The Historical Christ—Fact or Fiction?
The Reliability of The Gospels
Everybody knows that all historical events are interrelated. They have observable consequences in the real world. Whenever it is asserted that something has happened in the past, we can always test the assertion by determining whether or not subsequent events are best explained by it. For example, if it is claimed that God, through Moses, visited Egypt with ten plagues, we should ask ourselves, "what would be the results of such an event?" What evidence do we have in our own day that would corroborate such a claim? What if it had not taken place? What would we expect should be true in our own day if it had not happened? How do we best explain the existence of the Jewish nation? Do we, in fact, know of any better possible explanation for the release of the Jews from slavery to Egypt? What other factors could have induced Pharaoh to give up the free slave labor that the Egyptians had in the Jewish people? What other explanations can be offered for all of the facts? How did hundreds of thousands of people survive in the desert for so long without dying of thirst if God did not miraculously provide water for them? Or, if we hypothesize that they were not in the wilderness, can we still adequately explain what is known to be true on other historical grounds?
When something happens, its effects are inescapable. This will be true whether or not the event can be classified as a miracle. If a given event takes place, it will have certain effects. If the effects are not there, then the hypothesized cause cannot be there.
Thus, if Jesus Christ has really risen from the dead, there will be certain consequences which cannot adequately be explained apart from the resurrection. Such consequences include the changed lives of the early Christians, the change of sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and the courage of the Christian martyrs, not to mention the very existence of the Christian Church.
The marks of God's intervention in the affairs of men cannot be erased; they have had effects that have resounded down through the corridors of time, and having taken place, will continue to have effects. Everything that happens brings certain results which cannot be explained without the causes.
Consider another example. The Bible claims that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. If we do not accept the historicity of the creation story and of the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, we are forced to try to find plausible alternative explanations as to why in our own day we have seven days in the week and why the Jewish people celebrate a sabbath on the seventh day. Will any explanation be fully adequate to explain these facts other than that the Biblical accounts are trustworthy?
Every historical event is unique, and causes a unique set of results which cannot arise under any other set of circumstances.
This makes history verifiable, and enables us to investigate any historical claim. Moreover, the events of history are inextricably interwoven. Every event that actually takes place is interconnected with all others that occur at the same time and place. To deny the historicity of a single event requires a re- explanation of all of the circumstances surrounding its occurrence. Biblical history and secular history are completely interrelated. They interpenetrate each other to such a degree that it is impossible to divorce them. A denial of Biblical history would entail a denial of what is known about secular history, because both are interwoven into the same fabric. The facts recorded in the Old Testament, including the supernatural events, are integral to the secular history of Israel and the nations that surrounded her before the time of Christ. In the same way, the facts recorded in the New Testament are integral to the history of the Roman Empire. If we did not take the Bible at face value, it would be difficult to explain the rise of Christian faith in the midst of persecution in the Roman Empire until it eventually became the preferred religion almost three hundred years later. (See The Impossible Faith)
Any historical narrative purporting to have occurred at a particular time and place is going to have countless effects upon both other events of that time and upon later events. Because of the many intricacies of detail in history, it would be impossible to invent alternate accounts of events that have already transpired which do not have serious deficiencies in their effectiveness in accounting for various attending circumstances. These characteristics of history are of tremendous relevance to the study of the Bible, which, after all, is a historical book. It is filled with information directly relevant to the study of ancient political entities, governments, geography, biography, customs, languages, and history. Had the Bible, or portions within it, been forgeries, these constant allusions to historical data would contain countless inaccuracies and anachronisms. The absence of such signs of forgery forces us to come to grips with the genuineness of the Bible. It must be a record of events that actually happened to real people at specific times and places. There has been too much corroboration of the Biblical details, both through archaeological findings and through other ancient documents, for us to conclude otherwise.
