Do we have a better word?
I was 31 years old before I ever cracked open a Bible, even though I was raised in a Christian denomination that professed it to be the inspired Word of God. But until that time and despite my religious upbringing, I mostly disregarded my spiritual life, so felt no compulsion to read it. There wasn’t even much, if any, encouragement from my tradition to do so. But if it is a revelation of the God of the universe, and a mirror into our own souls, how unwise are we to ignore it?
The “if” in that last sentence is what I want to concern myself with in this post, because a lack of confidence that the Bible is what it claims to be is a primary reason why many disregard it. Let me make clear at the outset that I have no conclusive evidence to prove the Bible is a reliable historical document, much less God-breathed. But if you think about it, much of what you believe to be true is not proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. George Washington was the first president of the United States. Or was he? Were you around to see him? Can you talk to anyone who was? All we have are written records. Isn’t it possible they are incorrect?
Of course, the preponderance of the evidence for Washington’s presidency is sufficient to persuade us. In the same way, the evidence for the believability of the documents that form our Bible, particularly the New Testament, is strong enough to support the weight of its importance and impact, even though they constitute literally ancient history, written many hundreds of years prior to the founding of our country.
Here then are some of the building blocks that form that strong foundation:
- Number of manuscripts – No other ancient document even approaches the New Testament in number of ancient manuscript copies. And though there are thousands of variants between the thousands of copies, as one would only expect when a text is copied by hand, none of them affect any major doctrine of the Christian faith. As even agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman admits, “Far and away the most changes are results of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another” (Misquoting Jesus, 55)
- Early originals and early copies – It is widely accepted that all of the New Testament was written in the first century, and most probably before 70 A.D. by eyewitnesses. The earliest undisputed copy fragment is dated within 75 years of the original and likely within 40. Several nearly complete Bibles date from the fourth century, and a few nearly complete New Testament copies date before 250 A.D.
- Archeological evidences – The Bible is replete with mentions of specific personages, places and dates, and many of these have been corroborated in archeological discoveries, and none of them have been disproven.
- Internal consistency – The Bible is actually composed of 66 books written by about 40 different authors over a span of approximately 1500 years. Yet it displays remarkable consistency in its depiction of God and his plan of redemption for mankind.
- Confirmation from ancient non-Christian sources – There are at least ten non-Christian writers from within 150 years of Jesus’ life that mention him. Some of these could even be considered anti-Christian sources.
- Biblical references from early Church fathers – Many Church leaders’ writings from the first centuries A.D. quote from the Bible, so much so that roughly half of the New Testament could be reconstructed just from their quotations.
- Fulfilled prophecy – Numerous events foretold in the Bible have occurred, and none that should have by now have failed to. Some of the more notable fulfilled prophecies are the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the coming and circumstances of the life and death of Jesus the Messiah, and the destruction and rebirth of the nation and land of Israel.
No other religious book is as well-attested and validated by historical and textual scholarship as the Bible. Through my study of it and about it, I have come to know the Person behind it and all through it. As I said, I can’t prove beyond question that the Bible is the revelation of the true God. But other than Creation, has the Creator left us anything else comparable to inform us of himself? Any who claim to be seekers after truth who refuse to honestly examine the historical documents that together comprise the Bible, prove beyond question the falsehood of their claim.
Unfortunately, you cannot demonstrate that the gospels were written before 70 CE, so the “prophesy” of the fall of Jerusalem given, for example, in Luke cannot be used as credentials. In other places, prophesy fails outright, such as when Ezekiel declares that Tyre (modern day Sidon, Lebanon) would never be rebuilt, or when Jesus said that God would take direct control of human history within the lifetimes of some listening to him on Mount Olive.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Linuxgal. Why are you certain I “cannot demonstrate that the gospels were written before 70 CE”?
Because in the symmetrical case “liberal” Bible academics, who certainly would have a vested interest in a late date for the gospels (to negate the prophetic issue) cannot rule out an early date.
I’m sorry…I don’t understand your reasoning. Because liberal scholars can’t rule out an early date, therefore there is no evidence to support an early date?
