Christianity, History, and Verification

By L. Alfred James

Christianity, History, and Verification“How do you know the stories in the Bible weren’t just written by some dude in a cave who was on drugs, or hallucinating, or just made them up?”

I have been asked this question more times than I can count. It is a reasonable question, and it has been thoroughly addressed elsewhere. (For instance, Josh McDowell’s book He Walked Among Us or Holden and Geisler’s Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible are both excellent starting points.) It is not a subject I can adequately deal with in a short article.

But this question is very important in one regard. It points to a critical difference between Christianity and the other religions of the world. To see what I mean, notice how the gospel of Luke begins:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 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, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke explains he is using material handed down by eyewitnesses. And just a couple chapters later he gets very specific about the timing of the events he writes about:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar– when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene– 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)

Notice how Luke frames his story about Jesus’ life and ministry. It doesn’t start with “Once upon a time,” or “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” No, the place and time for this story are a real place and a real time. The place was Israel. The time was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. The story of Jesus is key–it is absolutely central—to Christianity; and this story is clearly anchored in the real history of the real world based on the testimony of eyewitnesses.

World ReligionsThis is quite distinct from how all of the world’s religions tell their key stories. To be sure, some world religions have no stories at all; they are simply philosophical systems. But for those which tell stories, their central stories have no clear connection to history. Yes, there might be an occasional recounting of historical events (such as with the life of Mohammad), but no major doctrines are founded on these events. It doesn’t matter if these events really happened or not. They don’t change the doctrines of these religions.

For example, the philosophical and religious teachings of Buddha are not dependent upon the historicity of his departure from the palace and seeing the famous “four sights.” If there were clear evidence that this story was entirely a myth it would not (for followers of Buddhism) affect the truth value of any major Buddhist teachings. (By the way “truth value” is a philosophical term that simply refers to whether something is true or false.)

Thus, the major doctrines of Buddhism are on the same footing as the mathematical teachings of Euclid. Everyone who has taken a geometry class has read some of Euclid’s axioms. But think about this carefully: if it were discovered that Euclid had never lived, that he was not really a historical figure, that someone else entirely discovered these axioms, what would that mean? Would it mean that these axioms are false? No, not in the least. Euclid’s geometrical axioms remain true whether Euclid was a real person or not. The truth value of these axioms has no connection whatsoever to the historicity of Euclid.

By the same token the major world religions do not believe that the truth value of their most fundamental beliefs have any connection with history. It doesn’t matter if Buddha, Mohammad, Vyasa (aka Krishna Dvaipayana), or Confucius were real figures of history. According to followers of these religions, the teachings of these leaders are eternally true in and of themselves. They are true principles of reality regardless of what has happened in history.

This points to an important difference between the central tenets taught in the Bible and those taught by all other religions. The other religions base their tenets on the private experiences of charismatic leaders. Typically, some charismatic person had a dream, or an angel appeared to him, or some spirit being spoke to him, or he just got really pumped up about a brilliant new idea. After this private experience he then went out and told the world, using all of his charisma and charm to win gobs of followers. Private experience thus led to public proclamation. A bunch of followers were convinced, and they started proclaiming the same message. But no one else shared this special experience with the main leader. It was entirely private. This aptly summarizes the ministries of Joseph Smith, Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius, and all of the major teachers of Hinduism.

Christianity is very different. Its central tenets are based on public events that anyone (alive at the time) could have witnessed. Speaking of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the apostle Paul said, “And King Agrippa knows about these things. I speak boldly, for I am sure these events are all familiar to him, for they were not done in a corner!” (Acts 26:26). He was also referring to the risen Jesus when writing thus to the Corinthian church: “He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6). Indeed, the public verification of Jesus’ resurrection comes through again and again when the apostles testify to having seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes. Over and over they said, “We are witnesses of these things” (Acts 2:32; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31).

I won’t bore you with a long list of verses from the Bible that say the same thing. But two more examples should drive my point home. Both Peter and John strike this note in letters that they wrote to different churches:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:2-3)

So, the question we started with (about writing the Bible in a cave) is a good question. Among other things, it is asking, “How do you know someone did not just have a private experience and write it down?”

The key events described by Christianity were not private experiences. They were public. They were verified. They key stories told by the other religions of the world (if they tell any) were not public experiences. They were private. And they were not verified.

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