The Bible’s power and influence
In some countries today, the Bible is forbidden. Bringing a Bible into Saudi Arabia, for example, or North Korea, or China, or Libya, or Burma — along with many other countries — can result in expulsion for the westerner or arrest and torture if you’re native to the country. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bible was banned in communist Eastern Europe, too; a good friend of mine was involved in Bible smuggling into places like Romania and Hungary during the 1970s and 80s and can tell hair-raising stories of near arrests and fortunate escapes.
Banned in many countries, yet desperately sought by persecuted Christians. The best-selling, most widely studied piece of literature, whose influence is unquestionable, whatever you think of the book. Much of our art, law, philosophy, music and literature have drawn upon the Bible.
Yet this potency and influence aside, many people today want to ignore, rubbish, or reject the Bible. “How can you trust the Bible?” sceptics often ask. “New Atheist” writers like Richard Dawkins regularly attack the Bible, calling those who believe in it, “died in the wool faith-heads”.
Three initial thoughts
So how might we answer the sceptic? How can Christians show that is rational and reasonable to trust the Bible and take seriously what it says? There are numerous ways one might approach this question but this evening, I want to focus on a historical approach, as that’s my own academic background. But before that, let me start by making three general comments.
First, when somebody says “why trust the Bible?” I sometimes respond “why not trust the Bible?” One can only really doubt something if one has something more solid to believe in. Unless you merely want to be a sceptic. Whilst that’s very fashionable, it’s hard to be a consistent sceptic. Why not be sceptical about your scepticism?
Second, lots of people have bought into popular assumptions and myths about the Bible. So if somebody suggests the Bible is unreliable, ask them to be specific. How exactly? If they claim it’s full of myths, ask them which one they had in mind? Encourage them to read the Bible for themselves before passing judgement on it.
Third, there’s a lot of chronological snobbery about these days. Just because something is old or ancient, doesn’t make it false. Indeed, ancient-icity doesn’t tell us anything about whether something is true or false. Something can be ancient and true. Likewise something can be bang up to date and false.
The Historian and the Bible
Those comments aside, why trust the Bible? Well, first, many people are not aware that most historians take the Bible, especially the New Testament, very seriously indeed. The Bible has been subjected to extremely vigorous literary and historical criticism, probably more than any other ancient work, and it’s emerged unscathed. Hans Kung put it nicely:
Lay people are usually unaware that the scrupulous scholarly work achieved by modern biblical criticism … represented by scrupulous academic work over about 300 years, belongs among the greatest intellectual achievements of the human race. Has any of the great world religions outside of the Jewish-Christian tradition investigated its own foundations and its own history so thoroughly and impartially? None of them has remotely approached this. The Bible is far and away the most studied book in world literature.
In other words, the Bible doesn’t need defending or protecting from historical criticism — Christians haven’t shut themselves off from academic questions — far from it. Indeed, as the 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once quipped: “Defend the Bible? I’d sooner defend a lion!”
When one approaches the Bible from a historical perspective, one can approach it much as one would any other ancient work. Broadly speaking, there are three tests a historian can utilise to determine the veracity of an ancient document. The bibliographic test, the internal test, and the external test. Let’s briefly look at each of these and how they apply to the Bible.
The bibliographic test
The bibliographic test looks at the ancient manuscripts of the Bible and asks whether the text of the Bible we have today is the same as the original? The simple answer is “yes”. There are thousands upon thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, dating from the early second century down to the middle ages. When you compare what we have for the Bible with, say, what we have in terms of manuscripts for other important works of antiquity — Plato or Thucydides — it’s striking. For the Bible, we have 5,000 Greek manuscripts, hundreds of papyri, almost 350 Syriac copies (most dating to the 400s). On top of this, virtually the entire New Testament could be reproduced from quotations in the early church fathers; 32,000 such quotations exist before the Council of Nicaea in AD325, for example.
Many of these manuscripts are staggeringly early. For example, the John Rylands fragment (P52) dates to around AD120. Codex Sinaiticus dates to about 350AD and contains virtually all of the New Testament — I remember visiting the British Library a few years ago and staring at this beautiful object, just a few centimetres away from me behind a pane of glass. One felt that one was in touch with history.
Why are these manuscripts important? Because they enable us to be confident that the text of the Bible we have today is extremely accurate and close to the original. Historian and textual critic Ben Witherington has remarked that critical scholarship is about 99% certain of all of the New Testament text now — indeed, that we’re closer to the original text of the New Testament now than anytime since the first couple of centuries, so good is the scholarship.
The internal test
What about the historian’s second test, the internal test? This test asks whether we can determine whether the document we have before us was written by eyewitnesses. When it comes to the Bible, especially to the New Testament, things get very interesting.