Many people attempt to say that archaeology does not prove the Bible to be true. Yet, any forgery containing enough specific historical details will quickly betray its own speciousness when compared with other evidence bearing upon the times, places, and events that it describes. If you study the archaeological evidence in confirmation of the Biblical accounts, you find such a correspondence between the events described and the artifacts, inscriptions, and monuments bearing upon them as to leave very little room for doubt about the historical trustworthiness of the Bible. If you bear in mind the vastness of the possibilities for historical error for any ostensibly accurate historical account, and add to it the realization that all historical events are inextricably intertwined, it strains your credulity to be told that the archaeological evidence in corroboration of the Bible is not conclusive.
Another aspect to consider is geography. The Bible is replete with extremely precise geographical details which correspond exactly with what is presently known about the geography of Palestine and of the other regions which form the setting of the Biblical narratives. The Biblical accounts would be reduced to nonsense if they alluded to various incidental geographical factors in any way differently than they actually do. In Joshua 10:10,11, for example, there is a description of the retreat of the Canaanites from before Joshua and his armies. The geographical details provided in this passage are very precise. Those who are well versed in historical geography recognize that this narrative could not possibly have been fabricated, but that it is rooted in reality. Many of these geographical factors are actually an essential part of the story, such that without them, the events could not have taken place the way in which they are described. The military importance of the Central Benjamin Plateau has not changed for millennia, and its strategic value was as clear to twentieth century Israelis as it was to Joshua and his enemies more than three thousand years ago.
The Gibeonites had surrendered to Joshua knowing that they lived in the territory that he would have to conquer next in order to gain control over Palestine. Its strategic importance lay in its position as the major approach to Jerusalem, and is underscored by the fact that in the six-day war of 1966, when the Central Benjamin Plateau was taken, it was announced that Israel had taken the West Bank, although most of the West Bank had not yet actually been taken. It was recognized on all hands, however, that what remained was a mere matter of mop-up operations once the Central Benjamin Plateau was in Israeli hands. In just the same way, when the Gibeonites formed an alliance with Joshua, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon would have known immediately that they were very seriously threatened. The sneak attack of the kings of these cities with their armies against the Gibeonites would have been the logical consequence of such an alliance. After the defeat of these kings, their retreat along the road from Beth-Horon to Azekah would have been their only live option. It is at this point that the sun stood still upon Gibeon and the moon in the Aijalon valley, enabling Joshua and his men to pursue them. On March 19, 1985, a leading present-day historical geographer of Palestine, James M. Monson, said with respect to the geographical factors of this narrative in Joshua that, "this is a very, very precise description, and it's not something sort of manufactured. And today people are saying, 'but Joshua really didn't exist.' . . .But the geographic factors are correct, you know, because they are so exact. We cannot deny those. So I think it's rather hard to have some guy making up a story . . . . It takes more faith for me to believe some guy fabricated this and it all fits nicely than to say that this really happened." The Biblical stories are precise in all of their details, and it is very exciting to see how well they fit into their geographical context.
The interconnectedness of historical circumstances is as evident in the relationship of the Bible to classical writings as it is in its correspondence with archaeological and geographical data. If the Bible is historically trustworthy, it should come as no surprise that Herodotus, for example, in Book II, section 141 of his History, gives an account of Sennacherib's invasion of II Kings 19:35. Nor should we be surprised that Megasthenes stated that one of the Assyrian kings, when on his deathbed, said that his empire was to be overturned by the Medes and the Persians. While Megasthenes was astonished at this, the Bible indicates that the king had been informed of this fact by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:38-39).
There are many passing references to names, places and events in the New Testament made by various classical writers, many of whom were pagans, Jews, infidels, or Greeks who had no interest in maintaining the credibility of the Christian faith. Among them were Josephus, Philo, Cicero, Tacitus, Ulpian, Hermogenian, Marcian, Celsus, Petronius, Dio, and Suetonius. These writers referred to many of the same people to whom the New Testament refers, and many of the same facts about them are mentioned in both places. If the Bible had been legendary, all statements made, even with casual references to accidents of circumstance, would nevertheless have had to agree with an entire spectrum of first-century sources bearing upon Palestine, with all of its intricacies of geography, politics, government, culture, and religion, a monumental task at best. [Also See Historical Corroboration ]
That the documents within the Bible are genuine is evident, not only from the wealth of instances of correspondence on incidental matters between the Bible and extrabiblical sources, but also from innumerable cases in which there is a similar correspondence in incidental historical matters between two or more documents within the Bible itself. The very nature of history is such that if a given document is authentic, it will dovetail very easily with its historical setting. The historical context of many documents of the Bible consists, in part, of other Biblical documents that also bear upon the period in question. While obvious agreement on major matters of fact can always be the result of fabrication, if there is agreement on a multitude of minor details, many of which bear only a very incidental relationship to matters of major concern to the authors, there can be very little room for doubt with respect to the authenticity of the documents in question.
