In this series of newsletters I am seeking to set forth the case for Christianity. In Part 1 of this series I laid out the argument for the reasonableness of our faith. The argument consists of three premises:
Our last newsletter covered the first part of premise one by answering the question "Is the Bible that we have today an accurate copy of the original Bible?" In other words, "Do we have what they wrote?" We discovered that a comparison of the New Testament with other works from the ancient world regarding (1) the time gap between when the document was written and the oldest existing manuscripts, and (2) the number of manuscripts which still exists, shows that by all standards of historical analysis, the New Testament is historically substantiated. Additionally, the overwhelming number of quotes from the early Christians establishes that the text of the New Testament as we have it today is as it was originally written.
In this newsletter I want to take the next step in establishing the case for Christianity, which will complete our defense of premise one. The question I want to address is "Did what the biblical writers wrote really happen?" It is not enough to know that the New Testament we have today is the New Testament as it was originally written. We have to show why it is reasonable to believe that the New Testament events actually took place. To this end, I want to discuss several points by way of introduction and then look specifically at the eyewitness testimony.
First, some objections against the historical authenticity of the Bible are philosophical, not historical. I discussed this point in the last newsletter in the section entitled "History and Philosophy." Its importance cannot be overstressed. Too much time and energy can be wasted in trying to defend philosophical points with the tools of historical analysis. It does no good to argue for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus if your opponent denies the possibility of miracles. Whether miracles can occur is not an historical issue but a philosophical one. The arguments and evidences needed in order to establish a philosophical point are different than the arguments and evidences needed in order to establish an historical point. In this series, I am not addressing the philosophical problems associated with Christianity. Those questions are important but require a separate treatment.
Second, some object that writers from the ancient world were not interested in accurate history, thus the New Testament cannot be taken as reliable history. As C.S.Lewis has said, this objection amounts to a sort of "chronological snobbery." As "modern" thinkers, we somehow have gotten the notion that "ancient" writers are "pre-scientific" and thus are uninterested in accuracy. This is simply a misreading of history. Though it may be true that ancient writers lacked the instruments of technology to assess their experience as precisely as we are able, it nevertheless remains that eyewitness testimony meant as much to the ancients as it does to us. This is especially true with the Hebrews. The writings from other ancient historians show that ancient writers understood the differences between history and myth. In the technical sense, a myth was a story used to illustrate certain principles. For the most part, the details, historicity, or authenticity of the myth were irrelevant to the significance of the principles. In this regard, the New Testament is most certainly not myth, nor was it ever offered as one by the writers. As far as the biblical writers were concerned, the historical accuracy of the events was absolutely indispensable to the truth and significance of the Christian faith. As Paul argues:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up; if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
Third, the historical testimonies of New Testament events, particularly of the life of Jesus, are from contemporary eyewitnesses to the events. It is important to bear in mind that the events recorded in the New Testament are attested to by those who claimed to be eyewitnesses to the events. According to the arguments that were set forth in the last newsletter, we have in our possession today the accounts of these eyewitnesses. Thus, the evidence for the authenticity of these events will have everything to do with the notions of weighing the reliability of those who claim to be eyewitnesses.
The crux of the matter of the New Testament's authenticity is the reliability of the New Testament writers as eyewitnesses to the events. In establishing their reliability there are several points to consider. First, it is reasonable to believe that the witnesses to the New Testament events were willing and able to tell the truth. The early followers of Jesus had absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by claiming what they did about Him. Generally, the reliability of eyewitness testimony can be mitigated if it can be shown that the witness has a vested interest in what he is claiming to have seen. But early Christianity was certainly not the lucrative enterprise it sometimes is today. There is no reason to suppose that the writers of the New Testament would fabricate the events of the New Testament since they had nothing to gain. Not only was there nothing to gain, but there was everything to lose by claiming what they did about Jesus. It was their Christian commitment that brought about the martyrdom of possibly every New Testament writer except John. Generally, the reliability of eyewitness testimony is strengthened if it can be shown that the witness has a vested interest in the opposite of what he is claiming. For example, one probably would not doubt a child who confessed to a misdeed that certainly would elicit a spanking from the parent. Since the child has a vested interest in the misdeed not occurring, if he admits to it and risks a spanking, then it is reasonable to believe that the child is telling the truth . Thus, the most reasonable explanation for why the New Testament writers claimed to witness what they did is that in fact they did witness it.
Second, the presence of adverse testimony (i.e., the testimony of those who could have contradicted the New Testament writers if the events had not taken place) would have hampered the spread of Christianity. In other words, if the witnesses' testimonies were false, others would have been able to contradict and squelch the growth of Christianity. It is interesting that the enemies of Christianity did not so much try to contradict the claims of the early Christians about such events as, for example, the resurrection, as they instead tried to offer other explanations for the events. Matthew 28:12-15 tells us:
When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, "Tell them, 'His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.' And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will appease him and make you secure." So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.
If it had not been the case that Jesus had risen from the dead, there certainly would have been overwhelming testimony to that effect. Indeed, the early Christians sometimes appealed to the knowledge of current events of their hearers in making their case for Christianity. Notice how Paul argues here before Festus in Acts 26:24-26:
Now as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, you are beside yourself. Much learning is driving you mad!" But he said, "I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason. For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner."
