My History Teacher Says 'The Gospels Are Unreliable'
History lessons teach us how to weigh up sources, digging into the details to discover what happened in the past. With things outside of living memory, the surviving sources are the only way we can know about the past.
Whether it’s World War One, the Tudors or Ancient Egypt, the approach is the same. Your history teacher guides you in handling these sources, helping you ask the right questions: is it from an eyewitness? Was it written long after the event? How does it compare with other sources from the time? Do we have any reason to doubt the reliability of the author?
But sometimes all this seems to go out the window. When it comes to talking about Jesus, your otherwise rigorous history teacher dismisses the Gospels in a moment. They say they can’t be trusted, they’re unreliable sources that tell us little about what really happened. If you have a teacher like this, you’ll know it can be frustrating, and difficult to challenge. What do you say?
Here are some questions to ask that might cause your teacher to think again about this issue, or at least make them justify their position. For more practical tips on talking to teachers read ‘Engaging Well With Teachers’.
How did you conclude that the Gospels are not reliable sources?
This question invites your teacher to give reasons for their view. Often you will find that they have not ever properly weighed up the Gospels as serious historical sources. But hopefully they will give some reasons, which can lead to a good discussion.
For help with some common objections that might come up check out the short videos in the 'Jesus myths' series.
What do you think is the least we can know about Jesus from the Gospels?
This question encourages thought about what things in the Gospels are beyond reasonable doubt. Trying to pin down some minimum facts, such as that there was a man called Jesus who really lived and really died helps to establish that the Gospels are at least broadly reliable.
If a historian chooses to write off claims made by a source, they need good reasons. Asking a question like this one will hopefully prompt your teacher to be more careful in their statements. It is hard to deny that the Gospels have much to tell us, even if we don’t believe Jesus is who he claims to be.
Which sources tell us more about the historical Jesus?
This question invites your teacher to put forward alternative, more reliable evidence about Jesus.
Since we only know about the past through the sources we have, if someone wants to dismiss the Gospels, we need other sources that can be shown to be more reliable. So far, in nearly 2000 years, this hasn’t happened. We have found documents which disagree with the Gospels, but none of them have the same pedigree as the Gospels. This is usually because they were written much later, and their contents show they were written by people with little knowledge of the language, culture and geography of the regions where Jesus lived and died.
When the only decent sources agree with each other (broadly at least), historians need very good reasons to dismiss what they say. If your teacher is honest about the evidence, they will have to admit that there are no other reliable sources about the life of Jesus.