The Verdict of Reason
In our last outing we set to prove the accuracy of the Scriptures; that the Bible that we have today is overwhelmingly and accurately the one that was originally set down by its ancient authors. However, proving the accuracy of the text has little to do with the truth of the content. Critics still will point to the Scripture as being little more than an accurate fairy tale, with little connection to reality. To them, this ‘accuracy’ at best proves that everyone pretty much ‘got their story straight’. Their question – and ours – should be: Is the ‘content’ accurate?’ That’s the question we’ll begin to take on today.
HISTORICALLY ACCURATE !
If the Bible is but a fairy tale it is one with a catalog of confirming historical and archeological evidence for both the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly over the years, serious doubts have been raised about the historical accuracy of the events described in Scripture. Among the most famous of these issues had been the contention that, a whole people, mentioned dozens of times in the Old Testament, the Hittites, never actually existed. Now this issue has definitively been put to rest as archeologists have found the records of this people in Turkey. Abraham’s home city of Ur has also been found. Among the artifacts unearthed not far from that site, were examples of ancient Sumerian writings. These records speak of the dynasty then in power as being the third one after the flood. In another example, scientists have confirmed that not only did the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah exist, but were located just as described and ultimately suffered through a great conflagration. The discovery of the Babylonian chronicles substantiates the historical accuracy of the Book of Daniel. This for a long time had been a point of contention among critics. All records had shown that a man named Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon, contradicting the claims in Daniel that it had been Belshazzar. This of course cast doubt on the credibility of the whole book. More recent discoveries however have proved Daniel’s claim correct. It seems Nabonidus took an unexplained hiatus from the throne without abdicating his position. This left Belshazzar as the de-facto king. Daniel was right. And archaeology has confirmed elements of 2 Kings regarding the rebellion of the Moabites. Literally thousands of archeological finds have repeatedly confirmed details of the Biblical narrative.[i] [ii]
This becomes even more compelling when considering the evidence for the New Testament. Time and again Luke, author of the Gospel that bears his name as well as the Book of Acts, has proven to be a model of historical accuracy. This was found to be true even when confronted by the doubts of more modern scholars. Here are some examples. An inscription unearthed from an area northwest of Damascus verified Lysanias as tetrarch of Abilene. This confirms the contention of Luke 3:1 which had previously been questioned by some Biblical scholars. Luke’s use of the term ‘politarchs’ in Acts 17:6 was similarly made an issue. Archeology later verified the use of this term to be accurate. Of course the point of this is that as more and more details are confirmed, the validity of the writing increases. If true in the small details, it is more likely to be true in the important message it is trying to convey. In fact, Luke’s writing has been found to be accurate down to the prevailing direction of winds and currents described in the Book of Acts.[iii] [iv]
Other writings too have stood the tests of the archeologists. The Pool of Bethesda talked about in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel has been discovered complete with the five porticoes described. Also found were the Pool of Siloam and Jacob’s Well.[v] The ossuary of Caiphas, who played such a prominent role in the trial of Jesus, along with an inscription referring to Pontius Pilate, is on display at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem. Inscriptions on Christian burial memorials referring to Jesus as Lord, and ‘Jesus Christ the Reedeemer’ have been found dating back to as little as 10 years after the crucifixion. This testifies to the fact that even at that early date Christ was being accepted as the Son of God. This was not, as some critics have asserted, a later invention that crept in over the centuries. The name of Simon of Cyrene, mentioned in Marks’s Gospel as the man put into service to help Jesus to carry the cross is found on yet another ossuary. Finally, and most eerily perhaps, a discovery was made in a cave just off the Bethany road and near the site of that village. Again found on ossuaries, along with the sign of the cross were three very familiar names from the gospels; those of Martha, Mary and Lazarus whom Jesus called back to life.[vi]
If archaeology has been helpful in establishing the historical accuracy of the Bible, the evidence of ancient history has provided even more confirming evidence. One of the keys to testing the historical accuracy of the New Testament is dating the gospels. If indeed they were written long after Jesus death that would allow time for inaccuracies and mythical elements to creep into the accounts. What we find though is that the speculations of some in years past, that the gospels were written in the second century or later holds very little water. Even in liberal circles now, the dating of the gospels runs to about 90 – 100 AD. This is still within the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries. These witnesses would have either corroborated or contradicted the gospel accounts. A movement based upon the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and using for evidence his crucifixion and his miracles, would have had a hard time generating any momentum if it was being successfully contradicted in its most basic facts. But more careful scholarship has put the writing of the gospel accounts at an even earlier point in history. After reexamining the evidence, Cambridge scholar Dr. John Robinson believes they were completed by AD 64, less than a generation after Christ’s death. Archaeologist Dr. William Albright dates them at between 50 and 75 AD. Scholars point to the abrupt ending of