Apologetics 101, Part 3: An Outline of the Historical Argument for Christianity

‘The view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists is that the oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus are the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” – Bart Ehrman[1]

954634_bibleIn part 1 of this series we unpacked the question, “what is truth?” along with sound methods of establishing the rationality of various religious truth claims. In part 2, we established that the historical/legal method of empirical and evidential apologetics is the best means of arguing positively in defense of the Christian faith while at the same time taking into account all the historical evidence. By now the reader may have noticed that we have given very little actual evidence. That is intentional. We have been building the case for Christianity. Now in part 3, we will outline the historical argument which was also presented by Craig Parton in January at UNWRAPPED in St. Louis, thus stabbing two birds with one electronic quill.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Christianity is unique in its historical claims, its historical context, and in the fact that, in principle, it is historically verifiable. Moreover, Christianity’s claim to truth – unlike any other world religion – is falsifiable. This is what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then your faith is in vain.” The question also needs to be flipped around. If Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, what does that mean? It would mean his claim to be God is vindicated and what he says is true. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What evidence do Christians have to back up their truth claim? How do we go about arguing positively for the defense of the Christian faith? What does a reasonable defense, ala 1 Peter 3:15, look like?

Here’s the four-part outline.

1)      The four books known as the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are reliable primary source documents.

2)     In these primary source documents, the central figure, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, claims to be nothing short of God almighty in human flesh.

3)     Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead proves his deity.

4)     Christ gives his stamp of approval to the Old Testament and the New Testament, which he will bring to the apostles’ minds.

Using this outline, we argue inductively, taking into account all the historical evidence, both internally and externally, and ask ourselves the question: “what is the best explanation that includes all the evidence?” As a brief side note, this does not mean that apologetics is trying to bench the Holy Spirit, nor does it mean we are arguing for a purely rational faith. To use the early Lutheran dogmatic categories, apologetics can deal only with 1) notitia and 2) assensus; here we rejoice with Luther that reason is given and preserved by God and is to be highly praised when used ministerially. Fiducia, the third category, is the realm of the Holy Spirit alone; here we join Luther in confessing, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason believe my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…”

It is precisely because there is an objective Word (proclaiming an objective, extra nos, outside-of-you salvation) that we are able to know that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and to martial evidence in support of that claim while at the same time maintaining that this faith, which is founded on fact, is also – and entirely – a gift of the Holy Spirit. Faith is not an act of the will in spite of the facts or a blind leap into an existential abyss: “I’ll believe no matter what they say.” Rather, faith is a gift (Eph. 2:8-10) grounded in the objective events of Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15). This is a good thing. Christianity did not occur in a vacuum. No wonder Luke’s gospel reads more like a history book than a conspiracy novel (sorry to disappoint all you closet Don Brown fans).

This brings us full circle to part one of the historical argument:

The four books known as the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are reliable primary source documents.

Although we usually see the Bible printed on fine India paper with gilt-edged pages, leather bound in one single volume, the Bible is a collection of sixty six books. The primary source history of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is found in these four books, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They were written by four separate men who were contemporaneous with the events they claim to report. In the case of the Gospels, the four authors are either eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) or close associates of eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke) of Jesus’ public ministry and subsequent death and resurrection. Think of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John like four eyewitnesses to an automotive accident on four separate corners. The fact that they report the same events with remarkable similarities and yet present unique contributions in their accounts does little to undermine their testimony. Quite the opposite in fact; this lends support and credibility to their reliability as eyewitnesses.

The veracity of the paper trail left by these four separate accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is further bolstered by three important facts: 1) the overwhelming amount of New Testament manuscript evidence giving us an accurate and abundant view of what the original autograph would’ve said, 2) the minimal time gap between the date the events occurred and when they were written down, in addition to the minimal time gap (especially when compared to other works of antiquity) between the original date of the events in question and the earliest known manuscripts, and 3) following up with the first point, is the fact that the manuscripts we do have have been accurately transmitted over time and have been painstakingly collected into the critical edition of Greek texts, such as the 28th edition Nestle Aland, most commonly used today.

Craig Parton’s observations are helpful here.  “If the documents containing these claims are suspect and subject to corruption over time so that we really have little idea what took place originally, then all bets are off.”[1]  If, however, “the documents are sound and have come down to us in a reliable fashion, we can move to the next step of considering the facticity of the claims made in those documents.”[2]

In other words, if Dan Brown, Bart Ehrman and others are correct that the Bible is simply full of errors and the transmission of New Testament manuscripts has been thoroughly corrupted over time so as to make the text utterly unreliable, then there’s little reason to continue on with the rest of the argument.