I’ll try to explain: Liberal scholars are biased toward asserting a late date, but they cannot rule out an early date because the gospels defy analysis with respect to the date of authorship. Conservative scholars, biased toward an early date, cannot rule out a late date for the same reason. So we cannot use the prophetic units in the text as evidence of their divine origin with any reliability, it remains solely a matter of faith.
Why are the gospels outside the realm of textual analysis that is used to date other ancient documents?
The earliest fragment of any gospel we have is John, 125 CE, which gives us an absolute upper bound. Paul cites none of the content of any gospel, and Paul’s writings are fixed in the early 50s, so that gives a lower bound for the gospels. Between that, all scholars can do is arrange the gospels based on which ones depend on who (Matthew and Luke, for example, depend on Mark, and Luke is well developed theologically, matching the views of Christians two or three generations removed from the apostles, which makes it later than Matthew, and John has a very high Christology, making it last of all). It only remains to be decided which side of 70 CE that Mark falls on.
You seem to have altered your argument now, acknowledging that the gospels can be analyzed for date of authorship. Okay, good. We can discuss the evidence and reasonable conclusions from it. First, in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul quotes from Luke’s gospel, identifying it as Scripture. This is good evidence that Luke was written first, don’t you think? Furthermore, Luke begins his historical record (Acts) by referencing his “first” book, obviously his gospel. And Acts ends rather abruptly with Paul confined in Rome and no mention of James’ death, which we know from Josephus was in 62. It’s believed that Paul was martyred during Nero’s reign, which ended in 68. With Luke’s attention to detail, it’s unreasonable to believe that he composed Acts after their deaths and didn’t mention either of them.
It also makes little sense that as monumentally tragic an event such as the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple did not merit even a footnote in his record. Unless it occurred after he wrote it. Regarding it being foretold, it wasn’t only Jesus in Luke 21 giving the bad news; Daniel prophesied it in Daniel 9:26.
You say that Paul cites Luke when he says in 1 Timothy 5:18, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, the labourer is worthy of his reward,” but he also says this in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and identifies the source as the Law of Moses, which indeed it is, in Deuteronomy 25:4. So Paul is citing Torah, not Luke. And as far as the Luke-Acts document, unfortunately for your case, there are passages that basically lift verbatim from Josephus, especially the account of the Quirinus Census, which we know was written in 94 CE, and we know Josephus did not get his material from Luke-Acts because it is much more detailed. As for the prophesy in Daniel, it was about the setting up of a statue of Zeus in the Zion Temple in 174 CE, and written after the fact, if you must know, but falsely attributed to Daniel, a prophet from the sixth century BCE, based again on textual analysis, particularly certain Greek idioms that could not have existed in the earlier time. I know you will not accept any of this, but there you go. Truth is truth.
The first part of Paul’s reference to Scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18 is from Deuteronomy. The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Luke 10:7. What passages in Luke-Acts “lift verbatim from Josephus”? And where in Josephus?
I’m aware that the authorship of Daniel is disputed. I am not knowledgeable enough about the evidences nor have the time to adequately research it in order to defend the traditional view that a prophet named Daniel was carried off to Babylon in the sixth century BC and wrote the book that bears his name. Scholars, and lay apologists like me, will continue to disagree on its authorship until Jesus returns, I’m sure. The setting up of the statue of Zeus was in 174 BC.
There are plenty of areas of disagreement where the Bible is concerned, and understandably because it has eternal significance. Other than the all-important willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads…doing our best to put aside preconceptions (something we all need to do), I don’t know of a more fundamental practice when seeking understanding than to look at the whole, not just the parts. Certainly there are some difficulties in the text, like the prophecy about Tyre, but in light of the book as a whole, the many evidences for its validity, I believe it can be trusted. And the few minor items that don’t seem to jive we can continue to study for better understanding, or accept without study because we have good reason to believe that it can be.
“The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Luke 10:7.”
I will concede that point, however the “pastorals” (Timothy 1, 2, Titus) are considered to be in the third tier of authenticity, often called Pseudo-Paul because they are not found in the Chester Beatty papyrus (our earliest extant collection of his letters) and lack Paul’s apocalyptic urgency, suggesting a late forgery, similar to the situation in 2 Thessalonians which calms people about the day of judgment not being immanent which is the very thing he proclaims is immanent in his undisputed letters.
