Earlier in the week, I watched a debate between Christian scholar Dr. Michael Licona and atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. Sadly, I do not feel Licona did a good job debating Erhman. The debate was on whether the Gospels were historically reliable. Honestly, Licona did a good job explaining how an actual historian views ancient manuscripts. However, during his actual debate with Ehrman, he conceded to ridiculous, fallacious arguments put forward by Ehrman. I am continually amazed at how agnostic/atheists, critics, and skeptic scholars commit heinous fallacies without even blinking an eye. If you watch the debate, you will notice that Ehrman presents his argument for viewing the Gospels alone, we are not even allowed to compare them to any other writings, we cannot interpret them, if they do not say something then it did not happen, we are only allowed to read the Gospels in English, and we have to approach the Gospels with modern worldview presuppositions.* Today, this is how most scholars are teaching their students in secular colleges (as well as in a few divinity schools and seminaries). The truth is, the Bible is completely reliable, historically, socially, economically, and theologically. This is why Paul charges Timothy to be prepared, in season and out, to preach the word (2 Tim 4:1-5 CSB). The Word itself is God-breathed, inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16 CSB). God prepared it for us to be able to know Him, to teach, rebuke, correct, and be trained in all righteousness (2 Tim 3:16 CSB). It’s also why the authors of the Westminster Confession stated, in regards to the whole of the Scriptures, that
“the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6.1).
As the evidence will show, the Bible is more reliable than any other source for history. The evidence will also show that God has worked in and through history, proving that Christianity and the Bible are reliable, authoritative, and completely accurate for today.
To understand the reliability of the Bible, we have to approach them as any good historian would. First, we need to be aware of several fallacies, especially those made by the agnostic/atheist, critic, and skeptic scholars make and make sure to avoid them. One of the first things to know about the Bible is that it is a historical document. What this means is it is prima facie (at first view). In other words, the Bible records history, which means we do not need to accept outside material as more historical in nature, or more authoritative in regards to describing historical facts (Barrick 2008, 16). Unfortunately, critics and skeptics do this all the time. If the Bible records a historical event, such as the census by Caesar Augustus and the governing of Syria by Quirinius, the critic and skeptic look at other sources during the time, find no record of a census and conclude that the Bible is incorrect and the other sources are more authoritative in their telling of the events; in regards to Quirinius as governor, they state that Luke was wrong because of the dating of Jesus’ birth and that Josephus was correct, yet they do not wonder whether Luke was correct and Josephus was wrong (Luke 2:1-3 CSB; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). We also need to avoid the fallacy of arguing from silence. If there is silence in the Bible we have to find out why; we cannot just determine that the silence means that nothing happened. We also cannot make any over-generalizations, in other words, history is done in a very specific way. The past did not just happen in a vacuum. We cannot expect to think that the Bible is not reliable because it left material out, or shortened certain events, or even reorganized them. Doing historical research is best explained in the way Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris (2010, 12-13) do in their book on historical methodology; Furay and Salevouris stated that history is like walking in a dark landscape where you have a spotlight that only lights up sections at a time. All you want is to be able to see the whole thing, however, you can only see what the spotlight shines into view for you (Ibid.). This is how historians perceive history, they are unable to completely see the whole, instead, they are only able to imagine the whole with the small amount they can see. John says something similar in his Gospel when he explains to his audience about all of the deeds of Jesus, John states that the world would not be able to hold them (John 21:25 CSB).
