The primary reports of the resurrection are contained in the Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. References to the events are also made in some of the letters in the New Testament. Are these documents reliable evidence?
First let’s look at the Gospels. The word Gospel means ‘good news.’ These books were written within 40 years of the events by eyewitnesses or others who carefully researched the testimony. John may have written his book a little later because he lived longer.
The first Gospel was written by Matthew, a disciple or follower of Jesus, who witnessed many of the events he relates or had access to eye-witnesses. Matthew 9:9-13 says:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Several things are interesting about this passage. One is that Matthew left his full-time job in order to become a student of his new teacher, Jesus. From personal experience, I know that action took a lot of commitment so he must have had a good reason to do so. After practicing law for almost 16 years, I quit my trial practice and went back to school to study the Bible. Why? Because I believed that my relationship with God was the most important thing in life. I wanted to help people who were in trouble, but found that using the law I was only putting a band-aid on their problems. What they really needed was Jesus.
What was Matthew’s motive? He doesn’t say, but by this time Jesus had been preaching and healing throughout the region of Galilee. Jesus had to be the number one topic at the table. Curiosity may have been the initial impetus to tag along for a while.
Another interesting thing was Matthews occupation — he was a tax collector! If you think that IRS agents have a bad reputation now, that is nothing compared to the status of Matthew! His nation was occupied by Roman foreigners and ruled by a Roman puppet king, Herod Antipas. Taxes were collected through an agent system. An agent would contract with the Roman governor or client-king to deliver the amount of taxes demanded for the area. He would then subcontract smaller areas within his region, and so on. None of these agents was paid directly by the government. Rather, each put his own commission in the mix, charging whatever the market would bear, or even more. So these men were viewed by their fellow Jews as corrupt traitors who became wealthy by cheating and oppressing their countrymen while serving the hated Roman masters. Their level on the popularity scale was lower than used car salesmen or lawyers or IRS agents. But notice that Jesus accepted the dinner invitation to come to Matthew’s house and socialize with other outcasts. He even offered acceptance and compared Himself to a physician who came to heal sinners — now that’s a motive, for Matthew certainly knew he was a sinner!
But, doesn’t he seem like a strange person to pick to write about his experiences with Jesus? Is this the guy you would want to call to be your witness? As a tax collector, we know Matthew could read and write. He had to be good at figures and pay attention to details (after all, he wouldn’t want to lose a penny as a tax collector). The fact that he would not normally be considered a reliable witness actually bolsters his credibility in this case. Why use someone with such a poor reputation, unless he really did experience these events. If someone was going to fabricate these reports, it would make much more sense to pick an ‘up standing citizen.’