THE CASE FOR CHRIST #2
Testing the Eyewitness Evidence
Do the Biographies of Jesus Stand Up to Scrutiny?
Sixteen-year-old Michael McCullough's words were so faint that jurors couldn't hear them above the soft puffing sound of the mechanical respirator that was keeping him alive. A lip-reader had to hunch over Michael's bed, discern what he was saying, and repeat his testimony to the makeshift courtroom.
Paralyzed from the neck down by a bullet that severed his spinal cord, Michael was too frail to be transported to the courthouse for the trial of the two youths accused of attacking him. Instead the judge, jury, defendants, lawyers, reporters, and spectators crowded into Michael's hospital room, which was declared a-temporary branch of Cook County Circuit Court.
Under questioning by prosecutors, Michael recalled how he left his apartment at a Chicago housing project with two dollars in his pocket. He said he was accosted in a stairway by the two defendants, who intentionally shot him in the face as they tried to steal his money. His story was backed up by two other youths who had watched in horror as the assault took place.
The defendants never denied the shooting; instead they claimed that the gun accidentally discharged while they were waving it around. Defense attorneys knew that the only way they could get their clients off with a reduced sentence was if they could succeed in undermining the testimony that the shooting was a vicious and premeditated act of violence.
They did their best to cast doubt on the eyewitness accounts. They questioned the witnesses' ability to view what happened, but they failed to make any inroads. They tried to exploit inconsistencies in the stories, but the accounts harmonized on the central points. They demanded . more corroboration, but clearly no more was needed.
They raised hints about character, but the victim and witnesses were law-abiding youths with no criminal record. They hoped to show a bias against the defendants, but they couldn't find one. They questioned whether one witness, a nine-year-old boy named Keith, was old enough to understand what it meant to tell the truth under oath, but it was obvious to everyone that he did.
With defense attorneys unable to shake the credibility of the victim and the .prosecution witnesses, the two defendants were convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to fifty years in the penitentiary. Eighteen days later Michael died.
Defense attorneys have a challenging job: to raise questions, to generate doubts, to probe the soft and vulnerable spots of a witness's story. They do this by subjecting the testimony to a variety of tests. The idea is that honest and accurate testimony will withstand scrutiny, while false, exaggerated, or misleading testimony will be exposed.
In Michael's case justice prevailed because the jurors could tell that the witnesses and victim were sincerely and precisely recounting -what they had experienced.
Now let's return to our investigation of the historical evidence concerning Jesus. The time had come to subject Dr. Blomberg's testimony to tests that would either reveal its weaknesses or underscore its strength. Many of these would be the same tests that had been used by defense attorneys in Michael's case so many years earlier.
"There are eight different tests I'd like to ask you about," I said to Blomberg as we sat down after our fifteen-minute break. Blomberg picked up a fresh cup of steaming black coffee and leaned back. I wasn't sure, but it seemed he was looking forward to the challenge.
"Go ahead," he said.
1. The Intention Test
This test seeks to determine whether it was the stated or implied intention of the writers to accurately preserve history. "Were these first-century writers even interested in recording what actually happened?"
Blomberg nodded. "Yes, they were," he said. "You can see that at the beginning of the gospel of Luke, which reads very much like prefaces to other generally trusted historical and biographical works of antiquity."
Picking up his Bible, Blomberg read the opening of Luke's gospel:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
"As you can see," Blomberg continued, "Luke is clearly saying he intended to write accurately about the things he investigated and found to be well-supported by witnesses."
"What about the other gospels?" I asked. "They don't start with similar declarations; does that mean their writers didn't have the same intentions?"
"It's true that Mark and Matthew don't have this kind of explicit statement," came Blombergs reply. "However, they are close to Luke in terms of genre, and it seems reasonable that Luke's historical intent would closely mirror theirs."
"And John?" I asked.
