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Apologetics Lesson 9: Is the Bible reliable?

July 23, 2012

We live in an age of skeptics. Let’s be honest, if someone were to tell most of us that it would rain in April we would probably respond with some form of skepticism (“we will see”, and “wait five minutes and it will change” are common responses in the Midwest.) therefore, it should come as no surprise to us that people would treat the claims of the Bible with a skeptic’s attitude. After all, the Bible does make some pretty fantastic claims; there is the account of the flood, Joshua stopping the sun in the sky, the burning bush, and not to mention the miraculous accounts during Jesus’ ministry. As Christians, we may not like the skeptic’s attitude but I think we have to admit that it is understandable. Or is it?

Understanding the Accusations

Before we can formulate a response to the objections around the reliability of Scripture we have to first understand who is making the accusations of unreliability and what they are. Since the gospels are frequently charged with corruption and myths we will be focusing on identifying and addressing those specific charges. Furthermore, the same types of objections raised against the gospels are raised against all of Scripture. Jesus’ teachings plainly indicate that He believed the “mythical” tales in the OT were accurate (Jonah, Noah, Adam, etc.) If we can accept His authority we will have laid the groundwork for the rest of the Bible’s reliability. The following is a summary of the charges leveled against the gospels.

The biggest and most often claimed objection against the gospels (and the Bible in general) is that the gospels have been corrupted with myths about Jesus. This objection can be summed up in the following quote:
“We know very little about Jesus. The first full-length account of his life was St. Mark’s gospel, which was not written until about the year 70, some forty years after his death. By that time, historical facts had been overlaid with mythical elements which expressed the meaning Jesus had acquired for his followers. It is this meaning that St. Mark primarily conveys rather than a reliable straight forward portrayal.” – A History of God by Karen Armstrong; page 79

We will review a full response to this objection later on in this article but for now simply take it for what it says and notice the presuppositions contained therein. What follows here is an account of the basic accusations against the reliability of the Gospels.

Scholars claim that there is a clear progression concerning Jesus in the gospels. As time went on, the truth about Jesus was more and more distorted by myths that transformed him into the Son of God. This is supported by a dating of the writing of the gospels which is considered liberal (i.e.: later.) These scholars would assume Mark was first and written in the 70’s AD. Matthew and Luke follow in the 80’s and John is the latest in the 90’s. These dates are fairly different from what we reviewed in Lesson 5 which are based on more conservative research (i.e. earlier.) The scholars claim that John’s gospel was written last and thus has the clearest presentation of the deity of Jesus Christ. This is seen as proof of John’s theological bias in distorting the facts about Jesus. The longer time went on, the stronger the myth about Jesus being the Son of God became.

Therefore the earliest material about Jesus must be the most accurate. This early, unbiased material about Jesus is quoted and found in places in the gospels. You must separate the myths concerning Jesus from truth about him that is found in the gospels. Of the four gospels, three of them (Synoptic Gospels) Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in content. Yet some material is found only in Matthew and Luke. For that reason, some believe that while Matthew and Luke borrowed material from Mark, this unique material found only in Matthew and Luke was quoted from an earlier source (written before Mark) known as “Q” (which stands for Quelle, meaning source.) This early collection of the sayings of Jesus is “uncorrupted” and therefore a more reliable and accurate picture of Christ than the later gospels. It is said that these earlier sources present Jesus as being just a man.

The Jesus Seminar Scholars:
The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars who got together to attempt to discover the real Jesus. These scholars seek to rescue the Bible from Fundamentalists and to free Americans from the naïve belief that the Jesus of the Bible is the real Jesus. They see themselves on an unbiased quest for truth—compared with the religiously committed people who have a theological agenda that keeps them from the truth about Jesus. This is what they claim about the four gospels:
Clearly, 82% of what the gospels say Jesus said, He did not say. Most of the remaining words attributed to Jesus are somewhat doubtful.
Only 2% of what the gospels say Jesus said can be attributed to him with certainty.
In the Lord’s prayer, the only words that can be attributed to Jesus with certainty is “OUR FATHER.”

In their book, The Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar scholars add the Gospel of Thomas to the other four gospels. They believe that this Gospel preserves an earlier tradition of Christ and is therefore more reliable. It is said that the Gospel of Thomas contains the “secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.” This book contains 114 sayings of Christ. This book does not include any narratives of the life of Christ. It is used as proof that Jesus was just a man.

