Apologists often make the claim that the resurrection is one of the most well-attested facts of ancient history. Some of this is due to the fact that the resurrection account is recorded in multiple independent sources which includes the Gospel accounts. Further, scholars have argued that the Gospel accounts count as a very specific kind of ancient historical genre; they are written as biography.1
Sometimes skeptics will grant the fact the Gospels were written to be taken as a historical record, but they don't believe that's enough. They will assume that history two thousand years ago meant a very different thing than what we mean today. History was basically propaganda where anyone could claim anything.
While it is true that those in power had the ability to shape events in a more positive light, it is far from the case that the ancient audiences didn't care about the truth in historical reporting. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Writings that claimed to be reporting historical events had very specific criteria of recounting what people who were there actually experienced and they should record those experiences as accurately. I'll take a look at each of these in turn.
History was supposed to report what people sawWere ancient people more gullible and ignorant than people of today? Not necessarily. Just because cultures of the past may have had misinformed or perhaps what we would consider backwards views on matters dealing with science, it doesn't follow they would hold backwards view on everything. Such assumptions are a kind of chronological snobbery.
The fact is ancient historians held to their peers to high standards when recording historical events. Samuel Byskrog, whom Richard Bauckham quotes, explains how the people who were there and could personally recount the event being recorded were consider the most reliable sources, since they weren't hearing about events second or third hand. He writes:
The ancient historians – such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, and Tacitus"were convinced that true history could be written only while events were still within living memory, and they valued as their sources the oral reports of direct experience of the events by involved participants in them. Ideally, the historian himself should have been a participant in the events he narrates"as, for example, Xenophon, Thucidides, and Josephus were"but, since he could not have been at all the events he recounts or in all the places he describes, the historian had to also rely upon eyewitnesses whose living voices he could hear and whom he could question himself.2
History was supposed to be accurateBeyond looking for first-hand reports, historians would also police each other – just like today. While the peer review process wan't as developed, there was certainly n exchange between historians when one thought the other was being less than accurate or trying to push an intentionally biased account. Craig Keener states, "Historians harshly criticized other historians whom they accused of promoting falsehood, especially when they were thought to exhibit self-serving agendas." 3
One such example form ancient history is how the Greek historian Polybius dressed down Timaneus, another historian, on what Polybius shows as clear mistakes in his report of Africa. He writes:
No one can help admiring the richness of the country, and one is inclined to say that Timaeus was not only unacquainted with Africa but that he was childish and entirely deficient in judgement, and was still fettered by the ancient report handed down to us that the whole of Africa is sandy, dry, and unproductive. The same holds good regarding the animals. For the number of horses, oxen, sheep, and goats in the country is so large that I doubt if so many could be found in the rest of the world, 4 because many of the African tribes make no use of cereals but live on the flesh of their cattle and among their cattle. 5 Again, all are aware of the numbers and strength of the elephants, lions, and panthers in Africa, of the beauty of its buffaloes, and the size of its ostriches, creatures that do not exist at all in Europe while Africa is full of them. Timaeus has no information on this subject and seems of set purpose to tell the exact opposite of the actual facts.(Emphasis added.)4Polybius goes on criticizing Timaneus' account simply because he offers a false report, but he wasn't the only historian to believe in standards. Even Pliny the Younger, who wrote at the same time the Gospels were being written, thought history should be done with "fidelity and truth"5
Dismissing historical records as unreliable simply because they are old is irrational. Ancient cultures well understood truth from a lie and they wrote history because they wanted to preserve what really happened. The Gospels fit into a genre where truth mattered. Certainly, that doesn't mean everything recorded in every ancient account is true; false perceptions, witnesses would color the truth, and interpreting events so Caesar looked good did happen. But one cannot simply waive one's hand and discount the Gospels because they are old and therefore they could pass fantastic stories on to an uncritical audience. That's simply not the world in which the Gospels were written.
2. Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006. Print. 8-9.
3. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009. Print. 96.
4. Polybius. "Fragments of Book XII." XII.3.3 Polybius • Histories. University of Chicago, 1927. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
5. Pliny, Epistles 7.17.