The synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – tell the story of Jesus. These books present themselves as eyewitness accounts of historical fact. Critics of the gospels attack the gospels by telling us they are untrustworthy. Common criticisms include:
1. The gospel stories were passed down orally for a long time and therefore are untrustworthy.
2. The gospels copied from each other or from another single source.
3. The writers have accounts so different as to make the whole affair riddled with mistakes.
For several reasons, I find these criticisms weak at best. First, I do not see how 2 and 3 could both be true. If the accounts copied from each other so much that we can obviously tell that the copying happened, then it is difficult to see how there are so many differences that the accounts are sloppy. It would seem the claims for both of these contradict each other.
Second, it is difficult to see how 1 and 2 could both be true. If the account was passed on orally for long enough to make the account riddled with error, it would take more than one generation, indeed at least two to four generations. The claims of oral corruption are mere surface-level persuasion techniques by the critics with no credible argument behind it. I pose as an example my father, who this year turns 90. He spent his career in parts warehouses, manually stocking shelves and filling orders for parts. To this day he can repeat the inventory numbers for the parts he sold over 50 years ago, and do so with full accuracy. He has taken me to the spot where he grew up and described his farmhouse in detail, giving vivid descriptions of how he and his brothers played as children. These events happened 80 years ago, yet his memory is intact. We all can describe events that happened to us years ago. Indeed, for significant, life-changing events, we often cannot get the details out of our minds. How much more would we recall if we had seen and heard Jesus, the living God in human flesh.
Third, in support of the second, the manuscripts we now have do not allow oral tradition to have time enough to corrupt the account. Up to now the John Ryland fragment is held as the oldest (see here) dating to about 125 to 140 AD. Now, it appears that scholars have found copies of the gospels that date even earlier, one copy dating to about 90 AD, well into the first century (see here). First century dating put the existing written accounts into the lifetime of the authors and eyewitnesses. The number of Bible manuscripts, along with the early dating, do not allow for oral tradition to corrupt, nor do they allow enough time for oral tradition to finally allow a written copy, which was then used as a single source for the other gospels.
Fourth, given the early dating of the existing manuscripts and the accuracy of firsthand oral testimony in a single generation, 1 and 3 above cannot both be held as true, at least not credibly. This is further supported by the number of original language Bible manuscripts. Greek manuscripts now number over 5,800.
Therefore, the attacks listed above are failures at attacking the Bible. Once again, the Christian scriptures withstand the attacks of the skeptics and critics, as they always have. A wise person will read them for what they are: eyewitness testimony of those who saw Jesus.