Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Back to the Bible

Way back, about a week or so ago, I started a series on Biblical reliability. I'm going to return to that topic today. My starting point is a list of evidences showing that the Gospels can be considered, rationally, as trustworthy historical documents. So, while my early thoughts will focus on the Gospels, some of this will apply to the Bible as a whole. Additionally, from this foundation of NT credibility, arguments can be made for remaining scriptures.

The original list of evidences (there are more I have not yet planned to address) came from a talk given by Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Theological Seminary. To keep you from having to page back through many posts, I'm reprinting here as a reminder of where we are:

  1. We have reliable copies of the texts

  2. The authors were in a position to report, accurately

  3. The writing was early enough

  4. The writers wanted to record things faithfully/accurately

  5. Oral traditions were accurate

  6. The writing fits the cultural patterns of the day

  7. The material isn't too flattering

  8. The material doesn't attempt to force closure to issues of the day

  9. Non-biblical testimonials generally confirm scriptural accounts

  10. Archaeology generally confirms scriptural accounts

  11. The early church testimony generally confirms orthodox views of scripture

We have addressed the reliability of the copies, the early date of our manuscripts, and the authors position to report the events. What I want to talk about today is the authors' apparent intent to report history accurately.

Even were one to accept that we have early, consistent copies of manuscripts, which were likely written by people who were able to observe Jesus or interview those eyewitnesses, it could be that the authors intent was to not record history. Rather, they could have intended to use fictional, mythical accounts to further their purpose. It's a valid question, so let's see whether we can answer it in a manner that is rational, as well as favorable to our thesis that the Gospels are trustworthy in their historicity. I'll also take a look at Paul's letters to see if he based his texts on actual history, or whether he was using fables to make a spiritual point.

Matthew's Gospel starts out from a historical perspective. There is no implication that what he is teaching is other than historical fact, at least as he saw it. Matthew 1:1 starts the book as "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" and continues through a Jewish genealogical path that includes actual historical figures King David and Abraham. While this genealogy is part of a dispute around Biblical inerrancy (to be discussed in a future post or 12), the inclusion of it in Matthew indicates the Gospel writer intended to record history. Further on in the Gospel, he includes historical figures Herod, Pontius Pilate and Barabbas. If, as we supposed in my earlier entry (and we have good evidence for it) that Matthew was written within 30-40 years of the events, people would have been able to say, "that's not how it happened!" and closed down whatever movement he intended to start. Matthew would have had rather odd motives to write an apparent historical text at the time other witnesses were still around to disprove any fiction. Similar arguments exist for Mark, sans the genealogy.

Luke states from the outset that he is intending to report history: Luke 1:3-4 - Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke is clearly intent on proving that the accounts of Jesus' life were accurate and certain.

John also intends to demonstrate that he is speaking truth, not mere myth. In John 20:30-31, he says, "30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may[a] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." In other words, John is clearly communicating things that actually happened so that people would have enough evidence to believe in Jesus as the Christ.

Well, okay, if the Gospel authors intended to relate history, what about Paul? Again, he bases his claims on historical fact. I Corinthians 15:18-20 - "18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."

Paul knew that the story of Jesus has to be historically true for it to mean anything. The NT authors did not hold to creating a myth. They understood that their faith would mean nothing without the historical fact of the death/resurrection of Jesus, and His death could not have been possible had He not been an actual, living, breathing historical person. If the NT isn't historically accurate, the Christian faith falls apart. There is no need to believe in a non-existant savior.

God bless!


Not Crunchy said...

Ron, As part of your defense of Matthew's reliability you say "...Matthew was written within 30-40 years of the events, people would have been able to say, 'that's not how it happened!' and closed down whatever movement he intended to start." Do you know (or does anyone know or guess?) how widely distributed the Gospel was at first? It is my understanding that it was widely available around 300-400, but I do not know much about before then. I ask because I wonder if there was wide enough distribution for anyone "in the know" to dispute his writings. Thanks!

R. Stewart said...

That, NC, is a good question. There is evidence these Gospels (or at least similar ones - many others may have been lost) were in circulation by the mid-first century. Luke even alludes to this when he says, "1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." As Luke and Matthew (along with Mark) are called the Synoptic Gospels, because they are so similar, it seems reasonable to assume that Luke, at least, had seen Matthew's Gospel and/or Mark's. Luke was a Gentile, and Matthew was writing primarily to Jews, so circulation would likely have been broad indeed for a Gentile to have heard of it (or, again, something similar if not Matthew's Gospel specifically.)

It seems clear that the Gospel claims, at least, were fairly well known, at least within parts of Jerusalem, as the "movement" took off fairly soon after the death of Christ. This comes through in the first part of Acts as well, especially in regards to Pentecost (Acts 2. Many people, thousands at least, in Jerusalem were hearing the Gospel shortly after Jesus ascended to the Father. Presumably, were anyone able to prove, say, that the tomb wasn't empty, which Peter was preaching very publicly in Acts 2, that the movement would have been shown to be wrong right from the start. Those who had requested that Jesus be crucified in the first place would have loved nothing better.