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Is the Bible Reliable: The Standards of Historical Study

Okay, just a word of warning, what follows here is pretty nerdy. But the reliability of the Bible and the life of Jesus is such a pivotal point that Catholics must be able to talk about it, at least a little bit. Luckily for us the answer is fairly decisive. As a historical collection of documents, the Bible is just as reliable, if not more so, than other historical documents from the ancient world. I’d like to highlight four reasons why this is the case. First, in terms of Jesus’ life, the similarities and differences of the independent accounts strongly agree with each other yet do not produce results that indicate collusion. Second, there are a number of passages that would be embarrassing to early Christians if they were simply fabricating these accounts. Thirdly, the remaining manuscripts of the Bible are the oldest, most numerous, and most carefully copied of any document from the ancient world. Lastly, the attestations of Jesus from non-Christian sources describe him in the same manner as the Biblical account.

Evaluating differences in the accounts

The biggest hangups for non-Christians are the many miracles and prophecies of Jesus. Many people dismiss miracles as impossible by definition, like the famous philosopher David Hume did in the 18th century. For the Christian, however, the possibility of miracles is completely consistent. If God created and caused the natural world to exist and be here in the first place, then God has power over nature (aka supernatural power). If the hangup for someone is the miracles in the stories, hopefully they can at least see the consistency of the Christian position.

 

Putting the rationality of miracles aside, if we look at how the accounts agree with (and differ from) each other, can we see solid historical evidence while avoiding the danger of collusion? General consensus is that the Gospels, even though they may be rooted in the same sources or experiences, are independent accounts. So the Gospels are not one account, but four separate and ancient testimonies to the life Christ. Very few Roman emperors, many whose lives are universally accepted, have as many as four independent witness accounts from their lives in antiquity. And there are more witnesses than the four Gospels for the life Jesus. In the case of Caesar Augustus or even Nero or Caligula – both of the latter whose lives are more hotly debated – scholars compare and contrast the accounts to determine if the source is reliable. (Later, we will also have to compare and contrast the accounts with extra-biblical sources to determine if the documents should be considered reliable).

To make the point let’s look at one example where the accounts of John the Baptist slightly differ. In Matthew 11:14, John the Baptist is plainly described as Elijah, who has returned. In John 1:21, the account plainly denies that John is Elijah. In Luke 1:17, it says John prepared the way of the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. So which is true? If the early Christians really wanted to make their claims more influential, they would have synced up their stories a little better than this. In this case, John would have almost certainly been aware of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels and presumably would have known that both of them affirm John as Elijah. Based on the way ancient authors wrote biographies, we do not be concerned that this is an actual contradiction. We cannot read the Gospels according to the rules of modern biography, but they must be considered according to the standards of the time in which they were written. Matthew is speaking figuratively, John is speaking according to the flesh, and Luke is speaking spiritually. All of these would be acceptable according to the standards of ancient biography. Ultimately, the differences weaken each other’s individual claims, but together they can be used to develop a more complete understanding of John the Baptist.  The three different perspectives can be used similar to compiling evidence in a court of law. More than anything, all of the accounts point to John the Baptist truly existing and being an extraordinary figure in the early to middle part of the first century. In the end, just as in a court case, the differences in various descriptions actually demonstrate the independence of the accounts and prove that the writers were not in collusion. When evaluating historicity of any account, this kind of congruity and incongruity would place the Gospels firmly in the category of historically reliable.

The power of embarrassment

In their own way, the early Christian writers universally describe Jesus as God incarnate. If they wanted to fabricate the stories of Jesus to make him seem more God-like they would not use culturally embarrassing episodes. The existence of stories in the accounts of Jesus that the culture of the time could understand as embarrassing would weaken the appeal of Christian life. However, there are a number of these stories in the Gospels, which ultimately supports the historically reliable claim that the Gospels were not fabricated, but they were based on eyewitness accounts.

