I ran across a comment by Vridar/Neilgodfrey over at Infidels.org’s discussion board in yet another thread about the lost cause of Jesus Mythicism.
We do not know who wrote the gospels, when or where or for whom. Yet "biblical historians" treat their narratives as sources of historical data. I know of no other historical studies that would ever contemplate using such "unsourced" documents as evidence in this way.
Neil suggests that only “biblical historians” use ancient documents like the Gospels, whose provenance is purportedly unknown. In fact 1) the provenance of the Gospels and Acts is better than Neil acknowledges, 2) leading historians who are not “biblical historians” in fact rely on the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data, and 3) classical historians use as sources of historical data ancient documents with less provenance support than the Gospels and Acts.
1. Disputed Does Not Mean “Unsourced”
Many scholars dispute Neil’s assessment about the lack of provenance for the Gospels and Acts. As do I. In fact, there is ample evidence of the authorship of the Gospels, especially for Luke-Acts, Mark, and John. I admit that the authorship of Matthew is a more disputed affair even among traditional circles. I understand Neil disagrees with this assessment, as do many scholars, but historians rely on disputed source regularly in historical studies.
I also do not think the dates are all that unknown, even if we accept broad ranges of between 60-100 or even 120 AD. They are, in essence, mid-to-late first century documents. Even fringe scholarship does not put the Gospels very far into the second century. They obviously arise out of a Mediterranean milieu, written by Christians for Christians, and were substantially influenced by the Judaism of that time period. The writings themselves tell us more about each author, including literary ability, theological perspectives, and other factors. There are also traditions about where the gospels were written and internal evidence, such as the Latinisms in Mark, that are examined to determine provenance. Finally, the Gospels relatively quickly reached a broader audience and were widely circulated within the Christian community.
Even if the traditions are ultimately determined to be inaccurate, it is not as if the Gospels and Acts appeared out of nowhere with no possible indication of the cultural context, genre, reliability, purpose, or nature of sources used and/or available. There is a long history of how the Gospels were used and interpreted in the early Christian community and definitive dates of earliest and latest possible authorship.
2. Classical Historians Use the Gospels and Acts as Historical Sources
Nevertheless, is Neil correct that “real” historians would not even consider using documents such as the gospels as sources of historical data? No. Not only do historians use ancient documents of equal or lesser provenance -- as discussed below -- they use the Gospels and Acts as important historical sources. Michael Grant, a leading classical historian in his day, took the Gospels seriously as historical sources. Although he rejected traditional authorship, Grant viewed the Gospels as historical sources, concluding that from them “the main lines of [Jesus’] career and thinking and teaching can to some considerable extent be reconstructed.” Grant, The History of Rome, page 337. Grant also discusses Acts, stating that while it is not as reliable as Paul’s letters, “facts can also be derived from the Acts of the Apostles” and “the rest of the book contains a good deal of by no means unreliable historical material.” Ibid., page 344.
Grant also wrote a book entitled Jesus, An Historian's Review of the Gospels. It is an interesting insight into how a respected classical historian treated the Gospels. While Grant finds reason to doubt some details in the Gospel narratives, he accepts them as useful historical sources about the historical Jesus. Ibid., page 199-200. He had scorn for the Jesus Myth idea, writing, "if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned."
Moreover, some of Grant's conclusions are supportive of Christianity's most important claim. For example, Grant accepts the historicity of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb: "If we apply the same criteria that we would apply to other ancient literary sources, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty." Ibid., page 176. Finally, Grant found that much of contemporary Jesus studies was too skeptical of the gospel sources, saying that such scholarship “is too extreme a viewpoint and would not be applied in other fields.” Ibid., page 201.
Two other leading classicists also viewed the Gospels and Acts as useful historical sources: Robin L. Fox and A.N. Sherwin White. Fox, perhaps most famous for his book Pagans & Christians, is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and University Reader in Ancient History. An avowed atheist, Fox wrote a book about the Bible called The Unauthorized Version. Although critical of what he perceives as fundamentalist views of the Bible, Fox reaches some quite conservative conclusions, such as that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness and that Luke-Acts was written by a companion of Paul. Indeed, Fox accepts much of Acts as historical, and states, “I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey.... He had no written sources, but in Acts he himself was a primary source for a part of the story. He wrote the rest of Acts from what individuals told him and he himself had witnessed, as did Herodotus and Thucydides....” Ibid., page 210. So not only does Fox disagree with his fellow atheist Neil’s conclusions about provenance but values the Gospels and Acts as historical sources.
Sherwin-White was an eminent Roman historian at Oxford and member of the British Academy. One of his books, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, focuses on the earliest Christian documents’ relationship with the broader Roman context. Again and again he finds the New Testament documents to be worthy of a high level of trust. When it comes to Acts, for example, Sherwin-White states, "For Acts the confirmation of history is overwhelming" and that "any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted." Ibid., page 189.
As to the gospels, Sherwin-White determined that it is unlikely that the Gospels were predominantly legendary, though he does think they must be read as written with agendas and for polemical purposes:
The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time.... Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, [showing that] even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core.
Ibid., pages 189-190.
As with Grant, Sherwin-White found contemporary biblical studies to be unduly skeptical:
So, it is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism... that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.
Ibid., page 187.
