Trinity Baptist Church: Sunday School, Apr. 5, 2009
Week 8: The historicity and authority of Scripture (RFG, Ch. 7, Ch. 13). Is the Bible historically accurate? Did the Resurrection really happen? How do we know that the Bible is trustworthy?
Aren’t the gospels biased documents created by the early church to win converts?
There are several responses to this objection. First, the idea that the gospels (the biographies of Jesus found in the New Testament) were created as evangelistic propaganda ignores the fact that much of their content was deeply offensive to people of the 1st century. For instance, the very fact that Jesus, whom the Christians named as God himself, was crucified would have been incredibly repugnant. Crucifixion was a humiliating form of execution reserved for the lowest of the low. It would have had connotations similar to the electric chair. Is it plausible that the early Christians invented the horrible death of their leader as a criminal to win converts? There are numerous other facts mentioned in all the gospels that would similarly have been offensive to potential converts. For instance, the fact that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples would have been embarrassing to the early Christians. Similarly, all four gospels record that the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women, despite the fact that woman had such low status in 1st century Palestine that they were not allowed to give testimony in court. If the gospels were completely fabricated, is it likely that they would have contained material that was so repellant to their prospective audience? The presence of this embarrassing material is a testimony to the fact that the biblical authors felt constrained by reasons of veracity to include all the relevant material, no matter how off-putting to non-Christians.
Furthermore, the content of the gospels was also confusing to early Christians. For instance, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9), his ignorance of who touched him in the crowd (Luke 8:45), his ignorance of the day of his Second Coming (Matt. 24:36), his agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:49), and his cry of dereliction on the cross (Mark 15:34) would all have been perplexing to early Christians who regarded Jesus as God incarnate. Or consider the desertion of the disciples and Peter’s disowning of Jesus after his arrest (Lk. 22:47-61). Given that these same disciples were the leaders of the early church, wouldn’t they have suppressed these incidents to protect their reputation? Even critical scholars recognize the validity of this “criterion of embarrassment” as one indication of the historicity of accounts in the gospels. Since the gospel writers had no incentive to include these details and every incentive to expunge them, the fact that they were preserved attests to the faithfulness of the gospel writers in preserving historical details. A similar argument can be made from the details that were not added to the gospels. The issue whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised nearly tore the early church apart (Acts 15). Why not place a definitive statement about this issue on the lips of Jesus? Again, it seems that the gospel writers felt constrained by historical accuracy not to add to Jesus’ words, even if it would have been very useful to the early church.
Aren’t the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life merely legends?
There are numerous books (and even a movie now) that claim that Jesus Christ never existed and that the gospel accounts are purely legendary (for a somewhat lengthy discussion of one such book, Robert Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, see my essay here). It is worthwhile to point out that the vast majority of critical (non-evangelical) biblical scholars reject this idea. For instance, former evangelical and now non-Christian critical scholar Bart Ehrman writes the following in his book The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings:
Although historians cannot determine that Jesus performed miracles, they have been able to establish with some degree of certainty a few basic facts about Jesus' life: he was baptized, he associated with tax collectors and sinners, he chose twelve disciples to be his closest companions, he caused a disturbance in the Temple near the end ot his life, this disturbance eventuated in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and in the wake of his death his followers established vibrant Christian communities. (Ehrman, p. 224)
In addition to the external documentary support from 1st century non-Christian writers Josephus and Tacitus and the archeological evidence I mentioned above, I think the “Jesus myth” idea has a major problem with the dating of the New Testament documents. Again, appealing only to critical (non-evangelical) scholars, we find that the consensus for the writing of the documents of the New Testament is as follows: 50-60 A.D. for Paul’s letters, 65-73 A.D. for the Gospel of Mark, 70-100 A.D. for the gospel of Matthew, 80-100 A.D. for Luke-Acts, and 90-110 A.D. for the Gospel of John. I personally think documents were probably written much earlier, but let’s assume for a moment that these dates are correct. If so, then the gospels would have been composed within the lifetime of the apostles and other eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus. In contrast, proponents of the “Jesus myth” theory must push the composition of these documents much later to plausibly argue that all true information about Jesus, if he existed, was lost in the sands of time before the New Testament was written.
