Big Idea of Message:
If the Gospels are “good” history – then the rest of the Bible is too. (History shows what reason demands)
1 What are we talking about?
Circular Argument: We believe in God because of the Bible, but God wrote the Bible. Why trust the Bible? Why trust the gospel accounts?
2 History shows what reason demands
Almost all our knowledge about Jesus comes from the Gospels, but we can read the gospels as History before we read them as God’s Word.
We tend to think that Christians read scripture only as God’s Word.
When a Mormon reads the Book of Mormon, he’s reading it as God’s Word. He accepts on faith that what the book says is true. When we read the Book of Mormon, we read it as history, we’re not Mormon. The only way to read it is as a historical source, and so it gets treated to the same criteria that any historian would use to evaluate any document of any possible historical value. We don’t assume it is trustworthy at all, all that is invested is as much trust in the documents that the documents warrant by the degree to which they pass standard historical criteria. (The Book of Mormon doesn’t fare too well.)
The Smithsonian Institution issues a standard reply to requests for their opinion regarding the Book of Mormon as an archaeological or scientific guide. Prior to 1998, the statement denied any evidence for pre-Columbian contact between Old and New Worlds: “Certainly there was no contact with the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews or other peoples of Western Asia or the Near East.” In 1998, the Smithsonian began issuing a shorter letter without the detailed response found in the first letter, and limited its comment to briefly deny any use of the Book of Mormon as an archaeological guide by the institution.
So it is with the Gospels. Don’t accept the gospels on “blind faith” that they are God’s Word. Simply look at them like you would any ancient document, put them to the test. My contention is that when you test them, they fare very well and can be trusted to tell us a good deal about the person of Jesus Christ, enough to know that God was present in Him and working through Him in a most significant way.
What are the Criteria? Internal & External
#1 – Authorship. Was the author in a position to know what he or she is writing about? Does the text claim to be an eyewitness account, or based on an eyewitness account? Or is it based on hearsay? If it doesn’t even claim to be an eyewitness or from an eyewitness perspective, its value is less than if it made such a claim, though making the claim is not sufficient to prove that it’s true.
#2 – Irrelevant Material. Does the document contain specific and especially irrelevant material? Firsthand sources are typically full of material and details which isn’t central to the story, whereas fabricated accounts tend to be generalized.
#3 – Self-damaging Material. Does the document contain self-damaging material? If the document includes material that would cast a negative image on the author, the “heroes” or the truthfulness of the story, it is a good indication that the author had truth as a central motive for writing.
#4 – Self-Consistency. Does the document have reasonable self-consistency? There is a coherence to the truth which fabrications usually lack, though different perspectives on a single historical account usually have minor discrepancies.
#5 – Legendary Accretion. Fish stories tend to be exaggerated over time. The presence of “larger than life” features suggest a later time in writing, and proportionally diminish the document’s historical trustworthiness.
#1 – Motive. Would the authors have a motive for fabricating what they wrote? If a motive can be established, the trustworthiness of the document is diminished. Conversely, if the author had nothing to gain, or even something to lose, by writing the account, the trustworthiness is increased.
#2 – Other Sources. Are there other sources which confirm material in the document, or which substantiate the genuineness of the document? If the account can be, by any extent, confirmed by outside sources, this enhances the document’s credibility, but the same criteria must be applied to the outside sources as well. If the author can be, to any extent, attested by outside sources, it enhances the document’s credibility.
#3 – Archaeology. Does archaeology support or go against material in the document? If archaeological findings can substantiate any material found in the document, the document’s trustworthiness is increased. Conversely, if archaeology findings stand in tension, its credibility is damaged.
The Book of Mormon mentions several animals, plants, and technologies for which there is no evidence in pre-Columbian America. These include asses, cattle, horses, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheat, barley, silk, steel, brass, breastplates, chains, iron working, plows, swords, scimitars, and chariots. The Smithsonian Institution has stated that “none of the principal food plants and domestic animals of the Old World (except the dog) were present in the New World before Columbus.”
#4 – Contemporary Conflict. Could contemporaries of the document falsify the document’s account, and would they have a motive to do so? If there existed persons who could have exposed the document’s fabrication, and had a motive for doing so, but nevertheless did not – so far as history tells – this increases the trustworthiness of the document.
3) Putting the Gospels to the Test
#1 – Eyewitness Accounts. Luke, not eyewitness, but uses eyewitness sources and seeks to write an orderly and truthful account of the things he records (Luke 1:1-4). John says he’s an eyewitness, and Mark and Matthew are written from the perspective of eyewitnesses. Other early 2nd century sources confirm that the authors of the Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (External #2).
#2 – Irrelevant Detail. Gospels full of irrelevant detail, typical of eyewitness accounts. John 20:1-8, for example.
On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she went running to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him!”
3 At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first. 5 Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then, following him, Simon Peter also came. He entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 The wrapping that had been on his head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself. 8 The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, then also went in, saw, and believed.
