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Question #2. Discuss issues related to the historical reliability of the Bible, including questions of methodology and archaeology. Include in your discussion representatives of the various issues.
The historical reliability of the Bible is a central issue for apologists, preachers, and theologians alike. From an apologetic standpoint, if the Bible is not historically reliable, then the founding facts of the Christian faith are in doubt. For some worldviews and religions, this would not be a crucial blow. Buddhism does not stand or fall on the historical veracity of biographies (hagiographies) of Gotama. Nor does Islam stand or fall (for the most part) on the historical reliability of the sunna. Mormonism quite clearly does not stand or fall on the historical reliability of the book of Mormon (or else it would have fallen quite some time ago!). But Christianity is uniquely tied to events in history which, if true, verify the truth of the Christian faith; but which, if false, disprove Christianity altogether. Chief amongst those historical facts are the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – although certainly other historical facts are important to the Christian narrative as well (e.g., Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus, the miracles of Christ).
Christianity stands or falls on the truth or falsity of these historical events. As Paul insists in 1 Corinthians 15, if Christ has not risen from the dead, then our preaching is useless and so if your faith. If the resurrection is not historical (i.e. if it is a myth, or a metaphor, or a deception, or whatever else), then Christianity is a pack of lies, and we ought to pack our bags and go home.
But how do we know that these historical events did in fact happen? On what basis do we believe them? Primarily, we know about them through the record of Scripture. Genesis tells us about Creation and the Flood. Exodus tells us about the events of the Exodus (which are then the basis for much of the rest of the New Testament). And the New Testament Gospels are absolutely central, in conveying to us the truths surrounding the incarnation, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, to accept the historical occurrence of these events, we must accept the New Testament Gospel records as fundamentally reliable and trustworthy.
However, if a non-Christian friend asks you why they ought to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and you tell them “The Bible says he did,” the natural response of the non-believer will be: “So what? Why should I believe what the Bible says?” Indeed, he will often continue, “Isn’t the Bible just a bunch of books written by people much later? Isn’t it full of myths? Didn’t people make it all up? Isn’t the Bible untrustworthy and unhistorical?” In other words, it is incumbent upon the Christian apologist, preacher, and theologian to (1 Pet. 3:15) give an answer to those who ask us the reasons for the hope that we have; we are to tell people why we trust the Bible, why we accept it as a historically accurate record of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, in this essay I will defend the historical reliability of the Bible, focusing particularly on the New Testament Gospels because, in my perspective, they are the fulcrum on which everything hinges. First, I will briefly recount the rise in biblical skepticism from the Enlightenment through the 20th century. Then I will argue that, contrary to the skeptical conclusions of New Testament critics, there are six persuasive reasons to trust the historical reliability of the Gospels.
I. The Rise of Skeptical Biblical Criticism
From their writing, the New Testament Gospels, individually and collectively, were treated by Christians as authoritative records of the birth, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. From Irenaeus onward, we hear the early Church fathers confess faith in the Four Gospels, the four accepted records of Jesus’ life. The historicity of the accounts was unquestioned by Christians. Even those engaged in heretical movements (Gnosticism, Docetism, etc.) acknowledged the Gospels as accurate and authoritative (except Marcion, who rejected all but an emasculated version of Luke’s Gospel).
Non-Christians frequently found fault with the Gospels (e.g. Celsus in the 2nd century, Porphyry in the 3rd), but rarely did they reject the fundamental historical narrative of the Gospels. The fact of the resurrection was, of course, rejected; but the account of Jesus’ life was not.
With the rise of the Enlightenment in western Christendom, however, the New Testament Gospels came under the skeptical scrutiny of scholars who had embraced a fundamentally naturalistic worldview. Their naturalistic worldview was at odds with the frank supernaturalistic worldview assumed and proclaimed throughout the Gospels, necessitating a redefinition or reinterpretation of the Gospel records. H. Reimarus thus recorded his growing doubts about the accuracy and historicity of the Gospels, followed by David Strauss and Friedrich Schleiermacher. In the 20th century, Bultmann represented the culmination of the German school of skeptical biblical scholarship, arguing that we had to ‘demythologize’ the New Testament to remove its supernaturalistic elements and make it compatible with a modern, scientific, naturalistic Western worldview. No one who turns on an electric light switch can responsibly continue to believe in the miracles of Jesus, according to Bultmann. American scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar (Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan) adopted and publicized these critical conclusions and sought to argue that the Jesus presented in the New Testament Gospels is not a historical representation of the Jesus that actually walked in Galilee and Judea, but rather a theological imposition of the later Christian Church. While not a scholarly work, Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code represents a popularization of the conclusions of skeptical scholarship.