Even more problematic to proponents of the Jesus myth is the writing of the apostle Paul. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is usually dated to the late 40s or early 50s A.D., includes Paul’s account of meeting with Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and with Jesus’ brother James in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10). Paul’s other letters include statements about Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (Rom 1:3), his betrayal (1 Cor. 11:23), the Last Supper (1 Cor. 11:24-26), his crucifixion (1 Thess. 2:14-16, 1 Cor. 1:18-25, 2 Cor. 13:4a, Phil. 2:8, Rom. 5:6-11), his resurrection (Rom 6:5, 1 Cor. 15:4, Phil. 3:10), and his appearance to the apostles (1 Cor. 15:5-8). All of these facts are completely consistent with what is recorded in the gospels and the book of Acts. Keep in mind that Paul’s letters were written no more than thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection by a man who had personal contact with Jesus’ brother and Jesus’ twelve disciples. Is it at all plausible to assert that Jesus never existed or that the material in these letters or in the rest of the New Testament was purely legendary?
Did the Resurrection really happen?
I think one argument that perhaps is underused is an argument from apostolic authority. As Prof. Kirke says in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “’a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found to be truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed… There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth.’” The apostles unanimously preached that Jesus had risen from the dead and that salvation can be found in him. There are only three possibilities. The first is that they were deliberately misleading their hearers, the second is that they were sincerely mistaken, and the third is that they are telling the truth. The character of the apostles comes through very clearly in the New Testament; these are men who were utterly trustworthy and who gave their very lives to proclaim the resurrection. I think it is manifestly impossible that they were deliberately lying. The second is that they were sincerely mistaken. But how do we then account for them all being sincerely mistaken together on several independent occasions along with 500 other witnesses? A mass hallucination? Perhaps, but then how do we account for Paul’s conversion? He was a hardened enemy of the church, and yet in one instant on the road to Damascus goes from being a persecutor to an apostle because he claims to have seen Jesus. How did that happen? He clearly gained nothing material by this reversal except for a life of misery, persecution, and eventual martyrdom.
A second argument which is also underused is the argument from Scripture itself. Admittedly, this works better as an argument for the Christian view of salvation, but it has a corollary implication for the resurrection. People often stress the importance of Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy, but I think this can be a difficult argument to make because biblical prophecy often is full of symbolism and is sometimes difficult to interpret. What I think it much more interesting is how the narrative of Christ’s atoning death, which is the focal point of all four gospels, fits so perfectly into the Old Testament and illuminates so many otherwise perplexing Old Testament stories. Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac? When did God provide the lamb for the sacrifice? Who is the Angel of the Lord who is often identified with the Lord himself? Why did God bring the Israelites out of Egypt under the blood of a lamb? Why did God institute the sacrificial system to atone for sin? Who is the prophet whom God will raise up from among the Israelites? Who is the true Davidic king who will reign forever? Who is the Prince of Peace who is also the Wonderful Counselor and Everlasting Father? Who is the suffering servant who is punished for the people’s sins? When will the people “look upon the one they have pierced” and “mourn as for a firstborn son”? Again, let me quote from C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Grand Miracle” from God in the Dock:
Supposing you had before you a manuscript of some great work, either a symphony of a novel. There then comes to you a person, saying, ‘Here is a new bit of the manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the centre of the whole work.’ The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reacted on the whole rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings from the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you have not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic. On the other hand, if it failed to do that, then however attractive it was in itself, you would reject it.
Essentially, I think the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is evidenced by the following facts:
1. Multiple attestation. The Resurrection is the single event which is attested by more independent sources (all four gospels, Paul’s letters) than any other source in the New Testament. Historians who doubt the historicity of the New Testament normally use the criterion of multiple attestation as one of the main criteria for determining historicity. Shouldn’t it also apply in this case?
2. The criterion of embarrassment. All the gospels report that the first eyewitnesses of the Resurrection were women, despite the fact that women were accorded such low status in the ancient world that they could not serve as witnesses in court. Why would this fact have been included in the gospels unless they were recording actual events instead of fabricating the story? In fact, the gospels contain many things that would have been confusing or repulsive to 1st century people. If these accounts were fabricated to advance Christianity, why would they have contained teaching that was so counterproductive?
3. The criterion of dissimilarity. The apostles preached the Resurrection to both Jews and Gentiles, despite the fact that it was unbelievable within both a Jewish and Gentile worldview. The Jews believed in a general resurrection of all people, not an individual resurrection. The Gentiles believed that the body was evil so that the idea of a bodily resurrection was preposterous (see Acts 17). Then how did the apostles come to believe in and to teach the resurrection weeks after Jesus’ death?
