their credibility only in the light of recognized historical principles. Their writings pass the test superbly.