HOW CAN WE KNOW RATIONALLY WHETHER THE BIBLE IS TRUE ?
Eric Snow, sermonette, September 9, 2006, Ann Arbor, MI, UCG
How would you rationally defend the truth of the book on your laps to a skeptical unbeliever? What objective criteria should the New Testament satisfy to be historically reliable? How would we know it’s inspired?
Dan Brown’s recent best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” sowed doubts in the minds of many in the world about the historical foundation of the Christian faith. This book’s astonishing popularity shows its accusations against the truth of the New Testament’s Gospels shouldn’t just be ignored. Christians should be able to defend their faith intelligently against the accusations of critics.
S.P.S. The three objective tests for examining the reliability of a historical document, when applied to the New Testament, show that it passes with flying colors. Those tests are the bibliographical test, the internal evidence test, and the external evidence test.
I Peter 3:15
Are we ready to do help a confused or convinced reader of Dan Brown’s slander against our faith?
44 languages, 60+ million copies, in the Harry Potter series league. The movie with Tom Hanks has sold at least $224 million in tickets worldwide. To ruthlessly summarize, the novel says the Roman Catholic church has conspired to cover up Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene and the posthumous child they had together. True, Brown’s primary target is Roman Catholicism. But his whole assault questions the historical reliability of the New Testament. We’re still in the same boat as the Catholics. Although they’re getting hit more directly by Brown’s big gun, if he succeeds, we go down to the bottom of the ocean with them as well.
1. Bibliographical test. A document with more ancient or medieval handwritten manuscript copies is more likely to be reliable than one with few or one. Also, the smaller the time gap between the original writing of the document and the earliest preserved handwritten copy of it, the better. (Fewer copying errors can creep in over the generations).
New Testament, 24,663 copies, earliest fragment (Rylands) dated to 117-38 A.D., 2 major manuscripts dated to 4th century, other partial mss. in-between.
(Hebrew Old Testament, 1450+)
Homer’s Illiad, 643, 500 year gap (900 b.c., original writing, 400 b.c., oldest copy).
Thucydides, History of Peloponnesian War, 8 (1300 years, 400 b.c., to 900 A.D.)
Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, 10 (about 50 b.c., to 900 A.D.)
Tacitus, Annals, 1 (assembled from 2 separate medieval manuscripts)
Skeptical Robin Lane Fox’s reluctant concession: “Whereas our knowledge of Catullus’s love poems goes back to one Latin manuscript some fifteen hundred years after their composition, the New Testament can be followed to two lifetimes of Paul and its other authors.”
2. Internal evidence: Does it contradict itself? Does it state obvious absurdities? Don’t assume it is false until proven to be so. Benefit of doubt goes to document until proven otherwise.
As the lawyer and scholar John W. Montgomery explains: “One must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.”
3. External Evidence test: Does it contradict other books or archeological discoveries (if relevant)?
A.N. Sherwin-White, classical historian, said about Acts that “the confirmation of historicity if overwhelming . . . “any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”
Sir Willam Ramsay’s case: English archeologist, skeptical about New Testament, especially Luke, changed mind after doing topographical study in what is now Turkey. Rejected German higher critic view he had held Acts was written in 2nd century, since it reflected conditions of the second half of the first century. “It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative [of Luke in Acts] showed marvelous truth . . . I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations.”
CONCLUSION: By the three objective criteria for judging the reliability of any historical document, the New Testament performs excellently. God has left around plenty of evidence for faith, even if skeptics still can complain about various loose ends. We can easily crack the Da Vinci code of Dan Brown. We should place our faith in the New Testament’s history than in a novel’s fictions.