I like to start by breaking this question down to the basics. What would cause me to trust that the Bible was assembled the right way? Well, let’s think about this…
If we needed information about a person like Jesus from a time without video technology or internet, a biographical sketch is the natural medium to choose. And who would be most reliable in doing that? Probably the twelve disciples, those men who were close to Him in proximity, ministry, and relationship.
So what they said carries a lot of weight when it comes to replicating not only Jesus’ life and times, but also His teachings, transmitted by oral tradition as they were, since He never wrote anything down.
But by what sort of criteria can we use to decide if a set of writings are from his disciples? Well, think of it in more contemporary terms. If you wanted to know a few things about John F. Kennedy’s life, you could ask your friend (perhaps they know a few accurate things about that time period, or JFK himself). But what if your dad was alive during Kennedy’s life, and experienced his presidency? Well, now you have a slightly greater account, if for no other reason than your dad has an eyewitness account of Kennedy, and your friend has only second or third-hand knowledge. In fact, your friend may not have even been alive at the time anyway. But let’s take it up a notch. Let’s suppose you were able to speak to Kirk LeMoyne Billings, Kennedy’s best friend. That would be a drastic difference to which none of the first two options could compare. Not only was Billings an eyewitness, but he was also privy to knowledge about Kennedy being as close as he was to him. Now add to this hypothetical situation: Billings is commissioned by Kennedy to write his authorized biography about. Now you are beginning to grasp the nature of the New Testament gospels. These have all the characteristics you would expect from an authentic account of Jesus’ life.
Here are three things about the gospels that cannot be ignored.
The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were all written in the first century. Mark, the earliest gospel, was written somewhere in the mid- to late-50’s. If Jesus died in the early 30’s, as history tells us, then Mark’s gospel was penned within twenty years of Jesus’ life. At first mention, that may sound like a long time to you. But there are still throngs of people alive today who remember Kennedy’s life, presidency, and passing with vivid clarity, though it was over fifty years ago. A memorable event or person has the ability to burn itself into the memory as if it was yesterday. Twenty years is actually very early.
This one is easy. The gospel writers were there! Well, half of them were. John (the fourth gospel) was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and Matthew was the former tax collector who became Jesus’ disciple. Eyewitnesses. The other two were not around to witness Jesus life. So how did they make the cut? Well, history tells us that Mark and Luke were directly connected to some important eyewitnesses, namely, Peter and Paul, the apostles. As early as AD 120, Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, reported that Peter transmitted the words and deeds of Jesus to an assistant, named John Mark. Some traditions hold that the physician, Luke, was an associate of Paul’s (Col. 4:14). So in other words, “Did the Gospel writers know Jesus personally? With confidence, we can say ‘no’ in the cases of the second [Mark] and third [Luke] Gospels. But these evangelists had access to reliable traditions about Jesus” (Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels. 49).
Jesus didn’t just have a cluster of eyewitnesses around him observing his life. He commissioned certain people to document his life, death, resurrection, and teachings (Luke 24:48; Matt 28:19-20). Consider the gravity of that. These men were the only people we know of who were authorized and capable of speaking on behalf of Jesus. It makes sense that their writings take precedence over any other writings, whether ancient or modern. Other writings came much later, were not based on known eyewitnesses accounts, and were certainly without the authorization of Jesus Himself. In fact, that’s why the original Twelve disciples (as well as Paul, and some others) are also called, apostles, which means “to commission.”
Why is all of this important?
Many people like the idea of Jesus, but not everyone accepts everything He said or affirmed. You can tell by the amount of playtime our culture has given to some so-called alternative gospels. The Gnostic gospels, as their often called, are a group of ancient writings from the Nag Hammadi library which was discovered in Egypt in 1945. They have their roots in Gnosticism, an ancient heresy centered around “secret knowledge” that sprung up around the birth of the Christian church. These writings have been offered as a viable alternative to the gospels found in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Making their case more alluring are each of their titles–The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Philip, and The Gospel of Judas–which seem to presuppose an apostolic authorship. This is a big deal, because the message in these writings are quite different from the gospels found in the New Testament (NT), and even flat-out contradictory. If the Gnostic gospels were written by Jesus’ apostles, we would have a serious problem on our hands. But they’re not.
Using the criteria we gave for the NT gospels, you can see that the Gnostic gospels fall short. Here are three immediate problems with attaching any kind of credence or authority to them.
