Most people when they get into discussions about God and Jesus end up having to try and prove God’s existence or argue about creation and evolution.
I think these are important, but they miss the point. You can believe both of the above and still reject the bible. And if you can’t trust the bible, then telling people about Jesus is going to go nowhere. You’ve got to get people to trust the bible.
One of the most helpful classes I took in college was called “Jesus’ Life & Ministry” taught by Jon Lunde. For 1/3 of the school year we spent dissecting and combating the arguments against the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Aside from the fascination I have with this, I cannot think of one class that has had a more profound effect upon how I look at the bible apologetically and as a trustworthy historical document.
This class helped me to understand that the bible attests (or bears witness) to its own historical authenticity. That is, the bible demonstrates in its own right that it is a trustworthy historical document. It doesn’t need anything else to prove it is truthful. As I have ruminated on this for over two years, my trust in the historical accuracy of the biblical documents has grown significantly.
Most people, when they want to know if they can trust the bible, ask if there are “external witnesses” to Scripture – things like other ancient historical documents that match up or witness to what happened in the bible. There are many things wrong with this kind of thinking – 1) It unwarrentedly presupposes that the biblical historical data has been tampered with; 2) It unwarrentedly presupposes that all data outside of the bible is always trustworthy, accurate and has not been tampered with; to name a few.
What is most important in establishing the credibility of an historical document is not whether it is testified to outside of itself, but what is known as “Internal Coherence” – that is, whether the document give sufficient evidence in its own right to its historicity. There are many documents that are clearly rejected because they are not “coherent” – they are beyond what is reasonable to suppose actually happened.
The New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) all present a curious picture of the man Jesus. What is strange is their almost ambivalence to Jesus’ miracles. Yes, these make up a large portion of what Jesus actually did (as opposed to what he spoke), but their approach and presentation of the miraculous is strange.
In essence, they don’t read like a fairy tale.
The Gospels present the data of Jesus miracles as bare-facts occurrences. They are almost ‘unspectacular’. When Jesus exorcises demons he doesn’t do chants and spells, he doesn’t do a dance and stand praying for 40 days, meditating until some mystical superpower descends upon him. He simply speaks at the demons and they leave. It’s that simple.
When Jesus calms the storm, he stands up and talks at it. There’s no embellishment going on. The wind doesn’t start talking to Jesus and say, “Hey, who are you crazy man talking to me? Don’t you know I’m the wind and that I go where I wish?” Nature acts just as nature does – it is inert. It just simply stops, just as one would expect if a person had complete dominion over nature.
The reactions of people to the miracles are fascinating. The bible actually records people who even doubt their occurrence, just as you would expect in modern day if someone changed water into wine. After Jesus casts the demons out of one guy and sends the demons into a bunch of pigs, the people of the town beg Jesus to leave. Strange, I would have thought they would have immediately recognized him as the Son of God incarnate and bowed down to worship him…
Or how about when Jesus calmed the storm. Check out Peter’s response. It’s what you think would happen. Peter isn’t standing there thinking, “Well duh! He’s GOD…” He’s shocked. Peter doesn’t understand how Jesus, a man, can do the things that he’s doing. His response is natural, not made up or contrived. If you were in a boat with someone and you were about to capsize because the storm was so crazy then some dude comes strolling out of the boat and yells, “Chill Out!” and then everything goes still, I’m sure you’d be pretty freaked out and wondering who the heck this man is.
Even the times when Jesus’ miracles are more ‘mystical’ in appearance, they really aren’t. When Jesus heals the blind man at the pool of Bethsaida by spitting into the dirt and smearing mud on his eyes, when the man doesn’t see immediately, Jesus isn’t shocked. This is because when you read the context, you see that Jesus is teaching his disciples something about their own blindness. If Jesus can cast out demons and calm raging storms and seas then for him to have difficulty giving sight to a blind man would be massively inconsistent.
When you read through the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Acts (because they are specifically recording history, not showing the implications of History like the Epistles do) you are struck with a rather ordinary man who does extraordinary deeds. But what is even more curious is that Jesus himself condemns people for only trusting in his miracles. You would think that a document that is trying to portray miracles as historically accurate wouldn’t include the performer of them telling people they are foolish for looking only at the miracles.
The reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus is one of the most important things in establishing the internal coherence of scripture. Here we have people who witness Jesus’ miracles but argue against him for them. The Pharisees, Jesus’ greatest enemies, don’t write his miracles off as a facade. They know better than that, they could see with their own two eyes. The Pharisees assume Jesus’ miracles. What they are concerned with is not whether or not he’s actually doing miraculous things. What they are concerned with is how he is able to do miraculous things.
The Pharisees refuse to believe, even when they see the miracles. The Gospels show that Jesus knows that his miracles aren’t even what will do the trick. Just look at Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples. He had seen everything that Jesus did and still doubted. When Jesus died and the disciples told him that Jesus was alive, Thomas refused to believe. Why would he refuse? He saw all that Jesus did, didn’t he? He spent 3 years, watching Jesus heal the sick, give sight to the blind, cast out demons, command nature, etc.
The bible’s coherence is very apparent when we see that it even shows the doubts about the power of miracles to generate belief. If the bible was trying to prove itself true, then it would be the sole voice. It would simply state the events from one single point of view. But the bible, just like other historically accurate documents, presents a comprehensive picture of events, not a monoptic one. Not everyone changes because they saw miracles.
We trust historical documents not merely because someone says they are true, but we can read for ourselves and we can see that they are not tampering with the evidence – they just present the facts. This is why so many people have become Christians simply from reading the bible. They can see that it is true simply by reading it. They don’t need someone else to say, “Hey, this book is true, you should read it.” It stands on its own two feet.
Having “external witnesses” is certainly helpful, but if the bible’s trustworthiness stands or falls on whether other historical documents say its true, then we’ve gone a massive step in the wrong direction. We are implicitly assuming that we really can’t trust the history presented to us. The bible forces us to change our position. It’s not the bible that must be proved by other witnesses, but, in fact, the other witnesses must be proved by the bible.