The Historicity of the New Testament

The next step in the series on the evidences for the existence of a God will finally bring us to the arguments for a Judeo-Christian God. If you look at my previous post you will see an argument for the existence of a being who is outside of space and time who can begin material existence. Then the argument in the next post claims that from the complex and amazingly functional nature of the universe in general and life specifically it seems that we need an Intelligent Designer. The last post argues that without a God we are left with no adequate support for morality. This post will attempt to briefly address some of the chief evidences for the historicity of the New Testament.

First, when we are discussing historicity, we are merely trying to establish that the New Testament was written by first century Jewish individuals who believed that what they wrote actually happpened and that what we have today is extremely close to the texts that were originally written. So then, if we find that the writers were faithfully communicating their experiences and that our texts today match what was communicated originally we can move towards the questions of whether we should trust the testimony of these writers.

So, is the New Testament historically reliable? For this question, I will attempt to outline some of the main arguments without getting bogged down in citations and specific studies. I will humbly refer the reader to books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Evidence Revisited by Josh McDowell which are extensive works of historical investigation that engage this topic comprehensively. There are many questions that can help a historian determine whether a text is reliable. How many original manuscripts are there? If there are copies of these manuscripts, how similar are they to each other and how close are they to the original? Are the sources bridging to other sources or are they eyewitnesses? Are the events recorded independently corroborated? Is the setting accurate (the timeframe, who was in political power, reflective of the culture at that time)? What was the purpose of the text? Was it meant to be a historical document, a report to a governing body, or propaganda for a political figure? Would the author have gained from the distortion of truth?

All of these questions and more can be taken to our study of the Biblical texts. Beginning with the question of manuscripts, the New Testament has over 27,000 partial manuscripts to compare and study. While none of them are the original penned manuscripts, their remarkable similarity and consistency is a huge mark in favor of the NT’s reliability. To put these numbers in perspective, the closest other text from the ancient world is the Illiad which has around 500 surviving partial manuscripts. The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, are also written based largely on eyewitness testimony. This is not a story that has grown in the telling, the writers are writing about their own personal experiences. They are also writing to an audience of fellow eyewitnesses. When most of the texts in the NT began to be circulated, the people who lived and experienced the events recorded were still living. If these texts were deceiptful, the hundreds of people who were present at the sermon on the mount or the feeding of the 5000 or the crucifixion could have denounced the writings as false. Now maybe there were dissenting voices that have not survived 2000 years because they were not part of a text that quickly obtained sacred status in the original Christian community, but the movement grew in the midst of people who could have easily denounced many of its claims and would have had no reason to join if they thought the disciples were teaching falsehoods.

The events in the NT are also extremely consistent with other sources of that time and what we know of the timeframe politically, culturally, and historically. We have sources from the ancient world that confirm Jesus’ crucifixion, the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, all of the political figures and the timing of their reign/influence, and that confirm the growth of a small sect of Judaism in the midst of persecution from their fellow Jews and eventually the Romans as well. The Gospel of Luke is extremely helpful in this regard as Luke is careful to note the historical and political context and timing of his texts. Luke is helpful for another reason as he states the purpose of his texts at the beginning of his Gospel: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Here we see a classic introduction to a historical text that were often addressed to an individual in ancient times. We see that the purpose of the writer here and the writers throughout the NT were attempting to tell true stories that reflected their experiences.

If we look at these evidences and are able to accept that the NT was communicating what the authors believed to be the historical truth and was faithfully communicating their experiences, then we have to ask if we should trust these sources. I am fully aware that I am not addressing many of the nuances and fullnesses of the arguments summarized above, but this is merely a brief sketch of the main arguments. So why should we trust these people? First of all, none of the Gospels would have benefitted the authors. In fact, the authors and disciples of Jesus are often portrayed as stubborn and dense. If these authors were looking to invent a religion with themselves at the head, then why would they portray themselves as slow to understand, stubborn, and even deniers of Jesus throughout the stories? Also, and I believe this is the most powerful argument for the reliability of their testimonies, the disciples were imprisoned, beaten, and killed for what they preached. Unless you truly believe what you are saying, it does not seem possible that a man would die for a lie. What is gained if a man is killed for something that he knows never even happened? We have to remember here that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the events they spoke of. They were not convinced of the truth of these things second-hand. I think that we must accept that the disciples believed that what they were saying was true.

In following posts I will address the question of miracles and whether we can take the Bible seriously even though it makes claims that may seem impossible.

Halloween aka All Hallows’ Eve aka Samhain

seasons

In our secular age, there is no battleground as hotly contested as the argument for or against the sacred. Churches opt to meet in gyms or community halls instead of a “sacred space.” A man photographs a crucifix placed in urine as a statement of art. The idea of the supernatural is categorized as an antiquated concept from a backwards era.On a more disturbing level, couples are refusing to get married because they don’t see the use in a piece of paper or a meaningless ritual. The power of the sacred spaces, times, celebrations, and relationships (parental, marital, communal, priestly) was an enriching part of everyday life. Every people from the beginning of history revered these relationships and highlighted their significance in the mythos of that culture. The pathways of ideas that have led to Western society’s secularism can be traced all the way back to Classical Greece, but the most powerful evidence of our current dichotomy between faith and reason (with an emphasis on ditching faith altogether) is the way people live their lives as a result of these insidious ideas. Halloween especially, but other religious holidays as well, is an important cultural bastion against the materialistic ideology.

