One of the favored tactics of the Atheistic Naturalist and other assorted Leftists is to attack the trustworthiness of the canonical Gospel accounts. Sadly, many Christians are left without adequate answers to the many misinformed objections to the veracity of Sacred Scripture. In answer to their truly empty challenges we must approach scripture like an historian. It is a common misconception that we have to apply the Scientific Method. I have even witnessed critics of the Christian faith demand we apply it. This is fallacious, since we are dealing with an issue of history, not science, so we should apply the Historical Method. The Scientific Method requires any proposition be proven in a controlled environment, by experimentation, and be repeatable and observable. One can hardly go back in time and prove anything historical using such criteria. The Historical Method, by contrast, relies on the following criteria:
- Written Records
- Oral Tradition
- Physical Evidence
While we admit the historical evidence for the veracity of every single event or person mentioned in the scriptures is not absolute, it is historically sufficient to prove its reliability. This does not place our quest at any deficit, since you cannot prove anything historical with one hundred percent certainty. For example, can you prove with absolute certainty that St. Patrick was in Ireland, or that Hitler died in the Berlin Bunker? No. We accept the witness of history as fact; the testimonies of those who were there.
As Blaise Pascal wrote:
“There is enough evidence to convince anyone who is not set against it, but not enough to bring anyone into the kingdom who will not come.”
We must also reject the approach that truth is relative. The statement, “That is your truth, I have mine” is a logical fallacy. Merely believing something does not make it true. Belief and Truth are not synonymous. For example, if I believe that if I jump from the tallest building in the city, I will not fall, does this make it true? Of course not! Gravity will act on me and I'll fall like a stone. Truth is one and absolute, and Christianity claims for itself that one and absolute Truth.
We also have to reject the idea that it does not matter what we believe, as long as we have faith. Faith does not make belief true. There are many who have faith in Krishna, or in Buddha's teachings, but that faith in no way validates the persons, nor what they taught.
What emerges from the Historical Method with regard to the New Testament demands we either accept it as a valid historical document, and thus accept the truths it proclaims since they are inextricably connected to the events written of within its pages, or we simple ignore the evidence of history and reject the New Testament out of hand. With this said, we can proceed.
Any reputable historian will start his study by going to the primary source documents. In this case, the primary source documents are the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament. The first question before us is, are the primary source documents reliable? The following are the premises we will work from:
- The New Testament is historically accurate and trustworthy.
- On the basis of this reliable and accurate historical document, we can know for a certainty who Jesus was.
- On these bases, we can conclude that Jesus was who He said He was, and did what the Gospels say He did.
Let us first look at some of the objections to our premises.
“You can't say the Gospels are reliable and accurate! They were written at least 200 years after the life of Jesus. They're obviously distorted over time.”
The fact of the matter is, the New Testament was written within 60 years of the life of Christ, and some within 30 years. There have been manuscripts found that date within the 1st century A.D. For example, the Rylands Papyri. As this is a copy of the original, the document itself must have been written prior to 125 A.D. We must also take into account that Church Fathers Clement and Ignatius were quoting from the New Testament canon approximately 100A.D. Logically this tells us that the books had to have been in circulation in the church for some time prior. It is also very telling that the New Testament authors make no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. Certainly, if it had already happened they would have noted this, as Jesus prophesied of the coming destruction of the Temple and they would certainly have noted this as a fulfillment of His prophecy. Then we have Paul, who died sometime in the mid-60s A.D. When we examine the book of Acts, written by Luke, Paul is still alive at the time of its writing. We know that Luke wrote his gospel account before he wrote Acts. Thus, the Gospel According to Luke had to have been written prior to 60 A.D. when Paul died. From these historical evidences we can conclude that there would have been little time for mythology or egregious error to appear in the gospel accounts, and that they were written much earlier than even 100 A.D.
If we examine the gospels using the Bibliographical Criteria, we will find they are reliable as well. Bibliographical Criteria evaluates the reliability of a manuscript based on the time span between the original and the existing documents, the number of manuscripts, and the quality of the manuscripts. It examines how much variation exists between the written records of each text. This allows historians to evaluate how well a document has been preserved from error or addition. The time span between the original classical Greek documents and the earliest existing copies of the same is approximately 1,000 years.