"The only other statement of purpose in the gospels comes in John 20:31: 'These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
"That," I objected, "sounds more like a theological statement than a historical one."
"I'll grant you that," Blomberg replied. "But if you're going to be convinced enough to believe, the theology has to flow from accurate history. Besides, there's an important piece of implicit evidence that can't be overlooked. Consider the way the gospels are written—-in a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don't find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings. What does all that add up to?" he asked. Then he answered his own question: "It seems quite apparent that the goal of the gospel writers was to attempt to record what had actually occurred."
"However, is that what really happened? There's a competing and contradictory scenario that has been promoted by some critics. They have said that early Christians were convinced Jesus was going to be returning during their lifetime to consummate history, so they didn't think it was necessary to preserve any historical records about his life or teachings. After all, why bother if he's going to come and end the world at any moment?"
"So," I said, "years later when it became obvious that Jesus wasn't coming back right away, they found they didn't have any accurate historical material to draw on in writing the gospels. Nothing had been captured for historical purposes. Isn't that what really happened?"
"There are certainly sects and groups, including religious ones throughout history, for which that argument works, but not with early Christianity," Blomberg replied.
""Why not?" I challenged him. "What was so different about Christianity?"
"First, I think the premise is a bit overstated. The truth is that the majority of Jesus' teachings presuppose a significant span of time before the end of the world," he said. "But second, even if some of Jesus' followers did think he might come back fairly quickly, remember that Christianity was born out of Judaism. For eight centuries the Jews lived with the tension between the repeated pronouncements of prophets that the Day of the Lord was at hand and the continuing history of Israel. And still the followers of these prophets recorded, valued, and preserved the words of the prophets. Given that Jesus' followers looked upon him as being even greater than a prophet, it seems very reasonable that they would have done the same thing."
While that did seem reasonable, some scholars have also raised a second objection that I wanted to pose to Blomberg. "They say that early Christians frequently believed that the physically departed Jesus was speaking through them with messages, or prophecies, for their church," I said. "Since these prophecies were considered as authoritative as Jesus' own words when he was alive on earth, the early Christians didn't distinguish between these newer sayings and the original words of the historical Jesus. As a result, the gospels blend these two types of material, so we don't really know what goes back to the historical Jesus and what doesn't. That's a troubling charge to a lot of people. How do you respond to that?"
"That argument has less historical support than the previous one," he said with a smile. "In fact, within the New Testament itself there is evidence that disproves this hypothesis. There are occasions when early Christian prophecy is referred to, but it's always distinguished from what the Lord has said. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul clearly distinguishes when he has a word from the Lord and when he is quoting the historical Jesus. In the book of Revelation one can clearly distinguish the handful of times in which Jesus directly speaks to this prophet-—traditionally assumed to be John the apostle—-and when John is recounting his own inspired visions. And in 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul is discussing the criteria for true prophecy, he talks about the responsibility of the local church to test the prophets. Drawing on his Jewish background, we know that the criteria for true prophecy would have included whether the prediction comes true and whether these new statements cohere with previously revealed words of the. Lord. But the strongest argument is what we never find in the gospels. After Jesus' ascension there were a number of controversies that threatened the early church-—-should believers be circumcised, how should speaking in tongues be regulated, how to keep Jew and Gentile united, what are the appropriate roles for women in ministry, whether believers could divorce non-Christian spouses. These issues could have been conveniently resolved if the early Christians had simply read back into the gospels what Jesus had told them from the world beyond. But this never happened. The continuance of these controversies demonstrates that Christians were interested in distinguishing between what happened during Jesus' lifetime and what was debated later in the churches."
2. The Ability Test
Even if the writers intended to reliably record history, were they able to do so? How can we be sure that the material about Jesus' life and teachings was well preserved for thirty years before it was finally written down in the gospels? I asked Blomberg, "Wont you concede that faulty memories, wishful thinking, and the development of legend would have irreparably contaminated the Jesus tradition prior to the writing of the gospels?"