The fundamental assertions of critical scholarship, then, are that: (a) the Gospels are not reliable history; (b) our knowledge about the historical Jesus must be supplemented by non-canonical sources, particularly the gnostic gospels and documents; (c) our understanding of Jesus must be harmonized with a naturalistic worldview.
Interestingly, New Testament critics are at odds with the insights of ancient historians, who place much greater faith in the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament Gospels. For example, A. N. Sherwin-White suggests that we have good reason to trust the historical record of the Gospels. Why this disconnect? In what follows, I will seek to lay out a case for the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels, demonstrating that we do have good reasons for trusting the historical record contained within them.
First, the New Testament Gospels are written very close to the time of the events which they narrate. Even by the estimates of the most radical skeptical scholars, all four gospels were completed by A.D. 105; all scholars agree that Mark is written prior to A.D. 70. Since Jesus was crucified between A.D. 28 and 33 (I think A.D. 30 is about right), that places the earliest gospel within 40 years, and the latest one at most 75 years from the death of Christ. I would argue that the traditional dating for the Gospels is more accurate – that Mark was written prior to A.D. 60, Matthew and Luke both between A.D. 60 and 70, and John around A.D. 85. In this case, you have three complementary synoptic gospels written within 30-40 years of Jesus’ death, with John supplementing the synoptic about 20 years after that.
The early date of the Gospels is important for two reasons. (1) It means that there would still have been numerous eyewitnesses alive, both friends and foes. Christians who had walked and talked with Jesus would have been around to question, correct, and confirm the narratives of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Non-Christians, who perhaps were involved with opposing Jesus or even demanding his execution, would also still have been around – to counter, question, and debunk any false or incorrect historical claims made by the Gospels. Significantly, we find no record of non-Christians disagreeing with the historical claims of the Gospels. (2) It means that there is not sufficient time for mythical or legendary accretions to be accumulated within the Gospels. Comparing the time-frames of the Gospels to those of the sunna of Muhammad and the hagiographies of Gotama Buddha, we can see that as the time between the life of the historical figure and the writing of the account of the historical figure increases, so too does the element of legendary additions. That is, accounts written close to their lifetimes have no or minimal legendary additions; accounts written much later have significant legendary additions (e.g. Buddha emerging from his mother’s womb fully-grown). This is also evident from a survey of later Christian gospels, like the infancy Gospel of Thomas, or the 2nd-century (or later) Gospel of Peter – the legendary elements are quite apparent. In Thomas, the young Jesus lashes out in anger and curses a playmate, killing him. In Peter, the resurrection scene is narrated, with two angels “as tall as the sky” leading Jesus, who is “taller than the sky” out of the tomb, followed by a walking talking cross. In comparison, the New Testament gospels are plain, bereft of legendary accretions.
II. Eyewitness Claims
Second, the New Testament Gospels all claim to contain eyewitness testimony. So, on the one hand, they are all written early enough that they certainly could be verified or debunked by living eyewitnesses. But furthermore, the Gospels claim to contain exactly such eyewitness accounts. Richard Bauckham, in his exhaustive Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, concludes that the claims to eyewitness status are authentic, and are demonstrated by both internal and external evidence (see IV and V of this essay).
Mark, the earliest Gospel, does not explicitly state who wrote it. Church tradition is unanimous in attributing it to John Mark, who was an associate of the early Apostles, and who wrote the recollections of Simon Peter (see Papias’ testimony). Thus, Mark is associated with the eyewitness testimony of the ‘head’ apostle. Matthew is written by one of the 12 disciples, Levi (Matthew) the tax-collector. Luke, while not an apostle, explicitly claims to have interviewed numerous eyewitnesses in the research and preparation of his Gospel. John, while the latest Gospel written, makes the strongest claims to eyewitness status – John 20 and 21 emphasize that this is the testimony of the one who saw these things. It is not necessary to conclude that the apostle John wrote the Gospel himself from start to finish; but it is unavoidable to conclude that whether it was John or his disciples who wrote the words contained in the Gospel, it is based (professedly based) on what John the apostle saw, heard, and touched.
The claim to eyewitness testimony is not limited to the Gospels. It is also evident in the New Testament epistles – again, 1 Corinthians 15 is a prime example. 1 John 1 is also a strong example, wherein John claims that he is writing of what he has seen, heard, and touched, and is now relating it to his audience so that they might know the truth of what they have been taught. The authenticity and authority of the apostolic teaching and tradition was based on the eyewitness status of what they were recounting.
A skeptic can certainly argue that the Gospels (and Epistles) are lying, and that they were not eyewitnesses. But what the skeptic cannot rationally conclude is that the Gospels never pretend or claim to be eyewitness accounts of what really happened. Sadly, this is what they often do. Crossan argues that Luke is not intending to write a historical account of what happened after Good Friday, but is rather simply telling people metaphorical stories about the disciples’ experiences. But that is what Luke is explicitly not doing. Luke sets out to tell his readers what really happened, and states so clearly in his preface. Ditto for John. The attempt of critical scholars to mythologize the New Testament violates the explicit purpose of the Gospels.