Originally, the 31st of October marked the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced: sah-win) which was characterized by a celebration of what was termed a liminal time (a time when the otherworld was in closest proximity to our own, a time when the veil was thin). The holiday is about halfway between the autumn and winter equinox and was a time of slaughtering cattle to store up for the winter. The symbolism of the provision of saving life through death is rich in this tradition and many others. Every culture since the beginning of history has celebrated liminal times and they have all had holidays based on the movement of the seasons marked by phases of the moon. There seems to be something real here to the marking of the seasonal changes of life. God gave the Jewish calendar to move along similar lines and the early Christians had no problem with the sharing of holidays with their pagan neighbors. In fact, and this is the important point, the early Christians regularly reclaimed pagan holidays as shadows of the true times that God had given to men to draw near to Him. All truth is God’s truth, all time is God’s time, and if the myth of Christianity were true, it would make sense that it contained elements of all the other religions in the world of men who are programmed seekers of meaning.

If one looks at the various elements of early religions, you see that in the broadest sense they have a lot of similarities. There is the myth of the dying and the rising God, often symbolized by the transition from autumn to winter and winter to spring. There is the fertility of summer, the celebration of life’s transition in the fall. There is an idea of the nearness of divinity and the sacred nature of the life we live and the earth we inhabit. There is the idea of fire and light representing life and joy and salvation. There is the glory of a man and a woman together in the physical, communal, and ritual union as the king and queen of creation (this is seen in many marriage traditions to this day). All of these things and more are themes throughout the religions of the ages and Christianity contains the echoes of them all in the fullness of a true myth. We need not be scandalized by this, Paul wrote about how God has made Himself known through all of Creation and these ideas were used for the Christianization of many cultures and tribes. Halloween itself went from Samhain to All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day on November 1st due to the Christian acknowledgement of the natural rhythm and truths represented by pagan holiday. The chief lie of the our age, “what you see is what you get,” rejects all of these themes in a hubris that leads to an empty life.

We are told now that the longings we have for transcendence, for a relationship to a supernatural being or God-figure is merely an evolutionary bi-product or a social construct. We know this is not true. There are times, liminal times, holidays or memories of holidays, pangs of longing, the beauty of a seascape reached around a bend unexpectedly, of a waterfall when the light reflects the full spectrum of color, an old friend seen for the first time in years, the completion of a project that turned out better than expected and took your all… these moments take our breath away and are gone in an instant. There is something that calls to the deepest parts of our being and we know that secularist is wrong. Halloween reminds us of these things. Christmas reminds us of these things. We need holidays lest the dreariness of this life–so often devoid of the sacred symbols, times, relationships and spaces–smothers the flame inside us. As the church we need to be the beacon of the ultimate sacred light that is Jesus, the true Myth Himself. We live the sacred story of Creation and redemption through the practice of the church calendar, of holidays, of the liturgy of last rites, baptism and marriage. We live it individually and corporately.

God constantly exalts and sanctifies, only humans profane and devalue.

 

Come and Die

Forest Fire

A couple months ago I began reading the Bible all the way through. In order to get manageable chunks, every day I read 2-3 chapters from the Old Testament (beginning with Genesis), a Psalm, a chapter in Proverbs (following the day of the month; February 6th I read ch. 6), a chapter in the Gospels, and a chapter in the New Testament (beginning with Acts). It’s been awe-inspiring to see the consistency and arc of Scripture this way.

Through the thousands of years and several authors, God weaves a story of redemption, Love and Truth, cultural history, poetry and wisdom, genealogies and miraculous testimony that brings life to its readers even 2000 years after it was written. The Old Testament often gets a bad rap from Christians. It’s amazing! It was only in the context of the Old Testament that Jesus taught the Kingdom of God and the New Testament writers understood His message. I ran into this series of verses in Deuteronomy that got me really excited. It’s amazing the foreshadowing and revelation that comes when reading the Old Testament in the light of Christ and the New Covenant.

When the Lord came upon the mountain to speak to the Israelites in the desert after He had rescued them from the Egyptians, they had the appropriate reaction:

24 “Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived?” (Deut. 5:24-26)

They understood the awesomeness and holiness of God and were rightly fearful for their lives in His presence. The Lord was pleased with their response, “All that they have said is right.” They ask Moses to be their intermediary and go up to the mountain to receive what the Lord has for them. Maybe you are already seeing the connections. In the new Kingdom, Christ has brought God to restored relationship with man. God has made his dwelling with man and men have heard his voice.

However, God has not changed. He is still the “all-consuming fire.” The difference lies in the invitation of Jesus. Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Israelites asked, “why should we die?” Jesus response, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) The call of Christ is to be consumed by the fire that the Israelites witnessed that day. This is a painful process! God is purifying us and making us into who we truly are. T.S. Eliot wrote of this journey in his poem, “Little Gidding”:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Thousands of years before Pentecost, the Israelites saw God’s  fire and new it was death to be in His presence. Now God’s fire has fallen on us, His presence dwells in us, and we are called to die that we may truly live. Let us all be consumed by this Great Fire.