One of the reasons there was no “official canon” until the fourth century, is because there was not yet a need to differentiate between true and false gospels, until the Gnostic heresies because more of a problem. Then certain criteria was offered for followers of Christ to discern between the apostles of Jesus and false apostles. As you can see, that criteria really helped throughout the centuries, and continues to do so. Now, when you add to this the Christian’s belief that Jesus is God in the flesh, and rose from the dead, there is also an authority in the NT gospels that’s unparalleled by any other so-called “gospels.” As my mom used to say, “Laying down in the garage doesn’t make you a car.” In the same way, calling something a gospel doesn’t make it a gospel without evidence connecting it to Jesus Christ Himself.
Our New Testament carries the only authorized, connected, and commissioned accounts of Jesus’ life. And because they were commissioned by Jesus, who is our Lord and God, they are our authority in life along with the rest of the Biblical canon. Thank you God–you speak to your people!
But surprisingly, any push back about Easter is rarely about Jesus, and more with the guys who wrote about Jesus. A common question is how the Scriptures were finally assembled, and how the books that are in the Bible made it there to begin with (The finished version is usually called the canon of Scripture). Maybe you’ve heard questions like this before: “How do we know the gospels are the right ones?” or “Were there any other gospels we should be considering?” These are valid questions that we should think deeply about, considering how we place the bulk of our faith on these writings! How did they get chosen? Are there other valid writings about Jesus? How will we ever know? These were some of the questions that surfaced in conversations while I was in college, especially around the release of The Da Vinci Code, and ended up being questions I asked myself. Almost counterintuitively, these questions strengthened my faith in Christ and in the Bible, because I was forced to examine the claims against it for myself.
Think about this. Doubt is like temptation–it’s not wrong to have them. Jesus was tempted (Matt 4), yet He withstood them by the power of the Holy Spirit. So it’s not wrong to have doubts, but it does matter how you handle them. And the only way to start is by asking them. Underlying some of our strongest doubts is the desire to wrestle with and come to terms with the truth, and it’s only possible to desire the truth when some glimmer of faith is present. Doubt is not the absence of faith; doubt is the evidence of faith. If we’re going to believe some of the other outlandish claims that Jesus often made, we might as well get used to asking good questions, and wrestling with the answers. So I set out to do this with the canon, or assembling, of the Christian Bible.
I learned pretty quickly that there’s a lot of material on subjects like Scripture’s canonization (did the “right” books make it in?), historicity (does it accurately convey history?), and reliability (do we have the original message intended by the authors?). This was a relief. It’s sooo easy to read one-liners out of some bestselling book attempting to derail our trust in the reliability of the Christian faith, thinking they are the last word on the subject.
For example, when a movie gets released days before Easter with some “new secret” undermining the historical accounts so dear to the Christian faith, both Christians and skeptics begin analyzing the film. Actually, I love these types of conversation. They’re engaging. They make both parties think deeply. Christians should converse intelligently and be winsome with skeptics about their faith. In fact, some of my most thoughtful and enjoyable conversations about my faith have been with skeptics, who, like me, sincerely want to know the reasons behind what their friends believe, even if they don’t end up subscribing to the same beliefs. It’s what friends do. So those conversations shouldn’t stop.
Whenever a Da Vinci Code, a Zeitgeist, or a new Bart Ehrman book gets released, it’s often the same old stuff being recycled from past scholarly conversations, and repackaged for the mainstream. But scholars have been talking about these issues for decades–-centuries even-–with reasonable answers to some of the critical jabs that are leveled against the trustworthiness of the Bible; and every time a new movie or book comes out “undermining” the Christian faith, I want so badly to give believing scholars similar airtime when objections to the reliability of the Bible are raised.
But that stuff never makes the headlines. Why? Partially because the truth isn’t always sensational enough to sell, and is often couched in the language of academia anyway. Scholars write for other scholars. Let’s face it: scholars can sound a bit boring for the rest of us. The unfortunate result? The reasonable claims for the reliability of the Bible get hidden under a brightly colored carpet of New York Times bestsellers. See, a scholarly work that’s been repackaged for the mainstream and pasted with a headline blasting the origins or reliability of the Bible in short, sensational snippets is not boring. When one of these controversial books hits the shelf, a feeding frenzy ensues, and you will quickly get familiarized with an appeal to authority (argumentum ab auctoritate). This is a subtle logical fallacy that bases a belief in the credentials of the one writing, instead of on the soundness of the argument being made.