III. Manuscript Evidence
So the Gospels were written relatively close to the time of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And they claim to be eyewitness accounts of those events. So what? Many contemporary skeptics (e.g. Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown, Muslims) argue that the texts that we have in our New Testament are not reflective of what was originally written. The text has become corrupt. Perhaps the autographs (original Gospels) would be historically reliable. But what we have has been revised and re-written by later scribes and theologians to reflect the emerging dominant orthodoxy. Thus we cannot be sure what exactly Jesus did do and say. That has been lost.
The argument that the New Testament texts have become hopelessly corrupt is most prominently featured in Islam. Mohammad claimed that God had given previous revelations to the Jews (the Torah) and the Christians (the Gospels, or injil), but that these revelations had become corrupted, so that God revealed his final revelation through Mohammad (the Quran).
Fortunately for Christians, and unfortunately for Muslims, there is no evidence supporting the thesis of rampant corruption of the New Testament text. Rather, the discipline of textual criticism has recovered, with almost absolute confidence, the text of the original autographs. There is, to be sure, considerable textual corruption in many manuscript traditions. But the breadth and depth and wealth of extant manuscripts allows a detailed comparison which establishes the original wording of texts. There are over 5000 manuscripts, full and partial, of the New Testament Gospels, the earliest of which go back to the 2nd century. On top of that, we also have citations of the Gospels from the early Church fathers, where the wording confirms the extant manuscript record. As a comparison, the Roman historian Suetonius’s works have less than 20 extant manuscripts, the earliest of which dates from 800 years after his original writing. Compared to other ancient literature, the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is overwhelming and conclusive.
Why then do critics reject the authenticity and historicity of the Gospels? As David Hall points out (The Seven Pillories of Wisdom), critical scholars refuse to treat the Gospels according to the same academic criteria with which other ancient literature is considered. Rather, they seek to apply modern requirements and worldview presuppositions upon the Gospels- if the Gospels do not meet these unrealistic standards (exact reproduction), then they must be questionable. But if these standards were applied across the board, our knowledge of ancient history would be, well, ancient history. We wouldn’t know anything, because nothing would be trustworthy and reliable enough!
IV. Internal Evidence
The historicity of the New Testament Gospels is further supported by the internal evidence of the texts themselves. We have seen that the Gospels were written early enough to contain eyewitness testimony, that they make the claims of containing eyewitness testimony, and that the manuscript evidence is strong enough to support that claim. But that in itself does not mean that the material within the New Testament Gospels is eyewitness testimony. All we have thus far is the claim to eyewitness testimony.
The validity of that testimony, the truthfulness of the eyewitness claim, can be further demonstrated by considering the internal and external evidence. Here we will consider the internal evidence of the texts.
When the police investigate a crime, they seek eyewitness testimony as to what happened. However, it is not enough for someone merely to claim that they witnessed a crime. Rather, the police want to verify that the person’s testimony is valid. That will require at least two things – (1) demonstration of the integrity of the eyewitness; and (2) confirmation of the truthfulness of their testimony through incidental details.
The character and integrity of the professed eyewitness is crucial to testing their truthfulness. If Robert is accused of a gruesome murder, and the prosecution’s key eyewitness to the crime is Robert’s avowed enemy George, who secretly covets Robert’s wife and business, then the judge and/or jury will be right in questioning the validity of George’s eyewitness testimony. If George has previously been shown to willingly perjure himself in order to impugn Robert, his testimony will be further undermined. On the other hand, if the prosecution’s eyewitness is of unquestioned integrity, their testimony will be of much greater worth. Imagine then, that the defense calls an eyewitness, Robert’s mistress Rachel, to the stand, who testifies that Robert could not have committed the crime, as the two of them were ‘occupied’ together all that evening. While Rachel’s testimony will not be immediately discounted, the judge will have to consider whether Rachel has anything to gain by defending Robert; whether she might perjure herself in order to protect him from conviction. (Incidentally, David Hume’s consideration of testimony would require that in the event that there is testimony for both the prosecution and defense, the judge would simply balance the two out, and conclude that there is no evidence on either side. Contrary testimony results in a wash-out.)
When we turn this criteria to the authors of the New Testament, we must ask whether they had anything to gain by telling falsehoods about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many critics have argued that this is precisely what happened; but they have difficulty in explicating precisely how the apostles stood to gain. Martyrdom? Death? Torture? Wealth and riches were certainly not on the line in the 1st century Christian context. One could make that argument for 4th century Christians – but they are not the ones who wrote the Gospels! Furthermore, applying the criteria of embarrassment makes it unlikely that the Gospel’s authors made their stories up – there’s simply too much stuff that reflects very poorly upon them, particularly in Mark’s Gospel!
