The Bible is an extraordinary book. As well as being the most-read, and the best-selling book in the English language – and in nearly every English-speaking hotel bedside table – it stands up exceptionally well to various tests put before it. In part 2 of this series we took a look at the evidence for the reliability of the transmission of the original texts. That test shows that we can be pretty sure that what we read in our Bibles today is what was originally composed by the authors of the texts.
In this article we’re going to pay closer attention to what is actually in these biblical writings, and to the style in which they were written. To affirm the question of the history of the transmission of the Bible is crucial if we are to trust the documents in front of us, however it is quite another thing to trust that the authors were writing a) accurately and b) truthfully.
We might today be confident that we know what was written, but can we have any confidence that was written is a faithful and true account? To answer this, let’s ask some questions of the text, questions – as with the Bibliographic Test – than can be asked of any work in history.
And let us here for the sake of brevity focus on the gospels, the testimonies to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all – if we get Jesus wrong then Christianity falls apart completely. So, here are three questions we can pose when internally examining the New Testament.
1. Were the authors of the New Testament gospels trying to write history?
Christians would claim that the gospels of Jesus Christ – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are historic, in that they record faithfully the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. But how do we know that the authors were aiming to write historical accounts? Perhaps they were writing stories, allegories, or myths. Not that they were fabricating truth, but that they never intended their writings to be read as history, but merely as story.
Yet when we look at the gospels we immediately see the authors writing in a biographical fashion. That is, the style in which they write is in line with the normal historical writing conventions of their day. The gospels read as other historical accounts from the time do.
David Aune, a professor from Notre Dame University, remarks:
[Ancient biography] was firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the Evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they really thought happened.
What do we man by these biographical conventions? Well, for a start, the authors go to the trouble of naming people, places, distances between places, and regional variables on all manner of things like the botany in the area. This was not the style for fictional writers of the time. Fiction didn’t care about facts, places etc. – it wasn’t written to convince you of an alternate but plausible reality.
When I was a teenager I started reading Tom Clancy novels. Having a submariner for a father, I started with The Hunt for Red October and moved through the Jack Ryan series from there. These books captured me. The political intrigue and preludes to war were thrilling, but it was the battle scenes that grabbed me. There would be hundreds of pages dedicated to the battles. Detail after detail of the planes, the ships, and the people, drew me in. The blow-by-blow realism of the text brought me into Clancy’s created world. It made it real to me. Clancy was creating a universe parallel to our own and sucked his readers into it. We knew it was fiction but we loved it because we believed that it could be real.
But this form of writing is relatively new. For most of history, fiction didn’t come to us this way.
C. S. Lewis – whose day job was teaching Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature –knew a thing or two about fictional writing and said this on the matter:
I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown [ancient] writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.
“Realistic narrative” was not the order of the day. So, upon inspection, the style of the New Testament gospel authors is that of Greco-Roman biography. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing in such a way that has all the hallmarks of appearing to be history.
So the gospel authors weren’t trying to write a nice, but made up, story. They were writing history. But, were they telling the truth, and were the eyewitness sources that make up the four gospels accurate? Let’s take a look.
2. Can We Trust The Eyewitness Accounts?
Luke starts his gospel in this way:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke by his own words demonstrates his intent to provide an eyewitness account of the life of Jesus. In this way Luke is following the traditions of the day in which it was assumed that a historian should be writing history when the eyewitnesses to that event were still alive in order that their testimony may be examined.
Polybius, the Second Century BC Greek historian said that the role of the historian was, “to believe those worthy of belief and to be a good critic of the reports that reach him.”
History was written at the same time that the events of note were under investigation, rather than years later. Eyewitness testimony was the backbone of the historical report. So in order to ascertain the veracity of the historical events we need to question the reliability of the eyewitness accounts.
It is worth noting here that we don’t think that any of the four gospels were written inside the locations which they reference. We think Matthew was written in Syria, Mark in Egypt, Luke in Rome or Antioch, and John in Ephesus. Things got pretty hot in and around Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus, and many Christians left.