“Don’t drink the water in Santa Barbara because research has shown it to contain microscopic particles that could cause ADHD in children.” – Duke E. Sarmonstrus, M.D.
Now, if I were to post this on Facebook, there is a good chance some would believe it, and it would spread. We see this all the time, right? Posts about some crazy story that gets shared millions of times, without ever being checked against Snopes.com. These stories get traction when they’re believable, supported by an authority figure, and feed into our secret fears or desires. But there’s one problem with the statement I made: it’s not true. I just made it up as I was writing, and gave it an air of authority by attaching a name that looks important. Of course, in the real world, there are authority figures, experts, and Ph.D’s who are smart, and at the forefront of their fields of study. This is to our benefit. They are a blessing to society, and have devoted years of their lives to understanding things we want to know more about, not the least of which is the God of Bible.
And the argument I made above is not sound, even though it sounds good; neither the premises nor the conclusion are true. But all you need is to attach some level of credibility to the quote itself, and if there is someone somewhere who wants the quote to be true, then it will sell like guacamole at the Carpinteria Avocado Festival. It’s easier to accept the headlines than it is to research them. Sometimes deferring to a “credible source” is a cop-out. I know I’ve done this. But don’t we want more than spoon-fed factlets of shock-value and sound-bites? All of us are capable of engaging important issues with critical thinking and conversation. After all, if the Bible is true, it will prove itself. The thought of testing our beliefs shouldn’t scare us; and we should take the skeptic’s questions seriously. We’re not talking about menial beliefs here! If what the Bible says about Jesus rising from the dead is true, that changes everything. But if the Bible is wrong about the resurrection, then “we are above all people, most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19, NIV).
I have and continue to make that journey. You should too. An easy way to start is by listening to the other side. If an expert in the New Testament says that Paul didn’t really write some of the epistles in the Bible, try checking out the opposing viewpoints of other authoritative sources. If your friend at school tells you that “Emperor Constantine assembled the Bible to reinforce his own power structures,” ask them where they learned that information, and explore it yourself. If your professor tells you that the gnostic gospels are a more reliable version of Jesus’ life, ask a professor (who believes in the sufficiency of the Bible) why he believe’s the gnostics didn’t make it into the canon. In other words, don’t assume something is true because an expert said it was true. Examine it! If you explore some of the accusations that culture, society, and even critical scholarship level against the Bible for yourself, you may find yourself migrating towards the Bible’s view of itself.
As I mentioned before, I’ll share a bit about canonization (how we know the right books made it in the Bible) in my next blog post this week. And you can trust that everything I say is correct and true. ~ Dr. Chris Lazo, Ph.D, M.D., CPA, MBA, BAM.
Person A: sexual abstinence is so archaic. You should think for yourself, and not let some ancient book and its outdated institutions keep you from a fulfilling life.
Christian: what does a “fulfilling life” look like to you in the way of relationships?
Person A: I am fulfilled when I am with the person I love, without limits being imposed on our mutual and consenting love. Sleeping together is the natural way to express that love, and limits keep us from enjoying it.
Christian: Not all rules are unloving—do you think laws governing DUI is a killjoy for people who want to drink and drive, or that traffic rules impose upon our driving?
Person A: That’s different. DUI’s kill people, and ruin the lives of others; sleeping together can only flame our commitment. Parameters are fine when they make sense.
Christian: I agree! There are some silly laws out there. But I just read a recent article put out by The New York Times on the downside to cohabiting before marriage. The author is not a Christian, but she seems to recognize the same value of sexuality that Paul taught. You might find it interesting!
Person A: Sure, text it to me.
Affirm the common ground (relationships should thrive). Point out the contradiction (all rules are bad). Offer the Christian worldview as hope for the tension in their worldview (cohabiting ruins healthy relationships).
I have the joy of teaching Scripture to a group of Millennials at Adorn who lend me their ear every Friday night. But I can’t just explain the meaning of Scripture passages, I got to unpack life as a young adult in Southern California, with all its baggage, drama, and delicate navigation. So while I study the first century context of the Bible, I also diagnose my culture and age group, and like a physician, get a bit more clarity on where to apply the salve of the Gospel. You know what I learned very quickly? Millennials don’t speak in three-point propositions. No one does.
