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Historical Authenticity

14 March, 2008

 As I have participated (and learned) in discussions on this and other blogs, I have noticed an odd situation.  Christians tend to come at the Bible from two directions:  either they claim that the Bible is an honest history book which tells the truth about events of 1,970~ years ago, or they claim that the Bible can only be understood through faith.  The problem here is that when the Bible is treated the same way as other historical documents, the historian is accused of either attacking Christianity, or of ignoring the truth for his or her own selfish reasons and (either way) is attacking the faith of Christians.  If the faith in the book is doubted, then the historical arguments will soon appear.

 I am an historian.  I majored in history and make my living helping people understand industrial and labour history.  In college, learning how to make an argument, and support said argument.  Many of the conventions of historical method are questions stemming from how to use sources.

Many think that a first-person, contemporary account will automatically trump all.  It can, but only if it can be supported.  Here’s a thought experiment (absolutely fictional) which may illustrate the potential problems:

Let us suppose that I am browsing in an antique store and find a yellowed document, written with a quill pen, and, to my surprise, appears to have the signature of a captain in the Continental Army on it.  I buy the manuscript.

Then, when I get home, it gets even more exciting.  It is an account written (purportedly) by an officer about a battle.  It tells the story of a small action at Winchester on June 20, 1776.  I do some research (basic at this point).  The army was in the Boston area at the correct time (though it was not the Continental Army at the time, it was when the document appears to have been written).  The units listed in the document were also there.  But as I read more, I find that there are no other mentions of such an action anywhere.  There is one mention of a minor action near the correct date, but it gives no details, and was written 40 years later.  Plus, Winchester was, at the time, well outside the seige lines around Boston.

At this point, my choices are to have the document investigated by experts in the field — Revolutionary War historians, and I could have the paper, ink and grammar examined.  But unless I, or another historian, can find some supporting evidence, it will remain little more than an historical curiosity (and possibly a good master’s thesis for some student).

No matter how intriguing a document, no matter how important the events described, there must be supporting evidence from an independent source.  So how does this thought experiment relate to the Bible?

First, like the document I created in my mind up above, no one knows who actually wrote the canonical gospels.  They appear (to many historians) to have been written by Greek Christians a generation or two after the events they describe.  Based on evidence from the earliest examples still in existence, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were, most likely, independently written based upon oral traditions of the early Christians.  They gospels were attributed to the four disciples by the mid-second century.

Second, there is no contemporary supporting evidence.  The closest is the Josephus document which dates from 93CE, almost 60 years later (when studying the Revolutionary War, one does not depend on primary sources from the 1840s).  Additionally, the Josephus document incorporates some additions written by Christian apologists over the next 200 years and has been altered to the point that there is no way of knowing what, if anything, Josephus said about Jesus.  The life and death of Jesus was an earth-shaking event (whether he actually lived or not), yet there is no contemporary account of his trial and execution.

In short, the Bible is problematical when approached without faith. If it is studied the way that other historical documents are studied, it comes up short.  If the Bible is approached with faith, then  it ceases to be an historical document.  I may have a problem with analysing the Bible through faith, but I will not argue it. 

Here’s the short version:  If someone wants to argue that the Bible is a valid historical account of real events, be prepared for others to analyse the source the same way that all other historical documents are analysed.  If someone wants to argue that the Bible is true through faith, go for it.  But do not switch back and forth.  Pick one (historical document or faith-based document) and stick with it.  Don’t switch back and forth to avoid uncomfortable or inconvenient arguments.

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12 comments

  1. Your explanation is clear and concise. Well done.


  2. The life and death of Jesus was an earth-shaking event (whether he actually lived or not), yet there is no contemporary account of his trial and execution.
    Nope, that’s inaccurate, Billy.

    The story of the alleged life and alleged death of an alleged Jewish preacher allegedly named Jesus has had an earth-shaking influence on history.