First, we have multiple witnesses. Many people who are unfamiliar with the Bible tend to think of it as one book — but, of course, the Bible contains multiple books — it’s more like a library than a book. So, when we come to the New Testament, for example, we have multiple authors writing about the life of Jesus. Critical scholars would count at least six — Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and probably also “Q”, a collection of sayings of Jesus that Matthew and Luke referred to.
Furthermore, these sources are all very early. Most scholars date the Gospels to the 60s, 70s and 80s AD, although some argue that Mark, especially, is much earlier. British New Testament scholar James Crossley — who, I’d note, is not a Christian — believes Mark was written in the late 30s or early 40s — that’s within a decade of Jesus. Another very early witness is Paul, who is writing his letters between AD48 and AD65, well within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. Why is this important?
Because one thing historians get very excited about is multiple attestation and early dating.
To return to the Gospels, though, for a moment. Not merely are they very early, but it’s now fairly universally accepted in critical scholarship that the Gospel writers were trying to write history; in terms of genre, the Gospels are biographies. The seminal work that demonstrated this was a book called What Are the Gospels? by Richard Burridge. Interestingly, Burridge set out to disprove that the gospels are biographies but the evidence caused him to change his mind. Historian David Aune sums up the implications of this:
[Bios, 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.”
There’s a further point here, too. If one wants to reject the Gospels as history, then one is still left with the problem of explaining the early church. It had to come from somewhere and if Jesus’ life and career didn’t play out as the Gospels claim, one has to explain where. As German historian Martin Dibelius put it: you have to posit an X big enough to explain the Y of the early church. The best explanation remains that given in the Gospels: that Jesus existed and something very remarkable happened to him.
The external test
Finally, there’s the external evidence for the Bible, in particular archaeology. Time and time again, archaeology has confirmed that the writers of the biblical texts knew what they were talking about. Along with the writings of non-Christian historians from the first century, men like the Jewish historian, Josephus, archaeology endorses the biblical text at many points. As Millar Burrows, former professor of archaeology at Yale wrote:
On the whole … archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics.
Let me give you a few fascinating examples. First, two examples from Luke. In Acts 17:6-8, Luke uses the Greek word politarchs to describe the city officials in Thessalonica. That word doesn’t appear in classical Greek literature so for many years, critics accused Luke of making a mistake. Then archaeologists discovered a first-century arch in the town that used this very term — showing that the term was in use for government officials at the very time Luke was writing. It was a similar phenomena with Acts 18:12, where Luke uses the term “proconsul” to describe a gentleman called Gallio. That word didn’t appear either in classical literature so, again, scholars questioned Luke’s accuracy. Then an inscription was found at Delphi, dating to AD51, using the same term — and amazingly, to describe the very same official, Gallio. Once again Luke was proven to be a very accurate historian.
It’s a similar story with the other Gospel writers. For example, in John 5:1-2, the fourth Gospel writer speaks of “a pool in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, called in Hebrew ‘Bethesda’, which has five porticoes”. Until the 20th century, there was no evidence outside of John’s Gospel for such a place and, again, critics questioned John’s reliability. Then in the 1930s, the pool was uncovered by archaeologists — complete with four colonnades around the edges and one across the middle.
One more example will suffice and it’s perhaps the most intriguing — the so-called “James Ossuary”. According to the Gospels — and to the Jewish historian, Josephus, James was the brother of Jesus and was killed in AD62. In 2002, a mid-first century bone box or ossuary was discovered in Jerusalem, bearing the Aramaic inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. There is very strong evidence that the box and its inscription are authentic. Ed Keall, of the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto, has said “we stand by our opinion that the James Ossuary is not a forgery”. As New Testament historian Ben Witherington put it:
If, as seems probable, the ossuary found in the vicinity of Jerusalem and dated to about AD 63 is indeed the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus, this inscription is the most important extra-biblical evidence of its kind.
If we had more time, numerous other examples could be listed. The key point is this: archaeology doesn’t prove the New Testament is true. But what it does do is endorse the narratives. It shows that the biblical writings are historical and geographical in character — and thus deserve to be weighed and treated as seriously as an other texts from antiquity.
In the short time available to us, we’ve only been able to scratch the surface of what is a fascinating and rich area of study. But I hope in this brief survey I’ve been able to show that there are very good reasons to trust the Bible. And thus very good reasons to approach it with an open mind, willing to take what it says seriously and weigh its claims seriously.
So why read the Bible? Because from a historian’s perspective, we have good reason to trust it. Why read the Bible? Because only by reading it can you draw your own conclusions, rather than uncritically swallow somebody else’s second-hand-scepticism. Why read the Bible? Because through the pages of the four biographies in the New Testament, the gospels, one encounters a historical figure — Jesus of Nazareth — whose powerful personality continues to resonate and impact lives two thousand years on.
Article by former RZIM Canada Director, Andy Bannister