He started his answer by establishing the context. "We have to remember that we're in a foreign land in a distant time and place and in a culture that has not yet invented computers or even the printing press," he replied. "Books—or actually, scrolls of papyrus-—-were relatively rare. Therefore education, learning, worship, teaching in religious communities—all this was done by word of mouth. Rabbis became famous for having the entire Old Testament committed to memory. So it would have been well within the capability of Jesus' disciples to have committed much more to memory than appears in all four gospels put together—and to have passed it along accurately."
"Wait a second," I interjected. "Frankly, that kind of memorization seems incredible. How is that possible?"
"Yes, it is difficult for us to imagine today," he conceded, "but this was an oral culture, in which there was great emphasis placed on memorization. And remember that eighty to ninety percent of Jesus' words were originally in poetic form. This doesn't mean stuff that rhymes, but it has a meter, balanced lines, parallelism, and so forth—and this would have created a great memory help. The other thing that needs to be said is that the definition of memorization was more flexible back then. In studies of cultures with oral traditions, there was freedom to vary how much of the story was told on any given occasion—what was included, what was left out, what was paraphrased, what was explained, and so forth. One study suggested that in the ancient Middle East, anywhere from ten to forty percent of any given retelling of sacred tradition could vary from one occasion to the next. However, there were always fixed points that were unalterable, and the community had the right to intervene and correct the storyteller if he erred on those important aspects of the story. Its an interesting"—-he paused, searching his mind for the right word— "coincidence that ten to forty percent is pretty consistently the amount of variation among the synoptics on any given passage."
Blomberg was hinting at something; I wanted him to be more explicit. "Spell it out for me," I said. "What precisely are you saying?"
"I'm saying that it's likely that a lot of the similarities and differences among the synoptics can be explained by assuming that the disciples and other early Christians had committed to memory a lot of what Jesus said and did, but they felt free to recount this information in various forms, always preserving the significance of Jesus original teachings and deeds."
Still, I had some question about the ability of these early Christians to accurately preserve this oral tradition. I had too many memories of childhood party games in which words got garbled within a matter of minutes.
You've probably played the game of telephone yourself: one child whispers something into another child's ear—-for instance, "You're my best friend"—and this gets whispered to others around a big circle until at the end it comes out grossly distorted-—-perhaps, "You're a brutish fiend."
"Let's be candid," I said to Blomberg. "Isn't this a good analogy for what probably happened to the oral tradition about Jesus?"
Blomberg wasn't buying that explanation. "No, not really," he said. "Here's why: When you're carefully memorizing something and taking care not to pass it along until you're sure you've got it right, you're doing something very different from playing the game of telephone. In telephone half the fun is that the person may not have got it right or even heard it right the first time, and they cannot ask the person to repeat it. Then you immediately pass it along, also in whispered tones that make it more likely the next person will goof something up even more. So yes, by the time it has circulated through a room of thirty people, the results can be hilarious."
"Then why," I asked, "isn't that a good analogy for passing along ancient oral tradition?"
Blomberg sipped his coffee before answering. "If you really wanted to develop that analogy in light of the checks and balances of the first-century community, you'd have to say that every third person, out loud in a very clear voice, would have to ask the first person, 'Do I still have it right?' and change it if he didn't. The community would constantly be monitoring what was said and intervening to make corrections along the way. That would preserve the integrity of the message," he said. "And the result would be very different from that of a childish game of telephone."