  3. Ex: Good point.


  4. You beat me to it Ex. I’d also clarify this:
    no one knows who actually wrote the canonical gospels. They appear (to many historians) to have been written by Greek Christians
    Are you talking about the copies? I think that’s the sticking point for Marianne. She thinks you’re saying the original gospels were literally written by Greeks. Now of course they’re going to rant and rave at that. Instead you should clarify that the earliest copies found were in Greek (right, or am I mistaken?) and that no doubt the originals were written in Greek most likely by people who would have defined themselves at the time as Jews.


  5. PhillyChief: My understanding is that the Greeks were the first to actually write down the oral traditions which had been passed on (and edited (and added to)) since the ‘events’ they portray.


  6. Each of the gospels were written between 50 A.D. and 70 A.D. either by the noted disciple or under their direct supervision. These dates would line up quite well considering that the disciples were in their mid to late teens when Jesus called them to follow him making them anywhere from 40 to 60 years old at the time they were written. It’s unlikely that these men wouldn’t correct any mistakes and furthermore allow their name to be used on a writing they didn’t find accurate. Considering their role in the building of the Christian church, it’s does not seem probable that the early Christians would go against their wishes in attaching their name to a document.

    Matthew is believed to have been originally written in Aramaic which would make sense considering the many references to Jewish culture and religion. His target audience was the Jews.

    My apologies for the long post…it’s good to have intellectual discussion.


  7. Correction to my previous post…Matthew, Mark, and Luke are believed to be written between 50 A.D. and 70 A.D. while John is believed to be written sometime between 80 A.D. and 90 A.D.


  8. In what language was the bible first written? – International Bible Society
    Originally written in Greek Robert M. Grant, Religion-Online.org Much more by him on the new testament here
    Authorship of New Testament – ReligiousTolerance.org
    “the commonly-held opinion is that the original text that would become known as the books of the New Testament, otherwise known as the New Covenant, was most likely written in “common Greek”, also known as Koine Greek.” Mikael Knighton, The New Testament: A Brief Overview, ChristiansStandingWithIsrael.com
    Language of the New testament – Bible-Researcher.com. Also see this further arguing the use of “Koine”, the Greek that was,“the everyday language of the people that spread throughout the Mediterranean region following the conquests of Alexander the Great”.

    “Only by faith can the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Epistles, the catholic Epistles and the Book of Revelation be accepted as apostolic and integrally authentic. The verdict of criticism is otherwise” – Alfred Firmin Loisy, Les Origines du Nouveau Testament, 1936 Chapter IX


  9. While we’re talking about the manuscripts, which bacame the bible we now have on the shelves, has anyone read “Misquoting Jesus”? I’m wondering what your opinion of the book is.

    I would agree that many claim that the bible can only be understood to be inerrant and divinely-inspired only from a position of faith. This is where I’ve always struggled in trying to reason with my Christian friends. When one embraces the notion that the bible is perfect and God-breathed, and bases the validity of their faith on such a claim, then does the bible become, as Tillich said, an “ultimate concern” and of more importance than having a right idea of, or faith in, God?

    Interesting thoughts, Billy.


  10. If a bell doesn’t go off in your head when you hear it said that you have to believe something fully before you can understand it, I don’t know what to tell you.


  11. Tsydaddy:
    I read Misquoting Jesus a few weeks ago. It’s pretty good. It’s written for laypeople but it’s not dumbed-down. Ehrman explains the processes of textual criticism and illustrates them by examining, in some depth, a few examples from the New Testament. He goes for depth rather than breadth. So, instead of saying, this is how it works and giving a paragraph or two about dozens of scripture passages, he says, this is how it works and takes the reader on a step-by-step tour of how the textual critics gets from A to B to C…


  12. Chappie and Tysdaddy: that book is definately on my ‘to read’ list. Of course, his books are generally (for me, at least) multiple reads just to come close to understanding his theses.



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