This is a reply to an article by Melissa Cain Travis called “Unjustified Skepticism: The Reliability of Luke’s Testimony” which can be found here.
The New Testament contains the most well-attested ancient texts in existence, yet its factual reliability is a matter of high controversy.
reliability of the text during copying and transmission doesn’t relate to whether the facts asserted in such text are true. You cannot make the story of Cinderalla true by simply copying it accurately a few thousand times.
The predominant reason? The books record supernatural happenings.
It doesn’t matter if what the NT says is true, as an account being “true” does not mean it will satisfy all standard tests of investigation.
Skeptics with a pre-commitment to materialism are philosophically compelled to reject any and all testimonies that allege divine activity– miraculous healings, resurrections, and the like.
We all have presuppositions, and nobody can escape axioms. But on the more objective side, Paul is the only first-hand account of the resurrection of Jesus in the NT, the rest of hearsay, and you violated normal rules of historiography if you ignore the distinction between first-hand and second hand, and simply lump it all together. Unless you show other testimony in the NT beyond Paul is first-hand, you will have to admit that the best evidence for your resurrection hypothesis is the testimony of one man whose Jesus-experience involved no association with the earthly human Jesus, but was mostly if not entirely visionary and revelatory. You may wish to state that the hearsay is just as reliable as the first-hand eyewitness accounts, but that is quite another question, and attempting to distinguish NT testimony that is first-hand, from NT testimony that is second-hand or hearsay, is exactly what any professional historian would start out doing.
In other words, since the New Testament records such things, the entire collection is suspect and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a compilation of historical documents.
How many modern day compositions that testify to just as many miracles as the NT, do you take seriously?
But is this justified? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If an ancient document withstands the pressures of scholarly scrutiny when it comes to historical details, if there are many early manuscripts still in existence that can be compared with one another and with our modern translations to demonstrate faithful transmission, and if independent facts can place the original writing of the document very close to the events it records, it seems only reasonable that we should at least carefully consider any supernatural happenings described in the text.
Sure, but like an y good historian, you must first identify and separate the NT miracle testimony that is first-hand, from that which is hearsay. If you cannot do that with any decisiveness, there is little point to arguing how persuasive those accounts should be. Apologists may lump it all together, but historians do not. There is a very good reason why they treat ancient hearsay as less probative of facts than ancient first-hand testimony. But that’s the problems you create for yourself if you agree with Josh McDowell and other apologists that we should apply to the bible the same tests of historicity that historians apply to equally ancient secular works.
The typical rebuttal to this is that our everyday experience doesn’t include supernatural phenomenon and such happenings would violate the laws and regularities of nature. Therefore, supernaturalism is false and the New Testament isn’t reliable. This is a textbook example of begging the question. By definition, a supernatural occurrence is an anomaly; it stands out because it isn’t what we would predict based upon current scientific knowledge.
Which is precisely why supernatural anomolies can never be proven to the point that it renders continued unbelief irrational.
If somebody told you they recently fell out of a sky scraper, and with nothing to soften their landing, hit the pavement doing about 100 mph, but simply bounced, stood upright and walked away without any injury, your presupposition of naturalism would rear its ugly head, and you would have grave initial suspicions that this story is false, and you would most likely demand some type of corroborating evidence, and if he had a friend testify to having seen this, you still wouldn’t be convinced and you know it.
However, that says nothing about whether or not a supernatural event is possible or could have happened in the past. I see no difficulty in the idea that God can work in the natural world either through the laws and regularities He has ordained or by their temporary suspension. To say that our cosmos is a self-contained, closed causal system that is never acted upon from “outside” is to make a philosophical statement, since science cannot, by definition, prove that immaterial, transcendent intervention in the world has never occurred or doesn’t continue to occur, detected or undetected.
What is possible can only be known through the evidence, so the question comes down to how good your evidence for miracles occuring really is.
My central argument here is that rejecting Scripture based on the fact that it testifies to events inexplicable by the natural sciences isn’t justified. It is reasonable to be open-minded about supernatural content, based on the demonstrable integrity of the remainder of the book.