More tellingly, when we turn to the issue of incidental details, the Gospel records prove themselves historically accurate. If police have a professed eyewitness to a crime, they will seek to uncover whether the person was actually at the scene of the crime by determining whether they can identify incidental details that they know to be true of the scene, but which are unrelated to the actual crime itself. The color of the paint on the walls; the clothes the accused was wearing; or anything else unusual about the scene.
The Gospels are remarkably replete with incidental details – details which flesh out the account of Jesus’ ministry, but which are unnecessary to the story being recounted. As one example, consider the healing of the crippled man in John 5. John paints a very vivid picture for us, describing the place – the pool of Bethesda; and even the number of colonnades present there. He also recounts precisely how long the man had been crippled – not “about 40 years”, but rather precisely 38 years. Given the biblical tendency to round numbers off and provide general estimates, John’s precision is an indication that this is historically veridical. Similarly with Jesus’ anointing by the sinful woman in Mark’s Gospel, Mark recounts the precise way in which the woman anoints Jesus – by breaking the bottle and pouring the perfume on him, rather than the more customary way of simply unstopping the bottle to pour some of the perfume out. The presence of these incidental details, of which Bauckham recounts literally hundreds, is strong evidence that the claims to eyewitness testimony are valid and authentic. The Gospel-writers were there, they saw what they said they saw, and are thus able to present compelling portraits of the events they narrate.
V. External Evidence
The external evidence supporting the historical reliability of the Gospels brings us to the discipline of archaeology. Archaeological evidence has been unearthed which supports the reliability of much of Scripture. For example, the healing in John 5 (mentioned above) was often questioned by critics because they claimed there was no pool of Bethesda, there was no Sheep Gate, and who would have five covered colonnades anyway? There was simply no knowledge of any such architectural structure in 1st-century Jerusalem, so critics claimed that John was simply making up those details to make it look like he was there, when in fact it is all imaginary. [This totally overlooks that John’s original audience would have known whether he was making these things up, and would not have believed his account if it was so transparently composed, but so be it.] Then, in the 1980s, archaeological digs in Jerusalem uncovered the Pool of Bethesda, and near it, an inscription of the Sheep Gate, and the five covered colonnades spoken of by John. This is but one example of archaeological evidence confirming the historical reliability of the accounts of the Gospel. There are numerous others for the New Testament Gospels – place names in John, persons mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. The discipline of archaeology has also been instrumental in verifying the reliability of Old Testament accounts as well. Critical scholars were fond of questioning the historicity of King David until the discovery of the ‘House of David’ inscription. Mind you, even with that evidence, scholars often still question the historicity of David; it’s just now they have to do so in face of contrary evidence!
It is important to remember, however, that archaeology has only limited power and scope. Archaeological evidence can support the historical reliability of the Scriptures. However, a lack of archaeological evidence is not evidence of historical unreliability. This was the mistake made by critical scholars in questioning passages like John 5. There was no archaeological confirmation of the Sheep gate, etc., thus they believed it was made up. Then they had to revise their hypotheses with each archaeological discovery. Archaeology can only serve a confirming role, not a disproving role, with regards to historical reliability. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
VI. Existential Evidence
Ultimately, the date, eyewitness claims, manuscript evidence, internal evidence, and external evidence which support the historical reliability of the New Testament will only bring us so far. People can be brought to acknowledge the general reliability of Scripture. But that is not the point of apologetics, nor is it the goal of Scripture. Rather, the purpose is to invite people into a living relationship with the Triune God through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, when we defend the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels, it is essential that we end with a Pascalian appeal to experiential verification. Christ does not invite us simply to consider the Gospels as a historical document, but rather desires for us to apply the Gospels to ourselves, to allow the Christ spoken of to enter into our lives.
Marriage supplies a pertinent analogy. I can write about the virtues of marriage, and the fulfillment and joy which is available to men who enter into and uphold a biblical marriage. I can speak of the ecstasy of marital union, the peace which comes from having a life-partner, and the intimacy which is unsurpassed in human relationships. I can even point to sociological data that demonstrate that faithful married couples express higher levels of sexual satisfaction than unmarried sexual partners or unfaithful spouses. But ultimately, I have to acknowledge that one can only appreciate and agree with that argument if they themselves enter into such a marriage (or are already in one). Words and arguments will only come so far – it is only as one experiences marriage that they can see what God can make it to be.
Similarly with the Gospels. There are indeed compelling rational reasons to accept the Gospels as historically accurate representations of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that won’t get you there! One has to enter into relationship with the Christ of Scripture in order to fully appreciate the historical reliability. The Gospels are open to personal verification – God invites us into relationship with him, to experience the truthfulness of the claims made of and about Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. Our apologetic for the reliability of Scripture must end with such an appeal.