(Here I must offer a brief parenthetical note:  Bart Ehrman is cited intentionally, not because he is an ardent supporter of the reliability of the New Testament, nor because he is an unbiased source of support for Christian apologists, but rather, for the opposite reasons. In other words, the fact that Ehrman – and other liberal scholars like him – admit that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the best sources for the life of Jesus, actually lends credibility to the claim of Christian apologists. While it does not prove the case conclusively, it provides good corroborating evidence from a source that is similar, if not identical, to a hostile witness. Furthermore, Christians should not avoid reading Bart Ehrman (or similar authors) simply because they present opposing views, but rather should be discerning in their reading. Therefore, when reading Bart Ehrman or other skeptics’ works, proceed with caution. If this is your first introduction to Christian apologetics, consider checking out the following online resources: Apologetics 315 at www.apologetics315.com; Stand to Reason at www.str.org; Issues Etc. archives at www.issuesetc.org; or New Reformation Press at www.newreformationpress.com.)

Are liberal scholars right in asserting that the Bible is full of errors and is therefore untrustworthy? Are claims that the New Testament is a byproduct of some mass ecclesiastical conspiracy accurate when compared to actual historical records? How do we go about evaluating whether or not these primary source documents have been handed down to us in a reliable manner?

One way, effectively used by Craig Parton in his plenary session at UNWRAPPED, is to apply the same methods of historical investigation to these documents as we would to any document of antiquity. In this case, there are three standard tests used in establishing documentary authenticity: 1) the bibliographic or textual test, 2) the internal evidence test, and 3) the evidence external test. And just to reassure the skeptic against any alleged biases at this point, these three tests are drawn from military historian, Chauncey Sanders, and not from a religious historian.

“The bibliographic test seeks to determine how reliably the actual, physical document has come down to us today. With the internal evidence test we seek to discover what the texts themselves reveal about their reliability. This is, do they even claim eyewitness status, and even if they answer is yes, do the authors give evidence of the means, motive and opportunity to present eyewitness evidence? Finally, the external evidence test focuses on reliable materials and evidence found outside the texts which either support or contradict the claims in the document itself.”[3]

In the ensuing posts, we’ll take a more detailed look at each of these three tests in relation to the primary source documents of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In the meantime, here are several sources for further reading on this particular topic.

  • The Bible on Trial – A Lutheran Hour Men’s Network Video Series hosted by Craig Parton.
  • How We Got the Bible – A Lutheran Hour Men’s Network Video Series hosted by Paul Maier.
  • Can We Trust the Gospel? ­ – Mark Roberts.
  • The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?  – F.F. Bruce.
  • The Text of the New Testament – Bruce Metzger.
  • A General Introduction to the Bible – Norman Geisler and William Nix.
  • History, Law and Christianity – John Warwick Montgomery.

In these primary source documents, the central figure, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, claims to be nothing short of God almighty in human flesh.

Typically most conversations with a skeptic spend a great deal of time on the previous point.  No doubt, they have been fed the constant assumption (without little or no evidence) that the New Testament has been handed down to us much like a junior high game of telephone.  Sadly there is just as much confusion on the nature of New Testament textual transmission as there is concerning the actual content of the texts themselves. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was not some elite Jewish boy scout helping ferry little old ladies and their groceries across the Sea of Galilee. And neither did he come to be a good moral teacher or simply to fill the minds of his disciples with pithy wisdom.

Most catechized Lutherans whom I know are able to demonstrate this point of the argument quite thoroughly. This is one area where Lutheran catechesis has excelled. Very few Lutherans who have studied the catechism, sat in Bible class regularly, listened to faithful sermons and sung the liturgy weekly, are going to buy into the lie that “Jesus never actually claimed to be God; only his followers claimed that after he was gone.” For those who are less fortunate and have not received faithful teaching and preaching, even a cursory reading of the New Testament will reveal the recurring answer to the question about who Jesus is: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day raised” (Luke 9:22).  So, if the text has been reliably handed down – which we have briefly demonstrated here in the positive – then there are only three logical possibilities about Jesus (just as the professor described concerning Lucy’s claim of a certain magical world in a certain mysterious wardrobe).[4] To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Jesus is either a madman, a sensational (and convincing) liar or he’s actually telling the truth, namely, that He is God Almighty come in human flesh to save the world by his death on the cross. There are no other options.

Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead proves his deity.

Christ’s death and resurrection are recorded in stunningly rich detail in all four of these primary source documents. Holy Week, in particular, is the focal point of all four of these primary source documents. A larger percentage of time is spent on the accounts of the events of Jesus’ triumphal entry, trial, death, and resurrection than any other portion of Jesus’ public ministry. This is no accident. Jesus was born for this very purpose: to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise from the grave for the sins of all mankind. Holy Week is the climax of Jesus’ entire public ministry. Time halts and the narrative pace slows down during Jesus’ last week before his death. This demonstrates exactly how significant these events were both in the minds of those who recorded them as well as in the life of Jesus and his salvific work.

