This post is meant as an addendum to my sermon from the Questioning Christianity series (available here). Below you will find a number of objections to the historicity and reliability of the Bible. I focus primarily on the New Testament and the gospels (which tell of the life, death and resurrection of Christ - the historical foundation of the Christian faith). Click on the objection for a summary response from me as well as links to some more in depth arguments. I would also recommend Mark D. Robert's exemplary work Can We Trust the Gospels.
The Four Canonical gospels are not the only books the early church thought of as authoritative.
This argument comes in many different forms that all boil down to the same accusation - the books chosen to be in the Bible are a slanted version of what really happened and the early church believed. A common form of this argument is to say that the four canonical gospels (along with the other books now included in the New Testament) were hand-picked by recently enthroned Emperor Constantine because they taught a particular theology that was helpful to the Emperor to gain and maintain power. These books were chosen from amongst a number that Christians used in their worship services that provided a much different perspective on the life of Jesus.
There are a number of half-truths in this particular objection. First, technically speaking the canon was officially set after the rise of Constantine. Second, the early history of the church is dotted with various "other Christianities" including a particularly prevalent one called Gnosticism which produced a number of "gospels" and other letters. Finally, the books that became the Canon (that is, became part of the Bible) all share a particular theology and view of Jesus.
That said, there are a number of reasons that this objection is lacking a solid historical argument.
1. The Canon was essentially formed much earlier than Constantine.
The objection rests on the idea that the early church went from having many "accepted books" to just the few that Constantine "approved of". That simply is not true. While the Canon was not officially set until the *Festal letter* of early Church Father Athanasius in 367 (for reference sake, Constantine became Emperor in 306), the vast majority of what Christians accepted as Scripture was set well before that.
The gospels and other books of the New Testament are quoted heavily in the early Church Fathers for instance. In 170 A.D. we have Tatian writing a harmony of the four gospels entitled the *Dia Tesseran* (Through the Four). And even though Tatian's work caught on in some settings, even though it stuck closely to the four canonical gospels it could not displace them (nor was it intended to) because the four gospels were already well established. By 180 A.D. we have Iraneaus writing out books that he has found unanimous acceptance for and it includes 21 of the 27 books that became the New Testament: the four gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul and 1 Peter.
So the vast majority of the New Testament was settled well before Constantine. Further, the books often cited as "competitors" to the New Testament gospels do not appear until after these are accepted. Although there were a few books that did not make it into the New Testament canon that were accepted by some churches, those books (the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement) do not give a wildly different theology from what we see in the rest of the New Testament.2. The "other Christianities" have always been "other Christianities"
When authors such as Bart Ehrman talked of "other Christianities" that were pushed aside by what is now seen as Orthodox Christianity, they are often referring to Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a variation of the "mystery religions" of Roman and Greek cultures that took elements of Christianity and incorporated it in. We know a number of the Gnostic writings thanks to the Nag Hammadi library, named after the town the scrolls were discovered at in 1945.
Aside from the actual writings of Gnostics, we know a fair but about them from the writings of the Church Fathers who argued against them in order to preserve the orthodox teaching of the church. And there-in lies our point.
The theory is that there were several valid forms of Christianity prior to Constantine and he chose the one that was most convenient for his purposes and suppressed the others. The historical evidence, however, is that Gnosticism was (both before and after Constantine) seen as a perversion of Christianity. The Gnostic "gospels" were all written well after the canonical gospels, under assumed names in an attempt to gain validity and did not follow the teaching of the early church from the beginning.3. Christian theology shaped the Canon, not the other way around.
The theory goes that Constantine (or other church leaders in the 4th Century) shaped the content of Christian theology by only recognizing some books as part of the authoritative "Canon". What happened in fact was quite the opposite. As counterfeit and pseudopigraphal writings began to increase, church leaders thought it important to write a list of which books were authoritative. That group became known as the "canon" (from the Latin *kanon* meaning "rule" or "measuring stick").
But rather than shaping the future of Christianity by choosing certain books, the earlier church leaders were moved to choose certain books because of they lined up with the theology of the church from the beginning. When applying the word "canon" to the books we now know as the New Testament, they did not mean "these are the measuring stick", they meant "these line up with the measuring stick of the doctrine of the apostles passed down to us".See more here, here and here.
