This brief article looks at the modern attempts to reconstruct the history of early Christianity and how they compare to the New Testament record.
A personal note before we begin:
This article is not in any way meant to be an attack on those who don’t believe in historic accuracy of the New Testament record. It’s a free country and we all have a right to believe in whatever we chose. But listen, if the New Testament reflects accurate history, then we all a have a shot at something wonderful here. If the New Testament is telling the truth, then there is a God who loves us and wants to live with us and within us. Sin (rebellion against God) is keeping this from happening. But there is good news and it is this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God came and took the rap for us. He paid for every sin we’ve ever committed or will commit. Accepting Jesus as our Saviour guarantees that God will accept us now while we live and after we die and step into eternity. It’s a wonderful promise. Wonderful…only if it’s true.
I do believe that the historic evidence for the trustworthiness of the New Testament is unparalleled. I make no apology for the fact that I have trusted the Jesus of the New Testament with my eternity. In subsequent articles I hope to share much of this data. For the moment, I would like to consider the critical position and some of the assumptions that are made in order to deny the trustworthiness of the New Testament. You see, the Christian too, must make the same assumptions. However, it is my contention that the Christian position applies these assumptions in a far more logically consistent way.
Since the nineteenth century, higher critics have gained a following in their denial (not refutation) of the New Testament’s historic accuracy. Details vary, but the major belief here among critics is that the “Christian myth” believed today is not what was propagated by the early followers of Jesus. The myth, they say, and the Gospels from which it was derived, have ‘evolved’ over time, gradually obscuring some details, embellishing others, and, at times, injecting shear fantasy (For example, The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead) into the narrative.
This notion has gained much acceptance in our post-modern, relativistic culture, among whose goals seems to be the liberation from bonds imposed on us by the previous, largely Christian-influenced generation. Indeed, if the New Testament can be shown to be the product of mythologizing, then why should anyone feel bound by the moral code it dictates?
This “liberating knife” however, is limited in its power to grant the absolute freedom so desperately sought. For in their attempt to severe ties with fundamentalist Christianity, the critic who ascribes to the “Christ myth” theory inevitably must shackle himself to a set of rules from which the only escape is intellectual suicide. To the point, in order to believe in the so-called evolution of Christianity and of the New Testament record, the critic must make the following assumptions:
1) Absolute truth exists and is knowable.*
2) Truth is exclusive.*
3) Knowing, believing and acting on the truth is important.*
4) There is a binding moral law; Lying is wrong.*
5) Ancient documents may sometimes be regarded as trustworthy.*
6) It is possible to reconstruct history objectively and truthfully.*
7) History can be corrupted over time; facts may become embellished or obscured.*
1) Absolute Truth Exists and is Knowable
Truth, by definition, is a correspondence between what is thought or stated to that which is. The post-modern position, however, is a relativistic one. It states that absolute truth does not exist. What’s true for one person, they say, is not necessarily true for the next. The idea is attractive today. It means that nobody is ever wrong. Nobody, that is, except those who believe in the existence of absolute truth!
The relativist’s worldview, attractive as it may seem on the surface, is intrinsically impossible to live. It is clearly self-defeating. In essence, the relativist says, “The truth is, there is no truth.” He asserts that it is impossible to make a statement which accurately reflects reality, by making a statement we are to assume, which accurately reflects reality!
The fact is, in order to make a meaningful statement about anything; we must forfeit the right to embrace strict relativism. This holds especially true for the New Testament critic who asserts the truthfulness of his view of early Christianity over the New Testament record. This brings us to the next assumption that the critic must make.
2) Truth is Exclusive
One of the most common complaints about Christianity is that it claims to be “the only way.” What is often overlooked is the fact that every other worldview out there is just as exclusive as Christianity. Buddhism was born out of rejection of Hinduism. Sikhism was born out of a rejection of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Bahiism was created to reconcile all these religions but in doing so, excluded the exclusivists. That’s the inescapable nature of each and every truth claim. Any statement which supposedly corresponds to reality automatically excludes the opposite from being true. This is called the law of non-contradiction. Any attempt to deny this law requires that it be used in the denial process. Another self-refuting position!
The New Testament critic who embraces the “Christ-myth” theory of Christianity must also believe in this law, since he argues that his reconstruction of early Christianity, rather than that depicted in the New Testament, reflects accurate history. In creating his reconstruction of history, the critic immediately must forfeit his right to deny the claims of Christ on the grounds that they are exclusivist or “narrow”. As pointed out earlier, every truth claim is exclusive. In short, we may deny the claims of Jesus who said He was the only way to God and to heaven, but we cannot charge Him with making a statement which is not meaningful. Even the most hardened critic must agree that the claims of Christ as recorded in the New Testament, though unpalatable to some, are logically consistent.
