In discussing the veracity of the Bible in previous posts, (Prophecy, Archaeology, and Unity), I’ve danced around the evidence of history. History is a part of the discussion of fulfilled prophecy and archaeological evidence and the unity of Scripture. It’s time, I guess, to deal with history head on.
First, Nathaniel, a commenter to an earlier post on this subject said in part
It is certainly true that the verification of one point does not amount to the verification of every point. But when the veracity of a putatively historical document is in doubt, archaeological confirmation is one of the ways that evidence can accumulate on the side of the document’s general reliability. This is done in secular historical research all the time.
I especially like the phrase “evidence can accumulate” because that’s the only way we can know about that which we can not dissect. In discussing the truth of the Bible as a historical document (among other things) I’ve compared it’s study to the study of other historical figures. Take Abraham Lincoln for instance and ask, How do you know Abraham Lincoln lived?
The fact is, we accept the historical record. We have no particular need to check into the details first hand, but if we did, we would find paintings of him and a few photographs. We’d find correspondence and copies of his speeches. Would we then study the photographs to see if they were authentic? Or consult a handwriting expert to discover if there was any way to determine if Lincoln actually wrote the letters? Would we look into the method speeches were copied and preserved in that day in order to see if they were, in fact, valid and reliable?
My point is, we accept the fact that Lincoln existed because we feel there is a preponderance of evidence, and we have no predisposition to question what we have come to believe. I’m not aware of anyone apart from history students doing research to see if what we have come to believe about Lincoln is true. Undoubtedly the writers of the 2012 DreamWorks movie Lincoln did due diligence in their research in an effort to get the details right or at least in order not to stray too far from the truth in their storytelling.
But most regular Joe’s and Josephina’s aren’t wondering every Presidents Day whether or not Abraham Lincoln was an actual person, whether or not he really signed the Emancipation Proclamation, if he actually gave the Gettysburg Address. We accept what the history books tell us because we trust that the people who put them together did the hard work for us.
In contrast, some years ago, a group of people came up with the idea that the Nazis never killed six million Jews in extermination camps. They claimed, instead, this was a lie conjured up by Zionists who wanted to create the nation Israel. In order to reach their predetermined conclusion these “Holocaust deniers” ignore a preponderance of historical evidence.
In the same way, another group has suggested that astronauts never landed on the moon. More recently, a collection of conspiracy theorists deny that children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012—the purpose of the supposed hoax being an attempt to curtail the right to bear arms. Both of these groups argue away the evidence at their disposal, including photographs, eye witness accounts, and forensic evidence.
The point is, conspiracy theorists don’t trust the source from which this evidence is being generated or disseminated.
Clearly, historical proof depends on a measure of trust. Ultimately, a person has to say, In light of this evidence, I believe this particular fact to be true.
Books have been written to give historical proof of the Bible, and certainly it would take books to do so because of the amount of data. I don’t have the time or space to examine all the specifics. But I would like to look at Jesus, since He is the central figure of the Bible. Is there historical evidence that He existed?
In my research, I discovered that most scholars in the fields of biblical studies and history agree that Jesus was a “Jewish teacher from Galilee,” accused of sedition against the Roman Empire, and on the orders of Pontius Pilate, sentenced to crucifixion. One reason for this acceptance of Jesus as a historical person is extra-Biblical evidence.
First, there were believers who provided secondary material in support of Jesus’s life and work, men like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Quadratus of Athens, Aristides the Athenian, Justin Martyr, and Hegesippus. Each of these believers wrote of Jesus, not as a spiritual entity or an idea or a hope, but as a man who lived on earth and fulfilled the claims of the Old Testament for the Messiah of God.
For example, the Hegesippus
converted to Christianity from Judaism after extensively researching the Gospel story for himself. Instead of accepting the Gospel story [as] the word of others, he travelled extensively throughout Rome and Corinth in an effort to collect evidence of the early Christian claims. Hegesippus provides important testimony that the stories being passed around were not watered down, embellished, or fabricated. (“The Historicity of Jesus: Did He Really Exist?”)
Beyond the Church, there were Jewish secondary sources, most notably Flavius Josephus, but also Greek, Syrian, and Roman scholars. One such individual was Celsus,
a second century Roman author and avid opponent of Christianity. He went to great lengths to disprove the divinity of Jesus yet never denied His actual existence. (ibid.)
Perhaps the most telling is the documentation of Jesus’s execution at the hands of Pontus Pilate, recorded by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, a man known for separating verifiable events from hearsay and folklore.
Of course the greatest amount of information about Jesus comes from the gospels. When scholars consider the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as with all historical sources, they examine such things as the authors’ motivations and the source of their information. They also take into consideration the amount of time between the events and the writing, and if they don’t have the original of a document, they look at how many copies are in existence and how closely they compare with one another.
Biblical scholars seem to agree that the book of Mark is the oldest, or first written, so here are some facts about Mark in comparison to other ancient histories:
*Tucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War—written c. 415 BC, earliest copy dated 900 AD, 8 copies in existence.
*Tacitus’ Annals, a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, the years AD 14-68—written c. 100 AD, earliest copy dated 1100 AD, 20 copies in existence.
*Mark’s Gospel—written c. 60 AD, earliest copy dated 200 AD, thousands in existence.
The point is, the gospel of Mark far surpasses the first two well-accepted histories in each of the categories historians consider when verifying the accuracy of a document.
In addition, scholars look at the number of years between the actual events and the recording of them. Here’s a timeline comparison from event to author:
*The Twelve Tables, the first code of Roman law (c. 450 BC), recorded by Livy (d. 17 AD) 450 years later.
*The life of Alexander who died 323 BC, recorded by Plutarch c 120 AD, 400+ years later.
*The life of Jesus who died 30/33 AD, recorded by Mark c 60 AD, 30 years later.
Clearly, the gospel of Mark recorded Jesus’s life and death relatively soon after the events. In fact, undoubtedly people were still living who witnessed the things Mark wrote. And even though any number of people and groups tried to discredit The Way, as Christianity was originally called, none of the arguments was that Jesus simply was a fabrication of the disciples or of Paul or of any of the other apostles.
In other words, there is adequate historical evidence to believe that Jesus lived and that Mark wrote the facts that he gathered and verified. One unsubstantiated idea is that Peter was Mark’s primary source. We know from Peter’s first letter that a father-son type relationship existed between the two, so it’s a possibility, though not a verifiable fact.
Some scholars use a criteria-based approach to authenticate Jesus’s existence. This approach looks at things like how likely a reported event is to contradict an author’s agenda (for example, that a woman first reported seeing the risen Christ would contradict Mark’s agenda to convince people of that day that Jesus had risen from the dead), how many independent sources give consistent accounts (such as the other gospels), how congruent the record is with the cultural context (whether the things Jesus said about the Pharisees squared with Jewish records of that time, for instance), and so on.
It’s quite clear why the vast majority of scholars, Christian and non-Christian, believe Jesus lived. The preponderance of evidence is overwhelming. The conclusion then is this: by examining the facts, we verify that Mark’s account of Jesus’s life and death is reliable.
Expand on this process to the other books of the Bible, which scholars have done. If we allow the historical evidence to speak, and don’t discount parts, as the higher critics do who throw out passages that involve the supernatural, it becomes clear that the Bible is historically verifiable.
Much of this material, but not all, came from earlier posts, one published in October 2014 and another in April 2009.