The Jesus Seminar Scholars believe that the real Jesus was either; a political revolutionary, some kind of religious fanatic, a feminist, or a subversive. They claim that the story of Jesus has been enhanced by legend. Jesus was only a man. He was not supernatural in any way. Jesus and His early followers did not see Him as God or the Messiah. Jesus and His early followers did not see His death as having any special significance. Jesus’ crucifixion was unfortunate and untimely. And the stories of His resurrection came later as a way of trying to deal with the sad reality of Jesus’ death.

They would also say that “Myth of Jesus” being the Son of God doing miracles was actually copied from other sources. So where did the disciples get the idea to make Jesus into a miracle working Son of God? Three possible sources are mentioned.
Ancient Rabbis —who did exorcisms and prayed for rain.
Apollonius of Tyana —who lived in the first century and is said to have healed people, exorcised demons; who may have raised a young girl from the dead; and who appeared to some of his followers after he died.
Mystery Religions —are full of stories of gods dying and raising from the dead. In addition we see the rituals of baptism and communion.

Answering the Accusations
Now that we have an understanding of the charges that are levied agains the gospels we are no left with the question of what to do with them. How do we respond to these accusations? First, don’t be intimidated by them. Second, challenge them. Are the Gospels corrupted and full of myths? Let’s look at some internal evidence. In Luke 1:3-4, Luke claims to be writing accurately about Jesus Christ —things he investigated and found to be well-supported by witnesses. The same is true of the other gospel writers. John wrote his gospel in order that people would believe (John 20:30-31.) His goal was not to get rich or propagate a lie but to save his readers. The writers of the New Testament were not dishonest men. They upheld the highest of virtues and were willing to die for what they knew was the truth about Jesus. More than that, the NT writers died martyr’s deaths and did so in a state of poverty. Would they have given their lives for what they knew was a lie? To claim that they did should require some evidence to this fact and there is none provided

Next, we need to deal with the facts regarding the charge that the Bible is full of myths. First of all, myths can develop quickly. There have been reliable accounts of fanciful and mythical tales surrounding events that occurred within a single generation of the events they are recounting. Also, many Biblical stories, taken out of context, can sound mythical and many Biblical events do appear impossible to someone who rejects the supernatural. However, his does not mean that the critics are right.

To properly address these accusations we need to understand what the Bible says in context. Not every story is meant to describe actual events. Parables are a good example of a story that does not have to have taken place. They may well have happened just like they are described but this is not required for the parable to have meaning. I are not suggesting here that this is a way to explain away the fantastic stories of the Bible. All I am suggesting is that the Biblical text needs to be taken in the context in which it is given. Context can also give necessary insight. Ask “Why did God move in a supernatural way?” Supernatural events in the Bible have a purpose. Scripture presents these supernatural events just as matter-of-factly as the rest. Myths are fanciful tales without basis in historical facts, yet the Bible grounds itself in history (ref: Luke 2:1-2) Furthermore, the Biblical writers themselves denied teaching mythology.
2 Peter 1:16 – “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
1 Timothy 1:4 – “nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”
2 Timothy 4:4 – “and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

What about the differences in the Gospels? Do the gospels show an evolution of thought concerning Jesus, from Q to John, which turns Jesus into God? The first thing we need to note here is that Q is complete conjecture. There has never been a manuscript found to support the existence of anything like what the critical scholars suggest they merely assume that it must have existed. Regardless, lets look at the text. Even in the so-called quotations from “Q” we see Jesus performing miracles to show His identity as the promised Messiah (Luke 7:18-23; Matthew 11:2-6.) Also, each of the synoptic gospels presents Jesus as the Son of God, as does John’s gospel. There is no progression. (Matthew 1:22-23, 9:2, 16:13-17, 28:18; Mark 2:5-10, 10:32-34, 14:61-62; Luke 2:11, 6:46, 7:48-50, 18:31-33, 22:70.)

This leaves us with the charge that John’s gospel is not trustworthy because of bias. According to John 20:31, John deliberately wrote his gospel to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Does this mean that we can’t trust what he wrote? Writing very strongly and passionately about something does not mean that you are not communicating the truth. Holocaust survivors write very strongly about the Holocaust, yet we do not dismiss their writings as false simply because of their passion to tell their story. John was an eyewitness to the deity of Jesus Christ! Of course he wanted to let us know who Jesus is!

