Book Review: Can We Trust the Gospels? by Mark D. Roberts

I was drawn to this book because one of its endorsers compared it to F.F. Bruce's invaluable The New Testament Documents, Are they Reliable? Published decades ago and now in its sixth edition, The New Testament Documents is a masterpiece of condensing a wealth of scholarly knowledge into a readable guide for the layman. Mark Roberts' Can We Trust the Gospels is a different kind of book. Although Roberts has respectable academic credentials and writes with extensive knowledge, his approach is more pastoral. The fusion of academic knowledge and pastoral insight makes this a different kind of book than most apologetics works. It is not an extended argument for the most conservative positions possible about the Gospels. Although arguments for conservative positions are present, they are not the unique focus of the book.

Can We Trust the Gospels? is really a collection of FAQs as one might find on a website (which Roberts states is intentional). It addresses the usual issues, but not necessarily in the usual way. The traditional case is made adequately in each chapter, though other recent treatments offer more thorough defenses of the varied topics. This does not detract from Robert's book because it is clear that he did not intend to make extended arguments for each position. He regularly refers his readers to lengthier and more scholarly discussions.

What this book offers is the broad strokes of good arguments--likely all that many readers desire--and something more. Roberts often explains why the existence of questions about issues such as authorship and dating and contradictions should not damage Christian belief. For example, although Roberts' gives "good reasons" for accepting traditional authorship of Matthew and John, he concedes that "we can't be certain." Rather than end there, however, he proceeds to explain why--from the more established evidence--we can trust the Gospels despite that lack of certainty. This approach is characteristic.

Indeed, an alternative title could have been, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love New Testament Studies." Rather than simply argue for the earliest possible date of the Gospels, Roberts spends more time explaining why the gap between Jesus and the Gospels does not diminish the latter's accuracy given the nature of oral tradition and available sources. Rather than argue each apparent Gospel contradiction in detail, Roberts provides some helpful broad guidelines in dealing with them. This includes, in Roberts' opinion, understanding the literary intentions of the authors. For example, Roberts discusses Mark's reference to digging through a roof and Luke's reference to removing tiles to get through a roof and notes that they are telling the same story but that Luke has made the story more understandable for his more gentile audience who would have found the concept of digging through roofs somewhat odd. Roberts seeks to reassure his readers with the knowledge that alteration of such details are not really a problem and served to make the truth more, not less, understandable.

If you want a less combative and more pastoral, though informed, book about the accuracy of the Gospels, you will like this book. It is also suitable for the student taking a secular religion or New Testament class who will face just these kinds of questions or the Christian who finds himself or herself discussing these issues with a more skeptical acquaintance. But when dealing with more informed or determined opponents, check the footnotes and dig deeper.


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