The Case for Christianity

Part 1

The Historicity of the Bible

Is the Bible historically reliable?

Introduction

In our first newsletter[1] I covered the topic of defending the faith, known in theology as 'apologetics'. The term 'apologetics' comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning "a defense". First Peter 3:15 says

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.

In the newsletter I discussed what apologetics can accomplish regarding the truth of Christianity in answering honest questions, exposing dishonest questions, and building the faith of believers. I also discussed how the Bible not only commands us to defend the faith in 1 Peter 3:15 but is full of examples, primarily in Acts, of the first Christians doing just that. In engaging others in a reasoned discussion about the evidence for Christianity, we are following the instruction and example of the apostles in the beginning. As Jude admonishes,

I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

While in the first newsletter I gave a defense of defending the faith in arguing for the legitimacy of apologetics itself, in this newsletter I want to give content to our apologetic task and begin setting forth the historical case for Christianity.[2]

The Argument

Perhaps it would serve us well to lay out in the broadest terms of what the case for Christianity consists. My argument will consist of defending three premises[3]:

  1. The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document of history.
  2. On the basis of this we have sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
  3. Jesus Christ teaches that the Bible is the very Word of God.
Conclusion: Since the Bible is the Word of God, then Christianity is true.[4]

It is important to notice that the argument is not circular.[5] The first premise is not assuming that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but, rather, it is claiming that, according to the standard tools of judging the historical reliability of ancient documents, the Bible is substantiated as historically reliable and trustworthy.

This newsletter and next month's newsletter will seek to defend this premise. I will discuss two issues; how we know that the Bible we have today is what was originally written, and how we know that what was written really happened.

The following newsletters will address premises two and three. Premise two will use the historical evidence about Jesus Christ grounded in premise one and argue that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus is the Son of God; God in the flesh. The argument will address such issues as the famous Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma, the "Sages" argument, and evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

In premise three I will discuss what Jesus believed about the Bible. I will argue that Jesus taught that the Old Testament is the Word of God, and that Jesus pre-authenticated the writing of the New Testament; the apostles being commissioned by Him to be His spokesmen. Since Jesus is the Son of God, then it is reasonable to believe what He believed about the Scriptures. Since the Bible teaches Christianity, then Christianity is true.

Before I discuss the particulars of the historical case for Christianity, there is one point that I must touch on regarding the distinctions between historical aspects of the apologetic task and philosophical aspects of the apologetic task.

History versus Philosophy

There is one crucial point we need to understand and remember throughout these discussions on the historicity of the Bible. There is a critical difference between historical objections to Christianity and philosophical objections to Christianity. Arguments for Christianity are not served by conflating these two issues. If you discuss the case for Christianity with someone who has philosophical objections, then these historical arguments I will be discussing in this series may not be what he needs to hear. Examples of philosophical objections would be the denial of the existence of God and the denial of the possibility of miracles. Let me explain further why I believe it is absolutely crucial that these issues of the philosophical and historical objections remain distinct. Suppose you presented strong historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead (which hope to present in this series). It would not do for someone to object to your historical evidence on the basis of the fact that people don't rise from the dead. Whether resurrection from the dead is possible is NOT an historical issue but a philosophical one. You would dispense with the philosophical objection by proving the existence of God and the possibility of miracles. But once someone has conceded the existence of God and the possibility of miracles, then the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead is an historical one.

One more example may help to drive this point home. I encountered an argument that the prophet Isaiah could not have written part of the book of Isaiah because certain parts of the book mentioned Cyrus who lived 200 years after Isaiah lived. I presented this argument to my students to illustrate the differences between philosophical and historical assumptions. I had my students brainstorm about the assumptions of the argument.

For example, the argument assumes that the Cyrus in the book of Isaiah is the same Cyrus who lived later than Isaiah. This is a historical issue. In addition, the argument assumes that Isaiah did not live later than we thought, or that Cyrus did not live earlier than we thought. Again, these are historical issues. The argument also assumes that Isaiah could not have known the future. Now what kind of issue is the possibility of knowing the future? It is certainly not an historical issue, but rather a philosophical one.

Thus, the literary critic or historian would advance his conclusions that Isaiah could not have written the parts of Isaiah that mention Cyrus based upon the philosophical assumption that people cannot know the future, for which he has offered no defense. All the while his readers will be persuaded to accept what they think are the assured conclusions of literary and historical analysis and will not recognize the philosophical assumptions that are hidden within his argument. They think he is doing history when he is really doing philosophy.

We must insist upon this distinction because the tools of historical analysis are different from the tools of philosophical analysis.[6] What happens all too often is that a critic of Christianity will disguise his philosophical objections as historical ones. And if you are trying to answer his seemingly historical objections (which are really philosophical ones) with the tools of historical analysis, your inability to do so will look to him as an intellectual weakness in the case for Christianity. Thus, it is important to bear in mind throughout your defense of Christianity this distinction between philosophical issues and historical issues.

A Defense of Premise One

Premise one claims that the Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document of history. As I have said, I am not claiming at this point that the Bible is inspired. I am only claiming that the Bible is a trustworthy document of history.

The issue of the Bible's historical reliability is really asking two questions. First, "Is the Bible that we have today an accurate copy of the original Bible?" In other words, "Do we have what they wrote?" I will refer to this issue as historicity. The second question asks "Did what the biblical writers write really happen?" It is not enough to know that the Matthew we have today is the book that Matthew wrote. We have to show why it is reasonable to believe that what Matthew wrote really took place. I will refer to this issue as Authenticity.

I will discuss the first of these two questions in this newsletter and answer the second question next month. For the most part my discussion will concentrate on the New Testament. I do this for several reasons, including space constraints and the fact that the substantiation of the Old Testament can come from the application of premise three in Jesus' teaching about the Old Testament.

When we examine the historical reliability of the New Testament, we seek to apply certain standards of critique that one would apply to any document of the ancient world. What is important in this analysis is how the New Testament compares to other works of the ancient world whose historicity is seldom called into question. Historian F. F. Bruce comments

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical author, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.[7]

It was not until half way through the course work for my doctorate in Philosophy that I heard any question about the historical reliability of any ancient philosophical writer. This is not to say that there never is any question about ancient documents. It is revealing, however, that many scholars maintain a double standard in judging the historical reliability of the Bible. Its historicity is constantly called into question, I think unfairly. I am convinced that most people's objections to the Bible are moral and philosophical, not historical.

The Historicity of The New Testament

Concerning the historicity of the New Testament, there are three relevant points to consider.

  1. The Time Gap - the time gap between the original writing of the New Testament and oldest existing manuscripts of the New Testament, as compared to other writings from the ancient world.
  2. The Number of Manuscripts - the number of existing manuscripts of the New Testament, as compared to other writings from the ancient world.
  3. Quotes - quotes of the New Testament from early Christian writings.

The Time Gap
The original manuscripts of the New Testament have long since dissolved, as with the other original works from the ancient world. Before the originals disappeared, copies were made in order to make the works more accessible. Invariably, these copies began to dissolve due primarily to the physical deterioration of the materials upon which they were written. Thus a time gap developed between when the original work was written and the oldest existing (referred to as extant, the opposite of extinct) copy of the original. All things being equal, the closer the copy is to the original, the more accurate it is regarded as being, presumably because there has been less time for mistakes to creep in during transmission.

With this in mind, how does the New Testament compare with other works from the ancient world regarding the time gap?[8] There were several historians of the ancient world whose works are read today. Thucydides, who wrote History of the Peloponnesian War, lived from 460 BC to 400 BC. Virtually everything we know about the war comes from this writing of Thucydides. The earliest copy of any manuscripts of Thucydides' work dates around 900 AD, making a time gap of 1,300 years. The Roman historian Suetonius lived around AD 70 to AD 140. The earliest copy of his work The Twelve Caesars dates around AD 950, making a time gap of about 800 years. In the chart below you can see the time gaps of other works from the ancient world.

Author         When Written     Earliest Copy   Time Span     # of copies

Caesar         100 - 44 BC         900 AD       1,000 years        10

Tacitus        AD 100            1,100 AD       1,000 years        20

Pliny          AD 61 - 113         850 AD         750 years         7
  (History)

Herodotus      480 - 425 BC        900 AD       1,300 years         8
  (History)

Aristotle      384 - 322 BC      1,100 AD       1,400 years         5

How does the time gap of the New Testament compare to these works? There are a number of manuscripts of the New Testament which, for all practical purposes, eliminates any significant time gap. The John Ryland Manuscript, located in the John Ryland Library of Manchester, England and the oldest known fragment of the New Testament, is dated AD 130, within 40 years of the original. It contains fragments of the gospel of John.

Other, more extensive, copies of the New Testament include the Chester Beatty Papyri[10], containing major portions of the New Testament and dated early 3rd century, the Bodmer Papyrus, dated late 2nd century, the Codex Sinaiticus[11], dated AD 350, and the Codex Vaticanus, dated AD 325 - AD 350. Some of the codices contain the entire New Testament. It can be seen that, as far as the time gap between the original writing of the New Testament and the earliest extant manuscripts, there is no work from the ancient world which can compare to the New Testament. As Sir Frederic Kenyon says

The net result of this discovery [of the Chester Beatty Papyri] ... is, in fact, to reduce the gap between the earlier manuscripts and the traditional dates of the New Testament books so far that it becomes negligible in any discussion of their authenticity. No other ancient book has anything like such an early and plentiful testimony to its text.[12]

Kenyon goes on to rightly conclude

... no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.[13]

The Number of manuscripts
Not only does a comparison of the time gap show that the New Testament is unparalleled in the ancient world, but a comparison of the number of manuscripts shows the superiority of the New Testament as well. Many works of the ancient world are preserved in just a few manuscripts. There are seven manuscripts of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War and eight of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars. The chart above also shows the number of manuscripts of other ancient works.

The number of New Testament manuscripts by comparison is overwhelming. There are in existence around 5,000 Greek manuscripts, 8,000 Latin, and 1,000 versions from other languages, making 14,000 manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament.

The significance of having a larger number of manuscripts as far as confirming the integrity of the text is this: the greater the number of manuscripts of an ancient document, the more certain the reading of the original can be ascertained. Suppose someone gave you a copy of a telegram written to you which said

As you read the copy you feel quite certain that what you have won is one million dollars, and that the number sign was merely a copyist's error. However, suppose that you received another copy of the telegram which read With this additional copy you are more certain of your conclusion about the original telegram, since the 'd' is present in the second copy where it was missing from the first, and the 'm' is present in the first where it is missing from the second.

It is in this manner that literary scholars ascertain the reading of the original writing of an ancient document. Obviously, the more manuscripts in existence to cross reference, the more reliable your reading of the original can be. Thus, with the New Testament, it can be concluded

It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially is this the case with the New Testament.[15]

Quotes
All that we have said thus far puts the historical reliability of the New Testament beyond all doubt. What we have is what they wrote. But the case for the integrity of the New Testament does not stop there. During the first generation of Christian leaders, referred to as the Church Fathers, we find numerous quotes of the New Testament from their personal correspondence. For example, Clement of Alexandria, who lived about AD 150 - AD 212, has 2,406 quotes from all but three books of the New Testament. Tertullian, who was an elder of the church in Carthage and who lived around AD 160 - AD 220, quotes the New Testament 7,258 times. Of these quotes, around 3,800 are from the gospels. Other quotes from Church fathers include Justin Martyr, 330 quotes; Irenaeus, 1,819 quotes; Origen, 17,922 quotes, Hippolytus, 1,378 quotes; and Eusebius, 5,176 quotes, making a total of 36,289 quotes of the New Testament.

What is interesting and significant about these numerous quotes of the New Testament is that you could destroy all the manuscripts of the New Testament, and destroy all the New Testaments in existence in the world, and you could reproduce all but eleven verses of the New Testament from these quotes of the Church Fathers.

Thus, when it comes to checking and cross checking the readings of the New Testament, it stands as the most historically attested to work of the ancient world.

Conclusion

The first of several steps has been taken to establish the case for Christianity. There can be no doubt that the New Testament we have today is as it was written by the original writers. Our next task will be to defend the notion that it is reasonable to believe that what they wrote actually took place.


Notes
[1] Write to us for back copies of our newsletters while they last. Number one, volume one dealt with why Christians should defend the faith; numbers two and three of volume one examined the nature and marks of the cults, and numbers four and five of volume one explained the dangers of the New Age movement.
[2] The title "The Case for Christianity" was inspired by a book by Michael Martin attacking the evidences and truthfulness of Christianity entitled "The Case Against Christianity" (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).
[3] The form of my argument is based on an argument by the Christian apologist R. C. Sproul in his article "The Case for Inerrancy: A Methodological Analysis" in John Warwick Montgomery, ed. God's Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1973): 242-261.
[4] At this point I am not discussing the issue of God's existence. The issue of God's existence is more fundamental than the issue of the truth of Christianity. That is, one must believe that there is a God before one can believe that Christianity is true (unless one comes to both beliefs at the same time). Since many people that we encounter already believe in the existence of God, you will find more opportunity to use the historical approach. I hope to deal with arguments for God's existence in a future newsletter.
[5] For a discussion of the fallacy of circular reasoning see the below follwing example in "... with all your mind" in this newsletter.
[6] What these different tools are does not concern us at this point. It is only important to bear in mind that doing philosophy is different than doing history.
[7] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988): 15.
[8] The following numbers and dates are from F.W. Hall, "MS Authorities for the Text of the Chief Classical Writers," in Companion to Classical Text (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1913) as cited in Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972): 48; from Bruce, The New Testament Documents, pp. 16-17; and from Bruce Manning Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968): 36-41.
[9] The discovery of this fragment proves the early composition of the fourth gospel, contrary to what liberal scholars were teaching in the 19th century about the New Testament. The fragment, being found in Egypt and dated on paleographical grounds, indicates that John's gospel had, by AD 130, circulated from the Ephesus in Asia Minor where it was written, to as far away as Egypt. This would have been impossible if the gospel had been written by someone other than John in the middle part of the 2nd century as, for example the 19th century scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur of the Tubingen School, was claiming.
[10] The term 'papyri' is the plural of 'papyrus' and refers to the material out of which a particular manuscript is made. Papyrus is a plant which was used to make a paper for manuscripts. Another material used for manuscripts was called 'vellum', and was made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats, and antelopes.
[11] The term 'codex' refers to manuscripts in the form of a book with leaves, as opposed to rolled up scrolls as earlier manuscripts were.
[12] Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, The Bible and Modern Scholarship (London: John Murray, 1948): 20, as cited in McDowell, Evidence, p. 49.
[13] Kenyon, The Bible, as cited in McDowell, Evidence, p. 49. [14] I got this example from the Christian apologist Norman L. Geisler.
[15] Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941): 23, as cited in McDowell, Evidence, p. 45.


"... with all your mind." Matthew 22:37

I introduced the article "... with all your mind." in our September, 1993 newsletter. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus responded by saying that man ought to love God with all his heart, soul and mind. One of the ways in which Christians can better love God with our minds is making sure that when we employ our minds, we do so with integrity, honesty, and soundness. Sometimes we fail to do so, and sometimes others do too. In an attempt to heed Jesus' command, and help us avoid the pitfalls of unsound reasoning, I wanted to comment on a series of informal fallacies that one would encounter in the open market place of ideas.

One common fallacy of reasoning that one can encounter is circular reasoning, sometimes called begging the question, or more technically, petitio principii. You commit this fallacy when you assume your conclusion in order to prove your conclusion, i.e., when you use what you are trying to prove in order to prove what you are trying to prove.

The story is told of a man who exclaimed "Did you know that Frank talks to angels!" His friend asked, "How do you know Frank talks to angels?" "Because he told me so." the man responded. "How do you know that Frank wasn't lying?" the friend pressed. And with the classic petitio principii the man answered, "Would a man who talks to angels lie?" The fallacy is easy to see. In order to prove that Frank talks to angels the man used the fact that Frank talks to angels. This certainly won't do. Unfortunately, many occurances of the circular reasoning fallacy are not so easily spotted. It is important in defending the faith that we avoid such fallacies in our reasoning as well. It won't do to argue that we know the Bible is true because the Bible says so. It is imperative for us to give reasons for believing so.


Copyright 1994 by The Issachar Institute. All rights reserved. Displayed here with permission.

Part 2: The Authenticity of the Bible.
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