Sherwin-White’s statements about most classicists having faith in the New Testament documents receives further support from the reviews of his own book and by the works of other classicists. John Crook reviewed Roman Society and Roman Laws for Classical Review and agreed that Acts is “an historical source talking about exactly the same world as Tacitus and Suetonius.” He thought that Sherwin-White’s work “support the authenticity in detail of Acts.” Classical Review 14 (1964): 198-200; another reviewer, J. J. Nicholls, agreed with Sherwin-White that the Gospels and Acts “are to be treated as equally serious and valuable evidence” as other ancient historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. Journal of Religious History (1964): 92-95.
Other classical historians have used the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data. A.H.M. Jones (1904-1970) was a prominent 20th century historian of classical antiquity and one-time chair of Ancient History at University College, London. In his Studies in Roman Government and Law, he uses Acts as a source when discussing a Roman citizen’s right of appeal to Caesar; Fergus Millar, Camden Chair of Ancient History at the Univ. of Oxford (recently retired), “likewise integrated (though again never uncritically) Acts and other Graeco-Roman evidence in a variety of contexts.” "What Do Ancient Historians Make of the New Testament," by Alanna Nobbs, TB, 57.2, page 288 (2006). The most notable such use was in The Emperor in Roman World (31 BC-AD 337); and Stephen Mitchell, whose book examining the geography and history of Anatolia draws on Acts as basic historical sources. Ibid.
Revised to Add: Another example: Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford who specializes in Jewish and Roman history, relies on Acts in his conclusion that "a Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor, as did Paul in c. 60 before the Roman governor of Judaea, Festus, when the latter wanted to send him to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jewish authorities." His only cite for the statement is Acts 25:10-12. Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, page 73.
Goodman also states that Paul "came from Cilicia." Ibid., page 101. The source for this is Acts 21:39/22:3/23:34. Additionally, Goodman uses Acts' description of Paul being a Roman citizen as an example that someone could be both Jewish and Roman. He cites Acts 22:23-26 as an example, noting that "The relationship between Rome and Jerusalem was complicated by the fact that a Roman could be Jewish and Roman...." Ibid., page 155. He observes that "a few skeptics have doubted the story" but concludes that their doubts are "without justification." Ibid.
3. Other “Unsourced” Documents Relied on by Classicists
Not only do classical historians as well as “biblical historians” rely on the Gospels and Acts as sources of historical data, they rely on other ancient documents of disputed provenance. Two obvious examples that immediately occurred to me are First and Second Maccabees. Unlike the Gospels and Acts -- for which we have preserved traditions regarding authorship within 40-50 years of authorship -- we have no idea who wrote First and Second Maccabees, other than that the authors were Jewish and had certain perspectives. Moreover, we do not even have texts of 1 Maccabees in its original language. Although Greek versions of the document have survived, it was likely written in Hebrew and no Hebrew version has survived. Possible dates of authorship are broader than for the Gospels and Acts and the textual tradition is much less than what we have for the Gospels and Acts, as measured by quantity, quality, and date. For example, the earliest manuscript for 2 Maccabees dates from at least 500 years after the date of authorship.
Despite all these shortcoming, 1 and 2 Maccabees are considered vital historical sources. “The two first Books of the Maccabees, which could be dated at the turn of the second and the first centuries, claim a special place in this literature as notable historical sources.... The two reports, which differ in many respects, contain one of the most important sections of the history of the Jewish sacerdotal state.” Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, page 800. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia describes Second Maccabees as “an important historical source containing authentic documents and describing the events leading up to the Hasmonean rising.” Page 615.
Next, we have the Epistles of Plato. There are thirteen received letters in the Platonic corpus and scholarly consensus over their authenticity has ebbed and flowed, back and forth, over time. Some of the letters have no defenders, all of the letters have those who reject authenticity. Despite the depth of doubt about these letters, some classical historians consider some of them useful, even important, sources of historical data.
The other important autobiographical text of the fourth century is the remarkable Seventh Letter of Plato. (This letter is regarded sometimes as genuine, sometimes as a fabrication by Plato’s school soon after his death. I follow Misch and Momigliano in regarding it as genuine.) It is the greatest autobiographical letter of antiquity.
Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians, Chapter 7. Despite the fact that many of the top classicists reject the authenticity of the letter, other leading classicists use it as a historical source; note that Mellor refers to it as the “greatest autobiographical letter of antiquity.” Another leading classicist, Albin Lesky, thinks the letter is likely genuine, but notes that even if its a forgery, it is still historically valuable. “Even if this letter should not be genuine, it would still have great value as a source, since it was certainly written with a precise knowledge of the conditions.” Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, page 507.
Finally, there is the Augustan History. This is an ancient document with a terrible reputation, much worse than any of the Gospels or Acts. It is a collection of more than two dozen Roman biographies that purports to be by six different authors and cite hundreds of sources, but is likely is the result of one author. As to the supposed cited sources, Mellor notes that the documents referenced “range from the suspicious to the outrageously false.” Chapter 6. Despite the big question marks about authorship and date and reliability, Mellor treats the document seriously, noting that “the earlier lives,  contain more reliable material against other sources.” Ibid. He is not naive, but understands that even sources of highly dubious provenance cannot simply be dismissed as “off limits” and may provide historical data. As Mellor puts it, “historians cannot afford to cast aside any substantial source, [so] it is necessary to analyze the lives carefully to see what may come from reliable earlier sources.” Ibid.
Classical, non-"biblical," historians not only use sources of disputed or unknown provenance -- including some of more disputed or unknown origins than the Gospels and Acts -- as important sources of historical data, but use the Gospels and Acts themselves as important sources of historical data.