Unbelievable? Four Simple Principles to Determine Ancient Historical Reliability

J. Warner Wallace
J. Warner Wallace
2013 19 Aug

I recently had the opportunity to appear on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley (the show will air this Saturday, August 24th2013). Justin had two skeptics lined up to ask questions about Biblical reliability and offer specific, detailed challenges related to portions of the Gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew. Are you prepared to answer every challenge that might be offered about the historicity of the Gospels? Do you even know every challenge that might be offered? How do you respond when someone offers a challenge for which you don’t have immediate access to the all the pertinent data? This particular episode of Unbelievable? illustrated an important principle for all of us as Christian Case Makers. Historical challenges are often complicated, nuanced and detailed, and while it is nearly impossible to remember all the data related to every objection, there are four overarching principles of witness reliability appropriate to the task. These are the same four principles I’ve offered as a template in Cold Case Christianity. I used this template to evaluate the Gospels when I was an unbelieving skeptic, and these four principles will help you assess any challenge offered against the Gospel accounts:

Principle One: Make Sure the Witnesses Were Present in the First Place
There are times in cold case investigations when a witness emerges with a story, even though he or she was not involved in the case when it occurred. Sometimes a person such as this is motivated by a desire to become “famous”, sometimes by a desire to harm the defendant or help the victim. It’s my job as an investigator to make sure the witness was truly present (and in a position to see anything) before the witness takes the stand in front of a jury. When it comes to the Gospel accounts, we have to ask a similar question: Were the gospels written early enough to have been written by true eyewitnesses? If the accounts were written and circulated early, the possibility of an errant or deceptive inclusion is greatly reduced. Early authorship allows the accounts to be fact-checked by those who were present and could expose the accounts as a lie. The gospels are the earliest ancient accounts describing the life of Jesus and the historical events surrounding His life. This must be considered when evaluating the gospels against any ancient account that follows them.

Principle Two: Try to Find Some Corroboration for the Claims of the Witnesses
Jurors are encouraged to evaluate witnesses in a trial on the basis of any evidence offered to verify or corroborate their testimony. Sometimes witness testimony can be corroborated with physical evidence, sometimes with the direct testimony of another witness. In either case, the witness becomes more reliable as different lines of corroborative evidence begin to support his or her testimony. In a similar way, the Gospel accounts can be evaluated on the basis of their corroboration. I wrote an entire chapter in Cold Case Christianity examining the “external” corroboration of archaeology and ancient non-Christian sources, and the “internal” corroboration between Gospel accounts (what I call, “unintentional eyewitness support”), the accurate referencing of regional 1st Century proper names, the correct description of governmental structure, the familiar description of geography and location, and the reasonable use of language.

Principle Three: Examine the Consistency and Accuracy of the Witnesses
If a witness has changed his or her story over time, there’s little reason to trust any version of that story along the way. Changes of this nature are often the result of an effort to deceive. As we assess the transmission of any ancient narrative, it’s important to determine whether or not the account has been altered over time. The Chain of Custody related to the document’s transmission is incredibly important. Do we have ancient copies of the document we can compare to one another or ancient references to the documents we can examine for content? The gospels are perhaps the best attested and collected ancient documents in history, and they are referenced early by church leaders such as Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement who attest to their content. Skeptics, when attacking the historical narratives of the gospels, typically rely on ancient records not nearly as well attested. The writings of Josephus, for example, were very poorly collected and referenced over time. There are no ancient copies of Josephus’ work prior to the 11th century, so we are unable to compare ancient Josephan texts to know if the documents have been changed over time. This is not the case when it comes to the gospels. We have thousands of copies dating over three times closer to the actual events than Josephus.

Principle Four: Examine the Presence of Bias on the Part of the Witnesses
The last area of consideration when it comes to evaluating witnesses is the issue of bias. It’s often argued the Gospels should not be trusted because they were written by Christians who loved Jesus and wanted to make a case for his Deity (whether true or not). But there’s a difference between bias prior to an experience and conviction following an experience. It can hardly be argued that the Gospel authors had a bias prior to their involvement with Jesus. In fact, the gospels fairly present the skepticism and slow understanding of the disciples as they sat under Jesus. We cannot fault the Gospel authors for their later conviction related to Jesus if they truly saw what they recorded in the Gospels, particularly the Resurrection. Bias comes down to motive, and motive always comes down to three driving desires: financial greed, sexual/relational lust, and the pursuit of power. Absent any of these driving motivations, ancient accounts ought to be received as unbiased.

Every time I encounter an historical objection related to the Gospels, I expect there to be a wealth of information on both sides of the issue; skeptics will have written volumes and Christian apologists will have responded in kind. How is anyone to know which side of the equation to trust? I typically use the four principles I’ve just described to evaluate both the objection and the response. Which side is referencing the account that was written earliest, is best corroborated, has been best documented over time and is least biased? Over the next few days, I’ll be applying this template to two specific objections offered by skeptics on the Unbelievable? radio program. I’ll also write about a third objection related to corroboration. We can rely on these four overarching principles to help us determine which position (held by the skeptic or the Christian) is most reasonable.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker at Stand to Reason, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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