What about the Jesus Seminar Scholars? Are they truly objective analysts of the life of Christ? What we find is they do indeed have a bias that colors their conclusions. While the Jesus Seminar scholars claim they are on an unbiased quest for the truth about Jesus, the truth is that is simply not the case. When you look at their methods and conclusions you find that they operate under three distinct presuppositions:
Presupposition #1: Supernatural is impossible – The scholars operate under the assumption that the gospels are not reliable because they talk about miracles, healings, raising the dead and the resurrection of Jesus, things that cannot possibly be true. This is also the most common presupposition of the atheist.
Presupposition #2: Jesus was just a man. – Even though Jesus claimed to be God in flesh the scholars reject that and assume it to be a later development. Remember, John is not the only gospel account that speaks to Jesus’ deity.
Presupposition #3: Selecting the sources. – Scholars assume that the Biblical accounts are unreliable and turn to other (later) sources to “uncover” the real Jesus. When you can select your own sources and ignore others you can easily prove anything you want.

These scholars reject the veracity of the gospels not because of scholarly research and compelling evidence, but because of bias. They simply conclude, the gospels couldn’t be true. But what if Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead and the disciples actually saw the things they so passionately wrote about? This possibility is simply rejected out of hand by these “objective” scholars. The scholars used faulty criteria to decide what Jesus actually said in the gospel accounts and what was simply added myth. They assume Jesus really said “it” only if it doesn’t look like something a rabbi, or later church leader would say. They assume church writers put sayings into the mouth of Jesus unless they have good evidence to think otherwise, ignoring the simple fact that Jesus was a Jew, who started the church and trained the disciples. Such decisions are pure speculation and a reflection of their bias against the deity of Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at their attempt to explain the myth of Jesus coming from other sources. First, the Ancient Rabbis who did exorcisms and prayed for rain. However, to claim that Jesus was simply another example of a Jewish wonder worker is to ignore His claims to be God and His miracles. Next, consider Apollonius of Tyana who lived in the first century and is said to have healed people, exorcised demons; who may have raised a young girl from the dead; and who appeared to some of his followers after he died. Yes, Apollonius did live in the first century. But his biography was written by Philostratus some 120 years later. There is just one source from which we get this account of Apollonius, Philostratus. Philostratus was commissioned by an empress to write a biography in order to dedicate a temple to Apollonius. This gave Philostratus great financial incentive to embellish the story and to give the empress what she wanted. Philostratus does not write confidently—but includes a lot of statements like, “it is reported that” or “some say this young girl had died; others say she was just ill.” Philostratus is writing in the early third century, in Cappadocia where Christianity had been present for some time. Any borrowing would have been done by Philostratus, not by the Christians. Needless to say, the reliability of this account should be considered far more suspect than the canonical gospels. Finally, the mystery religions are full of stories of gods dying and raising from the dead. In addition we see the rituals of baptism and communion. This is a very weak argument. Mystery religions dealt with legends and mythical tales of gods that revolved around the natural life cycle of death and rebirth (crops die in the Fall, experience rebirth in the Spring). This does not have anything to do with Jesus Christ and the meaning of His death, burial and resurrection. Supposed links to the doctrines of baptism and communion are nonsense. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the gospel accounts were written to Jews. The Jews strongly believed that these pagan religions were wicked and in opposition to God. It would make no sense for the gospel writers to borrow from these stories to embellish the story of Jesus to convince their fellow Jews to follow Him.

Finally, the scholars show rather misplaced confidence in writings that supposedly give new insights into the real Jesus. Take as an example the Gospel of Thomas. The Jesus Seminar Scholars claim that this gospel is more reliable than the other gospels and represents an earlier tradition about Jesus. It was written in 140 A.D. Again we see conjecture and bias. Why would anyone claim this second century gospel is superior to the canonical first century gospels? The only way to make this claim is to prioritize the sources based on a presupposition. Remember, the Gospel of Thomas is not a new discovery. This gospel was rejected from the canon because it did not “measure up”—it was clearly a false gospel.

The Bible presents itself as history not mythology. If you have ever read mythology you can see a stark contrast between how myths are presented and how the gospels are written. In mythology, there is no tie to actual places or events that the reader could verify. The gospel writers are clearly tied to actual people, places, and events and specifically deny any mythological content. Claims that the gospels are full of myths should be examined for bias and presupposition. If that is not enough consider that the gospel writers died poor and broken men suffering all their lives to finally die a martyr’s death. Would they have done this for what they knew to be a lie? I hope the answer is obvious.

None of what has been presented here will convince the most ardent objector to the truths of the Bible. As always, the job of the apologist is to present the evidence, answer the objections, and allow the Spirit of God to change minds and hearts as He will.

God bless.

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