Lecture 5: Were the Authors Historically Accurate?
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If the biblical writers were not concerned about historical accuracy, we would expect more verses that would have answered the burning questions of the first century, and we certainly would not have the many embarrassing and difficult verses that we do have. The gospel is couched in historical fact, and if the events did not happen then the teaching is false.
2. Multiple attestation
3. Embarrassing Sayings
b. “Get behind me Satan”
4. Hard Sayings of Jesus
a. Luke 14:26
b. Mark 13:32
5. Missing Sayings
b. Speaking in Tongues
6. Would the Gospel writers have even wanted to preserve accurate history
b. Gospel is grounded in historical fact (e.g., the Holocaust)
a. Can you “prove” the writers were accurate?
b. Are there indications they wanted to be accurate?
c. Are there indications they were successful in being accurate?
d. How high is the bar?
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture 5: Historically Accurate
This is the 5th lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.
In this session, we are going to talk about historical accuracy. Were the Gospel writers historically accurate or maybe more importantly, was it even important for them to be historically accurate? Daryl Bock spends quite a bit of time on this topic and it gets a little technical but I’ll give you some of the basics. He looks at the rules that critical scholarship uses to decide whether a verse belongs in the Bible or not. He takes those rules and flips them around and in even using those rules; you can still prove that a lot of what is in the Bible is true. And he is very quick to say, just because you can’t prove something, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Even if you can’t prove to a liberal critical scholar whether a verse belongs in the Bible or not, it doesn’t mean it is just made up.
2. Multiple Attestations
Some of the things we look for in order to determine whether the writing is historically accurate or note include what we call multiple attestations. This is where everyone is saying the same thing. When you hear the same story being told by different people, it increases the likelihood that what they are saying is true. The same thing happens with the Gospels, if you have different streams of traditions, the more you have, the more you can argue within the context of critical scholarship that it actually happened. For the Gospels, we have about five different streams, multiple attestations, of tradition. The first is the Gospel of Mark because it was the first Gospel that was written. We read in Mark and learn what Jesus did and said. There is another document known as ‘Q’ from a German word as a as a meaningful source. It seemed to have been a collection of teachings of Jesus. That source is no longer available as it is only a hypothetical theory in the first place. You can go to Matthew and Luke and read the same story that is not in Mark and they are often word for word. So it really looks like that Matthew and Luke were citing another source. So that source was called Q. Almost all of Mark is in both Matthew and Luke with this Q document that occurred in both Matthew and Luke. There was no reason to keep it since it was in Matthew and Luke. But there are also other traditions that we call ‘M’. This was information about Jesus that is only found in Matthew and then we have a fourth stream of tradition cleverly called ‘L’ and this is material that is only in Luke. So Mark sits down and writes his Gospel which is the first one. Matthew sits down and has Mark and Q and his own material and writes the Book of Matthew. Luke comes along and he has Mark, Q and his own material which we call L and he writes the Gospel of Luke. So these represent four streams of tradition; four multiple attestations or four different sources of information about Jesus and of course, we have the Gospel of John who writes out of his own personal experiences. This gives us five different streams, providing us with similar events and teachings.
Daryl uses an example with the Son of Man where some of these emphasize Jesus’ humanity. Some emphasize his coming persecution and suffering. But there are other Son of Man sayings that talk about him coming as an apocalyptic divine figure and judge of the whole world. Interestingly, all three of these are attested to these various streams of tradition and yet critical scholarship will accept the first two but not the last one, Jesus being the coming judge of the living and the dead; that he is going to judge the world. The argument that Daryl makes is that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t accept some of these sayings and not some of the others when they are all tied together. This is a very powerful argument within the scope of scholarship. So when it comes to asking whether the writers are historically accurate, when we see the same event being taught multiple times from different people, then you can argue that it is a greater chance of being accurate.
3. Embarrassing Sayings
Other reasons for historical accuracy include embarrassing sayings. The argument is, if the church was willing to make up sayings, would they have made up these particular sayings. There are things in the Gospels that are indeed embarrassing to the original audience, to the characters involved in the story. If the church was just willing to make up stories, would it have made up these sayings? For example, Jesus goes out and picks twelve people to be with him for three and a half years. One of them tried to kill him, Judas. That is embarrassing. The Gospel writers are saying that Jesus was the Son of God, he was here on a divine mission and yet he chose Judas, someone who tried to kill him. Why? Or perhaps at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus and Peter had a little altercation where Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he is going to suffer and then Jesus calls Peter Satan. If you were making up the Gospel story, would you take the head of the church and would you have Jesus rebuke him calling him Satan? This is embarrassing that Peter was so totally misunderstood in rebuking Jesus for saying that he was going to suffer and he got rebuked in return. You wouldn’t make up something like this. There are quite a few of these embarrassing situations within the Gospel. So the point here is: if the Gospel writers are trying to be historically accurate, then this is part of the story that they are going to record it, because it is historically accurate as it happened. But if you were just making up stories, you wouldn’t make up these kinds of stories.