Why does the day matter? Who cares what time of day. Mary Magdalene is an incriminating detail. Lack of faith shown in Mary. John’s modesty. Who cares who gets to the tomb first, why do the position of the linens matter? There is so much irrelevant detail with nothing being added to the story line. The gospels are full of material like this.
#3 – Self-Damaging Detail. Women are said to be the first to discover the tomb was empty. But women were unable to testify in court, which is why Paul didn’t include women in the list of people who saw the risen Christ in 1 Corinthians 15. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” while Jesus was on the cross – hardly what one would expect from the Messiah, especially God. The only motive anyone could have for including it is because Jesus actually said it!
#4 – Consistency – The four gospels, if they were individually fabricated, would have greater inconsistency. At the same time, if they were fabricated collectively, they would have better consistency than what we find.
#5 – Mythology. C.S. Lewis – ancient mythology expert – “As a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend, and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.” – The gospels are too sober to be mythology.
#1 – Motive. The disciples claimed to believe in Jesus because of His miracles, resurrection, combined with his life and teachings. They suffered great persecution for it. Why would they lie? No scholar doubts the disciples’ sincerity in their testimony.
#2 – Authorship. Authorship of these gospels are attested to by numerous sources in the second century. We also can glean some things about Jesus and the disciples which fit in well with the gospels from other early sources, such as Tacitus (ca. 55-120), Suetonius (early 2nd century), Josephus (ca. 37-97), Thallus (mid 1st century), Pliny (early 2nd century), as well as the ancient Jewish writings written against the Christians (the Talmud).
#3 – Archaeology. There has always been archaeologists who claim their findings are in tension with some aspect of the biblical account, and time and time again, but these findings are being reversed in favor of the biblical account. For example, the birth of Jesus in Luke’s account. It used to be believed that it was fabricated. The Bible says that an empire wide census was being taken during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor in Syria. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register, which is when Jesus was born. But other sources tell us (Josephus) that Quirinius was governor beginning in AD 6 and there was no evidence for a census like this ever being taken. Therefore, Luke must be in error. But we now know that censuses like the kind Luke mentioned were frequent, and Quirinius’ reign in AD 6 was likely his second reign. There are no conclusive archaeological findings which refutes conclusively any biblical account, but there are many conclusive archaeological findings which substantiate the biblical account – often after the biblical account has been accused of error on the basis of a previously misinterpreted finding.
#4 — Contemporary Conflict. Christianity was born in a very hostile environment. There were contemporaries who would have refuted the Gospel portrait of Jesus — if they could. The leaders of Judaism in the first century tended to view Christianity as a pernicious cult and would have loved for it to be stamped out. And this would have been easy to do, if it was based on fabrications. Show the body of Jesus, and it would be over. But instead, Christianity spread quickly. The disciples preached the gospel to people who were eyewitnesses to the things they claimed Jesus did and said. How could they fabricate it? Those who were opposed to Christianity still did not deny that Jesus did miracles and did not deny that His tomb was empty. The facts are not questioned — but what is questioned is how the facts were established. Opponents claimed that Jesus did what He did either through trickery or the power of Satan and the disciples stole the body of Jesus, but what motive would they have?
All in all, the Gospels are generally good sources for history, and that has nothing to do with them being inspired or God’s Word. Just history. So if it is history, we must decide. Is Jesus a demonic charlatan tricking people into faith, and getting crucified for it, or is he the Lord which He and His followers claimed he was?
Source: Letters From a Skeptic (Boyd) and God in the Dock (Lewis)
4 What About the Rest of the Bible?
If the Gospels are “good” history, what about the rest of the Bible? The gospels are the central climax to the scriptures. They are the answer to the Old Testament waiting for a messiah. The epistles in the NT are the outworking of how to live because of what the Gospels said. If the Gospels are not legit, the rest of the Bible is not worth reading.
In many ways, Jesus’ view of the Scriptures of his people would have fallen exactly in line with the attitudes of his fellow Jews. He seems to have adopted the identical body of authoritative documents as the Judaism of his world. He quotes from all three major sections of the Hebrew Bible (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) and from all three major kinds of laws, as Christians would later define them (the moral, civil, and ceremonial). Furthermore, he alludes to still more texts and treats them consistently as authoritative for both himself and his audience (John 10:35). He sees God as the ultimate author of the Bible and views Scripture’s words as God’s words.
Jesus appears to have viewed Old Testament narratives as historical. He frequently appeals to the events in the lives of key Old Testament individuals to support his teaching or justify his behavior. He can take it for granted that his listeners share his conviction that these things really happened, and that they were recorded to provide authoritative models of good and bad behavior for God’s people in later eras. For example, he recalls those who persecuted God’s prophets in past times (Matt. 5:12 par.). He cites Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom as paradigms of ancient evil cities (11:21-24 par.). He accepts that Jonah remained alive in the great fish’s belly and went on to preach to a repentant Nineveh, and he believes the Queen of Sheba actually lived and visited Solomon (12:40-42 par.). Likewise, he refers back to the days of Noah and then of Lot and the catastrophic destruction that occurred around each of them (24:37-39 par.). He reflects on the ministries of Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:25-27) and appeals to the account of Moses erecting a bronze snake in the wilderness (John 3:14). He believes that God provided manna for the Israelites during that same period of wanderings (6:32, 49, 58). Finally, he assumes the historical truth of a broad cross-section of Old Testament narratives when he makes the sweeping pronouncement that his generation will experience all the judgment due “for all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah” (Matt. 23:35; cf. Luke 11:50-51).