(ALL THIS IS GOOD LOGIC FROM BLOMBERG, WITHIN A SOCIETY WHERE MEMORIZATION WAS DEEMED VERY IMPORTANT; BUT THE FACT IS ALSO THE WRITTEN WORD WITH PEN AND PARCHMENT WAS EVERYWHERE. IT WOULD ONLY BE NATURAL FOR CHRISTIANS, ESPECIALLY THE APOSTLES TO WRITE DOWN THE TEACHINGS AND PARABLES ETC. THAT CHRIST GAVE. THEN ADD TO THAT JESUS SAYING WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT CAME IT WOULD BRING TO REMEMBRANCE ALL THINGS; BUT YES FOR THAT TO BE A FACTOR YOU'D HAVE TO BELIEVE THEIR IS A GOD AND HE HAS THE POWER TO DO ALL OF THAT - Keith Hunt)
3. The Character Test
This test looks at whether it was in the character of these writers to be truthful. Was there any evidence of dishonesty or immorality that might taint their ability or willingness to transmit history accurately?
Blomberg shook his head. "We simply do not have any reasonable evidence to suggest they were anything but people of great integrity," he said.
"We see them reporting the words and actions of a man who called them to as exacting a level of integrity as any religion has ever known. They were willing to live out their beliefs even to the point of ten of the eleven remaining disciples being put to grisly deaths, which shows great character. In terms of honesty, in terms of truthfulness, in terms of virtue and morality, these people had a track record that should be envied."
4. The Consistency Test
Here's a test that skeptics often charge the gospels with failing. After all, aren't they hopelessly contradictory with each other? Aren't there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if there are, how can anyone trust anything they say?
Blomberg: acknowledged that there are numerous points at which the gospels appear to disagree. "These range all the way from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions," he said.
"My own conviction is, once you allow for the elements I've talked about earlier—-of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission-—the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it's fair to judge them. "Ironically," I pointed out, "if the gospels had been identical to each other, word for word, this would have raised charges that the authors had conspired among themselves to coordinate their stories in advance, and that would have cast doubt on them."
"That's right," Blomberg agreed. "If the gospels were too consistent, that in itself would invalidate them as independent witnesses. People would then say we really only have one testimony that everybody else is just parroting."
My mind flashed to the words of Simon Greenleaf of Harvard Law School, one of history's most important legal figures and the author of an influential treatise on evidence. After studying the consistency among the four gospel writers, he offered this evaluation: "There is enough of a discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them; and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction."
From the perspective of a classical historian, German scholar Hans Stier has concurred that agreement over basic data and divergence of details suggest credibility, because fabricated accounts tend to be fully consistent and harmonized. "Every historian," he wrote, "is especially skeptical at that moment when an extraordinary happening is only reported in accounts which are completely free of contradictions."
While that's true, I didn't want to ignore the difficulties that are raised by the ostensible discrepancies among the gospels. I decided to probe the issue further by pressing Blomberg on some apparent clear-cut contradictions that skeptics frequently seize upon as examples of why the gospels are unreliable.
Coping with Contradictions
I began with a well-known story of a healing. "In Matthew it says a centurion himself came to ask Jesus to heal his servant," I pointed out. "However, Luke says the centurion sent the elders to do this. Now, that's an obvious contradiction, isn't it?"
"No, I don't think so," Blomberg replied.; "Think about it this way; in our world today, we may hear a news report that says, 'The president today announced that...' when in fact the speech was written by a speechwriter and delivered by the press secretary-—-and with a little luck, the president might have glanced at it somewhere in between. Yet nobody accuses that broadcast of being in error. In a similar way, in the ancient world it was perfectly understood and accepted that actions were often attributed to people when in fact they occurred through their subordinates or emissaries—-in this case through the elders of the Jewish people."
"So you're saying that Matthew and Luke can both be right at the same time?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying," he replied.
That seemed plausible, so I posed a second example. "What about Mark and Luke saying that Jesus sent the demons into the swine at Gerasa, while Matthew says it was in Gadara. People look at that and say this is an obvious contradiction that cannot be reconciled—it's two different places. Case closed."
"Well, don't shut the case yet," Blomberg chuckled. "Here's one possible solution: one was a town; the other was a province."
That seemed a little too glib for me. He appeared to be skimming over the real difficulties that are raised by this issue.
