How do we study the Bible historically? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
After my blog post on the problem with fundamenatlism, I was asked on TheologyWeb that if by chance the Bible was not inerrant, how would we know what parts were true and what parts weren’t? This is a good question to ask.
Relatedly, on the latest Unbelievable? a skeptical teenager from Australia was on the line asking about the accounts of Judas’s death in Matthew and Acts. His contention was that if one of these was shown to be unreliable then everything in the Bible was unreliable, and the impression was given that this would go down to the crucifixion itself.
Both of these show a great concern to have. A Christian can be left with the attitude of “The only way I know that Jesus rose from the dead is that the Bible says so!” Meanwhile, the atheist can come with the idea that “If I find one mistake in the Bible, I can’t take any of it as historically reliable.”
This approach is highly problematic especially since one would not use it on any other work of ancient history. If you were reading an account of Plutarch and you found that he made a historical error at one point, you would not say “Oh well. So much for Plutarch!” If we are reading Josephus and we find that he made a historical error at one part, we do not say “So much for Josephus!” If we did this with ancient historians, we would know nothing about ancient history. For that matter, we would know nothing about modern history either since modern historians make mistakes.
Some of you are saying “Surely no one would make a mistake like that!”
Frank Zindler does.
Who is Frank Zindler? Listen to Bob Price’s description of him.
“One of the most effective (not to mention hilarious) speakers for atheism and secular humanism today is Frank Zindler, author, linguist, translator, Bible scholar, and scientist—truly a Renaissance Man.
He is an advocate as well for the much-despised but increasingly hard to ignore Christ Myth hypothesis, which he has ably defended in books such as The Jesus the Jews Never Knew and articles like “Where Jesus Never Walked.” ”
Apparently, the criteria for being a Bible scholar is having an opinion. Zindler is not a Bible scholar. To say the Christ-Myth is hard to ignore is like saying loud music as you get closer to a concert is hard to ignore. Want an example of what Zindler says?
“When the author of Matthew read Mark’s version, he saw the impossibility of Jesus and the gang disembarking at Gerasa (which, by the way, was also in a different country, the so-called Decapolis). Since the only town in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee that he knew of that started with G was Gadara, he changed Gerasa to Gadara. But even Gadara was five miles from the shore – and in a different country. Later copyists of the Greek manuscripts of all three pig-drowning gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) improved Gadara further to Gergesa, a region now thought to have actually formed part of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. So much for the trustworthiness of the biblical tradition.”
No ancient historian would take this approach. It is an absurd all-or-nothing approach. We encourage Zindler to do the same with any other work of history and see what he winds up believing about history.
Now someone might say “Well the Bible is supposed to be the Inerrant Word of God!”
Yeah. So what?
How does one get from that to “If there is one mistake, then everything in it is wrong”? If you show an error in the Bible, this is what you demonstrate.
“The Bible has an error.”
You do not demonstrate that everything in the Bible is error by showing one thing is. Let’s do the opposite end. Let’s suppose I demonstrate Jesus was crucified. Would you take that to mean “Now everything in the Bible is true!” No. Not at all. I woul dnot want you to either. That would be dumb.
What do we do then? We do what we are supposed to do. We study the text.
It means we get scholarship on both sides. It means we weigh the issues out. It means we avoid just one approach. It requires we work. We also accept some things can never be proven or disproven. Let’s suppose we read about a skirmish between two individuals in a Roman biography. That could be hard to prove or disprove. Let’s suppose then instead we read about the conquest of a city. That is much easier to prove or disprove. For the former, it could be a position of faith, in that faith will be seen as believing something to be trustworthy and reliable. It is giving the author the benefit of the doubt where we find general reliability.
This is also the method the apostles encouraged. They gave evidence that Jesus had risen. Miracles were one kind of evidence. Eyewitness testimony was another. This was how the Gospels were written as well. Luke explicitly states that he knows of many eyewitnesses and reports and he made a thorough investigation.
Inerrancy is not a position that we assume. It is one we reason to. If the Bible is without error, we should be able to demonstrate that insofar as it is possible. If we truly think it is, we should be more than happy to have it investigated. If we think Jesus rose from the dead, we should be open to historical investigation into that matter.
For our atheist friends, they need to realize that showing one error in the Bible does not show all of it is false or suspect any more than it would for any other work of ancient history. Are they just as willing to examine both sides, such as the evidence that Jesus rose or the evidence that miracles have happened? So far, the number I’ve seen that do that are minimal.
Perhaps that’s because they’re really the ones that are people of faith.