During a recent discussion between Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? radio program, McGrew provided a summary of what he thought to be Ehrman's primary objections to the historicity of the gospels. Among other things, he said that Ehrman thinks the gospels are "full of contradictions…full of these kinds of errors, from one end to the other…it's hard to take them as reliable documents in the sense in which we might say Josephus' Antiquities is reliable when he deals with matters that are reasonably close to his own time and isn't wholly dependent upon ancient sources which he couldn't check up on" (start listening about ten minutes into the first part of their discussion). When I heard McGrew summarize Ehrman's position that way, I thought Ehrman would respond by saying that he doesn't think the gospels are that unreliable. He thinks they're largely unreliable and sometimes err and contradict one another, but not as much as McGrew suggested. Instead, Ehrman responded by saying that McGrew's summary of his (Ehrman's) view is accurate, that the summary is "right on. It's exactly, pretty much, what I think…absolutely accurate" (nineteenth minute). He then says that his view of the gospels is the mainstream view of critical New Testament scholarship.
On the one hand, people like Ehrman use such strong language as "full of contradictions…full of these kinds of errors, from one end to the other" to describe their view of how unreliable the gospels are. And they suggest that there's a significant gap between the gospels and a source like Josephus in the manner described above. (For some examples of the problems with Josephus that don't prevent people like Ehrman from assigning so much more reliability to Josephus than to the gospels, see here, here, here, and here.) On the other hand, they categorize three of the four gospels as the Synoptics, suggesting that they have one view of Jesus in common, and they often argue that those three gospels should be considered one source rather than three. If the Synoptics agree on a point, we're often told, by critics like Ehrman, that we shouldn't suggest that three independent sources are agreeing with each other. Those three gospels are so similar that it's often suggested that they had multiple sources in common, such as Q and Mark. How are we to explain this tendency of many critics to simultaneously claim that the gospels are both so different and so similar?
The two claims could be consistent. (Critics would want us to be charitable in how we interpret them, even though they're often so uncharitable in their reading of the gospels.) If we take phrases like "full of contradictions…full of these kinds of errors, from one end to the other" as highly hyperbolic, critics aren't contradicting themselves. And maybe their view of Josephus is so high that they could think he's significantly more reliable than the gospel authors, yet also think the gospels have a lot of consistency and reliability. But even if critics aren't being inconsistent, it's still worth pointing out that their view allows for a large amount of agreement among the gospels.
And, more importantly, we should notice that there is, indeed, much that the gospels agree on. While critics will often claim that the infancy narratives only agree on a few issues, that the resurrection accounts are highly divergent, will only list something like a dozen facts we supposedly know about the historical Jesus, etc., the truth is that the gospels agree on a much larger number of issues. And for the vast majority of those agreements, there isn't any significant objection that can be raised against the historicity of what the gospels are agreeing about.
Below are links to some posts I've written over the years that give dozens of examples of matters that two or more of the gospels agree on. (The first post, alone, gives thirty examples.) Most of the agreements are on Christmas and Easter issues, since I was addressing those contexts. Since those are among the portions of the gospels that are said by critics to be the most dissimilar, the agreements we find among those parts of the gospels are especially significant. If we were to look at the gospels in general, the list of agreements would be far longer. See, for example, the ones cited by McGrew and his wife in their discussions of undesigned coincidences. At many points in these posts, below, I comment on how these agreements among the gospels are of an unusual nature, meet the criterion of embarrassment, are matters the authors could easily have disagreed about, etc. The best explanation for such significant agreement among the gospels is that the documents have a large degree of historicity. Whether they're fully historical or inerrant is another matter. It would have to be judged on other grounds. But agreements among the gospels like the ones discussed below should be kept in mind when critics like Ehrman focus so much on the differences among the gospels and say so little about their similarities. My first post below begins by citing some critics commenting on how dissimilar the infancy narratives supposedly are, then goes on to document that they're wrong. What's below isn't just a response to Ehrman, but to many critics who make such claims to one degree or another.
Agreements Between Matthew And Luke On Jesus' Childhood
Agreements Among All Four Gospels On Jesus' Childhood Outside Of The Infancy Narratives
Agreements Among The Resurrection Accounts
Agreements About Jesus' Family