Evidence For Evangelism -- Bob Magill

How a lawyer assembles the evidence for the defense of the Gospel


by Bob Magill

The year 2000, a millennial year and a jubilee year, is a good year to tell others about the person who is the reason for the dating system which we use. One tool that we can use in evangelism is the historical evidence for our faith.

Like a trial, history attempts to discover and explain events that occurred in the past. It uses the evidence of witnesses and things in order to arrive at some conclusion both about what happened and the significance of what happened. The "rules of evidence" for both disciplines are essentially the same and are based on common sense—the way human minds work.

Now what I'm talking about here is evidence that the Gospels are good history, not that they are inspired books or inerrant. By simply demonstrating that the Gospels are reliable history, we can more easily introduce someone to Jesus. They can then discover for themselves why the church, in creating the canon, came to believe that the books were inspired as well.

Much has been made in the secular press of The Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal Bible Scholars who have tried to cast doubt on the historical reliability of the Gospels. However, they are much longer on opinion than on facts. We can give facts.

Lets look at the things that we could show to a jury in the courts of history. The first phase of a trial is to get evidence admitted. What is our evidence?

1. Manuscript Evidence Very old physical manuscripts of the New Testament, in whole or in part, have been preserved. Look at their great number, the relatively short gap in time between the date of the creation of the original writing and the events recorded, and the harmony between the various manuscript copies. Now compare those factors with those of other ancient histories. It is easy to see that the manuscript support for the New Testament as a whole is better than for any other ancient history. See the chart (Exhibit 1). Ancient history doesn't get any better than this.

2. Dates and authorship If the gap in time between Jesus and the time the Gospels were written can be claimed to be large, some scholars use the claimed gap as an opportunity to insert their own opinions as to what really happened, dismissing the Gospel  














488-428 B.C.


A.D. 900








c 460-400 B.C


C. A.D. 900


1,300 yrs
















A.D. 100




1,000 yrs




Caesar's Gallic War


58-50 B.C.




950 yrs




New Testament


A.D. 40-100


A.D.130 full manu­scripts A.D. 359


30-310 yrs


5000+ Greek, 10,000 Latin, 9300 others


Exhibit 1. When compared to other ancient texts, there are far more copies of the New Testament written far closer to the events portrayed in them, than any other ancient docu­ment. Based on this, we have more reason to trust in the reliability of the new Testament than Julius Caesar's Gallic War!

accounts as legends. Thus, over a hundred years ago, The German Tubingen school claimed that the Matthew, Mark and Luke's Gospels were first written after 130 AD and John not until the late second century.

Then in 1934, the noted papyrologist C.H. Roberts exam­ined a neglected papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, which had been recovered from Egypt, and dated it to between 100-150 AD. (Exhibit 2) Since this was a fragment of a copy found in Egypt, far from Ephesus, the original was undoubtedly written earlier. The range of dates now given by mainline scholars for the writing of the Gospels runs from 50 AD (earliest) to 100 AD (latest). See Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. 1999, p. 52.


Exhibit 2. How old are the Gospels? Some skeptical scholars used to date them 130 AD or later. Then in 1934 this fragment of a copy of the Gospel of John was discovered in Egypt, miles from Ephesus where it was written. It was dated between 100-150 AD, pushing the authorship of the original back to 50-100 AD, well within the lifetime of John, the purported author.

Internal evidence alone suggests, at least for Luke, a date near 60 AD since his Gospel precedes his Acts which ends without telling what happens to Paul, who died c. 62-67AD.   This date range is sufficient to allow for the Gospels to have been written by, or with testimony from, eyewitnesses. But there is even more evidence pertaining to authorship. Early church documents exist, some only in fragments recorded later, whose authors claim personal knowledge of the authorship. For example, Papias (c. 125 AD) records a statement of John that "Mark having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ...' Irenaeus (c. 180), who was a disciple ofPolycarp who was a disciple of John, also attests that the four Gospels were written by the persons whose names they bear: Matthew ("when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel In Rome"), Mark, Luke, and John the "disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His breast, himself produced his Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia." (as quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ. 1996.p.23-24).

3. Corroboration documents archaeology

A. Documents: There is corroboration of the existence, death, resurrection and sayings of Jesus from another witness: Paul. "The authorship and early date for eight of his letters (including Gal. and 1 & II Cor.) is undoubted." (Columbia Encyclopedia. 5th ed., 1993) Paul states that he was an eyewitness to the risen Lord and that he had been in personal contact with eyewitnesses to Christ's ministry:

Peter, James, and John (Gal.l and 1 Cor. 15: letters written 49-56 AD).

Non-Christian sources also corroborate that some events described in the Gospels occurred and were noted by contemporary historians. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus (115 AD; Annals 15.44). describes the leader of the Christians whom Nero persecuted: "Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus"

Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote 3 passages in his book The Antiquities of the Jews (c 93 AD) which confirm some of the events recorded in the Gospels: the murder by Herod of John the Baptist, the killing of James after the death of Festus, and a lengthy passage about Jesus. Some claim that this passage, in whole or part, is an addition to Josephus by Christians; but it appears in all the existing manuscripts. The most objective version is a 4th century Arabic text saying "they reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive: accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." (McDowell, p. 57)

Exhibit 3

B. Archaeology: Numerous archaeological finds have been made confirming details found in the Gospels, while none have been discovered which contradict. For example, the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) has been excavated (see F.F.ruce, "The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p, 94). And in 1961, an Italian team turned over a stone being used as a step in Caesarea Maritima and discov­ered the only known inscription referring to Pontius Pilate.    Exhibit 3. Some used (to doubt the account of the crucifixion because no historical record of Pontus Pilate had been found. In 1961 Italian archeologists discov­ered in Caesarea Maritima, a fragmentary inscription carrying the name of Pontius Pilate. Caesarea Maritima was the usual residence of the Roman authori­ties in Judea. In full, the inscrip­tion states that Pilate, the Procu­rator of Judea from 26-36 AD, dedicated a temple in honor of Tiberius.

4. The Lack of Factual Rebuttal Evidence

While there are "expert witnesses" with opinions against the Gospels as history, they have no "fact witnesses" to support them. There is not—as far as I know—testimony from any 1st or 2nd century witness who says "I know personally—or I have been told by a person with personal knowledge—that a) the events in the Gospels did not happen b) Jesus never existed c) the Gospels were not written until the second century d) the Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or e) any combination of the above." Thus, the only fact witnesses in the matter support the historical quality of the Gospels.

Now, whether or not the Gospels are accurate and credible and reliable on all points or whether miracles can occur are other matters. That is for the second trial phase — argu­ments over the credibility and interpretation of the evi­dence, a phase we must discuss some other time. All that I have attempted here is to get the evidence admitted into court, that is, to get someone to read the Gospels as history.

But as a foretaste of such arguments, I would respond to someone who cites The Jesus Seminar that "The Jesus Seminar represents an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking. It does not represent mainstream scholarship. ..What they have in mind is a totally new form of Christianity." (Gregory A. Boyd, quoted by Strobel, p. 114-115). What we have in mind is the truth" of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word." Luke 1:4 & 1.