In a court of law, the purpose of the cross-examination of a witness is to determine, among other things, whether his testimony is consistent with itself, and whether it is consistent with the circumstances concurrent with the events about which he or she is testifying. A false witness will not knowingly provide any information that might be open to contradiction. When he testifies, he will attempt to express himself in very general terms, with as few specifics as possible. Cross-examination forces a witness to be specific, and if the witness is not telling the truth, the necessity of supplying specific details often results in contradictions which expose his testimony as false. The Bible freely supplies details of every kind, whether or not they are central to the topic under discussion. Such details are supplied in abundance, a strong indication of the trustworthiness of the testimony of the Biblical writers.
The supernatural elements in the Bible interact with the natural; there is an imperceptible trailing off of the natural into the supernatural and a merging of the miraculous into the non-miraculous. There is no real possibility of separating the miraculous from the non-miraculous elements of the Bible, as some people have attempted to do.
People who are familiar with a wide range of literary genres have often concluded that the Bible has an entirely different flavor to it than accounts of mythology or legend. The miracles of the Bible are more natural; they do not jolt the reader with a sense of inappropriateness or incongruity. They do not seem arbitrary, contrived, or artificial. Their effects upon other events and upon people who witness them are believable and realistic. The accounts in the Bible are too true to life to have been the product of fabrication. This fact has been established very convincingly by John. J. Blunt in his Undesigned Coincidences.
Remember, also, that the Biblical narratives carry with them the claim of authenticity for the very events they describe. As Erich Auerbach wrote in Mimesis,
"The Scripture stories do not, like Homer's, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us."
Rather, they carry with them the claim to be describing events that have really happened. The Biblical authors believed that whatever had previously been recorded in Scripture had actually taken place. The book of Joshua, for example, presupposes that the events recorded in the Pentateuch had actually happened. After Joshua sent two spies to Jericho, Rahab the harlot hid them from the king of Jericho because, as she said, "we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when you came out of Egypt." (Joshua 2:10). This is not an isolated example; the Bible consistently builds upon the historicity of previously recorded events and is intelligible only if these prior events really happened.
People often raise an objection to Biblical infallibility based upon the observation that there are many cases in which it appears that the Biblical writers contradicted one another. This is an interesting objection, because it would be much easier to dismiss the Biblical accounts if there were no apparent inconsistencies. One of the characteristics of false testimony is that, while it cannot remain consistent during effective cross examination, it is studiously consistent with that which is asserted by any other collaborating false witnesses. The fact that there are apparent contradictions in the Bible is one of the strongest arguments in favor of its historicity. If the Bible were false, those who wrote it would have been very anxious to cover up any inconsistencies. The fact that the writers of the Gospels did not see a need to appear uniformly consistent with one another in relating historical facts is a strong indication that they were eyewitnesses of the events about which they were writing.
[Also See Differences and Discrepancies in the New Testament AND Differences and Discrepancies in the Old Testament]
It is often the case that archaeological discoveries will clear up apparent inconsistencies. For example, if two accounts in the Bible refer to separate kings reigning at the same time and place, an inscription might be uncovered indicating that there was a co-reign of the two kings at the time in question.
[See Dating The Book of Daniel]
The world view of western civilization has been changing rapidly in the past few hundred years such that there has been a marked departure from the Biblical world view. Yet the Bible claims to be reporting events that actually took place. It asserts more than that its principles are true. It insists upon its own world view; any who disagree with it are considered to be in rebellion. In its exclusion of all counterclaims, it becomes irreconcilable with the antisupernaturalism presupposed by modern man.