 

The classic example of embarrassment used to argue for the historical reliability of the Gospels is that Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John. Religious and political leaders of the time would have essentially seen this as Jesus making himself a follower of John. If they wanted to fabricate a story to make Jesus seem more powerful (i.e. God-like), they would have shown John as a great leader and would have Jesus baptizing John. Likewise, the crucifixion is a culturally embarrassing episode in the life of Jesus. If you’re trying to create a God on earth, you certainly don’t fabricate his death. Most interestingly of all, however, is the culturally embarrassing account found surrounding the resurrection. The first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were women. In that time period, if you are fabricating a religion, you would not place the central claim of that religion on the testimony of women. Because the story places the witness of the resurrection on the testimony of women, it gives credibility to the events occurring as described and not being fabricated. All of these “embarrassing” passages (and there are more) give credibility to the fact that the Biblical accounts were not fabricated by the original authors or edited later.

 

Manuscript Evidence

If you search the whole world, you will not find the actual ancient originals of the Old or New Testament that the ancient prophets and apostolic writers produced. This is true about all of the ancient texts that we have and accept as reliable. Now we only have copies or manuscripts of the original texts. Generally, in historical studies, the older and most complete manuscripts we have that match other old and complete (or mostly complete) manuscripts are considered the most historically reliable. When manuscripts match, we call it “accuracy.” Having copies that match is helpful to show that no one came in at a later date and changed the story or added miracles or hyperbole. When it comes to the New Testament, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the historical reliability of the copies we have given the early date of the copies and the accuracy of the texts. If it were any other book, there would be no debate. Check out this nifty chart that shows how the best ancient sources compare to the New Testament:

Author Date
Written
Earliest Copy Approximate Time Span between original & copy Number of Copies Accuracy of Copies
Lucretius died 55 or 53 B.C.  c. A.D. 1150 1100 yrs 2 —-
Pliny A.D. 61-113 A.D. 850 750 yrs 7 —-
Plato 427-347 B.C. A.D. 900 1200 yrs 7 —-
Demosthenes 4th Cent. B.C. A.D. 1100 800 yrs 8 —-
Herodotus 480-425 B.C. A.D. 900 1300 yrs 8 —-
Suetonius A.D. 75-160 A.D. 950 800 yrs 8 —-
Thucydides 460-400 B.C. A.D. 900 1300 yrs 8 —-
Euripides 480-406 B.C. A.D. 1100 1300 yrs 9 —-
Aristophanes 450-385 B.C. A.D. 900 1200 10 —-
Caesar 100-44 B.C. A.D. 900 1000 10 —-
Livy 59 BC-AD 17 —- ??? 20 —-
Tacitus circa A.D. 100 A.D. 1100 1000 yrs 20 —-
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. A.D. 1100 1400 49 —-
Sophocles 496-406 B.C. A.D. 1000 1400 yrs 193 —-
Homer (Iliad) 900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 yrs 643 95%
New
Testament
1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100) 2nd Cent. A.D.
(c. A.D. 130)
less than 100 years 5600 99.5%

 

So, as you can see, we have numerous manuscripts of the New Testament and some are dated very early. The agreement of the manuscripts shows faithfulness to the words of the original authors. For any other ancient text, historians would lend a lot of credence to the accuracy of a text such as this. If critics of the Bible dismiss the New Testament as reliable information, then they must be open to dismissing the reliability of Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Homer, and the other authors mentioned in the chart. And, just remember, inside of the Bible includes the Gospels which are four independent accounts of Jesus’ life. For no one else in history do we have such agreement (yet not to the point of collusion) in both the description and manuscript evidence of an ancient person.

 

Ancient Non-Christian References to Jesus and His Followers

One of the most important ways of deciding if a person existed and what his life was like is to look how people who are unsympathetic to his cause wrote about him. The reliability of what is in the Bible can be largely demonstrated by how similar the non-Christian accounts of Jesus are to the Christian accounts. Time does not allow for every account to be cited. For a larger, more complete take on this topic go here. Here are some of the most interesting non-Christian references to Jesus and the first Christians.

Thallus (52 AD)

Julius Africanus, in the 221 AD, references the secular writer Thallus whose works are now lost to history forever. What Julius indicates from Thallus is the earliest reference we have to Jesus’ crucifixion outside of St. Paul’s letters. He says:

“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1)

According to Julius, Thallus is attempting to give a naturalistic explanation of the record of the earth shaking and darkening on the day of Jesus’ death. This account points to the fact that Jesus really lived, he was crucified, and there was an earthquake and darkness at the point of his death. All of these things confirm what is found in the Gospels, which at the time of Thallus had probably not yet been written.