For example, the time span for the works of Aristotle is 1,400 years. The time span for the works of Tacitus is 1,000 years. The time span for the works of Caesar is 950 years. This is quite a significant span of time, yet no one suggests the classical literature is corrupt or untrustworthy. Thus, if there were significantly less time between the original New Testament manuscripts and the earliest existing copies available to us today, then the New Testament would have an air tight claim to reliability.
The time span between the original and earliest extant manuscripts of the New Testament is approximately 90 years. The conclusion we can reach as a result is that there was simply not enough time for the gospel accounts to be corrupted.
“But what about differences in the gospel accounts?”
The more manuscripts we possess for comparison, the likelier we are to find the original manuscript content. Let us look again at the number of New Testament manuscripts and fragments extant. We have:
- 5,700 classical Greek manuscripts
- 10,000 classical Latin manuscripts
- 9,300 miscellaneous versions
This means we have roughly 25,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the New Testament books. In addition, we have thousands upon thousands of quotations from these books by the earliest Church Fathers. Now let us compare this to classical Greek and Roman literature. The number of manuscripts for both is actually very small. Homer's The Iliad has the greatest number of existing manuscripts, at 643 copies. So that is 25,000 for the New Testament and 643 for Homer. Clearly the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is overwhelmingly superior to that of classical Greek and Roman literature.
When we examine closely the differences in the New Testament manuscripts we find that only 1/60th of the manuscripts differ, and these differences are so minor that they do not impact the history of the books, nor their theology in any way. This does not leave room for the argument that the differences in any way impact the reliability of the Gospel accounts.
Does the internal and external evidence point to the reliability of the New Testament writings?
There is an Aristotelian principle known as the “benefit of the doubt”. It basically goes as follows:
“The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document and not to the critic.”
With this dictum in mind we will proceed to examine the internal and external evidence of the New Testament manuscripts. The Law of Non-Contradiction states, “If one statement absolutely contradicts another statement, without qualification, at least one of the statements cannot be true.” In order for one statement to absolutely contradict another, there must be no sense in which both statements can be true. However, if there is a logical explanation, it is not a real contradiction- only a seeming one. For example, we have apparent contradictions between John's account of the timing of the crucifixion and Mark's timing of the crucifixion.
“When Pilate heard these words he brought Jesus outside....Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.”- John 19:13,14
“It was nine in the morning when they crucified him.”- Mark 15:25
Mark and John seemingly do not agree. According to Mark, Jesus was crucified at nine o'clock in the morning and died shortly after his so-called "cry of dereliction" at three o'clock in the afternoon. However, John's Gospel still has Jesus before Pilate at noon, with no other time frame given for the actual crucifixion. All four accounts agree that Jesus was dead by evening of that day. Do we have a real contradiction? The answer is no. John was simply using Roman time in his account, while Mark used Jewish. Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified at around 6:00 a.m. (the sixth hour of Roman time), and Jesus was crucified at 9:00 a.m. (the third hour of Jewish time.). All of the claims of discrepancies in the Gospel accounts fall into this same category. Keep in mind that the authors of the New Testament had to be very careful about presenting only the facts. There were many enemies of the Christian community who served as vociferous critics. These critics would have leaped upon any discrepancy in order to discredit them. The enemies of the fledgling church would certainly have exposed any fallacies. Also it is important to take note of the price paid by the Apostles of Jesus for their historical and spiritual testimony. They were all persecuted, and most murdered as a result. People will not die for what they know to be a lie. The authors of the Gospel's willingly gave their lives in witness to the truth of their historical accounts of Jesus. This should leave little doubt as to their truthfulness. What about external evidences? Externally we have the corroboration of the early Church Fathers.
For example, Papias, a disciple of the Apostle John, writes:
“The Elder, the Apostle John, used to say this also: Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he, Peter, mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order.”
Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp (himself a disciple of John), writes:
“So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and starting from these documents, each one of them endeavors to establish his own particular doctrine.”
Additionally, if we combine the histories given us by Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, and the Talmud, we find that history says:
- Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate at Passover time. (Tacitus, Thallus, Josephus, Talmud)
- His disciples claimed He rose from the dead. (Josephus)
- Jewish leaders charged Jesus with sorcery and claimed He was born of adultery. (Talmud)
This demonstrates that the history contained in the Gospel accounts is corroborated by non-Christian, and in some cases hostile, secular historical sources.
In the final analysis, the criticisms of the gospel accounts by Atheistic Naturalists arise out of profound ignorance, or deliberate deception, and in no wise meet the criteria of historical examination.