In sum, we see in Jesus’ view of the Old Testament God’s word to the world, as evidenced by his citation of a wide selection of texts, even if not always in ways with which his Jewish contemporaries would have agreed. What we do not see in Christ’s teachings based on the Bible of his people is anything that would point to a canon within a canon — viewing only certain parts of the Bible as authoritative. To be sure, like other rabbis Jesus can recognize some books as more central than others and distinguish between the lighter and the weightier parts of Scripture (Matt. 23:23 par.). But all the Bible remains inspired, and all God’s laws must be obeyed. At the same time, none of it can be obeyed until we see how the arrival of the new covenant has changed things. To take just two examples that go beyond the gospels and Jesus’ teaching we see no tithe for believers but sacrificial generosity that makes ten percent too little for many (2Cor. 8:13-15). We see no gleaning, but we see enough care for the poor to make us look for equivalent processes that help the poor be able to help themselves.
Crucial, too, is how Jesus treats “Scripture” as a singular, unified document. He does not distinguish between the inerrant and the errant, between matters of faith and practice on the one hand and matters of history or science on the other. We dare not make any Old Testament passage teach on a topic it did not intend to address. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we should adopt his view of the Scriptures—their completely divine origin, reliability, and authority in our lives.
How did we get the Bible, anyway?
The Canon of Scripture
Key Concept: Scripture = Holy Writings. Canon = List, Greek “a straight stick, or yardstick.” Something to measure with or by. Metaphorically, a rule or norm or principle. Or, a list that gives guidance. Think “Catalog.”
The Hebrew Bible (Jewish Canon)
1. Jewish collection #1 – Translated into Greek 250BC to 50 BC. Additional books added as scripture.
2. Septuagint (LXX) – Jewish Collection #2. Legend that 70 translators worked separate and ended with 70 copies of an identical translation.
3. Vulgate – Basically, the same as the LXX, but in Latin.
Where are the extras? Books in the Hebrew Bible — Protocanonical for the Roman Catholics, OT for the Protestants. Extras in LXX, not Hebrew, Deuterocanonical for the Roman Catholics, Apocrypha for the Protestants.
Luther and the Reformers: To the Sources (Ad fontes). Not the Vulgate. Not the LXX, but the Hebrew Bible. (Even though the LXX is what Jesus and Paul read).
The Apocrypha – “Good books for God’s people to read”
Tobit & Judith (a lot like the book for Ruth). Additions to Esther. Wisdom of Solomon. Ecclessiasticus (The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach). Baruch. Letter of Jeremiah. Prayer of Azariah & the Song of the Three Young Men. Susanna. Bel and the Dragon. 1 & 2 Maccabees. 1 Esdras. Prayer of Manesseh. 2 Esdras.
Moving from Scripture to the Bible
- The Scripture of early Christianity: The Jewish Bible (Old Testament)
From Scripture to “Scripture, Gospel, and Apostle
- The writings of Paul were traded from church to church.
- The Gospel was shared orally. 30-40 years after, when they became old, they started to write it down.
- The beginnings of a growing collection of authoritative documents, yet no canon.
- From Scripture to “Canon”: Initial Stages.
Marcion: The first known Canon of Scripture
Believer in Jesus, whose outlook on life was fundamentally Greek, not Jewish. Believed that matter was evil because God created the Earth in the beginning, this God must be evil as well. Forms two ideas of God. The God of the OT and the Spiritual Jesus (150 AD). Believed that Jesus wasn’t really human, but a spirit that seemed to be human. Believed that Paul’s writings were good, but only the things that were not connected to the OT (Started at Luke 3).
The Church’s reaction to Marcion:
Central Core: Four Gospels, 13 letters of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter
Variable Fringe: 2nd John, 3rd John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, Hebrews, Revelation, Gospel of Hebrews, Gospel of Peter [Apostolic Fathers – Didache, 1 & 2 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Letters of Barnabas], Acts of Paul & Thecla, Apocalpyse of Peter.
How it was determined if a book was “Canon” or not:
Age: From the time of the Apostles.
Catholicity: Widespread acceptance and usage.
Rule of Faith: Oral summary of critical apostolic teaching agreement.
What about Inspiration? Only Revelation has a claim to be inspired. We have to conclude that all the books are inspired.
The Beginning of the end of Canons:
Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter (367 AD) – first list of 27 books that matches our New Testament.
There was recognition that the Canon is bottom up, not top down. Reporting what the church was using, not telling what should be.
If the Gospels are “good” history — then the rest of the Bible is too. The Gospels, as history, tell us that Jesus lived, God was in Him, He did miracles, died, and his body was never to be found.
So where do we go from here?