For the question of Josephus, I recommend this link because anything I give you would be essentially a copy/paste anyway, I am only lately discovering this issue, which casts the Book of Acts in such a way that it cannot be trusted at all. If it was written in the 90s, but doesn’t mention Paul’s death or the destruction of Jerusalem, then it is deliberately casting itself as being written in an earlier time, hence there must be an underlying agenda.
Twelve years ago I was a lay apologist much as you describe describe, focusing on defending Catholicism. I warn you that if you get very good at it (which is what I considered myself to be, particularly in my grasp of the content of the scriptures) there will come a time when you essentially study yourself right out of your faith in the resurrection. It is not my intent to do that to you. I’m not working for the devil or anything.
There are other possible explanations for the pastorals not being in the Chester Beatty papyri other than they are a “late forgery.” Since they were written to individuals, it is reasonable to conclude that they would not have been as widely distributed or copied. As for any lack of “apocalyptic urgency,” the purpose and intended recipient of any letter determine the topics addressed. Timothy and Titus, as students of and fellow-workers with Paul, would have been familiar with teachings or concerns that he might have felt necessary to mention to churches but not to them.
Certainly, those who want to discredit the Bible are going to jump on apparent discrepancies and claim forgery, or the like. But when a text is given the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, and further study, credible explanations can be found. Such as with the stylistic deviations in the pastorals from Paul’s earlier letters. It is highly probable that he used an amanuensis, a secretary who actually penned the letters at Paul’s direction. And if so, Paul may very well have given him some latitude in the actual phrasing of the material he dictated.
Regarding Josephus and Luke, I checked the site you linked to, and just addressing the first point about the census…I don’t find it compelling. It gives three reasons for a supposed borrowing from Josephus by Luke. The first is this: “Josephus uses the census as a key linchpin in his story, the beginning of the wicked faction of Jews that would bring down Judaea (and the temple), whereas Luke transvalues this message by making this census the linchpin for God’s salvation for the world, namely the birth of Christ (which also would result in destruction of the temple).” Just because they both mention the census as a “linchpin” in their story is evidence that one borrowed from the other? If an event as widespread as a census occurred it is reasonable to conclude that it would be notable on several levels and for various reasons. Same with the second reason given.
The third reason given for suspecting that Luke borrowed from Josephus is basically, how else would he have known about it in order to include it in his nativity narrative. Luke was an historian, a record-keeper, “having followed all things closely for some time past” (Luke 1:3). Historians read, research, interview. Why is the simple explanation that he acquired the knowledge just as you or I would in checking other records or interviewing people who would know, not suffice?
Let me just say, I appreciate your honesty and the bit of information regarding your own journey. I too was raised Catholic and left that church after growing tired of trying to do the Catholic thing without a solid foundation of truth in my own spiritual life. And when I honestly began to consider its claims…well, they lost me for good. But God “got” me. 🙂 Studying the Bible gave me answers that rang true in my Spirit, as well as my mind. I pray you someday give God’s Word a chance to speak to you as well.
Do you remember the wedding scene that opens the first Godfather, and how by the end of it you have been introduced to all the major characters in the film and how their world operates? That is a similar idea to what Josephus did with the census, he used a nominally very minor incident as a plot framing device to introduce all his bad’uns. So when Luke uses the same event (but changes it to a world-embracing census) we see right through it. Do you follow? Historians can’t get everything, they must focus on those events they think were the crucial ones, and that creates a signature. If I wrote an article about Gettysburg and focused solely on Little Round Top as the key to the second day rather than the petulance of a thrice-rebuffed Longstreet to modify Lee’s attack orders in the face of the Sykes salient, it could be demonstrated that I was relying on the film “Gettysburg” for my information rather than actual events, since films in turn, unlike actual wars, tend to rely on physical action rather than strategy and maneuver. These are the sorts of things that go into textual analysis, and unfortunately, they are rarely conclusive. Peace Be With You.
I’m sorry, no. That kind of reasoning doesn’t follow to me. But, as you say, analyses of ancient documents are “rarely conclusive,” and at some point one has take a stand in faith. We have to choose what to believe, and we have chosen differently. I wish you peace as well.
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