"It gets more complicated than that," I said. "Gerasa, the town, wasn't anywhere near the Sea of Galilee, yet that's where the demons, after going into the swine, supposedly took the herd over the cliff to their deaths."
"OK, good point," he said. "But there have been ruins of a town that have been excavated at exactly the right point on the eastern shore of the Sea of'Galilee. The English form of the town's name often gets pronounced 'Khersa,' but as a Hebrew word translated or transliterated into Greek, it could have come out sounding something very much like 'Gerasa.' So it may very well have been in Khersa—whose spelling in Greek was rendered as Gerasa—-in the province of Gadara."
"Well done," I conceded with a smile. "I'll surrender on that one. But here's a problem that's not so easy: what about the discrepancies between the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke? Skeptics often point to them as being hopelessly in conflict."
"This is another case of multiple options," he said.
"The two most common have been that Matthew reflects Joseph's lineage, because most of his opening chapter is told from Josephs perspective and Joseph, as the adoptive father, would have been the legal ancestor through whom Jesus' royal lineage would have been traced. These are themes that are important for Matthew. Luke, then, would have traced the genealogy through Mary's lineage. And since both are from the ancestry of David, once you get that far back the lines converge. A second option is that both genealogies reflect Joseph's lineage in order to create the necessary legalities. But one is Joseph's human lineage—the gospel of Luke—-and the other is Joseph's legal lineage, with the two diverging at the points where somebody in the line did not have a direct offspring. They had to raise up legal heirs through various Old Testament practices. The problem is made greater because some names are omitted, which was perfectly acceptable by standards of the ancient world. And there are textual variants—names, being translated from one language into another, often took on different spellings and were then easily confused for the name of a different individual."
Blomberg had made his point: there are at least some rational explanations. Even if they might not be airtight, at least they provide a reasonable harmonization of the gospel accounts.
Not wanting our conversation to degenerate into a stump-the-scholar game, I decided to move on. In the meantime Blomberg and I agreed that the best overall approach would be to study each issue individually to see whether there's a rational way to resolve the apparent conflict among the gospels. Certainly there's no shortage of authoritative books that thoroughly examine, sometimes in excruciating detail, how these differences might be reconciled.
"And," said Blomberg, "there are occasions when we may need to hold judgment in abeyance and simply say that since we've made sense out of the vast majority of the texts and determined them to be trustworthy, we can then give them the benefit of the doubt when we're not sure on some of the other details."
5. The Bias Test
This test analyzes whether the gospel writers had any biases that would have colored their work. Did they have any vested interest in skewing the material they were reporting on?
"We can't underestimate the fact that these people loved Jesus," I pointed out. "They were not neutral observers; they were his devoted followers. Wouldn't that make it likely that they would change things to make him look good?"
"Well, I'll concede this much," Blomberg replied, "it creates the potential for this to happen. But on the other hand, people can so honor and respect someone that it prompts them to record his life with great integrity. That's the way they would show their love for him. And I think that's what happened here. Besides, these disciples had nothing to gain except criticism, ostracism, and martyrdom. They certainly had nothing to win financially. If anything, this would have provided pressure to keep quiet, to deny Jesus, to downplay him, even to forget they ever met him-—-yet because of their integrity, they proclaimed what they saw, even when it meant suffering and death."
6. The Cover-up Test
When people testify about events they saw, they will often try to protect themselves or others by conveniently forgetting to mention details that are embarrassing or hard to explain. As a result, this raises uncertainty about the veracity of their entire testimony.
So I asked Blomberg, "Did the gospel writers include any material that might be embarrassing, or did they cover it up to make themselves look good? Did they report anything that would be uncomfortable or difficult for them to explain?"
"There's actually quite a bit along those lines," he said. "There's a large body of Jesus' teaching called the hard sayings of Jesus. Some of it is very ethically demanding. If I were inventing a religion to suit my fancy, I probably wouldn't tell myself to be as perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, or, define adultery to include lust in my heart."
