Friday, August 19, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Using the Bible as an historical source apart from assuming inspiration


Most of the information we have about Jesus and the early church comes from the New Testament, but it's not necessary to assume it's inspired by God before we can have reason to believe anything it says. My book shelf is full of books that aren't inspired by God, but I don't dismiss them all as completely unreliable for that reason.

In the case of the Bible, we can treat it as we would treat any other document from the first century. By subjecting it to the methods of historical inquiry, we can discover some things that are true about it.

There are good historical arguments to show that Jesus did consider himself to be the messiah, so we don't have to just take the Bible's word for it.

I don't think it's circular for me to rely on the Bible to support my statement that it isn't necessary to believe the Bible is inspired by God before we can have reason to believe that Christianity is true. My reliance on the Bible for to support that statement doesn't depend on the Bible being inspired.

But even if it DID assume the Bible is inspired, that wouldn't invalidate my point. I'm not arguing that the Bible is NOT inspired. I'm only arguing that it isn't necessary to believe the Bible is inspired before you can have reason to think Christianity is true.


Scott Pruett, who keeps up the Pensees blog referred me to a post on his blog that I think ties in well with this subject. Here is a link to it.

Conversations with Angie:  Do parallels between the Bible and other cultures invalidate the Bible?


At 8/19/2005 10:02 AM , Blogger Paul said...


Thanks for the linkback. Hey, is this dialog still ongoing with Angie, or is this all past history? I'd be interested to know how it turned out.

At 8/19/2005 10:24 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, it's pretty much over. The way it happened was that she wrote an email telling me the reasons she stopped being a Christian, and then I asked if I could respond. She was open to it, and thus began our dialogue. Here's how it all began.

She didn't really give me a whole lot of feedback during the conversation. Mostly, it was just me responding to her original email. In the end, I think the only thing I pursuaded her of is that evil is not a good argument against God. We still email every now and then just to shoot the breeze.

At 8/20/2005 5:47 PM , Blogger Steve said...


I think the Bible is making claims that are quite different from most historical arguments.

There is only one God, Jesus is his son on earth, Mary had a virgin birth, Moses and Abraham lived hundreds of years, wondered in the desert for 40 years, the red sea was parted in a hot pursuit by the Egyptians etc.

These are all possibly true, from a logical sense, even if not from a common sense standard (we dont know anybody who is as old as Abraham was supposed to be).

To accept those claims you have to really suspend the kind of disbelief we regularly exersize in our daily life. We require faith to accept these possibilities. That is a different level of faith than is normally required to accept a mathematics or science textbooks, even if we cant literally be certain of their truth either.

However, I think the main argument that Biblical inquiry is often considered "circular" is that one could look at the Quran and make the exact same arguments, and yet both documents can not both be true. While perhaps circular is the incorrect word (logically), i think it is definitely true that most of the substance for believing the Bible comes from evidence presented in that Bible. Its a bit like having a trial, where the defendent is allowed to present his own evidence, and both the prosecution and defense must work with what he selects, rather than getting to investigate the matter on their own.

The only thing which allows a person to accept the authenticity of one document that details unprovable claims over another document that makes unproveable claims, is faith. And I do not see how one person can claim the primacy or truthfulness of their faith over another persons.

At 8/21/2005 7:49 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


Whether God exists or Jesus is the son of God are not really historical questions, though historical events can be clues to their truth. But claims such as and "The red sea parted," and "Mary had a virgin birth" are historical questions. But I agree with you, that on the face of it, it's harder to believe these kinds of claims than claims like, "Rome was in power during the first century," and "The first Jewish temple was destroyed in 587 BCE."

Not every historical claim can be verified, so with most historical claims, we can know some with greater certainty than we can know others. But whether we accept any miraculous claims is going to depend, not just on the strength of the evidence, but also on our presuppositions about what is possible. Even if our presuppositions are that miracles are possible, I think it is hard, if not impossible, to make an historical argument for the virgin birth. But the historical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus seem pretty strong to me. Believing in the resurrection, then, does not require blind faith. Nor does having a presupposition that miracles are possible. A person may believe that miracles are possible because he finds the philosophical arguments to be pursuasive.

If a person accepts, on the historical arguments, that Jesus claimed to be the Christ, and that he rose from the dead, then that gives him good reason to believe other claims that are not historical, such as "God exists," and "Jesus was the son of God."

Whether the Bible is inspired or the Quran is inspired is not a historical question. But if you assume that neither is inspired and look at them just from an historical point of view, you are not necessarily left at an impasse. The gospels were all written within 70 years of Jesus' death who lived in close proximity. The Quran was written almost 600 years after Jesus' death. Which do you think is a more historically reliable source about the life of Jesus?

All religious writings are not equal anymore than all historical writings are not equal. The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is considered more historically reliable than The Life of Moses by Philo. Even among scholars who don't accept Biblical inerrancy, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are considered more reliable than the gospel of John. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians are considered more reliable than 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians. These are not arbitrary distinctions based on blind faith. There are reasons for them.

The same is true with the Quran and the Bible. The Quran is a great source of information about Muhammad and the early Islam, but no historian takes it seriously as a source of information about the life of Jesus. All historians about Jesus and the early church, however, do use the gospels as a source of information about the life of Jesus and the early church, as skeptical as they may be about many of the claims in those gospels.



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