But you assert that it is unreasonable to reject the bible on anti-supernatural bias alone. But it is only your own pool of experience in the world that enables you to become justifiably suspicious when somebody is lying. So when yo condemn skeptics for relying on their past experience to deny miracles, you condemn your own common sense that is usually responsible for causing you to be suspicious of modern claims similar to biblical claims.
With all that said, we can consider test cases from the New Testament. I am particularly fascinated by the writings of Luke, which include the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, so I’ll use those for this discussion. (Click here for a bit of background on Dr. Luke.)
Historical Veracity of Luke and Acts
When an ancient historical document is evaluated for accuracy, it is compared with other surviving historical records to check for potential corroboration of the alleged facts. The books of the New Testament are subjected to this scholarly scrutiny and fare quite beautifully. Using Luke’s writings a test case, here are some of the pertinent facts:
1. We know that Acts was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, if we can give Acts an early date, it’s reasonable to assign the Gospel of Luke a slightly earlier date.
But you must first nail down when Luke was written to know when the Acts sequel was written, and gospel dating is the last place to be dogmatic, scholars don’t manifest any more disagreement than on how to date gospels.
2. The oldest surviving fragments and manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke and Acts (dating to about 200-250 A.D.) as well as the large numbers of somewhat later manuscripts translated into many languages, give New Testament scholars a high degree of confidence that our best modern translations are faithful to the original autographs (originally penned documents). Don’t let anyone fool you with that ridiculous telephone game argument, which shows complete ignorance of the dynamics of textual transmission and textual criticism.
Don’t let anybody fool you with that textual reliability stuff. Read Metzger’s Textual commentary on Acts and discover how many text variants are given the rating of “C”.
3. Acts, being a record of the birth of the Church and its early history, is conspicuously silent on major (even earth-shattering) historical events that we have extra-biblical records of. These include: 1) The severe persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero, which began around 64 A.D. This was a gruesome, horrific episode in early Church history, yet Acts doesn’t mention it at all.
But given that Acts proves itself to be little more than an apologetic to justify Paul’s ministry, there is no reason to think the author would likely have referred to the Neronic persecution.
2) The Roman-Jewish War, which began in 66 A.D. 3) The fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It’s absurd to think that the fall of a central city for Christendom would not make it into the first historical account of the Church.
It would make sense if a forger wrote it with the intent that the readers believe it was composed before a.d. 70. Did Luke fabricate? His one-sided description of the arguments for and against the Judaizers in Acts 15 argues against any notion that he was concerned about fair and balanced reporting.
4) The martyrdoms of James (61 A.D.), Paul (64 A.D.), and Peter (66 A.D.) Surely Luke would mention the execution of early Christianity’s key leaders.
Why? Acts is concerned with little else than justifying Paul’s ministry. And when you make these arguments from silence, you must allow skeptics to argue that the great darkness at the crucifixion would have been reported by Pliny or other contemporary historians, it wasn’t. You must allow that if Matthew’s story of resurrected zombies in Matthew 27:52 were true, the other gospel authors would have had no rational reason to choose to exclude this powerful apologetic from their own compositions. You must allow that if Jesus had the level of fame during his earthly ministry that the gospels accord to him, it is highly unlikely that there would be no secular historians providing first-hand testimony to such. And you must allow the argument from silence that the reason the gospels do not report crowds thronging to Jesus’ grave is most likely because whatever fame he had, he got doing parlor tricks instead of genuinely supernatural acts. Benny Hinn would not have room to breath anywhere he went, if his claims of holy ghost healing were true. People buy tickets and patiently wait in line because his miracle assurances are less than convincing.
The best explanation for why Acts of the Apostles is silent on all of these crucial events is that it was written before they occurred, which places the writing of Acts (and by default, Luke) in the mid-first century, A.D. at the latest. This means, of course, that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written very close to the time of the events they describe.
