On Miracles: Ancient Texts

Fourth in an ongoing series on the problem of miracles, and evidence for the Resurrection:

  1. The Problem of Miracles
  2. On Miracles: The Historical Jesus
  3. On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans

 

♦ Why bother with this old collection of myths, the so-called “Scriptures,” when trying to show that miracles existed, and that there was a resurrection of Jesus?

There is evidence (which I’ve already covered) that Jesus was a historical figure, and this evidence also provides considerable information about the beliefs of early Christians in the deity of Christ and alludes to belief in His Resurrection. But the secular references don’t give a lot of detail about these beliefs or the evidence for them. This is not unexpected, as they had little use for details about a crucified prophet and his followers, other than understanding why they were such a nuisance. For these details we must go to the accounts of those who were actual followers and believers in Jesus.

♦ Surely you don’t believe this stuff was “inspired”? You’ll have a tough time selling me that “inspired” writings can be used as historical evidence.

Well, I do believe that these writings were inspired — a discussion for another time, perhaps. But the “inspiration” of the NT documents is utterly irrelevant to their value as historical documents.

Historical documents? You must be kidding! This stuff was written hundreds of years after the events it purports to describe.

Sounds like someone hasn’t done their homework. Yes, there was a school of biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century, led by Rudolf Bultmann and other German theologians, which maintained a late date of writing, placing it well into the second century or later. Their skepticism influenced a number of other biblical scholars as well. But facts have a stubborn way of deflating bad theories. We now know with virtual certainty, based on more recent archaeological manuscript evidence, that the last Gospel, John, was written no later than 90 A.D., and the other three considerably earlier. Luke, who wrote both a Gospel and the book of Acts, was a companion of Paul and is widely recognized by scholars as a superb, highly reliable historian. Paul’s own letters date back to within 20 years after the death of Christ, and he quotes ancient creeds (such as 1st Corinthians 15) which were in circulation at the time of his conversion, a few years at most after the Gospel events.

Whatever. How reliable can a few old scraps of parchment be, anyway? Aren’t they all just copies of copies?

Well, pretty darn reliable, actually. Granted we have no “original signed copies” of the NT documents. But compared to most ancient literature, the NT is almost embarrassing in its quantity of source material and their temporal proximity to its events. Take Homer’s Iliad, the “bible” of the ancient Greeks, composed in 800 B.C. We have about 650 surviving manuscript copies from this work, the earliest ones dating from the second and third centuries, one thousand years after it was written. For Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, we have nine manuscripts of his history of the Jewish War, copied in the ninth through eleventh centuries. Tacitus, the great Roman historian from early second century? Two manuscripts, the earliest in 850 A.D. Despite this paucity of source documents, scholars are quite comfortable that they accurately reflect the content of the originals.

How about the New Testament? Let’s see — over 5,500 Greek manuscripts and fragments, some dating to within one generation of the time of the Apostles. Another 20,000 or so exist in other languages. From the standpoint of source material for ancient literature, this is a rather preposterous prosperity.

♦ But they’re still just copies — lots of errors in that process are inevitable, to be sure.

Well, you underestimate the extreme care taken with copying such documents in the ancient world, especially those held in such high esteem as the NT scriptures. But some copying errors were inevitable, mostly transpositions and misspellings. The extraordinary number of extant copies allows an excellent cross-check, facilitating a high degree of precision about the content of earlier sources no longer available.

♦ OK, you’ve got some old documents which were written pretty close to the time of Christ. But there’s lots of other Gospels out there which disagree with those in the NT — why aren’t they considered good sources?

Good question. Yes, there’s a bunch of other writings which call themselves “Gospels” — The Gospel of Thomas (a favorite of the Jesus Seminar), The Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, and a number of other similar works. Much has been made of these by some, but they largely eliminate themselves as contenders through either their content, their date of writing, or both. First of all, unlike the NT Gospels, there is no evidence that they were authored by one of the Apostles or the Apostles’ companions. Secondly, most are dated rather late, in the 3rd and 4th century A.D. And lastly, their content is steeped in mysticism and Gnosticism, and borders on the bizarre in many cases. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, ends with a “saying” of Jesus which goes, “Let Mary go away from us, because women are not worthy of life. … Lo, I shall lead her in order to make her a male, so she too may become a living spirit.” Gloria Steinam, call your office.

♦ I’m glad you mentioned the Jesus Seminar — these biblical scholars determined that very little of what Jesus said and did in the Gospels is history, that most of it is myth. So much for your “Scholars believe the Gospels to be historical” argument, eh?