4. The lack of counterevidence. How was the Resurrection accepted by thousands in Jerusalem within weeks of Jesus’ death? If the body was not missing from the tomb, how were these claims not rejected? It seems that opponents of the early Christians claimed that the disciples stole the body, not that Jesus tomb was occupied. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that the early Christians reverenced the tomb of Christ like they did the tomb of the early martyrs. Why not?
5. The sincerity of the eyewitnesses. According to tradition, 11 of the 12 apostles were killed for proclaiming the gospel. If they knew that the resurrection was a lie, why did none of them recant? Of course, they may have been mistaken, but they were certainly sincere.
6. The conversion of Paul. The Apostle Paul was originally a fervent enemy of the church, but in a single day he started preaching the gospel he once tried to destroy. Why? He claimed to have met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. What incentive did he have to make this claim? How does the sworn enemy of the church become a leading apostle?
7. The poverty of the counter explanations. Among the counter explanations are the “swoon hypothesis” (Jesus fainted on the cross and reawoke in the tomb), “the reburial hypothesis” (Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimithea’s tomb, but was later reburied elsewhere), “the twin hypothesis” (Jesus had a twin brother), “the hypnosis hypothesis” (Jesus used hypnosis to fake the resurrection). [I’m not making these up! Google them if you’re interested; people have written whole books on them.] Isn’t the very implausibility of these arguments evidence that there must very plausible evidence for the resurrection? Jeffrey Jay Lowder, an atheist and former president of infidels.org, wrote an excellent essay on the evidence for the resurrection in which he concludes with the following statement:
That is to say, I think it is rational to both accept and reject the resurrection. I think there are strong historical arguments for the resurrection (a lá Craig), but I also think there are good reasons to reject such arguments. I realize this may sound like a cop-out to some, but I think it is quite reasonable, especially when the issue of prior probability is taken into consideration.
In other words, Lowder states that it is not the lack of historical evidence that causes him to disbelieve in the resurrection, but rather his assumption of a sufficiently low “prior probability” for miracles occurring and his belief that theism is “implausible”, which leads him to reject the resurrection as historical. [Here’s another interesting site which I came across which gives an exhaustive review of Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s debates with atheists; the author of the site, himself an atheist, concludes that Craig wins nearly every debate hands down.]
Isn’t the New Testament full of historical inaccuracies?
No. I actually had a hard time finding sites that listed historical errors in the New Testament. Far more often, atheist sites try to show that the New Testament is internally inconsistent. When it comes to a conflict with objective historical evidence, I am only aware of five legitimately puzzling problems: the census of Quirinius in Luke, the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew, the resurrection of the righteous in Matthew, and the darkness during the crucifixion (why does everyone assume this was an eclipse?), and the date of Theudas’ rebellion in Acts. Arguments against the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew, the “mini-resurrection” in Matthew and the darkness during the crucifixion are all arguments from silence, meaning that people object that these events are unsubstantiated by independent sources (although even this statement is not necessarily true). One obvious response is that we have limited historical sources about 1st century Palestine. If we were to reject as unhistorical every account that was not multiply attested, we would have to reject much of what we know about ancient history! Second, these arguments (and others) often hinge on an unwarranted reading of the text. For instance, how many children were killed by Herod in and around Bethlehem? If thousands were killed, then it is surprising that Josephus doesn’t mention it, but what if it were only a few hundred? Or only a few dozen? Since Matthew does not specify the number, there is no reason to assume that it must have been a large number. The problems of Quirinius’ census and Theudas’ rebellion are different because they involve an apparent conflict with other historical sources. One option, of course, is that the other sources are in error. But even if we believe in the reliability of the other sources, there are reasonable explanations for both problems (see http://www.tektonics.org/af/censuscheck.html and http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qtheudy.html ). So as far as I am aware, there are very few places in the New Testament that appear to conflict with what we currently know of history (atheist Jeffrey Jay Lowder mentions only these five in his review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ).
