Monday, January 16, 2012

Is the New Testament Trustworthy? By Darrell L. Bock

Like any ancient book, the NT has a strange feel about it. It reports unusual events as well as strange customs. This naturally raises the question of whether we can trust what it tells us. These six statements of fact affirm that the NT can be trusted.

1. The books of the NT were recognized through a careful sifting process. The process stretched from the first to the fourth century. The catalysts for the formation of the NT were the use of Scripture in worship, the rise of false teaching (which necessitated identifying the authentic works), and persecution (which called for the burning of holy books-so one needed to know which those were!). The books included in the NT were those regarded as giving evidence of divine authority. Was it associated with an apostle? Was it in line with other authentic biblical books? Was it widely used and received? These were the questions used to identify the trustworthy and authoritative books of the NT.

2. The NT is based on reliable sources carefully used and faithfully transmitted. The Bible is both like other books and unlike them. Luke explained that he used sources (Lk 1:1-4). Jesus taught that the Spirit would help these apostles recall what Jesus taught them (Jn 14:25-26). To argue that the Bible is inspired by God does not dismiss the human elements that make up the book. What are the sources and how were they handled? The texts surrounding Jesus stress the role of eyewitnesses as the root of the tradition (see Lk 1:2). An apostolic association ensured the account's credibility.

The distance between event and recording is not great-less than a lifetime, a small distance of time by ancient standards. For example, the first-century Roman historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus were centuries removed from many of the events they chronicled. Judaism depended on the ability to pass things on with care from one generation to the next, recounting events with care. This does not exclude some variation, as is obvious by comparing the Gospel accounts or parallel accounts in 1 and 2 Samuel, l and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Judaism, and the Christianity that grew out of it, was a culture of memory. People memorized long liturgical prayers and more often than not worked from memory rather than from a written page. Anyone who has read a children's book again and again to his child knows that the mind is capable of absorbing vast amounts of wording and retaining it.
Finally the biblical text we have today basically reflects the text as it was originally produced. The NT has far better manuscript evidence than any other ancient document. Where most classical works, such as those of Plato, Herodotus, and Aristophanes, have from one to 20 manuscripts, the NT has about 5,400 Greek manuscripts that we can compare to determine the original wording, not to mention more than 8,000 ancient Latin manuscripts.

3. Assessing trustworthiness means understanding history's complexity. Differences in accounts do not necessarily equal contradiction, nor does subsequent reflection mean a denial of history. Events can be viewed from different angles or perspectives without forfeiting historicity. Thus the differences in the four Gospels enrich our appreciation of Jesus by giving us four perspectives on Him-Jesus in four dimensions, so to speak. Neither is reflection a denial of history. Sometimes the significance of a historical event, such as a football play, becomes clear only when we see successive events. History involves both what happened and its results. Trustworthiness simply affirms that the assessed account is an accurate portrayal of what took place and a credible explanation of what emerged, not that it is the only way the events in question were seen.

4. Trustworthiness demands not exhaustive but adequate knowledge of the topic. Sources are selective even when they are accurate. The Bible makes this point in John 21:25: "There are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written." When people call Scripture trustworthy, they are arguing that its testimony is not contrary to what happened and is sufficient to give us a meaningful understanding of God and His work for us (2 Tm 3:16-17). Speaking accurately is not the same as speaking exhaustively.

5. Archaeology teaches us to respect the content of Scripture. Archaeology seldom can prove that events took place. What it can show is that the details of an account, some of them incidental, fit the time and culture of the text. Archaeology also shows that we should be cautious in pointing out errors in the Bible merely because only the Bible attests to something.

For example, there was once debate about the description in John 5:2 of a pool with five porticoes in Jerusalem, called Bethesda or Bethsaida. Many questioned its existence despite its wide attestation in ancient tradition. Different spellings of the locale in the NT manuscript tradition added to the tendency by many to reject the claim. In 1871 a French architect, C. Mauss, was restoring an old church and found a cistern 30 meters away. Later excavations in 1957-1962 clarified that it consisted of two pools large enough to hold a sizable amount of water and people. Today virtually no one doubts the existence of John's pool.

6. The Bible's claim for miracles are plausible when one considers the response to resurrection claims. The events of the Gospels were recorded within the lifetime of several of those who claimed to have observed them. Perhaps the greatest evidence for the resurrection is the change and reaction of those who testified to it. They disciples openly admitted that they had no formal training and for a long period were shockingly inept at responding to Jesus. Yet they become courageous leaders. They stood firm in the face of the threat of death and rejection by the Jewish leaders who resisted them. This did not involve one or two people but a whole host of leaders who left their mark on history, notably the former chief persecutor of the church, Paul. Both Peter and he, along with others such as the Lord's brother James, died for their belief in Jesus' resurrection.

Extracted from the Apologetics Study Bible.

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