Well, most biblical scholars and archaeologists find the members of the Jesus Seminar to be an embarrassment, a fringe group with lots of media savvy but little scholarly credibility. The Jesus Seminar’s own stated goals were to ditch the traditional understanding of Scripture and create a “new fiction” and a “new Gospel.” In this they have clearly succeeded.

♦ Well, we all know that the Church simply decreed which books would be in the Bible, and invented its weird doctrines, like the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. It was all a big power-play to keep control over the ignorant masses who mindlessly followed them.

Big fan of the The Da Vinci Code, aren’t you? Great writer, Dan Brown — lousy historian, too. The councils and synods merely affirmed what the Christian church had known to be true from its beginnings, and accepted and acknowledged those books already held to be genuine and apostolic in origin. The central doctrines which were supposedly “decreed” de novo by the councils are easily found in the writings of ancient church leaders and apologists — the so-called Church Fathers — several centuries before they were publicly affirmed in creeds and councils. It is child’s play to verify this yourself, as many excellent translations of these works are available — unless, of course, you’re not really interested in arriving at the right answer. Oh, and by the way: virtually every verse in the NT can be found cited in these early Christian writings — quoting from manuscripts no longer available. The NT really was written within a generation of the time of Christ, by eyewitnesses or their close associates, and was being cited by other authors within a few decades of their writing.

♦ But even if they’re early and reliable, these Scriptural sources are still religious, written by true believers, fanatics. Couldn’t they just say anything they wanted about Jesus, and expect their followers to buy it?

Well, sounds easy enough, but there’s a small problem: there were lots of folks who were itching to prove them liars. There were the Jewish religious leaders, first of all, who were definitely not amused at this heretical cult which had formed in their midst, preaching blasphemy. Peter stands up at Pentecost and tells a very large crowd of people, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know … God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” So the Jewish leaders waltz over to the grave of Jesus, show folks the dead body, and Poof! The new cult goes belly-up in a heartbeat.

Then there’s the crowd he’s addressing, with quite a few folks who were around when Jesus was preaching, who witnessed his crucifixion, or who had at least heard about these events from other first-hand witnesses. Takes real chutzpah to stand in front of a large crowd and tell them something they (and you) know never happened. Peter could have made a lot of omelets with the eggs and tomatoes tossed his way if he tried that stunt.

♦ But you’re using circular reasoning — using a description of an event taken from a religious writing to prove that what it describes actually happened. What proof is there that this “sermon” by Peter in fact even happened, or that this is what he said?

Well, this description of Peter’s first sermon was written by Luke, in the book of Acts. Luke was a careful, detailed, OCD-kind-of historian. His narrative is filled with extraordinary details: detailed descriptions of maritime practices; ancient marketplaces and cultural customs; specific time and place references; names of secular and religious rulers. His stated intent was to seek out eyewitnesses to the events of which he wrote. He accompanied Paul on one of his missionary journeys, and traveled with him to Jerusalem where he had contact with Peter and the other Apostles. His writing depicts much that archeology and other historical sources verify, and contains nothing of the excesses and hyperbole common to legendary development.

Yes, Luke had a religious bias, as did all the NT writers, because of what he heard and saw from eyewitnesses. If his religious convictions alone exclude his writings as unreliable, then methinks the problem is with your preconditions and prejudices, rather than with the accuracy of Luke’s narrative.

♦ Well, everyone knows that whole empty tomb thing was just a grand hoax — the disciples stole the body, and then claimed a “resurrection” to make themselves religious big-shots.

Well, maybe everyone you know thinks that — but I wouldn’t bet your inheritance on it. But that discussion will have to wait until my next post. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: If you are interested in more depth on the reliability and veracity of the NT documents, I suggest this book (full text online) by NT scholar F.F. Bruce. There are many others, but this is easily digestible and short by one of the best scholars in the field.

2 thoughts on “On Miracles: Ancient Texts

  1. Hello! I haven’t been here for a while. I lost touch with a lot of blogs when my husband got so sick.

    Today is my 3rd blogaversary … and it has me going blog surfing on old territory.

    This, is a perfect blog post to re acquaint myself with your blog!

    I wish, I could, as clearly as you have, explained the historical context of the scriptures so well. When cornered, I usually do well, but only by the grace and mercy of God.

    I wish, I pray … that all men would know Him as I know Him. As you do.

    If only they knew that He weeps for them?

  2. Thank you, Bob, for this good post which addresses so many of the typical reasons people disregard the Word of God, the Bible.

    Now here’s another one I wish you would consider doing: How does one defend the Garden of Eden? (“I can’t get past that stupid Garden myth that’s in Genesis…..etc.” I hear that often and wonder what you would say.

Comments are closed.