Oral Tradition into Written Tradition or A Brief History of How the Bible Became Written
Doing history prior to the 15th-century is a bit difficult. This is mostly due (as is true for all nations’ histories, including America’s) to the fact that these earlier nations and cultures had passed their histories down verbally, to which at some point someone believed these stories to be important enough to have been written down. This is known as oral history. This is where the problem of manuscripts comes in and why historians, as well as the rest of us, need the field of textual criticism. This is a field of science that takes various copies of manuscripts, like the ones behind the modern English Bible, compare them together, and decide what the original (also known as an autograph from the German which loosely means author’s original work) said. This means, unfortunately, that anything pre-15th-century, or ancient works, are copies of the original works (Presnell 2007, 122). What makes this difficult is that many times the copies may have been altered, whether on accident or on purpose, leaving the text critic and historian to decide what the original may have actually said. What is good about this, especially for the Bible, is that the more copies there are the more precise the text critic can be on discovering what the original said, as well as knowing that there were more people who could read them as well (Ibid., 123). This also means that the knowledge of how important the message of the manuscript was weighed on the people of the time the copy came from (Ibid.).
For us, then, it is the same with the Kingdom of God. God spoke, the universe and mankind came into being, Abraham and his descendants acted, Moses moved, and a nation bowed to the power of Him by releasing His people from their slavery (Pelikan 2005, 9-11). The same should be said of the New Testament. Paul recounts the words of Jesus when he expresses to the Church at Corinth about the Lord’s Supper as being instituted by Christ Himself (Ibid., 18). Paul says,
and when he had given thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24-25 CSB).
Peter told his congregation that the Bible had been orally passed on by the Word of the Holy Spirit,
No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20b-21 CSB).
In regards to showing the oral history of the early church, Paul tells the Church at Corinth, again, how he had passed on to them the Gospel, which he, himself, had received:
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me (1 Cor 15:1-8 CSB).
And Paul tells the various churches in Galatia, possibly the earliest written document of the New Testament, how he received his Gospel (that is, for us, here, his oral history):
I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who had become apostles before me; instead I went to Arabia and came back to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas,and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I didn’t see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother…Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas,taking Titus along also. I went up according to a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those recognized as leaders. I wanted to be sure I was not running, and had not been running, in vain…On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised, since the one at work in Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in me for the Gentiles. When James, Cephas, and John—those recognized as pillars—acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I had made every effort to do (Gal 1:17-19; 2:1-2, 7-10 CSB).
Luke also, in his Gospel (which I believe one of his major sources was Paul), gives an example of the passing of the early churches’ oral history on to his community:
Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4 CSB).
And Peter also tells his congregation about how he passed on orally the message of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. Peter explained that they did not pass on myths, but that they were actually there, they saw and heard everything. Peter even reminds his audience about being present at the Transfiguration of Jesus and hearing God give his approval of Christ:
For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased!” We ourselves heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18 CSB).
From oral to written was a process that took time. For Marcus Borg (2012, 11), a Liberal Christian and former New Testament Scholar and Jesus Seminar Fellow, the world of the New Testament may have only had, roughly, five percent of people who were literate (this is debatable). Borg (2012, 12) also holds that the only reason the Gospels were written down was two-fold: to preserve a Christian Communities tradition in regards to Jesus and due to the process of early institutionalization of some churches. Borg (Ibid.) holds that oral history in the Christian tradition “involved memory, development, and testimony” making it a communal process. One of the things that would have helped in the ability of the oral tradition to become written is an example from the New Testament. Jesus was a rabbi, who moved around the land of Palestine teaching and preaching the Tanakh. In order for his close students, the twelve disciples, to remember His words, Jesus taught in aphorisms and parables, which he would have done several times. In other words, Jesus, more than likely, repeated all that is recorded in the four different Gospels more than once to different audiences all over Palestine (Borg 2012, 13; Howard 2010, 1596; Keener 2009, 149).
The biggest part of any culture’s oral tradition has to do with memorization. Craig S. Keener (2009, 139-152), in his book on the Historical Jesus, states that in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, memorization by disciples of teachers and rabbis was a critical part of their education, more so than having something written by the teacher (though, the oral portion was more important in the Jewish world than in the Roman). In the Greco-Roman world, it was not uncommon for people, ie. Seneca, to work extraneously hard to memorize names, sayings, teaching, and even lifestyles of their master teachers (Ibid.). Keener (Ibid.), gave an example of the students of Pythagoras who would not even get out of bed until they had completely recited, by memory, everything they had learned in class the day before. Josephus (Life of Josephus 2; Against Apion 1.2; 2.17; Keener 2009, 149) even mentions how the Jews worked extremely hard to memorize the whole of the Torah.
