Historical Authenticity14 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 The problem here is that when the Bible is treated the same way as other historical documents, the historian is accused of either attacking Christianity, or of ignoring the truth for his or her own selfish reasons and (either way) is attacking the faith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.