Historical Context

Christianity is based entirely on historical facts. Real people, real places, and actual events. We are all able to accurately place these facts of history on a timeline starting at In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Historical facts recorded in the Bible matter.

If we can’t trust the history recorded in the Bible, why trust the message of salvation or any other doctrine or command? Jesus said in John 3:12, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

We cannot divorce the history recorded in the Bible from the Bible’s message. The truth of the message is established in true history — from Genesis to Revelation! This is one of the great differentiators that sets Christianity apart from other religions.

Philip Ryken (Reformed Expository Commentary, 2009) explains in his introductory comments on Luke 1:1-4:

Knowing that people sometimes have their doubts about Jesus Christ and that even believers may struggle to gain greater assurance of their faith, [Luke] sat down to write “the Gospel of knowing for sure.” He began with a formal dedication:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4)

Although Luke does not mention himself by name, he has always been universally acknowledged as the writer of this book. In one long sentence, he tells us what kind of book he wanted to write: one that would help people to be more certain of their salvation in Christ. To accomplish this goal, he set out to write a historically accurate, carefully researched, and well-organized Gospel.

Luke is exactly such a Gospel. First, it is historically accurate. Luke was by no means the only person ever to write a biography of Jesus Christ. He was well aware that others had tried to record what Jesus had done. As he said, “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1).Luke defined a Gospel as “a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us” (Luke 1:1).

A narrative is simply a story, so Luke wanted to tell a story. But this particular narrative was historical. It was about things that had been accomplished, things that had really happened, things that had been done in time and space. Therefore, Luke is careful to place the story of Jesus in its historical context. For example, when he tells the story of the Savior’s birth, he says that it coincided with “the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Luke was writing fact, not fiction, and he knew the difference, as did his original readers. Like Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome, wanted to “simply record what really happened and what really was said.” In addition . . . he wanted to give a divinely inspired interpretation of the words and deeds of Jesus Christ.

During the nineteenth century, liberal Bible scholars tried to argue that Luke was a bad historian, that his books were riddled with factual errors. In the last one hundred years, however, their assessment of Luke’s historiography has been almost completely reversed. The more we learn about the ancient world, the more we see how careful he was to get the facts straight. One historian concludes:

“Wherever modern scholarship has been able to check up on the accuracy of Luke’s work the judgment has been unanimous: he is one of the finest and ablest historians in the ancient world.” In the words of the famous archaeologist William Ramsay, “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he seizes the important and critical events and shows their true nature at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”

Doubtless, some scholars will continue to challenge Luke on historical grounds. But his concern for historical accuracy helps us to be more certain of our faith. If it could be shown that Luke’s work contained basic errors of fact, then his whole Gospel would be discredited. A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus is who he said he is and did what the Bible says he did. But if Luke didn’t have his facts straight on the governorship of Syria, how can we trust his testimony about miracles like the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? Our entire salvation depends on the things that Jesus accomplished in human history, specifically through his sufferings and death.

Fortunately, Luke was a good historian. He did not write some fanciful account of things that people wanted to believe about Jesus, but an accurate historical record of what Jesus actually did. Through the testimony of Luke and others, the things that Jesus accomplished are as well established as any fact of ancient history, and this provides a rational basis for our faith. Of course, we still have to accept that what the Gospel says is true. We have to put our own personal trust in Jesus, believing that he died on the cross for our sins and that he was raised again to give us eternal life. But we believe these things with good reason, knowing that they are based on reliable history.

Brian Dobler
Brian Dobler
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