the Book of Acts, Luke’s second work, and the failure of any New Testament writings to mention the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in the year 70. The silence of the gospels on this event would have been strange indeed had they been written after the temple was destroyed. As Grant Jeffrey states in his book, ‘Jesus The Great Debate’; “The silence of the Gospels about this tragic fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy provides convincing evidence to any unbiased observer that the Gospel writers must have written their manuscripts at some point prior to the Jewish-Roman War in AD 66-70.” Because we find portions of Mark’s gospel in Luke’s work, we know that it must have been written earlier than that. Further, the writing of the major epistles of Paul pre-dated even these earliest Gospels, dating back to the 40’s and 50’s. Contained in those works are clear unambiguous statements of the divinity of Christ and the saving nature of his death and resurrection. Now there is good evidence that belief in the resurrection can be documented back to within two years of the crucifixion. Almost all of the witnesses would still have been alive. It would have been impossible for this new movement to have grown up in Jerusalem, where so much of its history had taken place, if the Christian message had been based on distortions or outright lies. In fact opponents of nascent Christianity never claimed that the miracles of Jesus did not happen. In the face of the thousands of witnesses to his teaching and his many works, they could not do so. There was no room here for the encroachments of mythology.[vii] [viii]
In fact the testimony of his contemporaries confirms so much that we know about Jesus. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud, a Jewish book of commentary on the Scriptures, contains references to “Yeshu, the Nazarene.” Writings dated to the 2nd century confirm that he was hanged “on the eve of the Sabbath,” at the time of Passover. The passage also mentions Joseph of Arimathaea, who buried Jesus in his own tomb, and refers to the fact that he was accused of sorcery. This latter reference confirms the reaction of the Pharisees to his casting out of a demon that was described in Matthew 12. Other Talmudic passages speak about Jesus’ disciples, identifying at least Thaddeus and Matthew and also speak about the powers of one Jacob who was said to have healed “in the name of Yeshu.” This is all evidence that his contemporaries never questioned the fact that Jesus was a performer of miracles. Instead opponents tried to attack him on the grounds that his power was derived from the devil. The public nature of his ministry meant that he could not be so easily dismissed.[ix]
Other historical confirmation comes from the pen of Flavius Josephus, a priest, Pharisee and generally trusted historian writing in the 1st century AD. Some of Josephus’ writings include references to James the brother of Jesus and John the Baptist, whom he described as “a good man.” He is also known to have authored a passage specifically about Jesus, found in his work called ‘Antiquities of the Jews’. Though long controversial, experts now agree that the majority of the passage comes from the pen of the historian. In the uncontested version he refers to Jesus as “…a wise man …For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.” He goes on to talk about his death at the hands of Pilate and the fact that his followers believed him risen from the dead. Additional confirmation exists. Roman historians Tacitus and Lucian both confirmed the execution of Christ under Pilate, Lucian adding that he was considered a lawgiver and worshipped as God. And the work of Caius Suetonius suggests that Christians were known to be able to perform healings and miracles.[x] This type of evidence puts to rest the false notion that Jesus never existed.
A most interesting confirmation of Matthew 27:45 is found in several ancient sources. In that passage Matthew writes, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.” Luke 23:44-45 states it this way, “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.” Pagan historian Phlegon of Lydia, writing early in the first century refers to a “great and extraordinary” solar eclipse, dating it according to the Olympic year. He writes, “At the sixth hour the day was turned into dark night, so that the stars in heaven were seen, and there was an earthquake in Bithynia which overthrew many houses in the city of Nice.” Tertullian found evidence of this in the Roman archives of his day. The Greek historian Thallus also wrote of that supernatural event, a most fearful darkness accompanied by earthquakes. Second century teacher Julius Africanus points out that this was no eclipse of the sun. An eclipse is a predictable event. Working backwards from that time he points out that an eclipse is impossible when there is a full moon. This was evidence then that this unusual darkness not only occurred, but also was not due to an eclipse of the sun but was rather an unnatural event.[xi] So we see a document, the New Testament that was composed at an early date during the lifetimes of witnesses to the events in question, whose contradictions of those events would surely have been the death knell of the new Christian movement. We have confirming evidence through archaeology and the testimony of sometimes-hostile historical sources as to the accuracy of the conditions and events described.
[i] Lee Strobel, The Case For Faith, Zondervan, 2000, pgs 83-85
[ii] Paul E Little, Know Why You Believe, Chariot Victor, 1999, pgs 78-85
[iii] Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, pgs 130-132
[iv] Paul E Little, Know Why You Believe, Chariot Victor, 1999, pgs 76-77
[v] Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, pgs 132-133
[vi] Grant Jeffrey, The Great Debate, Frontier Research, 1999, pgs 84-91
[vii] Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, pgs 40-44 & pg 66
[viii] Grant Jeffrey, The Great Debate, Frontier Research, 1999, pgs 50-54
[ix] Grant Jeffrey, The Great Debate, Frontier Research, 1999, pgs 162-164 & pgs 184-188
[x] Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, pgs 103-106
[xi] Grant Jeffrey, The Great Debate, Frontier Research, 1999, pgs 166-168