Retracing Christianity as a Historical Faith
The Christian faith isn’t an obscure belief system with Jesus as a mythological figure. Rather, Christianity is based entirely on real space-time history; in the words of Francis Schaeffer, its central figure is an actual man who “hung on a cross in the sense that, if you were there that day, you could have rubbed your finger on the cross and got a splinter on it” (The God Who Is There, InterVarsity Press, 1968). Therefore, when you consider the Christian faith, you also have to examine its historical claims of truth.
Archaeologists, historians, and other researchers have closely scrutinized the historical events of Jesus’ life and the Bible as a whole and continue to do so. Although some skeptical archaeologists have been quick to discount historical accounts of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, actual findings have proven that they’re credible. In fact, a century of archaeological discoveries underscores the fact that the more evidence that researchers unearth in the Holy Land, the more the biblical record becomes authenticated.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are arguably the most significant discovery in many centuries. This collection of 500 scrolls and scroll fragments was accidentally discovered in 1947 by a shepherd in a series of caves along the Dead Sea. These scrolls were written in a period between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68 and provide amazing insights into the practices and beliefs of the Qumram Community, a particular group of Jews that lived during this timeframe. The scrolls include a variety of documents, including: a complete manuscript of the Book of Isaiah and parts of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; commentaries on several Old Testament books (such as Habakkuk, Job, Isaiah, and Micah); non-canonical books; and a Qumram manual of conduct and other community-related documents. Although the scrolls are Jewish and not Christian, they nonetheless serve to underscore the reliability of the Old Testament scriptures and have helped scholars reconstruct the history of Israel and the Holy Land area between 300 B.C. and A.D. 135.
Perhaps the most sensationalized discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls is a first-century limestone box designed to hold a deceased person’s bones. This bones box (or ossuary) has an Aramaic inscription carved on the side that says, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” (See Matthew 13:55, 1 Corinthians 15:7, and Acts 15 for references to James in the Bible.) The possibility exists that this bones box actually contains the bones of James, the brother of Jesus Christ. Skeptics don’t even argue strongly against this, because it would’ve been unusual to add “brother of [so-and-so]” unless that brother was well known. So, chances are that this wasn’t just any random Jesus, but was indeed Jesus Christ. Experts continue to examine the artifact to determine its authenticity, but if it were proven to be authentic, this box would be the oldest nonbiblical, nonliterary reference to Jesus that has ever been recovered.
Documenting history in the Bible
The Christian faith is based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But because it’s been some 2,000 years since Jesus walked on this earth, Christians face a problem: First-century Palestine didn’t have CNN or the New York Times to refer to in order to gather archival details on the life and teachings of Jesus. As a result, Christians today are more than a little dependent on the events, eyewitness testimonies, and teachings recorded in the New Testament.
It follows that an essential factor in determining whether Christianity is true is examining the reliability of the New Testament. Although the whole Bible is important to examine, the New Testament is particularly critical to Christianity because it provides the historical accounts of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection as well as the complete written teaching of the early Church. Is the New Testament accurate history, something that would make a good journalist proud?
In order to determine the New Testament’s reliability, one must explore two questions:
- Are the ancient manuscripts reliable?
- Are the New Testament authors’ testimonies legit?
Christians believe that the apostles and early Church leaders, after several years of sharing with others around them the Good News of Jesus Christ, realized that they had to do more than communicate verbally. They needed to document a full written account of Jesus’ life and his teachings to reach people they couldn’t get to because of geographical limitations and to reach those who would live in the future. Two of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew and John) and two others (who had direct access to the disciples and other eyewitnesses) wrote individual accounts of Jesus’ life (called Gospels). During this same era, the apostles also put Christian teachings into writing and distributed them as letters to different churches across the Mediterranean region. These letters, written by Paul, Peter, and other apostles fill in the cracks on Christian teachings that the Gospels and Acts, a book that records the history of the early Church, don’t discuss. All together, 27 books form the New Testament.
Obviously, the writers couldn’t just print the books out on their inkjet printers and then run to the nearest copy shop to buy 1,000 collated copies of their work in shiny plastic spiral binders. The New Testament writers had to write the accounts on papyrus, a paper-like material that’s even more prone to deteriorate than the inexpensive recycled stuff you can find at the local office supply store. And in order to preserve and distribute an original manuscript like this, the early Church had to make copies of these originals the old-fashioned way: one copy at a time.
The people who did this work were known as scribes, and based on accounts of them, they were a special breed of people. Think of them as accountants on steroids: mind-bogglingly exact in transcribing an original to a duplicate. They made sure that every letter, word, and syllable was kept intact from the original to the copy.
The scribes’ attention to detail is crucially important to Christians today, because the original manuscripts of the New Testament books no longer exist — at least none that people know about. On first take, that news seems unsettling, because it means that the Christian faith isn’t just reliant on the original testimony of the apostles, but on copies of that testimony. To historians, however, this is standard fare when looking at documents from the ancient world, whether they’re parts of the Old Testament or New Testament or are the writings of Plato and Homer.