4. Hard Sayings
Another category that is related to this are what is called the hard sayings of Jesus. There are things that Jesus says that are really difficult to process and the church just would not have made these things up. For example, Luke 14:26, Jesus says, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate their mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even their own life; such a person cannot be my disciple.’ Would you have made such a thing up? What about Mark 13: 42 where Jesus says, ‘I don’t even know when the end of time is going to happen; only God the Father knows when I am going to return again.’ Wow! You are the second member of the Godhead and there is stuff that you don’t know? The argument is that these hard sayings are included because the Gospel writers know they happened and that they are important. If they were only to make up stories, they would not have made up these difficult sayings.
5. Missing Sayings
There are also the missing sayings. There were debates that happened in the early church and it would have been nice if Jesus had provided answers for these points of contention. If the church were willing to make up stories, then they would have made up stories to answer these early debates. But the fact that they didn’t make up answers to these early debates indicates that they wanted to be historically accurate. A great example of this is circumcision; this was the first real debate of the church; do you have to be a Jew to be a Christian? Paul comes back from his first missionary journey and they find out that gentiles are coming to Christ. In Acts 15, they called together the Jerusalem church and through this long discussion on circumcision. Peter talks about what happened to him; so, if the church was willing to make up things, I suspect that they would have made up a statement where Jesus would have said something about not having to be circumcised to be one of his followers. Then the debate on this subject would not have even existed. But there is no verse from Jesus like that; ergo, the assumption is that the Gospel writers weren’t willing to make up stories. Another interesting example is the topic of tongues in 1st Corinthians. There are a lot of problems in regards to the whole nature of tongues. Paul quotes Jesus quite a lot and then you come to chapters 12, 13 and 14 where you have Paul trying to establish rules on the speaking in tongues and unknown languages. It would have been so easy since he had been quoting Jesus all along to simply say that Jesus gave us rules about this. He doesn’t say that. Paul wasn’t willing to make up a Jesus saying in order to answer the debate!
So when you look at all these different kinds of hard sayings, the missing sayings and the embarrassing sayings, people just don’t make those kinds of statements up. The argument is that they must have actually happened and the Gospel writers thought that it was very important to accurately say what Jesus did and taught, even if it was embarrassing or difficult.
6. Accurate Historical Preservation
Another questions comes up, did the Gospel writers even want to preserve history? Was it important to them? And the challenge often comes, if you really believe something, your biased. And if you really believe something, then you can’t be trusted when it comes to the accuracy of your statement. There are certainly examples of this being true. If you look at an old Soviet Union encyclopedia, they have one sentence on Jesus. He was the mythical founder of Christianity. Nothing more! They were biased against religion and especially Christianity and so they simply tried to change history. So we do know that people do try to change history and often succeed in doing so. But did the Gospel writers try to do this? Is there any evidence that they even tried to do this? I think the interesting point regarding Christianity; the point that it is grounded in historical fact. This is what Luke says in his prologue; I have researched and I have checked my sources and I want to assure you of the things you have believed, Theophilus. History is really a big point for Luke; why? In a lot of religions where it really didn’t happen historically, it simply wouldn’t matter. I don’t know a whole lot about Confucianism, for example, but I have been told that even if Confucius had not lived, it doesn’t affect the truth of the statements in Confucianism. But if Christ had never lived and if our source documents were not historically accurate and if we didn’t know that our faith was grounded in historical fact, Paul says that we would be the greatest of fools. The resurrection had to have happened; Jesus had to have lived and to be born, fully human and yet divine. These things had to have happened and therefore because of the nature of Christianity and the connection that we have with history where our theology is grounded in that history, it is very important that the Gospel writers communicated historical accurate information.
Take the holocaust for example. The people that have told the story of the holocaust whether they were eyewitnesses or they were writing about it; did they have to get the history about it correct? Yes! If Auschwitz did not happen, if their descriptions were not historical accurate, then their witness to the atrocities would have been dismissed. Without these facts Auschwitz could happen again because you see this in the writings of the holocaust people have to know that this actually did occur and while they are strongly invested emotionally in the holocaust, there had to be historically accurate accounts of Auschwitz and the other concentration camps, otherwise it would all be forgotten. This is the same with Christianity, history is important; the events of Jesus had to have occurred, especially the resurrection. And so you see in the Gospels a real desire to relay the facts as have been shown by its history, a very accurate and believable portrayal of those events. Can we prove that they are historically accurate? No! But there good indications that they are indeed accurate and there are there good indications that they were successful in correctly recording that history? Just ask the archeologists, ask how many archeological finds have disproved Christianity; the answer is none! William Ramsey was a famous archeologist that set out to disprove the Bible through archeology. As he continued to unearth 1st century Biblical ruins, he became convinced that Christ was real and that the Gospel was true and thus eventually became a Christian. So the Gospel writers had to be historically accurate; there are indications that they tried as in Luke 1:1-4. There are good indications that they were successful, just check with Biblical archeologists. Can you prove this to everyone’s satisfaction? Of course not! The Bible has shown itself, time and time again, to be a very accurate historical document.
So this concludes the issue on historical reliability of the Bible. The Gospel writers wanted to be accurate and there is every indication that they were historically correct. They didn’t make up stories but instead relayed what they knew in regards to what Jesus did and said.