3) Knowing, Believing, and Acting on the Truth is Important
The New Testament critic must hold this statement to be true, else the question may be raised, “Why bother with creating a historic reconstruction of early Christianity?” The next question that needs answering is, “Why is knowing the truth important?”
Foremost is the safety factor. Believing something to be true that isn’t, or denying the truthfulness of something that is, can be downright dangerous. Refusing to believe that acid is poisonous, or that a speeding truck is about to run you over can get a person killed! Here’s something else: If Jesus is who He said He was, then denying the truthfulness of His claims would have the most disastrous results. For the Christian then, knowing, believing and acting on the truth is indeed important, and the Christian can give solid reasons for this assertion. Can the critic do likewise?
If the critic believes that knowing the truth is important he simply must be expected to explain why. This will be impossible without some sort of standard by which “goodness” or “badness” may be measured. This brings us to our next point.
4) There is a Binding Moral Law – Spreading Falsehood is Wrong
Again, if this is not the case, why is it so imperative that the New Testament be proven false? More importantly, where did this moral law come from? We are left with only two options for its origin. It was either created by people or it wasn’t. If people created the moral law against lying then this law is beneath us. It would therefore be subject to us, not us to it. Why, then is it binding? Furthermore, if moral law comes merely from the minds of people, then which person am I to believe? Does society decide? If so, which society? Each and every one of us must cross a multitude of societal boundaries every day. What about the social
reformers’ dilemma? If society sets the standards of morality, then what are we to do with social reformers who stood outside and condemned what society was doing until change was made. The abolishment of the African slave trade and the later civil rights movements come to mind. These were, most would agree, positive changes, yet how could they be if they came from immoral people? Remember, if society decides what is right and wrong then those who brought an end to the slave trade for example, were, by definition, acting immorally. They were going against what mainstream society had decided was right.
The critic is stuck. If he is bound to tell the truth, he must explain why this is so. If he is not bound to the truth then why on earth should we listen to his version of Christian origins?
5) Ancient Documents May Sometimes be Regarded as Trustworthy
Any one attempting to reconstruct history has no choice but to regard this statement as true. If not, then with what exactly is the reconstruction being performed?
Assuming that some historic documents can be trusted and others cannot, how on earth do we differentiate between the two? Ravi Zachariahs and Norman Geisler purpose a four-fold test by which the truthfulness of a statement may be gauged.
A) The statement must be logically consistent
B) There must be some empirical evidence to support it
C) It must apply meaningfully to by life (Experiential relevance)
D) It must pass the unaffirmability test (It must not be self-refuting. The statement, “I can’t speak a word of English.” Is an example of an unaffirmable statement. To deny it is to employ it.)
E) It must pass the undeniability test. First principles such as existence are absolutely undeniable. To the person who would deny his own existence, the question might well be raised, “Who then is making this denial if it is not you?”
Saunders has proposed a three-fold test by which the trustworthiness of historic writings specifically, may be may be estimated (See C. Saunders, “Introduction to Research in English Literary History”, 1953, p. 143):
A) The Bibliographical Test – has the document been copied accurately? Is it reasonable to assume that the text has come to us unchanged or changed little since it’s original composition based on the manuscript evidence?
B) Internal Evidence – Is the document consistent? Does it contain contradictions?
C) External Evidence – Is what’s contained in the document confirmed by archaeological evidence? Do other writers support this document’s claims?
[6) It is possible to reconstruct history objectively and truthfully.]
We must also consider the fact that the New Testament writers claim to be eyewitnesses, or people who spoke to eyewitnesses to the events they record. These testimonies may subject to further tests for truthfulness. Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853) the famous Royal Professor of Law at Harvard University produced a famous work entitled, “A Treatise on the Law of Evidence.” This volume is still considered the greatest single authority on evidence in the entire literature of legal procedure.
John Warwick Montgomery’s volume “The Law Above the Law” summarizes Greenleaf’s criteria for determining the credibility of witnesses. These are:
1) Their honesty – Its reasonable for people to ordinarily speak the truth when there is no prevailing motive or inducement to the contrary. Can it be demonstrated that the writers of the New Testament had motive to lie? Can it be shown that the author’s of the New Testament were dishonest? What about the sources that the critic consults for his historic reconstruction? How do they measure up against this test?
2) Their ability – It is always assumed that people are honest and of sound mind and are of average and ordinary intelligence. It must also be assumed that the witness that the witnesses powers of recollection are adequate in determining the truth. Whenever an objection is raised in opposition, the burden of proof is on the objector by the common and ordinary rules of evidence and by the law and practice of the courts. How does the New Testament fair? How about the sources, which deny the accuracy of the New Testament?