"But," I protested, "there are demanding statements in other religions as well."
"Yes, that's true, which is why the more persuasive kind of hard sayings are those that could be embarrassing for what the church wanted to teach about Jesus."
That response seemed vague. "Give me some examples," I said.
Blomberg thought for a moment, then said, "For instance, Mark 6:5 says that Jesus could do few miracles in Nazareth because the people there had little faith, which seems to limit Jesus' power. Jesus said in Mark 13:32 that he didn't know the day or the hour of his return, which seems to limit his omniscience. Now, ultimately theology hasn't had a problem with these statements, because Paul himself, in Philippians 2:5 — 8, talks about God in Christ voluntarily and consciously limiting the independent exercise of his divine attributes. But if I felt free to play fast and loose with gospel history, it would be much more convenient to just leave out that material altogether, and then I wouldn't have to go through the hassle of explaining it. Jesus' baptism is another example. You can explain why Jesus, who was without sin, allowed himself to be baptized, but why not make things easier by leaving it out altogether? On the cross Jesus cried out, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' It would have been in the self-interest of the writers to omit that because it raises too many questions."
"Certainly," I added, "there's plenty of embarrassing material about the disciples."
"Absolutely," Blomberg said. "Mark's perspective of Peter is pretty consistently unflattering. And he's the ringleader! The disciples repeatedly misunderstand Jesus. James and John want the places at Jesus' right and left hand, and he has to teach them hard lessons about servant leadership instead. They look like a bunch of self-serving, self-seeking, dull-witted people a lot of the time. Now, we already know that the gospel writers were selective; John's gospel ends by saying, somewhat hyperbolically, that the whole world couldn't contain all the information that could have been written about Jesus. So had they left some of this out, that in and of itself wouldn't necessarily have been seen as falsifying the story. But here's the point: if they didn't feel free to leave out stuff when it would have been convenient and helpful to do so, is it really plausible to believe that they outright added and fabricated material with no historical basis?"
Blomberg let the question hang for a while before concluding with confidence, "I'd say not."
7. The Corroboration Test
I introduced this next test by asking Blomberg, "When the gospels mention people, places, and events, do they check out to be correct in cases in which they can be independently verified?" Often such corroboration is invaluable in assessing whether a writer has a commitment to accuracy.
"Yes, they do, and the longer people explore this, the more the details get confirmed," Blomberg replied. "Within the last hundred years archaeology has repeatedly unearthed discoveries that have confirmed specific references in the gospels, particularly the gospel of John —ironically, the one that's supposedly so suspect! Now, yes, there are still some unresolved issues, and there have been times when archaeology has created new problems, but those are a tiny minority compared with the number of examples of corroboration. In addition, we can learn through non-Christian sources a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life. And when you stop to think that ancient historians for the most part dealt only with political rulers, emperors, kings, military battles, official religious people, and major philosophical movements, it's remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers even though they fit none of those categories at the time these historians were writing."
That was a concise and helpful answer. However, while I had no reason to doubt Blomberg's assessment, I decided it would be worthwhile to do some further research along these lines. I picked up my pen and jotted a reminder to myself in the margin of my notes: Get expert opinions from archaeologist and historian.
8. The Adverse Witness Test
This test asks the question: Were others present who would have contradicted or corrected the gospels if they had been distorted or false? In other words, do we see examples of contemporaries of Jesus complaining that the gospel accounts were just plain wrong?
"Many people had reasons for wanting to discredit this movement and would have done so if they could have simply told history better. Yet look at what his opponents did say. In later Jewish writings Jesus is called a sorcerer who led Israel astray—which acknowledges that he really did work marvelous wonders, although the writers dispute the source of his power. This would have been a perfect opportunity to say something like, 'The Christians will tell you he worked miracles, but we're here to tell you he didn't.' Yet that's the one thing we never see his opponents saying. Instead they implicidly acknowledge that what the gospels wrote —that Jesus performed miracles.—is true."
