This is an excerpt from Navigating Gospel Truth by Rebecca McLaughlin
When people ask me why I am a Christian, I sometimes answer: “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s not the whole story, but my dad read me J. R. R. Tolkien’s unbelievable books when I was a kid, and entering his beautiful, fictional world made me yearn for an even more beautiful reality. The authors of the Gospels welcome us into that much more beautiful world: it’s our world seen through different eyes, with Jesus at the center of it all.
It’s not that the Gospels paint a shiny, happy, sugarcoated picture of reality. Just like in Tolkien’s fictional world, painful, terrible, and heartbreaking things happen in the real world of the Gospels again and again. But Jesus walks right through the heartbreak—even death itself—and comes out on the other side. The authors of the Gospels offer us the opportunity to follow Jesus into what Matthew, Mark, and Luke most often call “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God,” and John’s Gospel tends to call “eternal life”—a world where Jesus is the King and all that’s wrong will be put gloriously right.1 But in order to take their offer seriously, we need to ask ourselves if we can trust these Gospel authors. Are they writing four biographies of one first-century, Jewish man known as Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in history and died upon a Roman cross? Or are they more like Tolkien: creating a beautiful, fictional world?
In this Bible study, we’re going to ask some searching questions, like, “Who wrote the Gospels anyway?”; “Weren’t they written too long after Jesus’s life to be trusted?”; “Don’t they contradict each other?”; and “How do we know we even have the right Gospel texts and that their message hasn’t been lost in translation?”
Instead of being unreliable mythologies, as some skeptics suggest, we’ll see that all four Gospels were written well within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life and that they record authentic testimony about historical events. We’ll think about translation and how we can be confident we’re getting access to what Jesus really did and taught. We’ll also take a snapshot of the process used by scholars to determine that the texts in our Bibles reflect the texts the Gospel authors wrote so many centuries ago.
The more I’ve looked into these questions for myself, the more confident I’ve felt that the Gospels are reliable biographies of Jesus.