Yet this fact, rather than undermining the authority of the accounts, serves to reinforce them. For example, Mark, writing in Egypt, was writing about people and places in and around Jerusalem. Of particular note are the names of people Mark mentions. There was a Jewish community in Egypt, where scholars believe Mark wrote his gospel, and one line of reasoning suggests that if Mark were simply making up the history he would borrow the names and practices of the Jewish community where he was and transplant them into his story.
Except that we know that the two cultures had differences. First Century Egypt and Palestine had a common history, but in much the same way that the United States and England have a common language and a common history, yet the culture of the two nations have their own particular nuances. The top-ten baby list from the US does not read the same as the top-ten baby list from the UK. In Richard Bauckman’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses one particular piece of research looks at the common names in Egyptian Jewish culture and Palestine Jewish culture. Mark’s gospel both mirrors the frequency and popularity of the Jewish names that are found in Palestine, not Egypt. This information was acquired after extensive, yet modern research, and there is no way that Mark would have known this when writing in Egypt nearly 2000 years ago.
Furthermore, place names and distances between places are accurate. And when, for example Luke talks of Sycamore trees in Jericho, well, yes – Sycamore trees do grow in Jericho! But they didn’t grow everywhere; only someone who went to Jericho would know this fact.
In the film Ronin there’s a scene in which Sam (Robert DeNiro), playing an undercover CIA agent (undercover) confronts Spence (Sean Bean), who is claiming to have been in the SAS. DeNiro sniffs out Bean’s lie – he wasn’t ever special forces – and catches him out with details that only he would know if he had been to Hereford, and trained with the SAS.
The accuracy of the details of the eyewitness accounts authenticates the gospel documents and reveals them to be truthful. In short, we can rely upon them to tell us what really happened. Far from shying away from details that could sink the testimony, the authors were impressed to include those very details to prove their accounts. The evidence does not falsify the history, but strengthens and support the writer’s claims.
3. What Was In It For The Authors?
Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to examine at the authors’ motives. It is a common objection that, well, of course the New Testament writers wrote what they wrote. They were looking for ways to propagate their agenda, to tell their story, to spread their ideas.
Much of the sting of this accusation has been handled by the last two questions that we have levelled at the texts. But let us now look directly at this issue.
What did these authors stand to gain? Fame? Money? Influence? These and other lures have motivated countless men and spawned more than a few false religions. So why not Christianity too?
I think we can get to the heart of this but balancing what the authors and early teachers of Christianity could have gained with what they stood to lose, that is, their lives.
Of the twelve disciples that Jesus had, ten were executed. Simon (Peter), Andrew, James son of Zebedee, Thomas Didymus, Bartholomew, Philip, Matthew, James son of Alphaes, Jude, and Simon the Zealot were all executed for their faith. John, the brother of James, died of old age and Judas hanged himself.
The early Christians were labelled as atheists by the Romans and Heretics by the Jews. In their world safety simply evaporated. The testimony of the early Christians could be their death sentence. When faced with death, a man has nowhere to hide and his beliefs are purified by the glare of his imminent destruction. As Blaise Pascal put it,
“I believe those witnesses that get their throats cut.”
What Does the Rest of History Have to Say?
Furthermore, Archaeology has been increasingly helpful in backing up Scriptural facts, as Nelson Glueck points out:
“It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries.”
Quite simply, the Bible has stood up to scrutiny within and without. It has answered questions of transmission, questions of accuracy and style, and questions of correspondence to external sources.
So there you have it, the Bible – quite a book. And if we take all that we have covered so far, it presents a challenge to every reader. If you’ve never read the Bible, or if you’ve read it only lightly assuming it to be ancient fiction, in light of these facts, try reading it again. Read the message it is proclaiming and ask yourself what your answers to the challenges it poses to you are: namely, who do you think you are, and who you do think Jesus Christ is?