I asked, "Could this Christian movement have taken root right there in Jerusalem—in the very area where Jesus had done much of his ministry, had been crucified, buried, and resurrected.—-if people who knew him were aware that the disciples were exaggerating or distorting the things that he did?"
"I don't believe so," Blomberg replied. "We have a picture of what was initially a very vulnerable and fragile movement that was being subjected to persecution. If critics could have attacked it on the basis that it was full of falsehoods or distortions, they would have.
"But," he emphasized in conclusion, "that's exactly what we don't see.
A Faith Buttressed by Facts
I'll admit I was impressed by Blomberg. Informed and articulate, scholarly and convincing, he had constructed a strong case for the reliability of the gospels. His evidence for their traditional authorship, his analysis of the extremely early date of fundamental beliefs about Jesus, his well-reasoned defense of the accuracy of the oral tradition, his thoughtful examination of apparent discrepancies—all of his testimony had established a solid foundation for me to build on.
Yet there was still a long way to go in determining whether Jesus is the unique Son of God. In fact, after talking with Blomberg, my next assignment became clear: figure out whether these gospels, shown by Blomberg to be so trustworthy, have been reliably handed down to us over the centuries. How can we be sure that the texts we're reading today bear any resemblance to what was originally written in the first century? What's more, how do we know that the gospels are telling us the full story about Jesus?
I looked at my watch. If traffic was light, I'd make my plane back to Chicago. As I gathered my notes and unplugged my recording equipment, I happened to glance once more at the children's paintings on Blomberg's wall—and suddenly for a moment I thought of him not as a scholar, not as an author, not as a professor, but as a father who sits on the edge of his daughters' beds at night and speaks quietly to them about what's really important in life. What does he tell them, I wondered, about the Bible, about God, about this Jesus who makes such outrageous claims about himself?
I couldn't resist one last line of questions. "What about your own faith?" I asked. "How has all your research affected your beliefs?"
I barely got the words out of my mouth before he replied. "It has strengthened them, no question. I know from my own research that there's very strong evidence for the trustworthiness of the gospel accounts."
He was quiet for a moment, then continued. "You know, it's ironic: The Bible considers it praiseworthy to have a faith that does not require evidence. Remember how Jesus replied to doubting Thomas: 'You believe because you see; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.' And I know evidence can never compel or coerce faith. We cannot supplant the role of the Holy Spirit, which is often a concern of Christians when they hear discussions of this kind. But I'll tell you this: there are plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who have not been Christians, yet through their study of these very issues have come to faith in Christ. And there have been countless more scholars, already believers, whose faith has been made stronger, more solid, more grounded, because of the evidence —and that's the category I fall into."
As for me, I had originally been in the first category-—-no, not a scholar but a skeptic, an iconoclast, a hard-nosed reporter on a quest for the truth about this Jesus who said he was the Way and the Truth and the Life.
I clicked my briefcase closed and stood to thank Blomberg. I would fly back to Chicago satisfied that once again my spiritual quest was off to a good start.
Questions for Reflection or Group Study
Overall, how have Blomberg's responses to these eight evidential tests affected your confidence in the reliability of the gospels? Why?
Which of these eight tests do you consider the most persuasive and why?
When people you trust give slightly different details of the same event, do you automatically doubt their credibility, or do you see if there's a reasonable way to reconcile their accounts? How convincing did you find Blomberg's analysis of the apparent contradictions among the gospels?
For Further Evidence
More Resources on This Topic
Archer, Gleason L. The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.
Blomberg, Craig. "The Historical Reliability of the New Testament." In Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig, 193—231. Westchester, Cross-way, 1994.
----"Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?" In Jesus under Fire, edited by
Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, 17-50. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Dunn, James. The Living Word. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Marshall, I. Howard, I Believe in the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
TO BE CONTINUED