XFiles Friday: Is the NT telling the truth?August 1, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)
Now that they’ve established the fact that, yes, we have a pretty fair idea of what the original text of the New Testament was, Geisler and Turek are ready to move on to the question of whether the claims made by the NT are actually true. They begin by listing seven points which they cite as being the seven tests historians use to determine whether or not a historical document should be regarded as factually accurate.
- Do we have early testimony?
- Do we have eyewitness testimony?
- Do we have testimony from multiple, independent eyewitness sources?
- Are the eyewitnesses trustworthy?
- Do we have corroborating evidence from archeology or other writers?
- Do we have any enemy attestation?
- Does the testimony contain events or details that are embarrassing to the authors?
The first thing one notices about these seven questions is that they are an apologetics checklist, not a list of tests for determining the relative credibility of a particular document. “Let’s see, what can we use to convince people that Christianity is true? Do we have eyewitnesses, or something we can claim to be eyewitness testimony? Do we have anything we can cite as being multiple, independent eyewitness sources? Can we argue for the trustworthiness of the eyewitnesses? Is there anything from archeology or ancient literature that we can use as evidence? Can we make it sound like the writers are being embarrassingly forthright and honest in their accounts? What can we use to convince people we’re right?” It’s all apologetics.
A historian who was evaluating the reliability of a particular document would ask somewhat different questions, like “When was this document written, and by whom? Did the author personally see the events he records, or is he relating hearsay? How objective a reporter is he? Is he prone to gullibility, superstition, jumping to conclusions, etc? Did he have any motives for presenting his account the way he did? Did he have any motives for presenting things differently than he actually did? And so on.
These are similar to the questions Geisler and Turek are asking, but you can see already that their list has been ever-so-slightly tuned to the apologetic aim of the authors, rather than to the historian’s goal of objective accuracy. The historian is seeking to discover the truth, but the apologist already knows what the truth ought to be, and is just trying to justify it. Thus, though Geisler and Turek want us to believe that they are simply presenting us with the truth, what they really deliver is apologetics.
We’ll be getting into each of these points in more detail as Geisler and Turek attempt to document their case, but for now let’s just take a quick look at their seven criteria individually.
1. “Do we have early testimony?” This is a pretty vague standard. How early is “early”? Days? Weeks? Decades? The dating of Christian manuscripts is a rather contentious field, with conservative Christians pushing for earlier and earlier dates. Bible scholar Bruce Metzger gives a list of approximate dates for the writing of the various New Testament documents, starting with I Thessalonians around 50 AD, or about two decades after the death of Jesus, give or take a few. Can people’s perception of important events be significantly altered in that short of a time? Have you ever heard of troofers?
2. “Do we have eyewitness testimony?” Eyewitness testimony is generally considered pretty reliable. For example, given the way the speed of light works, you can look up on a clear night and see first hand what was happening in the cosmos thousands of years ago. This eyewitness testimony to the supernatural creation that was not happening 6-10,000 years ago is pretty reliable evidence that creationism is a crock. But do we have eyewitness testimony of any supernatural events occurring in the New Testament? We’ll need to be alert for second- or third-hand stories about someone seeing something, being presented as that person’s eyewitness testimony.
3. “Do we have testimony from multiple, independent eyewitness sources?” Notice that little word “independent.” What we’re going to find is that Geisler and Turek can pull together multiple, similar accounts, but these accounts are selected from a larger pool of accounts, some of which are favorable and some of which are unfavorable. Selecting only the favorable accounts is a means of introducing an artificial dependency between them, commonly known as “cherry picking.”
4. “Are the eyewitnesses trustworthy?” This is a good one, and the primary test for trustworthiness is, “Do they testify about things that are consistent with what we observe in the real world?” The self-consistency of the truth is THE standard against which all testimony must be measured, since the only means we have for detecting untrue testimony is if we can find that it fails to be consistent with itself and/or with the real world.
5. “Do we have corroborating evidence from archeology or other writers?” This is a pretty good test, though if Jesus were really the loving deity the Gospel portrays him as being, we ought not to need archeology. Current events ought to corroborate his return from the dead, since he ought to still be here. The problem with archeology, and ancient literature, is that once again we have to be alert for cherry picking, as well as for irrelevant evidence, i.e. finding an ancient well near Samaria and citing it as evidence that Jesus really did convert the woman at the well in John 4.
6. “Do we have any enemy attestation?” This would be a good one. If we had documentation from the official journal of the Sanhedrin that Jesus was still preaching publicly for 40 days after his death and burial, that would be kind of hard to explain (assuming the documents were genuine). Somehow, though, I don’t think Geisler and Turek are going to produce that kind of documentation. We’ll need to stay alert for overdrawn conclusions again, like taking Pliny’s mention of Christians as proof that Pliny knew Jesus had risen from the dead.
7. “Does the testimony contain events or details that are embarrassing to the authors?” The most frankly apologetic of the seven criteria, this “test” is aimed purely at convincing people that the NT must be telling the truth, since otherwise the authors wouldn’t be admitting such embarrassing personal flaws. This argument overlooks two important points, however. Number one, in a culture that valued humility and confession, as early Christian culture did, public acknowledgment of one’s flaws would be both virtuous and a step towards greater sanctification and spiritual maturity. Indeed, when I was a Christian, I was tempted to exaggerate my sins just so that I could claim to have received a greater salvation when God forgave me for them.
Problem number two, of course, is that most of the NT accounts “confessing” the flaws of the apostles were not being written by the apostle whose flaws are being confessed. It’s never as embarrassing to confess someone else’s sins, especially when the confession is supposedly good for the soul and for the glory of the savior.
With all these caveats in mind, we’re ready to look at Geisler and Turek’s attempt to prove that we ought to take the New Testament as “true beyond a reasonable doubt.” There’s just one more caveat we need to remember: Jesus taught his followers a non-literal view of reality. Even if we find that the NT stories are “true” in some Christian sense, we cannot tell whether they are literally true in a real world sense unless we test them against the infallible standard of reality itself. Only if we find them to be consistent with real world truth should we accept them as being literally true. If they’re not, then we ought to agree that they belong to some other kind of “truth.”