The rabbis would expect their students to be able to memorize their teachings and be able to recite them back; this was done through repetition (Keener 2009, 149). In the oral history of Jesus and his Gospel that His disciples passed on was mostly, if not completely, inflexible (Ibid., 150). In Judaism, eyewitnesses were more important in the reliability of the passing on of the oral history, which passed on through early Christianity (Ibid., 139). What was important to the memorization, especially when it comes to the Gospels and to the oral tradition passed on within the early Church, was that the “gist” of the events and sayings was made since verbatim sayings was slightly improbable (Ibid., 150). Also, it was not uncommon for both the Greco-Roman world and the Jewish one to have some who would be able to take notes, to be able to polish up the lectures, sayings, and speeches to publish them for their teachers later on (Ibid., 148-149). The Apostles came from this world, they sat at Jesus’ feet, learned how He lived, what he taught, saw why He came and placed it all to memory. The message of the Bible is reliable because the process that was used to safeguard it was predetermined by God. That means, simply, God has kept His message safe, from beginning to end. Thus, the Scriptures are historically and theologically reliable.
* I need to make a single disclaimer here about the approach of Ehrman’s points from the debate. First, Ehrman is not an actual historian, though he does teach NT history at UNC (and all the Duke fans now understand the problem with Ehrman). He is a textual critic, which means he deals, mostly, with finding the original texts of the Bible. This means that he does need to know some history. Second, an actual historian would never approach an ancient document as Ehrman speaks of in the debate. To do proper history, historians must compare different documents from the same time period, this is done to help corroborate the reliability of the document, in other words, is the document telling the truth in events it gives of the time period of which it is said to be written in (Marius and Page 2010, 49-54; Presnell 2007, 130). History is all about interpretation, you cannot do history without this. The best way to explain this is is that historians evaluate their sources and make inferences based on the evidence (Marius and Page 2010, 49-54). When the text is silent, then the historian begins to question why. Erhman makes the fallacy of arguing from silence. Historians want to know why an author did not say something, was it due to ignorance, was it to make a statement, or was it on purpose for whatever reasons we may never know (Presnell 2007, 130). The silence is another reason why comparing different primary sources together is important. Ehrman knows better than to infer on his audience to only use the English translations, mostly because he is a textual critic. Historians know that ancient documents are best understood when read in their original language (Ibid., 122). Ehrman also knows that we cannot truly approach the Bible, as an ancient document, with 21st-century mindsets. To do so corrupts the original message of the material. The best historians know what their biasses and presuppositions are before they approach any historical material so they can keep the original message as pure as possible (Ibid., 88-89). If you want to see a better debate, check out the one I linked in my previous post between Daniel B. Wallace and Bart Ehrman on whether the original writings of the New Testament are forever lost. Also, if you want to watch a great lecture on the oral history of the early church, then watch this video by Darrell L. Bock:
The Bearded Scholar
Barrick, William D. 2008. “Exegetical Fallacies: Common Interpretive Mistakes Every Studen Must Avoid.” In Master’s Seminary Journal 19, no. 1 (Spring): 15-27. https://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj19a.pdf.
Borg, Marcus J. 2012. Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. New York: Harper One.
Furay, Conal and Michael J. Salevouris. 2010. Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Howard, Jeremy Royal. 2010. “Origin, Transmission, and Canonization of the New Testament Books.” In HCSB Study Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.
Keener, Craig S. 2009. Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Marius, Richard and Melvin E. Page. 2010. Short Guide to Writing About History. New York: Longman.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. 2005Whose Bible is it?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages. New York: Vikings.
Presnell, Jenny L. 2007. Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. New York: Oxford University Press.