In a recent FB exchange about the Bible, a friend commented:
“Christianity was an underground religion for several centuries until Constantine and the Romans suddenly endorsed it, threw in some pagan festivals, fiddled with the doctrine and used it to control Europe for over a thousand years. Time and time again people have taken already existing religious beliefs and tried to take hold of them by adding/reshaping doctrine. Consequently, in our current position of 2016AD, it’s not possible for us to know what actually happened – whether there were miracles, who was good, who was bad, who said what.”
There are a number of issues with this comment, first of all the confusion in speaking of Christianity, but referring to Roman Catholicism. The distinction between the two must be maintained.
Secondly, the accusation of links with pagan festivals, doctrinal changes and controlling intent ‘for over a thousand years’, is certainly true of Roman Catholicism, but even so, it does not lead to the conclusion ‘it’s not possible for us to know’.
If we asked: what pagan festivals? what doctrines?, we would have answers because there is documented evidence, whether from Papal Bulls, Church Edicts or other historical sources. We know what the changes are, and we can know what actually happened during the life of Christ, and in the early days of Christianity, before Constantine!
We can know because we can trust the documentary evidence, and its transmission.
In any historical pursuit, questions of evidence, bias and trustworthiness will be raised. These are fair questions and must be answered, but let us be clear – trustworthiness does not mean absolute certainty.
It is a rare occurrence in any aspect of life to have 100% certainty, and even science builds in its percentage of doubt. If we are honest with ourselves, we are happy to live with doubt everyday, and do so because we trust our systems and judgements.
It is no different when it comes to ascertaining the reliability of historical documents. Historians have developed systems for judging such documents, and not being an expert in using these systems, I am happy to trust the judgements of such experts.
Testing the Evidence
C.Sanders, in Introduction to Research in English Literary History , outlines three criteria used to test the reliability of historical documents:
- Bibliographical Test – examines the textual transmission by which documents reach us. Josh McDowell puts it as a question: ‘how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts and the time interval?’ [The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 1999]
- Internal Evidence Test – John Warwick Montgomery says ‘one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies’. [Evangelicals & Archeology, 1968]
- External Evidence Test – considers whether the details given in the document are corroborated in other literature and sources.
These are three pillars upon which all historical judgements can rest, giving us confidence in our ability to build an accurate picture of what happened.
We do not have the time or space here to delve into each area in detail. If you are interested, I would suggest getting Josh McDowell’s book, mentioned earlier, ‘The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 1999′. Instead, I just want to set down some quotations from the experts, and let them speak to you.
Number of Manuscripts
‘On the basis of manuscript tradition alone, the works that made up the Christians’ New Testament were the most frequently copied and widely circulated books of antiquity’
F.E.Peters [The Harvest of Hellenism, 1971]
‘Beside number, the manuscripts of the New Testament differ from those of the classical authors … In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament’
Sir Frederic Kenyon [Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 1901]
Since that time, even earlier fragments have been found, such as the John Rylands MS, dated AD 130, only 40/50 years from the time of writing.
‘Because of its early date and location (Egypt), some distance from the traditional place of composition (Asia Minor), this portion of the Gospel of John tends to confirm the traditional date of the composition of the Gospel about the end of the 1st century’.
N.Geisler [A General Introduction to the Bible, 1986]
‘For most of the biblical text a single reading has been transmitted … (This) leaves only a small percentage of the text about which any question arises … (on which) not one fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests’
Dockery, Matthews & Sloan [Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, 1994]
Bibliographical Test? Passed with Flying Colours
‘The works of several ancient authors are preserved to us by the thinnest possible thread of transmission … In contrast … the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.’
Bruce Metzger [The Text of the New Testament, 1968]
‘There is nothing in ancient manuscript evidence to match such textual availability and integrity’.
R.Zacharias [Can Man Live Without God?, 1994]
‘As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archeology or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the Biblical text itself.’
Dr G.Archer [Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 1982]
Josh McDowell reminds us that ‘the allegations of error in the Bible are usually based on a failure to recognise basic principles on interpreting ancient literature’. He then goes on, in his book, to list 15 such principles of which ‘Understanding the Context of the Passage’ is an absolutely crucial one.
I am happy in further articles to answer any specific allegations, but for now we need to listen to the experts.
‘The earliest preachers of the Gospel knew the value of … first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and time again. “We are witnesses of these things”, was their constant and confident assertion … The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies which would be at once exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers, “as you yourselves also know” (Acts2:22)’
F.F.Bruce [The New Testament Documents, 1964]
‘Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.’
Sir William Ramsey [St.Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, 1962]
Internal Evidence Test? Passed with Flying Colours
‘It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand’.
Other Early Christian Writings
‘Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost … could it be collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?
As I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.’
Sir David Dalrymple, as cited in C.Leach [Our Bible. How We Got It, 1898]
Early Independent Writings
‘Ancient extra-biblical sources do present a surprisingly large amount of detail concerning both the life of Jesus and the nature of early Christianity … such is surely significant’
Dr G.Habermas [The Historical Jesus, 1996]
We are ‘able to conclude from such non-Christian writings as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger that: Jesus was a Jewish teacher; many believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; he was crucified; his followers believed he was still alive, and worshipped him as God.’
M.Wilkins & JP.Moreland [Jesus Under Fire, 1995]
‘It may be stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.’
Nelson Glueck, renowned Jewish archaeologist [Rivers in the Desert, 1959]
External Evidence Test? Passed with Flying Colours
And so, as we look at all this preceding evidence, it is clear that we can know what actually happened. We can trust the Bible record concerning Jesus Christ! Let me finish with one more quotation that points out how we ought to respond:
‘Within that awful volume lies, the mystery of mysteries. Happiest they of human race, to whom God has granted grace, to read, to fear, to hope, to pray, to lift the latch, and force the way; and better had they ne’er been born, who read to doubt, or read to scorn.’
Sir Walter Scott [The Monastery, 1913]
Come to Know Christ
Therefore, may I encourage you to pick up the Bible, not just to know what actually happened, but ‘to lift the latch, and force the way’ to a better, deeper, personal knowledge of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ, for he is the glorious subject of the Bible.