On the other hand, we have a massive amount of archaeological evidence confirming numerous central and supporting details in the New Testament narratives. For instance, archaeologists have found the burial box of the high priest Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57-67), the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), Jacob’s well (John 4), the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-14), the pool at Siloam (John 9:1-14), the theater at Ephesus (Acts 19:29), Herod’s palace at Caesera (Acts 23:33-35). In Acts, Luke uses the correct regional titles for government officials in Thessalonica (‘politarchs’), Ephesus (‘temple wardens’), Cyprus (‘proconcil’), and Malta (‘the first man of the island’). Physical evidence such as inscriptions have also confirmed such figures as governor Pontius Pilate, Gallio proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17), Erastus city treasurer of Corinth (Rom 16:23), Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1). This is only an extremely small fraction of the confirmatory evidence of the historicity of the gospels and the other New Testament documents, as entire books have been written on the subject. The classic text on the historical reliability of the New Testament is F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? which is available free online. A more recent work which focuses on archaeology in particular is John McCray’s Archaeology and the New Testament.
Again, if someone is truly stuck on some particular historical issue, it may be helpful to discuss it and point out the potential solutions to the problem. However, as I said previously, I don’t think it is fruitful to attempt a proof of Biblical inerrancy. History and archaeology are not perfect; who knows what we’ll dig up in another ten years! If it is clear from historical data that the New Testament is generally reliable, shouldn’t we be willing to at least hear what it has to say about Jesus? To refuse to even open the book because we are not confident in the date of Quirinius’ census strikes me as disingenuous.
How do we know that the Bible is inerrant?
A general argument for the inerrancy of Scripture (borrowed from R.C. Sproul):
1. Archeology and ancient history confirms that the gospel accounts are generally accurate.
2. If so, then I should be willing to approach them as generally accurate portraits of the life of Jesus.
3. If Jesus is who he claims to be in the gospel accounts, then he is the infinite, creator God of the universe in human form.
4. Jesus had complete confidence in the Bible as the inspired, authoritative, inerrant Word of God.
5. Therefore, the Bible is the inspired, authoritative, inerrant Word of God.
Obviously, this reasoning hinges pretty heavily on point 3, as it should. But if I can convince anyone to even start considering point 3, I’ll be content.
While I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I think it is often not a worthwhile endeavor to try and prove the inerrancy of Scripture directly for two reasons. First, determining the inerrancy of any document by definition requires some inerrant standard by which to measure it. What standard could we use? Certainly, no historian claims to have an inerrant picture of ancient history. Then how can we determine with certainty whether the Bible or any other source is completely inerrant? And in fact, if the Bible is the God’s authoritative message to humanity, then it should itself be the standard that we use! Second, demands for a direct proof of inerrancy will generally have to focus on a small number of “problem texts”. Remember that the vast majority of narrative statements in the New Testament such as “Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town” (Matthew 9:1) or “On the next Sabbath almost the whole cite gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44) are not the kind of things that we should expect to have any historical record of apart from the New Testament narratives themselves. It’s very unlikely that we’ll ever dig up the boat that Jesus used or a video tape of the Sabbath service in Antioch. Of the remaining statements for which we might have some expectation for independent confirmation, we find that the New Testament is remarkably accurate (see below). What remains are a handful of texts that, while problematic, have almost no bearing on the actual life of Jesus (i.e. what year did the census of Quirinius take place? Why isn’t there an independent record of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem by Herod). If someone is truly perplexed about these issues, there are explanations, often very satisfying ones. But given the outline presented above, we really need only to believe that the New Testament accounts are generally accurate to honestly consider the historical figure of Jesus that they present.
In summary, vast amounts of archeology and documentary evidence all support the historicity of the Bible. Regarding the Resurrection, many atheists will themselves admit that there is a good amount of evidence for it and very few plausible alternative explanations. However, as the Bible tells us, our unwillingness to trust in God never comes from a lack of evidence but a desire to maintain control of our lives. It is very helpful for Christians to see how much evidence there is for the faith we profess. But we’ll never argue someone into belief. Faith in Christ is not just intellectual assent to historical fact. Biblical faith is better understood as “personal trust”. As Christians, we put our faith not merely in a historical fact, but in the Person to whom all of the historical facts point. It is absolutely vital that Christianity is objectively true and not merely subjectively inspiring. Yet we can acknowledge the objective truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and still ignore his call to put our trust in him alone for our salvation. God calls us to put our faith in his beloved Son, of whom the Bible speaks: Jesus of Nazareth, who was born under Herod, who died on the cross for our sins under Pontius Pilate, was dead and buried, and rose from the dead three days later for our justification. He has given clear testimony of his love for us in creation, in history, and in our own lives. Let us then put our trust in him and be saved.