These authors spend the majority of their time – in Matthew 29%; in Mark 38%; in Luke 25%; in John 40% (approximately) – dedicated to narrating the events of one particular week in Jesus three year public ministry. Why pay so much attention on these eight days if Jesus is only a moral teacher or a super-duper nice guy? The answer is clear: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John focus the spotlight on Jesus’ death and resurrection because this is the central event in all of human history. Their work is replete with details only eyewitnesses would remember, much less pass along (not to mention, embarrassing details that wouldn’t be included the story was fabricated), such as the number of fish caught on a certain day (153 in John 21) or that Jesus was thirsty on the cross or that Jesus’ words were spoken in Aramaic. As my good friend and apologist, Mark Pierson says, “These seemingly mundane historical details smack of eyewitness testimony.”  These writers want anyone who reads their work to know that they saw it themselves, or they checked out the facts from people who did; this really happened and it happened for you. The details of these accounts of the Jesus’ life and ministry confirm their accuracy. And coupled with this richly detailed account is the fact that no other viable explanation exists for what happened to the missing body of Jesus and the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. This is a crucial point and will be handled in more detail in a future post on the defense of the resurrection.

For now, we’ll move on to Jesus’ central claim: that his resurrection proves his deity. Claims to divinity are cheap, especially in California, where I live. But Christ backs up his claim.  John is filled with signs that point his hearers to Jesus and his saving work on the cross. Similarly, we are told that the entire Old Testament points to his death and resurrection (Luke 24). And Jesus routinely predicts his death and resurrection as the foundational event for his claim to deity. In the Old Testament, false prophets are stoned to death if their predictions do not come true. If Christ is a false prophet and false teacher there is no reason for God to raise Jesus from the dead; Jesus would simply be revealed as a charlatan. However, since God alone is the author and creator of life, it would follow that if Jesus rose from the dead he is truly who he claims to be, God almighty in human flesh (John 1). What’s more, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus both commands that worship be directed to God alone (citation) and receives worship after his resurrection from the dead without rebuking the disciples for committing blasphemy and breaking the first commandment’s prohibitions (citation).

No matter the worldview, religion or spirituality you claim, this reality is true for all: one can evade taxes but not death. Death is the great equalizer. And yet this is precisely the reason why Jesus came in the first place, to die in our place. Not only does Jesus’ resurrection from the dead vindicate his claim to deity. It also ensures that his promise to us is true, namely, that he also holds authority over our death and promises that we too will rise from the dead (Romans 6).

As Craig Parton notes,

“Jesus says his resurrection establishes his deity. Of course he could simply be dead wrong about that interpretation (for example, he could have resurrected but the correct interpretation of that is that we all resurrect anew each spring, like wild-flowers). However, if he did accomplish his resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion, the law would easily find that he is the most qualified witness on the topic of the correct interpretation of that event. Particularly unsuitable interpreters of the meaning of that event are critics living centuries later who were not eyewitnesses of the event, whose worldview does not allow them to even consider evidence for the resurrection, and who have certainly never accomplished their resurrection.”[5]

Christ gives his stamp of approval to the Old Testament and the New Testament, which he will bring to the apostles’ minds.

If, as we have argued, Christ’s resurrection establishes His deity, then we should be quick to hear Him as He has pronounced on any topic, including the reliability of the Scriptures. On this topic, Christ could not have been clearer. As for the Old Testament, He unambiguously testifies that it is accurate to the smallest jot and tittle, while He guarantees that the coming New Testament will be guarded in its transmission by the Holy Spirit through the pens of the eyewitnesses to His resurrection – namely the apostolic band.[6]

Although Jesus frequently uses stories and passages from the OT as application to his own life and ministry, Jesus is anything but a higher critic or liberal Bible scholar. Rather, He treats the OT people, places and events as historical, not legendary (i.e. Moses and the Exodus, Creation, Jonah, the flood and Noah, etc.).  In a similar way, Jesus puts his stamp of approval on the New Testament (John 14 and 16). Thus we can confess with Peter that these New Testament books are indeed products of men carried along by the Holy Spirit and not cleverly devised myths (2 Peter 1:16-21).

Stay tuned for the next Apologetics 101 post, where we’ll take up the “bibliographical test” in specific detail as we continue to build a positive case for defending the Christian faith.

[1] Craig Parton, Religion on Trial (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2008), p. 40.

[2] Ibid, p. 41

[3] Ibid, p. 44.

[4] The full context of this reference can be found in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the chapter titled, Back on This Side of the Door (page 48 of the Harper Collins, Full-Color Collector’s Edition of 1950), where the Professor says the following to Lucy’s siblings who doubt her account of Narnia: “’Logic!’ said the Professor half to himself. ‘Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?  There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth.  You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad.  For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’”

[5] Ibid, p. 73-74.

[6] Craig Parton, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2003), p. 92.



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