I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society today. Many people have asked what I was speaking on, so I thought I would share. The title of the paper was “The Gospels, Josephus and the Place of Precision in Ancient Historical Accounts.” I often hear criticisms of the Gospels that they do not agree on detail. This particularly apparent in the passion and resurrection narratives where things really overlap. Who did Peter deny to? What did the sign on the cross say? What were Jesus’ last words? Who showed up at the empty tomb? Some look at the differences between the accounts and suggest that the Gospels are not good historical sources. That would be correct if they were twenty-first century western histories but they are first century Mediterranean histories.
In my paper, I compare the Gospels with Josephus. Josephus was a first century Jewish historian. He is of interest because there is some overlap between his first work War and his later works Antiquities and Life. What is interesting is that when you compare these overlaps, there is variation between the accounts with regard to details including numbers of people and who was present at a specific event. These differences are similar to what we find in the Gospels and often more radical.
The point of this is that first century histories did not demand twenty-first century levels of precision. They valued accuracy in facts but when it came to some of the details, there was room to play with. Josephus continues to be used as a valuable history to piece together the events of the first century. In the same way, the Gospels should be used as valuable historical sources to understand the life of Jesus and the beginning of Christianity.