“A fourth possibility [of a truncated version of CS Lewis famous syllogism], almost too obvious to need mentioning is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Plenty of people are. In any case, as I said there is no good historical evidence that he [Jesus] ever thought he was divine. . . Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus life. . . But, there is no more and no less reason to believe the four canonical gospels [than the spurious works such as the Gospel of Thomas]. All have the status of legends, as factually dubious as the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. . . . Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity.”
The above is a sampling from a four page diatribe about the evidentiary value of Scripture in dealing with the history of the life of Jesus. While it is taken from the work of an atheist, similar sentiments can be found in numerous other approaches. Sadly, there is even a subtle version the view of many within the Church, many say, “we take the Bible on Faith” in a way that implies there is little actual evidence to support its claims. I was shocked as I began studying the evidence underlying the Bible; I had never known until Bible College, and then Seminary that the evidence in favor of the New Testament is quite good. In reality, what we have is a perception based on ideas that no longer have an academic basis for those beliefs. I would agree with Oxford’s Stephen Neill, “One of the curious features of German theology is that no ghost is ever laid . . . historical studies study of the New Testament has been long and widely distorted by the acceptance of assumptions which rest on no evidence whatever. The truly historical reconstruction of the primitive Church is still in its very early stages.” Simply put, liberal New Testament scholars, particularly those who write to the popular level do so without real consideration of the evidence for their viewpoints.
Let us reframe Dr. Dawkins reference to the “Knights of the Round table” to illustrate the evidence we have. Let’s suppose that a Latin manuscript from around the year 700AD had been found that substantially agreed with an early edition of Mallory’s Morte De Arthur (the source of the current, popular forms of the Arthurian legends). Suppose as well that Camelot was discovered, and that it was, surprisingly, consistent with descriptions from Morte De Arthur. Imagine, in addition to this, that the end of Morte was a line indicating that it was to have been written by Queen Guenevere and that the writing was consistent with what would be expected from a sixth century Briton woman. Suppose as well, that inscriptions were found in British cities which demonstrated that the author of Morte had been precisely accurate with the details of titles, boundries, and locations for the sixth century. Suppose that there were several references to Arthur by seventh century historians. One might then suggest, on historical basis alone, that Arthur was indeed the high king of the British Isles, and begin looking for evidence of whether or not he actually did conquer Rome. This analogy is far closer to the evidence of the New Testament than is Dawkins original statement.
In review, we are discussing the “positive case” for Christianity, and have noted that the primary place that Christianity is testable is the Resurrection of Christ. While we take the gospel by faith, that faith is founded on the historical claims of the resurrected Christ. I believe we can establish three historic facts (one of which will have far more details):
1. Jesus Christ died, having been crucified by the Romans.
2. Jesus was seen alive multiple times after his resurrection, both by those who knew Him and by those who were disinclined to accept His claim of Messiahship.
3. Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
I also stated that the best way of correlating these facts is that Jesus did, indeed, rise from the dead. I further noted that first, we must examine the historical value of the texts in question, and that after we have established this fact.
There are several places where I could begin to examine the historical accounts of Christ’s death. For me, the starting point would be to examine the work that we dealt with last month, 1 Corinthians 15. However, for our purposes, I would like to start with a book that records details we will need at several other points in our examination. That is the book of Acts. Acts is a book that is popularly given little respect in popular circles, but for about one hundred years there has been a great deal of evidence to support its historical value.