3) Their number and consistency of their testimony – How many witnesses are saying the same thing? Do they contradict each other? Again, how do the four Gospels of the New Testament fair? How do they compare with the writings pf Paul and Peter? What about the sources to which the critic turns for “reliable” history? Do they pass this test more convincingly than the New Testament?
4) The coincidence of their testimony with collateral and contemporaneous facts and circumstances – The witnesses should be compared with themselves, with each other, and with the surrounding facts and circumstances. Their testimony should be sifted as if it were given in a court of law on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subject to a rigorous cross-examination.
The critic claims that his reconstruction of history, rather than the New Testament, reflects the facts. It is certainly reasonable for the Christian to expect the critic to demonstrate how his historic documents, rather than the New Testament, pass the above tests more convincingly. To my knowledge, no critic has ever been able to demonstrate this. Conversely, the manuscript evidence that argues for the reliability (in the sense that it passes the bibliographical test) of the New Testament is unparalleled.
7) History Can Become Corrupted Over Time; Facts Can Become Embellished or Obscured
The critic must assume this statement to be true since the focus of his argument is the ‘evolution’ of the ‘Christian myth’ over time. The critic argues that over time, the Jesus of history was lost and the Jesus of faith gradually replaced him in the Gospels of the New Testament. Of interest here is exactly how this corruption may have taken place. The factors said to have been involved in creating the ‘Christian myth’ may rightly be applied to the critics’ own historic reconstruction. Here are some points to consider:
Central to the critics arguments is the notion that the Gospels as we know them today were composed long after the events they describe. The Gospels, they maintain, went through many revisions, beginning with a non-extant document known as “Q”, which is said to have been a collection Jesus’ sayings. This notion is maintained even though no reference to “Q” has ever been found in any document, nor has any manuscript evidence been found to show that “Q” has ever existed. Furthermore, the oldest manuscripts in existence today, dating to the mid-first century, reflect a New Testament record identical to what we have today. Ignoring this evidence, as some do in favor of their abstract theories, we must still accept the fact that the Gospels were composed mush closer in time to the events they describe than the critics’ own historic reconstruction. In short, if more time between the events and the written record of those events translates into a greater potential for corruption, then isn’t it reasonable to hold the critic’s reconstruction of history in greater question than the New Testament record?
If we are to charge writers of the New Testament with fraud, (which what we have to do if we deny the truthfulness their reports) then we have to establish a motive. In court of law, establishing the motive of the accused is paramount. What can we say the Gospel writers’ motives were? Remember, the composition of the Gospels, even according to the critic, took place during a time of great persecution for Christians. Finding a motive, apart from a desire to record actual history, poses a problem. If we can just turn the tables for a moment, let us consider what today’s critic has to gain from his historic reconstruction.
In denying the trustworthiness of the New Testament, the critic now finds himself liberated from Christian morality. He is free from the word of God to determine truth for himself. Immediately he is released to pursue any lifestyle that suits him. It’s reasonable to expect that his views will gain wide acceptance in our largely secularized North American culture. His books sell. Money is made. His readers learn that they needn’t deal with the issue of salvation as presented in the New Testament. They are free to do as they please. It’s fair to say that today’s critic has far more to gain with his anti-Christian historic reconstruction than those who originally composed the New Testament.
It’s common to charge Christians with believing in the Bible, not based on evidence, but simply because they want to. This notion may be, and sometimes is, transferred to the Biblical writers themselves. These imaginative people, it is claimed, simply wanted Jesus to be to divine Saviour of the world and so wrote history according to this want. Think about this notion carefully. If such a scenario is possible, then what are we to think of the critic’s own historic reconstruction in relation to his own wants?
If history may become corrupted so close in time to the events it describes based on the desires of the historian, then why is it unreasonable to suspect that today’s critic, separated by some 2000 years from first century Palestine, hasn’t reconstructed history based on his own wants? In short, if we are going to charge the New Testament authors with corrupting history because they wanted to believe in Jesus, why can’t we charge the critic with corrupting history because he does not want to believe in Jesus?
Both critic and Christian must accept the previous seven assumptions as being true. Holding to the truthfulness of these assumptions while examining all of the historic data concerning early Christianity casts more doubt on the critic’s version of history than it does on the New Testament record. In future articles we will look at some of the issues raised here in greater detail. In the meantime, here are some excellent books:
“The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics”, by Norman Geisler
“Unshakable Foundations”, by Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino
“The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, by Josh McDowel
“The Case for Christ” and “The Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel