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Can the Bible Be Believed Today?
The passages below are taken from John Young with David Wilkinson’s book “The Case Against Christ” first published in 1986. This edition is 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton.
Men turn this way and that in their search for new sources of comfort and inspiration, but the enduring truths are to be found in the Word of God.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
A local radio station conducted street interviews---‘vox pop'---on the Bible. A wide range of views emerged, from the very positive to the very negative. One person dismissed it as `a multi-million-pound con-job'.
The Bible is certainly the world's bestseller---streets ahead of J K Rowling or Jackie Collins. But as millions of the Bibles which tumble from the world's presses are given away, no one is likely to make a great fortune from its success.
Can we believe the Bible today? Understandably, many people feel unsure about its reliability. After all, it's a very old book which was shaped by the Church. Bestsellers such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code give a novel interpretation of its message. Even some theologians have cast doubt on its historicity and authenticity.
If they are right, this is extremely damaging to the Christian Faith, for we are largely dependent upon the New Testament for our information about Jesus. The four Gospels---Matthew, Mark, Luke and John---are the only place where we find anything like a full account of his ministry.
Certainly, it is less detailed than we might wish. But is it an accurate account? This is the crucial question. Christianity demands that we should rearrange our priorities and re-evaluate our lifestyle. In return, we are right to demand that it should produce strong credentials.
A. Based on accurate records?
The procedure for assessing the reliability of the New Testament is the same as for any other important ancient document, when the original no longer exists. There are two vital factors, both of which depend on the discovery of copies of the original.
• The first factor involves the number of copies which have been found.
• The second concerns the age of these copies: the time lag between the original document and the copies which now exist is very important.
Take, for example, an ancient battle. Details of the battle were recorded. This record was then copied several times and circulated among officials. The original piece of papyrus or parchment recording the battle was lost, or simply fell to pieces. Some of the copies disappeared in the same way. But some survived.
The diagram below illustrates the process by which ancient manuscripts survive to the present day---or not, as the case may be. The manuscripts which have not been marked with a circle in the diagram have been lost, or worn out, or destroyed. We do not have the actual piece of papyrus on which Luke wrote his Gospel---or the paper on which Shakespeare wrote his plays.
Some striking facts and figures
The problem facing modern historians is this: how can they tell whether the copies which have survived to the present day are accurate copies of the original? The same procedure applies whether the event is a battle, or a voyage, or a life---the life of Christ, for example.
We can be confident that we possess an accurate record when:
(1) We find several copies which are basically similar, and
(2) The copies we have were penned fairly near in time to the date of the original document.
A time span which seems great to us will satisfy the experts, provided there are enough copies to enable them to cross-check. (Provided, also, that these copies were not all taken from the same earlier copy.) The table below compares the four Gospels with some other famous ancient manuscripts.
In order to get the strength of the evidence for the Gospels, we invite you to put your own estimates in the spaces marked with an asterisk in the diagram. We shall consider the bottom line (D) first.
A. Date of original
B. Oldest surviving
(plus a few 1st
C. Approximate time between
A and B
(fragments 400 years)
* 285 years
D. Number of ancient copies in existence today
1. How many copies exist?
It's not easy to find an accurate figure for the number of existing ancient hand-written copies of the Gospels in Greek (the language in which they were originally written). For an earlier edition of this book, John wrote to Tyndale House in Cambridge, a centre which specialises in biblical research. Their experts could not give an accurate figure. They said the list is far too long to count!
For copies made before AD 1000, they suggested the phrase `many hundreds, hundreds upon hundreds'. Compare this with ten surviving copies of Caesar's Gallic War in the above table, and you can see that the Gospel records about Jesus Christ are in a different league altogether.
2. Mind the gap!
Now to the time factor. There are two existing copies of the New Testament dated AD 350---less than three hundred years after the original. This compares very favourably with the 1300, 900, and 700 years for the other books listed in the table (see row C).
One of these very old copies of the New Testament is in the Vatican Library. The other is in the British Museum. The British Government bought this from the Soviet Government on Christmas Day 1933, for £100,000---a tremendous bargain! (Russia continues to hold, in St Petersburg, the oldest surviving complete copy of the Hebrew Scriptures.)
When we take into account incomplete copies of the New Testament, the situation is even more impressive. A few excellent manuscripts are 100 to 200 years earlier still. Some of the Chester Beatty and Bodmer Papyri are dated before AD 250. Each of these contains copies of the Gospels. The Bodmer copy of St John was made as early as AD 200 and contains about two thirds of the complete Gospel. The earliest discovery of all is a fragment from John's Gospel that is dated at a breathtaking AD 130 (see page 113).
Incomplete documents are found because portions of some manuscripts were destroyed or lost, and also because scribes sometimes copied only one section of the New Testament. Start copying all twenty-seven books and you will see why!
As with the number, so with the time gap: the evidence for the Gospels is streets ahead of other ancient documents. No one doubts that we have a reliable text of Caesar's Gallic War and the rest. The case for the reliability of the New Testament is far stronger.
Bishop John Robinson is a particularly interesting witness because of his radical credentials. In his book Honest to God, he raised sharp questions about orthodox Christian belief. This sold millions of copies around the world. In his later book Can We Trust the New Testament? he came to this conclusion:
To return to the textual transmission of the New Testament, the wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best-attested text of any ancient writing in the world.
He also draws on the Oxford classical historian, A N Sherwin-White, who `chides New Testament scholars for failing to recognise what, by any comparable standards, excellent sources they have!'
This view is shared by many other scholars:
B. Based on accurate memories?
We can be confident, then, about modern translations of the New Testament. They are based on ancient documents which faithfully record what St Mark and the others wrote. But can we also be sure that the Gospel writers (Evangelists) accurately recorded the life and death of Jesus in the first place?
This apparently straightforward question leads us into a minefield of dispute! According to some theologians, the question itself is misleading. They assert that the four Gospels are concerned with theology, not history. On this view Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were much more interested in the question, `What is the significance of Jesus?' than with the question, `What did Jesus do and say?'
Other theologians disagree. They believe that the Evangelists were interested in both these questions, for an event and its significance (history and theology) belong together. No event, no significance! But it has sometimes been left to experts in ancient history and literature, not theology, to insist on the overall historical reliability of the Gospels.
Four questions take us to the heart of the matter.
1. Could they have invented the material?
Jesus lived in the public eye for three years. Then he was crucified, around AD 30. The Gospels are very largely concerned with those three years.
Mark's Gospel was probably the first to be completed, by about AD 65. It is likely that large parts of Matthew and Luke, especially those parts which record the teaching of Jesus, were written down by AD 50, some twenty years after his death. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul sets out some of the evidence for the resurrection. This was written so soon after the death of Jesus that some of the witnesses were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6). Paul challenged doubters---go and talk to them!
If twenty years seems a long time, we need to remember that 2,000 years ago people were much less concerned with writing than we are today. Their focus was much more on speaking and memorising. Even today, some Muslims memorise the entire Qur'an, their holy book. It is shorter than the Bible, but substantial none the less. Ancient people had no easy access to papyrus, ink or scrolls; and no access at all to computers and DVDs! Memories, stories and sayings were handed on by word of mouth. No wonder Professor Nineham could write about `the wonderfully retentive memory of the Oriental'.
In the days of Jesus, disciples often remembered by rote the teachings of their rabbis. To help them, the rabbis sometimes cast their teachings in poetic form. Jesus certainly did. These `forms' can be seen when passages in the Greek New Testament are translated back into Aramaic, Jesus' mother tongue.
Stories were told and sermons were preached about Jesus from the moment he died. They were written down only when his first disciples began to face death, either from persecution or from natural causes. It was rather like modern professors writing books and articles out of their lecture material.
People who were twenty when Jesus was crucified would have been about forty when the teaching material used by Matthew and Luke was written down and circulated; and about fifty-five when Mark completed his account. Indeed, they may have been younger than that. In Re-dating the New Testament, Bishop John Robinson argues that the Gospels---and other New Testament books---were written a lot earlier than is commonly supposed.
Thousands heard Jesus teach, and saw him in action. Thousands more heard the preaching about him from the time of his death. If one of the preachers had radically altered the account, there would have been an outcry, from friends and from enemies. If the material when written down had been very different from the preaching of the early disciples, a similar protest would have followed.
There were plenty of eyewitnesses. This does not guarantee every item in the Gospels, but it does guarantee their general reliability. Winston Churchill did great things during the Second World War. But if someone now suggested that he had healed the sick or miraculously fed the crowds, his former colleagues would soon dismiss it. (In fact, Winston Churchill's wartime chauffeur is a friend of David's---though much older! David would be able to check out any unlikely sounding stories, immediately.) The span of time since World War II is longer than the gap between Jesus' death and the written records about him.
Another point is raised by the question, could the early preachers, or the Gospel writers, have invented the teaching of Jesus? Quite literally---could they? Or are the sayings so majestic that only someone as great as Jesus could have uttered them? Beverley Nichols made this point very forcibly some years ago:
You cannot deny the reality of this character, in whatever body it resided ... somebody said, `The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath'; somebody said, `For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul'; somebody said, `Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not' . . .
Somebody said these things, because they are staring me in the face at this moment from the Bible. And whoever said them was gigantic. And whoever said them was living ... we cannot find in any contemporary literature any phrases which have a shadow of the beauty, the truth, the individuality, nor the indestructibility of those phrases.
And remember, we have only quoted five sentences at random.
2. Would they have invented the material?
Let's assume for a moment that it was possible for the Gospel writers to invent teaching which they attributed to Jesus. Or that the preachers and storytellers from whom they got their material could have got away with distorting the facts. Even if they had the opportunity, would they have done so?
A good deal of the teaching in the Gospels is about morality, including honesty. Is it likely that some of the finest teaching about honesty which the world has ever known is itself part of a huge lie?
Besides which, the sort of material that the Church's leaders might have been tempted to invent is not included. For example, while the Gospel material was being preached and written, there was a tremendous argument within the Church. Should Gentile Christians be made to keep the Jewish law of circumcision? It nearly split the Church in two.
If Jesus had given clear teaching on this, the matter would have been settled once and for all. But he didn't. So the Gospels don't contain such teaching. An inventor, even a well-meaning one, would almost certainly have included something on this problem. To quote John Robinson again: `There seems to have been a reverence for the remembered speech and acts of Jesus which provided an inbuilt resistance to the temptation to make him merely their mouthpiece or puppet.'
We are not suggesting that human memories of the first century were equivalent to modern tape recorders. Nor that the Gospel writers mechanically recorded everything they were told about Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Each of the Evangelists approached events in the life of Jesus in an individual manner. Slightly different accounts of some of the sayings of Jesus show that, sometimes at least, they summarised his words.
However, for many of us, these differences add to the authenticity of the Gospels. It's clear that we are not dealing with a carefully contrived plot. We have honest accounts by honest people. And we repeat our conviction that the end result is so unexpected, so majestic and so influential, that invention is out of the question---a view shared by many others.
3. Do the Gospels ring true today?
The impact of the Gospels on open minds is impressive. The classical scholar E V Rieu was asked by Penguin to make a new translation of the Gospels. On hearing of the invitation, his son is reported to have commented: `It will be very interesting to see what Father makes of the Gospels; it'll be still more interesting to see what the Gospels make of Father.'
At the end of his lengthy task, Dr Rieu wrote: `These documents ... bear the seal of the Son of Man and God, they are the Magna Carta of the human spirit.'
More recently, an actor made a similar discovery. Alec McCowen decided to learn St Mark's Gospel by heart---as a hobby! He was astonished to find that crowded theatres around the world wanted to see and hear his solo presentation of the Gospel. With few props he simply told the story of Jesus as St Mark recorded it---a great tribute to the power of Alec McCowen's acting and of St Mark's writing.
The experience made a deep impression on him. He summed it up like this: `Something absolutely marvellous happened in Galilee 2,000 years ago.'
4. Can we check any of the details?
Yes, we can. In two ways: by internal scrutiny and by external comparison.
First, we can examine the text itself. When we do this, we make some remarkable discoveries. Some of these are small but significant.
Don Cupitt suggests that two Aramaic words point to Luke's integrity as an historian. Certainly, two sentences do the same for St Mark. In one of these Jesus admits his ignorance; in the second he cries out in anguish (Mark 13:30-32 and 15:34).
Commenting on these passages, C S Lewis wrote, `The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts which are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention.'
Some discoveries are on a larger scale; they can be made only if we study the entire New Testament. For example, Jesus frequently called himself the `Son of Man'. In contrast, this title is used about Jesus in only three other places in the whole New Testament (Acts 7:56; Revelation 1:13 and 14:14). Also significant is the fact that Jesus' emphasis on the kingdom of God gives way in the preaching of the early church to three other themes: Jesus himself, and his death and resurrection.
If the New Testament authors invented these, plus other changes in emphasis and terminology, they were breathtakingly clever. These men were widely dispersed, and without access to phones or computers. In our view, they would have found it impossible to invent such a subtle storyline, with just the right balance of agreement and divergence. Impossible---unless we add a further invention: a vast flock of well-trained carrier pigeons!
Second, we can test the text against a knowledge of history and geography gained from other sources. John Robinson pointed out that Luke is detailed and accurate at some points, and `extraordinarily vague' at others. He commented, `It is a tribute to him as a historian that where he does not know he does not invent: he generalises.' And he cited A N Sherwin-White again. This historian studied the trial of Jesus in the light of his detailed knowledge of Roman law, and of the social practice of the period. He `gave it high marks'.
Our ability to check details is often dependent on archaeological finds. Certainly the science of archaeology continues to throw light upon the whole Bible. But this is an important subject in its own right, so we will devote two short chapters to it.
To sum up
We have been studying historical evidence, and any historical `proof' depends upon two factors.
No one can take you to the Battle of Hastings. If you refuse to believe unless you see for yourself, then you will never be convinced about anything in history. Not about 1066, nor that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, nor that Jesus taught in Galilee.
Some people refuse to be convinced no matter how strong the evidence. The Flat Earth Society maintained that pictures taken by astronauts were clever fakes. `The earth is flat,' they said. End of argument.
Openness of mind is necessary and proper for the study of history. And the evidence for Christianity is largely concerned with assessing historical facts. All we Christians ask is that this necessary openness of mind should not be withdrawn, just because the subject under discussion is Jesus Christ. (83-94)
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