Sir William Ramsey, a nineteenth century archeologist, who by his own admission, accepted the radical ideals of the Tubingen school of theology. He was thus disinclined to accept the historicity of Acts or the Gospels, managed to prove that in his own words, “Luke is a historian of the first rank.” The role of an archeologist is somewhat difficult to ascertain, particularly in its current usage. An archeologist is, in some ways, the sidekick to the historian. History cannot be known without written histories. Some of these histories have been recovered by archeologists, while others have been extant for centuries. However, before modern archeology, Historians were stuck using largely speculative methods of weighing the value of the historical record; some of these methods are still very useful, but objective verification is vital. With the advent of modern Archeological methods there was finally an objective evidence to help evaluate historical documents, as well as gaining useful data about the culture and times of the ancient world. One could never prove through archeology that Alexander the Great conquered the Meditereanian world. However, one can examine the historical records of his conquest and see if the battlefields on which he allegedly fought really saw battle at approximately the right time. This is what Ramsey did for Acts, in a spectacular way. Ramsey found records and references to titles, boundary markers, and other minutia that later historians had claimed were inaccurate. He found that the author of Acts is extraordinarily careful. When he refers to famous figures, they were present at the time and place Acts indicates, whether it is Gaius’ presence in Corinth, or Festus, Felix and Agrippa in Ceasaria. Luke’s ability to accurately portray titles particularly impressed Ramsey and others. In the United States, this may not seem all that difficult. After all, we have very few titles, and a clear separation of powers (at least in theory). The Roman system, however, was quite different. A Roman governor could be a procurator, a client king, or a proconsel, depending on who appointed him, the circumstances of his birth and his appointment, etc. Additionally, titles tended to change over time, meaning that historians could easily get a little fuzzy about the title a particularly influential person had at one time.
This then, naturally, leads to the question of how this accuracy was maintained. The author of Acts claims to be an eyewitness to some events (the well publicized we passages), but not to all of the events. The author of Acts is clearly the same man who wrote the gospel of Luke. In that work, he makes it clear that he is working as a historian (Luke 1:2-4). The larger portion of Acts (not covered by the “we passages”) indicates that much of the book of Acts, likewise, was written by someone working as a historian. Given Ramsey’s findings, the suggestion then is that he was certainly careful in his work. One would, of course find it very difficult to argue that Luke has been careful with the minutia, but careless with the central matter of his work. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine someone purposefully creating a hoax and crafting the details so carefully without slipping at some point in the process. Most hoaxes rely on the gullible not to double-check the facts. This has, of course, not been the case with the New Testament. Ramsey’s work has been challenged (unsuccessfully), imitated, and confirmed since the late nineteenth century when he began writing about his founding. Most modern criticism of Acts and Luke come on the basis of an anti-supernatural bias imposed on the historical documents, but even these critics are left with a number of awkward problems that they are forced to answer with a series of documents docments pasted together, and then made more complex by the author smoothing out the style significantly. This, of course, is an exercise in begging the question.
Before closing this article, I would like to note one additional fact that I find to be both relevant to our ultimate purpose (the discussion of the eyewitness of the resurrection) as well as a personal indication of Luke’s weight as a historian. I must confess I have no source to back me, though I’m sure Bruce or someone else has noted it at some other point in the past. In Acts 2:27 Luke quotes Peter’s reference to Psalm 16:10, and the exegesis Peter articulates makes good sense – from the Hebrew, but not from the Greek Septuagint (a translation of the Old Testament into Greek done approximately between 200 and 100 BC). Luke seems to have not known the Hebrew language, at least not first hand, as he doesn’t deviate from the Greek translation. This is a rare thing among the New Testament authors (shared most notably with the author of Hebrews). Luke operated on the same basis as other first and second century historians. He summarized speeches, as our idea of direct quotation and paraphrase was not maintained with any rigor in the ancient world. He uses for texts the only Old Testament scriptures he knew, those in Greek, which translates the Hebrew term “Nephesh” as “soul” and the term “sheol” as Hades. Sheol can refer to either a grave or the resting place of the soul (although in the latter sense, hell is often the most appropriate translation). Nephesh, on the otherhand is a very elastic word. While doing a wordstudy on Nephesh, I found that the word should often be translated as a dead body. This is clearly how Peter interpreted the passage (Acts 2:29-32). In the context, this implies that Luke had a very well placed source for this, one of the earliest proclamations of the key historical event of Biblical Christianity: the resurrection of Christ.