By Norman L. Geisler
Imagery can be helpful or dangerous. Until relatively recent times most New Testament scholars believed the Gospel writers were giving something like snap shot images of the words and deeds of Christ. However, contemporary literary criticism rejects the “Photo” model and has replaced it with a “Portrait” model. This, they think, fits better with data and the creativity of the Gospel writers who, they believe, were not strictly reporting but were interpreting, even creating, the words and deeds of Christ.
The Difficulties of the Photo Model
Several lines of evidence have been used to support this change of images from the snap shot to the portrait image. Together, they are used to reject the strict reporting model for a more flexible model which they believe fits the biblical evidence better.
First, there is the obvious fact that the various Gospels do not present the same material (words and deeds) about Christ. There are many significant differences. With the exception of some main events like the death and resurrection narratives, there are few events mentioned in all four Gospels and many events are recorded only in one Gospel.
Second, there are known conflicts between the different Gospel presentations. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is presented at different times in his ministry, one early (Jn. 2:13-17) and one late (Mt. 21:12-13). The order of the three temptations of Christ are different between Matthew 4 and Luke 4. How Judas died is presented as by hanging in Matthew 27:5, but by falling and bursting open in Acts 1:18. The number of angels at the tomb is one in Matthew (27:5) but two in John (20:12). Different words come from the thieves on the cross, one railing at him (Mt. 27:44) and the other defending him (Lk. 24:4-42).
Third, the actual quotations of Jesus on the same occasion are often listed differently in different Gospels. This includes important events like the inscription on the Cross which is reported four different ways in the four Gospels. Also, the confession of Peter which is stated three different ways. So, it is argued that if the Gospel writers were giving us photographs of the events, then these would all be the same, but they are not.
Some words appear to be added to Jesus’ sayings. For example, John uses “verily, verily” (e.g., 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11 [KJV] or “truly, truly” [ESV] or many sayings of Jesus which are not found in the first three Gospels. Since it is widely believed that John wrote last, it is argued that Jesus never used this phrase (or these sayings) but that John put it into Jesus’ mouth.
The Dangers of the Portrait Model
Problems like these have led many scholars to think that the Gospel writers were painting a portrait, rather than giving snaps shots. However, when the “portrait” model is examined closely, it has some serious difficulties of its own.
First, the portrait image does not account well for the many parts of the Gospel that are virtually identical. This is true, not only of the order and nature of many events, but also of the actual words that Jesus and others used. Many scholars point to the similarities of the first three Gospels (called Synoptic Gospels). For example of the 1068 verses in Matthew about 500 overlap with Mark’s 661 verses. Of Luke’s 1149 verses about 320 overlap with Mark. In fact, there are only 50-55 verses unique to Mark (W.G. Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels, 86). Why would different portraits have so many overlaps that are the same?
Second, the Gospel writers were careful to distinguish their own words from the words of Jesus. This is what makes it relatively easy to produce a red letter edition of the Gospels (with Jesus’ words in red). The distinction is clear enough that almost all red-letter editions of the Gospels are the same with only minor exceptions.
Third, the portrait image leaves room for contradictions in the Gospel (which many NT scholars believe) since different portraits done by different persons do not always complement each other in every detail. But if the Gospels are the divinely inspired Word of God, then how can they have contradictions and errors in them? God cannot err (Heb. 6:18), and if the Gospels are the Word of God, then they cannot err either. So, the portrait model is in conflict with the inerrancy of Scripture.
Fourth, the portrait image lends to the view that the Gospel writers were not really reporting but rather were creating Jesus’ words and deeds. But if this is so, then how can we know what Jesus really said and did?
Ipsissima Verba (Same Words) vs. Ipsissima Vox (Same Meaning)?