There is no historical evidence for Jesus in non-Christian sources
The argument is that there is no evidence that there ever was a "historical Jesus of Nazareth" let alone one who claimed to be God, was crucified and raised to life. This argument assumes that the historical witness of Christian writings is not valid because they are ideologically driven. I want to address this question with four quick responses:No evidence does not prove no existence
Considering the fact that Jesus lived most of his life (30 of 33 years) in relative obscurity, it would not be surprising if there was no record of his life. Ancient records are incredibly sparse when it comes to even the most remarkable people. For instance, everything we know about Greek philosopher and playwright Socrates comes from the writings of only three people: Plato, Xenophone and Aristophanes. We have shockingly little evidence for much of what we consider cold, hard, historical fact.Christian evidence should not be discounted.
There is a belief that, unless a person is unaffected by what they report, their testimony is not valid. In keeping with that, the New Testament and other writings of early Christians that provide historical support for the life of Jesus are seen as invalid because the authors have a hidden agenda, a theological position and an ideological stance.
But that is simply not true. For example, they did not have a hidden agenda - they had a very clear agenda: to lead others to a belief in Christ. Of course, they also had a theological and ideological position - but so does everybody. Many reject the historicity of the New Testament simply because if it was true, it would prove certain things about the world (the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus) that they do not believe.
Furthermore, we forget that history teaches us that Jesus' followers met very public and painful deaths that were completely unnecessary if they simply recanted their beliefs about Jesus. We are familiar with radical religious fanatics treasuring their beliefs above their life, but in the case of the disciples, it was not simply their belief in something they were told, it was their belief in something that they either saw or made up. Peter, for instance, was crucified upside down because he refused to recant His belief that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to Him.We do have "secular" historical evidence of the life of Jesus
We need to admit, that their is not much mention of Jesus in ancient literature (apart from the writings of Christians which we should not discount) but there is some. References to Jesus and early Christians appear in a letter to Emperor Trajan (110 A.D.), Roman historians Suetonius (also around 110) and Tacitus (109 A.D), the Jewish Talmud and Jewish historian Josephus (the Josephus texts are very clearly tampered with, there appears to be some original references).
It is often been noted that Jesus wasn't the only first-Century Jew to claim to be the Messiah and to subsequently be crucified by the Romans. That may be true, but what we know for sure is that none of them are worshipped as God by millions of people. Why was Jesus different. Luke, who wrote the Biblical gospel of the same name and the book of Acts, gives us a hint. Luke quotes Gamaliel (a Jewish leader who was not a follower of Jesus) speaking to the Jewish leadership council shortly after the disciples began teaching of Jesus resurrection in Jerusalem. "Men of Israel" Gamaliel says, "consider carefully what you intend to do to these men [the disciples]. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:35-39)
We would be wise to follow Gamaliel's reasoning here. The rise of Christianity in the Roman world is unprecedented and there must be some reason to account for its growth. But there is no credible historically theory other than that what the New Testament says happened actually happened.
Furthermore, there isn't a good historical understanding for how the "rumor" of Jesus' resurrection came to be commonplace. Despite His teaching on the subject, there was no anticipation of Jesus' physical resurrection after His death by His followers nor there wasn't a well developed expectation placed on the Messianic figure in 1st Century Judaism. The best explanation for both this meteoric rise and for this theological advancement is the truth in the resurrection stories told by Jesus' disciples - stories that they contained to proclaim as truth despite many of them becoming martyrs for it.For a larger argument of the historical grounds of the resurrection see here.
The Bible consistently gets historical data wrong
There is significant historical and archeological evidence that supports the narrative of the Bible. Of course, the Bible's archeological accuracy does not prove that its narrative is true, but it does lend credence to its historicity.For a sampling of archaeological confirmation of the Biblical narrative see here, here, here and here.
The Biblical gospels sensationalize Jesus
The argument here is that, to bolster the claims of their religion, the leaders of the early church added sensational elements to the narrative about Jesus. The gospels' accounts of Jesus miracles and even His resurection fall into this catagory.
Ironically, this theory is often linked with a belief that this "supernaturalized" theology was chosen in favour of contemporary depictions of Jesus as much more of a human figure. I say ironically, because all of the depictions of Jesus we have from heretical Christian groups depict a much more etherial Jesus. The Gnostics, for example, believed that matter was evil and therefore the pure Spirit God would never lower Himself to matter. Naturally the Gnostic documents of the Nag Hammadi library depict a far more sensationalized Jesus. By contrast, the Biblical gospels depict Jesus as a man who experienced human emotions and many human limitations.
Of course the gospels also depict Jesus as something more than Human. In our modern, enlightenment thinking this is impossible. But that is us shutting down the possibility of miracles before even looking at the evidence.For a brief argument of the plausability of the truth of the gospel narratives regarding Jesus' miracles, see here.