Mara Bar Serapion (c. 70 AD)

Mara Bar Serapion was a Syrian philosopher who was writing to his son. He speaks of Jesus as the “wise king” of the Jews when he compares the impact of his life and death to other philosophers who were persecuted and killed. He cites the killing of Jesus as the reason for the destruction of the Jewish Temple.

“What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgment for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering their wise king?…After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…the wise king…lived on in the teachings he enacted.”

From this account we see that Jewish leadership at the time was responsible for his death. He was wise and influential leader whose teachings were adopted by the belief and lifestyle of his followers. Again, the Biblical account attests to the truth of this take as well. Some of the Gospels may have been written, but they were probably not widespread at this time.

 

Josephus (37-100 AD)

In the year 93 AD the Jewish writer Titus Flavius Josephus wrote about Jesus his work The Antiquities of the Jews. Because it is likely that Christians expanded the passage to make it more convincing, even to the point of adding “messiah” as a title for Jesus. What follows is a scholarly reconstruction that is believed to be the original text without any Christian additions. For more on this go here.

“Now around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, but those who had first loved him did not cease doing so. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared”

(This follows the edit that is suggested by John Meier in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person)

From this we see that Josephus knew of Jesus as a wise man, worker of amazing deeds, condemned by Pilate in Palestine, was crucified, and gained followers who called themselves Christians. Assuming this is the authentic reconstruction of Josephus’, we see once again agreement with the Bible about the life of Christ.

 

Tacitus (56-120 AD)

One of the most trusted, notably unbiased, and diligent historians of the ancient world, Cornelius Tacitus speaks of Christ and his followers in his Annals of 116 AD. As Tacitus is covering the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, he speaks of the manner in which Nero fallaciously shifts from himself onto the Christians.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

Here we see a lot of evidence of both the New Testament’s account of Christ and the first Christians: Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), he lived in Judea, he had followers that spread to Rome and throughout the Empire and they were persecuted for their faith. Once again we see that this exactly lines up with the account found in the New Testament.

 

Other non-Christian References

Between the years 111-113 AD Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan about the early Christian practices of meeting on a fixed day, singing hymns to Christ as to a god, taking an oath to live upright lives, and partaking of food together. Suetonius (c. 120 AD), another famous Roman historian, wrote about Jews that were causing trouble in Rome at the instigation of Chrestus and who expelled by Claudius. He also refers to Nero blaming Christians for the fire of Rome just as Tacitus did. Phlegon (c. 140 AD), as cited in the writings of Origen, speaks of darkness around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and cites Jesus as someone who had the ability to predict future events. Lucian of Samosata (115-200 AD) satirically made jest of the fact that Christians were to see each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, believe in immortality, practice repentance, despise worldly gain, deny the gods of Greece,  and worship the crucified sage.

There are even more references to Christ and Christians, but the point of these is clear. The references correspond closely to the Biblical account of Christ and his followers that the Bible must be considered a true work of history.

 

Summing Up

What is found above is by no means a comprehensive study of this subject. Notably left out, and maybe for a later article, is modern archaeology and all the ways it is confirming the geographical facts found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the end, I am not delusional; I do not think many will come across this information and completely change their stance on who Jesus is. But by looking at the standards of how we do history, Catholics can be confident that the Bible stands up to the test more convincingly than any other source from the ancient world.

 

Please leave a comment if this information was in any way unclear, confusing, or you have anything to add. Thanks!

Kyle Sellnow

Kyle was born and raised in the great northern state of Minnesota. He graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN with a double-major in Philosophy and Catholic Studies. He then pursued a Master’s degree in Theology with an emphasis in Biblical Studies at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity. After spending a year working in ministry in Minnesota, Kyle moved to Kansas City, MO in 2012 to teach Theology at Archbishop O’Hara High School. He is deeply passionate about learning, teaching, and having friendships that truly matter. He created Love InSight to be a platform to encourage men and women to follow Christ and His Church in the 21st century.


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