If the Gospels are neither snap shots nor portraits, then what are they? And how accurately do they portray the real Jesus and his actual words and deeds? Before we attempt to answer this specifically, we need to speak to the matter of the Gospel’s reliability. Several lines of evidence lead us to believe that the Gospels are historically reliable:
(1) We have some early records by eye-witnesses of the events. John and Peter were eyewitnesses of events in Jesus’ life. John said: “The man who saw it [the crucifixion] has given testimony, and his testimony is true” (Jn. 19:35). “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (Jn. 21:24). “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1John 1:1). This is about as clear an eye-witness testimony as one can give.
Peter reported: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories [myths] when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). “We did not follow cleverly invented stories [myths] when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s suffering and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). Peter and John said, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32). “Peter and John replied…. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen” (Acts 10:39-40).
Paul, an apostle and eye witness of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8) wrote many New Testament books, including four that even most Bible critics accept as authentic (1and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians). He declared: “ For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Even critical scholars believe this was written by A.D. 55-57 when almost all the apostles and chief eyewitness were still alive who could verify the main events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Given this fact, this text is a powerful testimony to the fact that Paul was reporting, not creating, the events of which he spoke.
(2) Further, there were multiple eye-witnesses for many of the events, including the most crucial ones like the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, there are 27 New Testament books which have traditionally been ascribed to nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews (though some believe Paul wrote it). Jesus’ death, for example, is listed in every Gospel (Mt. 27; Mk. 15; Luke 23; John 19) and in most of the NT books, as is his resurrection (e.g., Mt. 28; Mk. 16; Lk. 24; John 20-21; 1 Cor. 15). But having two or more reliable witnesses of the same discourse or event is accepted in court as sufficient evidence to convict the accused of the crime. Indeed, the Law of Moses records that at the mouth of two or three witnesses one can be sentenced to death (Deut. 17:6).
(3) We have other NT books that were written by contemporaries of the eyewitnesses. Luke wrote: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-4). Clearly Luke claimed to be reporting actual history.
The writer of Hebrews said, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard [him], while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Heb. 2:3-4 cf. 13:23, emphasis added).
(4) Numerous persons mentioned in the New Testament are known to have lived during that time period. Luke provided historical crosshairs for a first-century eye-witness setting when he wrote: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (Luke 3:1-2). It is noteworthy that: 1) An exact date is given--A. D. 29. 2) All eight people are known from history. 3) All were known to live at this exact time. 4) Clearly this is not a “once-upon-a-time” legend but real history based on contemporary eye-witness testimony. All together there are some 30 persons mentioned in the NT that are known from extra-biblical sources to have lived at that time (see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels).
(5) Many legal authorities have supported the credibility of the Gospel writers. After applying the principles for testing the validity of a witness testimony to the New Testament, one of the greatest attorney’s in early America, Simon Greenleaf, Professor of Law at Harvard University, wrote:"The narratives of the evangelists are now submitted to the reader's perusal and examination, upon the principles and by the rules already stated.... If they had thus testified on oath, in a court of justice, they would be entitled to credit; and whether their narratives, as we now have them, would be received as ancient documents, coming from the proper custody. If so, then it is believed that every honest and impartial man will act consistently with that result, by receiving their testimony in all the extent of its import" (see Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, 53-54).
Many other attorneys have had similar experiences, including Thomas Sherlock, The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection; Frank Morrison,Who Moved the Stone? John Montgomery, Christianity and History; Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; J.W. Wallace, Cold-Case Christianty.
(6) Early non-Christian writers have confirmed the historicity of many of the main events mentioned in the Gospels such as: (1) Jesus was from Nazareth; (2) He lived a virtuous life; (3) He performed unusual feats; (4) He introduced new teaching contrary to Judaism; (5) He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; (6) His disciples believed He rose from the dead; (7) His disciples denied polytheism; (8) His disciples worshiped Him; (9) His teachings and disciples spread rapidly; (10) His followers believed they were immortal; (11) His followers had contempt for death; (12) His followers renounced material goods (see F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament).
The following chart summarizes the non-Christian source and the events of Jesus’ life that were confirmed:
Non-Christian Sources within 150 Years of Jesus