Some people suggest that there are great differences between contemporary scientific language and the "highly symbolic" language of the Bible. It is inescapable, however, that the world view of Western culture has changed quite drastically since the late nineteenth century. Prior to that time, the Bible was accepted as normative in all of its statements, whether they were "religious" principles or propositions about the material world. Prior to the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, almost all scientists believed, for example, that all people were descended from Adam and Eve, and that physical death and suffering were a result of the fall of man.
Before the recent shift in world view, science and the Bible were in agreement. This is evident in the works of Cotton Mather, Sir Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and the general scientific literature of the early nineteenth century. In fact, it was the Christian faith that spawned the development of science, which assumed that there is a God who orders the universe, and that this order can be studied in a systematic fashion. However, until the time of Hume, it was usually assumed by all but the Deists that God could and sometimes would suspend this order when He so chose.
There has been a tendency in modern historiography to treat the prevalence of works in early nineteenth century America assuming the harmony of Christianity and Science as an innovative approach spawned by Francis Bacon. This view is based upon the false assumption that scientific truth and religious truth are two different genres of truth, and ignores the writings of late Puritanism in America which also assume basic agreement between science and Christianity.
The attempt to differentiate between religious and scientific truth is incommensurate with the Biblical approach. The Bible treats its propositional statements as more than mere examples from which to learn life principles. One cannot examine the Biblical documents without being continually reminded that the Biblical writers not only believed that the events described in the Scriptures actually took place, but also that all other opinions must be subordinated to the Biblical world view.
Many theologians suggest that whatever truth may be found in the Bible is relative to the world view of the culture in which it was written. According to this view, the Bible was written with the assumption that the world is flat and that the earth is stationary while the sun travels above it from east to west. They suggest that while the Bible reflects the understanding prevalent at certain points of time in ancient history, the Bible is still the word of God in that the principles about which the authors were writing are no less valid. In such statements there is often an anti supernaturalistic undercurrent of thought, and implicit in some of such statements is the idea that while the Bible is expressed in categories that allow for miracles to occur, we now know such things to be mere superstition.
(See Scientific Facts In The Bible)
It is important to recognize that such thinking often either stems from a strong presuppositional bias against the miraculous, or makes too many concessions to such a bias. There is no conclusive evidence that the Bible presupposes either a flat earth, or an earth that is stationary relative to the sun, or, for that matter, a three-storied universe, as has been maintained by some people.
Also, our own understanding of the universe is undoubtedly just as culture bound as that of our predecessors. Is it not likely that people living one thousand years hence would find our own world view as strange as we find that of earlier ancient cultures? What if our own criticisms of the Biblical world view were to become as ridiculous to later generations as we now think the ideas of the ancients to be? It would be rather haughty of us to think that we have the last word in our understanding of the universe.
The idea that the Biblical documents reflect an outmoded world view is, of course, irreconcilable with the Bible's treatment of itself. It treats itself, not only as a special reservoir of principles by which we may conduct our lives, but, far more than that, it insists upon subordinating to itself all other theories of truth. Moreover, the Biblical writings span about as great a period of time as has passed since its most recent portions have been written, yet there is no indication that the book of Revelation disdains the world view of the book of Genesis. On the contrary, this last book of the Bible assumes the divine authority of all of the other books of the Judaeo- Christian canon, and this is especially evident in its allusions to the book of Genesis.
If we reject the claims of the Bible for itself, then we are beset with an imposing set of difficulties arising from the inter penetration of Biblical history with secular history, both in the past and in the present. History does not take place in a vacuum. The Bible claims that its accounts are not legend. If this claim is rejected, then one must find some way of explaining the existence of a body of literature which, although falsified, corresponds, down to its minutest details, to all that is known about the history with which it claims to be contemporaneous, and which, if it had not taken place, leaves unexplained the myriad of effects that have ostensibly occurred as a result of the events that it describes.
© 1996 Richard M. Riss