As I have shown, your reason for why Acts doesn’t mention those first-century events, is nowhere near conclusive.
4. The Gospel of Luke is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Luke 3:1-2 says, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene”. Now, back in the 19th century, this passage caused scholars to doubt the accuracy of Luke’s gospel, because although there was a ruler in history named Lysanias, he was killed by Mark Antony in 36 B.C., a half-century before the events Luke is referring to. But later, in the very same province near Damascus (in today’s modern Syria), an inscription was discovered that spoke of a tetrarch named Lysanias who was ruling during the time frame precisely consistent with Luke’s account. It is significant that, in addition to the time frame, Luke got both the title and the name of the individual correct.
5. Acts is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Acts 18:11-2 says, “But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat.” Note that our best estimate for when Paul arrived in Corinth is based upon the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius in the year 49 A.D. This puts Paul arriving in Corinth sometime around 50 A.D., and then Achaia in 51 A.D. So, what we need to corroborate the veracity of this passage is evidence that Achaia had a proconsul named Gallio in the year of Paul’s trial.
The title of the leader of a province in Rome depended upon whether the province was senatorial or imperial. If it was senatorial, the leader was called a proconsul, but if it was imperial, the leader was called a legate. Achaia went through three different phases. From 27 B.C. to 15 A.D. it was a senatorial province, from 16 A.D. to 44 A.D. it was an imperial province, and then from 44 A.D. onward, it was a senatorial province again. This means that a leader in 51 A.D would indeed have been called a proconsul. What about the name of this proconsul?
Gallio Inscription at Delphi
Well, in the early 20th century, a limestone inscription (thought to have been attached to the outer wall of the Temple of Apollo) was uncovered in Delphi, Greece. It is a letter from Claudius to the city of Delphi, naming Gallio as the friend of Claudius and proconsul of Achaia. The dating of the inscription (between April and July of 52 A.D.) places the beginning of Gallio’s tenure as proconsul in July of 51 A.D. Luke got it all correct.
Luke describes a census that taxed the world (Luke 2:1-2), and no such census can be documented from secular records for that date, something secular records likely wouldn’t be missing if it had truly happened. And apologist explanations for the conundrum of Luke 2:1 only make the historical error all the more certain:
It must be confessed that there is no easy explanation at the present time for this historical problem of the census date, but some new evidence might in the future vindicate the historical accuracy of Luke on this point.93
93 For further discussion see G. Ogg, “The Quirinius Question Today,” ExpTim 79 (1968): 231–36; H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 11–27; Nolland, Luke 1–9:20 , 99–102.
The New American Commentary (Page 106). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are accurate on fine historical details,
If I say “Jesus was not God, and the capital city of California is Sacramento”, does the accuracy of the parts of the testimony that can be checked, argue that the theological statements are accurate? No.
they were written very soon after the events they describe, and we have a high degree of certainty that the content of the original texts has been reliably transmitted throughout history. At the least, this means that we can trust these books as historical records.
You ignore matters of apologetic tone and other historical difficulties that take the wind out of your certitude-sails.
As such, it is entirely reasonable to take the supernatural content into serious consideration.
The most important such testimony would be to the resurrection of Jesus, and no such testimony in Acts is first-hand, its all hearsay. Whether the hearsay is “good enough” is a separate question. Yes, historians often accept hearsay as evidence supporting some ancient fact, but that does not mean they regard the matter as settled. So you gain nothing by noting that hearsay is important to historians.
In fact, dismissing the books because of their supernatural content isn’t justified. Rejecting the books or just particular portions because of supernatural content shows a philosophical pre-commitment to materialism rather than an objective weighing of the historical evidence.
But materialism is a justified philosophical point of view, so conclusions that side with it cannot be said to arise from lack of objectivity in weighing historical evidence. If somebody tells me they were once decapitated, and I see no evidence on their body that their head was ever removed from their body, my pre-commitment to materialism will convince me to call them liars or deluded. You Christians consistently fail to provide convincing evidence that existence involves more than just matter and energy.