Thus, the most reasonable explanation for why the claims of the New Testament writers flourished right in the area where the events allegedly took place is that they indeed took place.
These and other evidences that could be marshaled make it more than reasonable to believe the veracity of the eyewitness testimony. However, the case for the authenticity of the New Testament does not stop here. It can be shown that the New Testament bears what some have called the "earmarks of historicity."
The "earmarks of historicity" are particular characteristics which indicate the historical authenticity of documents. When scholars examine historical narrative, they took for indicators which point to historical authenticity. There are several examples of these historical characteristics in the New Testament. First, Jesus' sayings bear a literary form that was not used in the early church when the Gospels were written down. The Gospel writers have Jesus speaking in memorizable form common among Rabbis, and they have Him using expressions such as verily, verily (amen, amen, truly, truly). The significance of these characteristics is that these literary forms were not used by writers of the time of the Gospels. One can not explain why the writers have Jesus talking the way He does by claiming that this was the way the writers themselves talked. It was not. Thus, the most reasonable explanation for why the New Testament writers have Jesus talking the way He does is that He really talked that way.
Second, there is material in the Gospel accounts that was irrelevant to any issues in the early church. For example, by the time the Gospel accounts were written, there were no controversies regarding the Sabbath. One can not explain the content of the Gospel accounts on the basis of the needs of the early church. Thus, the most reasonable explanation for why the New Testament writers have Jesus discussing the Sabbath with the Pharisees is that He really had these discussions.
Third, there is material lacking in the Gospel accounts that would have been extremely relevant to the needs of the early church. If the Gospels were made up by the writers, one would expect that they would have construed the story in a way that would have been most advantageous to themselves. But this is not so. For example, there is nothing in Jesus' teachings on circumcision, on gifts such as tongues, nor on food laws such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. Surely if the writers were going to fabricate a story about Jesus, they would have had Jesus explicitly teaching on these subjects that were so controversial in their own situation so as to settle them once and for all. Thus, the most reasonable explanation for why the New Testament writers do not have Jesus teaching on such matters is that He "eyewitreally" never taught on them.
Fourth, there is material in the Gospel accounts that was counterproductive to the purpose of the writings. If one was to make up a story, you would not expect to find features that are embarrassing or that could defeat the purpose of spreading the story. But there are such features in the Gospel accounts. For example, the Gospel writers have women testifying to seeing the resurrected Christ, despite the fact that the testimony of women was not highly regarded in that culture and was not, in some instances, even admissible in court. In addition, some things about Jesus' words and life proved hard to explain, such as His seeming denial of being good, His display of anger, and the unbelief of His own family. Thus, the most reasonable explanation for why the New Testament writers included such features is that they really took place.
These and other evidences that could be marshaled make it more than reasonable to believe the historical authenticity of the New Testament. However, the case for the authenticity of the New Testament does not stop here either. Evidence can be introduced from outside the New Testament that points to its historical authenticity.
Sometimes uninformed critics of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament, claim that since there are no references outside the New Testament to events of the New Testament, therefore the New Testament testimony is suspect. The truth is that there are several references to New Testament events outside the New Testament. For example, Suetonius, in his The Twelve Caesars says:
Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Crestus [a Latin reference to Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from the city.
Compare this reference to Acts 18:2 which clearly refers to the same event.
And he [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.
Another clear reference outside the New Testament to a New Testament event is found by the Roman historian Tacitus in his work The Annals of Imperial Rome.
To suppress this rumour [that the massive fires of Rome had been deliberately set by men], Nero fabricated scapegoats - and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus.
The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 90-95 AD) mentions the martyrdom of the apostle James, refers to James as Jesus' brother, mentions the martyrdom of John the Baptist, and mentions Jesus a second time. Other references include the Roman historian Thallus (ca. 52 AD) as quoted by Julius Africanus concerning the darkness at the crucifixion, the Roman author and administrator Pliny the Younger's (ca. 112 AD) mention of the early Christians' worship of Christ, and historical references from the Roman Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.
These and other references I could cite prove the charge that there are no extra biblical references to New Testament events is false, and thus provide corroborating evidence of the authenticity of the New Testament.
We are now finished with the defense of our first premise. With these two newsletters, we have established that the New Testament is a basically reliable document of history. Our task now is to build a cumulative case for who Jesus is, based on this historical testimony. In the meantime, perhaps it would be encouraging to be reminded of what we are supposed to do with all this information. Though this sounds like the kind of question one would expect at the end of the series, perhaps it would be better to go ahead and address it in the midst of our discussions so that you can see the practical importance of what sometimes may appear as academic tedium. There are several important applications of this information. Probably the most important use of this apologetics information is to help change other people's minds. When we encounter critics of Christianity who may have honest objections to our faith, this evidence can serve to dispel any intellectual barriers they may have. I suspect many people who have not heard of this evidence would be impressed with the integrity of the Bible if they only knew how historically substantiated it really is. A second use of this apologetics information, one which has meant a great deal to me as a growing Christian, is to strengthen the faith of the believers. Notice how Apollos aided the believers here in Acts 18:24, 27-28:
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. ... And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him, and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.
May the Lord give us opportunities to share and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ, that by His grace, those who are lost may see and believe His truth.
Part 3: Who is Jesus?
Overview on The Case for Christianity
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