By John Warwick Montgomery
Lawyers distinguish between making claims (almost anyone can file a lawsuit) and proving the case (which is possible only on the basis of good evidence). Lawyers, therefore, are in the evidence business and will not accept any claims (including religious claims) without good reason to do so. It is highly significant, then, that throughout history so many great lawyers, judges, and legal scholars have come to Christian belief.
This is due in large part to the solidity of the Gospel testimony to Jesus Christ. The Gospel records qualify under the “ancient documents rule” and would be admitted as evidence in any common law court. They assert that they are firsthand, nonhearsay testimony to Jesus Christ (1 Jn 1:1, etc.) or are the product of careful research concerning Him (Lk.1:1-4). Documents, like defendants, are innocent until proven guilty, and the critics have not been able to impugn the credibility of the Gospels.
The soundness of the four Gospels depends upon their early dating and their authorship by those who knew Jesus personally. Corroboration from outside the Gospels comes by way of such early writers as Papias, who was a student of the Apostle John. Papias tells us that the four Gospels were written either by an apostle (Matthew and John) or by an apostle’s associate (Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul). The Gospels were in circulation, then, while hostile witnesses of Jesus’ ministry were still alive. As F. F. Bruce has argued, these opponents were the functional equivalent of modern cross-examiners: They had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to refute the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous ministry if it had not happened just as the Gospel writers said it did. Since the opposition could not do that, the Gospel narratives stand as powerful evidence that the miraculous picture of Jesus they convey is accurate.
The fact that the first three Gospels were written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the Gospel of John not long thereafter, makes impossible the attempt of liberal Bible critics and secularists to argue that they are really the product of a developing oral tradition in which the early church modified Jesus’ life and teachings. There was insufficient time for doing this. A. N. Sherwin-White has pointed out that the case for accurate reporting is far better in the case of the Jesus of the Gospels than for the best-known contemporary of Christ, Tiberius Caesar, whose career is also known from just four sources.
Harvard professor Simon Greenleaf, the greatest authority on the law of evidence in the nineteenth century, wrote, “All that Christianity asks of men on this subject is [that the testimony of the Gospels] be sifted as if it were given in a court of justice…. The probability of the veracity of the witnesses and of the reality of the occurrences which they relate will increase, until it acquires, for all practical purposes, the value and force of demonstration.”
Adapted from the Apologetics Study Bible, pg 1511