Apologetics can be problematic if we only want to regurgitate what we learned form a book or classroom, since they are little more than reasoned arguments to justify a belief in something; they make for as much excitement as a field-trip to the DMV. Likewise, if someone was struggling with the reliability of the New Testament, it will probably not be very effective for you to overwhelm them with a bunch of technical facts straight out of the pike about extant Greek manuscripts, Canon formulation, and the science behind Textual Criticism. They would shut down in thirty seconds, and perhaps, leave you for the DMV. You see, factoids are interesting when you are on a personal journey to find them. But if you must first be persuaded to care, you need more than dry propositions. Why?
Think about this. We don’t sit around coffee shops browsing our car manuals. We watch movies, and YouTube videos, read novels and magazines; we get inspired at news blurbs portraying the heroic deed of some kid and her puppy: because we love narratives, and we live in one. That’s why I rarely stop a good sermon illustration just to bombard my listeners with twelve boring points on the transmission of the Masoretic text or the top ten evidences that demand a verdict….unless I can take them into the unfolding story of how the transmission of Scripture happened. But if I can draw them into a scene where the aroma of the Masoretic papyrus circles the room, and they can watch the ink dry, well…then we have a sermon.
First, let’s change the terms a bit. Let’s exchange the word “story” for “worldview.” A worldview is the lens by which we all make sense of the individual scenes in our life. Some world-views are good, and some are bad, but most world-views are a combination of good and bad.
This branch of apologetics gets its name because it presupposes that the Christian worldview is the only one that makes sense of everything, before it engages in conversation. The task of the faithful Christian is then to exegete the world-views of the culture, and interact with them, finding any common ground, and using that as a platform to start a conversation. You are no longer shouting out disconnected propositions, but engaging in their story.
Tim Keller once explained how he uses presuppositional apologetics to interact with people,
I find something that people have smuggled into their life, that they’re stealing from the biblical worldview, because down deep they know that there’s a God, and they’re living as if that’s true. So you show them the contradictions of the things that they’re doing with their commitments. You enter in, you find the things that you affirm, you show them why they need a Biblical worldview to inform the worldview they have with any integrity (Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World).
Jesus communicated with the stuff of comedy and epic novels, and in a way that overlapped with the storyline of others, and not, remarked Fredrick Beuchner, “in the incendiary rhetoric of the prophet or the systematic abstractions of the theologian but in the language of images and metaphor, which is finally the only language you can use if you want not just to elucidate the hidden thing but to make it come alive.”
Millennials are story-tellers, plot-chasers. They are in to thoughtful conversation not barking monologue. When you engage a millennial’s worldview, with respect, seeking common ground, and offer critical insight, you engage the person themselves. Even if they don’t end up agreeing with you, they will feel honored that you entered their story, and the door to conversation will open even wider in the future.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll follow up with a short example of “story-form” apologetics in a mock conversation.
My first few years in a secular environment were marked by an affinity for apologetics.
When I first committed my life to Christ, I developed a passion for defending my faith. I remember devoting all of my time and energy into it the way tech-nerds geek out at the Apple store genius bar. Apologetics became my playground. And my calling. And my life. Eventually, the whole Christian faith hung on my ability to know everything.
After all, where would God be if it weren’t for me and my degree…right?
Soon, it because a crazy obsession that overwhelmed everything else. I don’t want to sound like studying apologetics is wrong–those years that I did devote to studying the reasons for my faith still benefit me today, in conversations, mission, and preaching. But, there’s still no escaping the fact that I did turn into some kind of crazed sniper for Jesus, just waiting for someone to disagree with me so that I could explode on them in a fury of rational answers. It got to a point where I cared more about being right then persuading someone of Jesus. Periodically, I would run into someone who was way smarter than me, and it just went downhill from there…kind of like forgetting your wallet on a first date–you never want to do that again!
Michael Patton at Reclaiming the Mind wrote a refreshing article for young apologists that I wish I had read 5 years ago. Here is an excerpt,
You don’t want to stop studying, but you have to keep your studies moderated or they can have a very negative effect. Don’t stay in the apologetics stuff too much. Don’t ever leave it, but don’t think you can be continually, day in and day out, challenging yourself with every alternative all the time. You are not all that. No one is.
To the younger defenders of the faith that I know and love, Patton’s full length article is well worth your time and well-being.
Study answers, love reason, be great at defending. But don’t let apologetics (or any form of scholarship) take over your life or steal your joy….not to mention the life and joy of those you are trying to persuade. At the end of the day, it will be your sacrificial love that softens hearts, not your tenacious manhandling of rhetoric and reason.