For example, if there are two propositions X and ~X, one of which is true (and the other false); and if there are two proponents A and B, with A having a 'bias' toward X and B having a 'bias' toward ~X, then ONE OF THEM IS STILL CORRECT--in spite of 'bias'.
Couple of points here:
"Thus even when strict critical standards have been applied to the miracle stories, a demonstrably historical nucleus remains. Jesus performed healings which astonished his contemporaries. (New Testament Theology", SCM:1971, p21)
"the sources for the resurrection of Jesus, with their relatively big contradictions in details, present for the historian for this very reason a criterion of extraordinary credibility. For if that were the fabrication of a congregation or of a similar group of people, then the tale would be consistently and obviously complete. For that reason every historian is especially skeptical at that moment when an extraordinary happening is only reported in accounts which are completely free of contradictions."[Sounds like 'extraordinary proof' for 'extraordinary claims' to me! :>) ]
"they do not usually undermine the basic structure of the account that has been building; they often contradict only specific items that a historian has previously accepted, and do not force a change in the general outline of the account."But even the 'contradictions' have multiple plausible explanations (as can be found in many a book on Bible Difficulties), and the most recent thorough work on this is Wenham's Easter Enigma: Do the Resurrection Stories Contradict One Another?, Zondervan: 1984. To assert that a contradiction stands is to assert that one can show that all of the possible harmonization's CANNOT BE TRUE--a formidable task to say the least!
"In my reflections on the events I cannot conceal my private sentiments...my country...owed its ruin to civil strife...it was the Jewish tyrants who drew down upon the holy temple the unwilling hands of the Romans" (Jewish War, 1.10)
Mark 4:35-38: That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.Or the vivid portraits of Christ's emotions: moved with pity, anger, grieved, compassion, indignant, loved, distressed, troubled.
The narratives are vivid, but uncluttered, full of incidental detail and minutia, realistic both contextually and psychologically, and focus on ordinary people...In short, they look much more like narrative history, than historical fiction and fanciful propaganda.
This attitude against 'pious fraud' (including NT pseudonymity) continued in the early church. Numerous quotes and events from Eusebius, Serapion, Tertullian, and later writers shows that pseudepigraphic writings and the fanciful elaboration of the NT apocrypha--even for noble and pure motives--were NOT accepted by the church and carefully guarded against...The criteria of truth and demonstrable authenticity was too high.
"The uniqueness of Jesus' miracles is itself an argument for their authenticity, by the criterion of dissimilarity [a criterion used by critical scholarship to judge authenticity of textual pieces]. This uniqueness extends in the majority of cases to the simplicity and directness of Jesus' style, the immediacy with which his power takes effect, and the restrained nature of the narratives which understate the sensational." (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP: 1987, p.92; drawing upon A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History, Westminster: 1982, pp.98-119)
Acts 3:12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?" (after a spectacular miracle)[Perfect opportunities to aggrandize themselves--and they blew it! ;>) ]
Acts 14:11ff When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: "Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.
And the agreement of Luke and Matthew on the basics of the birth details (in spite of the fact that they drew on two different traditions) is a strong witness to the historicity of the event (and the early existence of available traditional material.)
For example, in the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mr 12.5-7; Mt 21.36-38; Lk 20.12-14), the later authors add nothing to heighten the Christology in Mark.
There are SO MANY places where these authors COULD HAVE placed 'innocent' statements to heighten or embellish the depiction of their leader. For example, in Luke's unique story of the raising of the dead son of the widow at Nain, he records the amazement of the onlookers (7.11-17) in the mild terms of "a great prophet", when it would have been so easy to have them say something 'bigger' like 'the Son of God' or 'the Messiah' or whatever. Numerous such opportunities present themselves to the NT writers and either they 1) didn't want to do it or 2) couldn't do it because there were too many eyewitnesses and/or other 'check' documents in circulation at the time that would expose the fraudulence.
The hardest available evidence from the gospels has confirmed the thesis that the Evangelists produced narratives about Jesus of Nazareth that were free of blatant attempts to infuse and overlay this story with their own later and developed estimates of his teaching, miracles, passion, and person...With a consistency that can be charted on virtually every page of text, the thought and idiom of his era are not reproduced in theirs. Or, more correctly, they do not retroject theirs into his. (pp. 108-109)
He does this by analyzing the differences between the teachings of the NT church and those of the pre-Easter narratives. By contrasting, for example, the post-resurrection teachings of Jesus in Luke or Matthew with the pre-Easter teachings of Jesus, Lemcio discovers that the EARLIER teachings are not 'painted over' with the LATER (more exalted?) teachings!
A couple of categories of these discontinuities should be adequate to demonstrate this:
...the Evangelists, to an extent heretofore unrecognized, produced narratives distinguishing Jesus' time from their own. This effort transcended merely putting verbs in past tenses and dividing the account into pre- and post-resurrection periods. Rather, they took care that terminology appropriate to the Christian era does not appear beforehand. Vocabulary characteristic prior to Easter falls by the wayside afterwards. Words common to both bear a different nuance in each. Idiom suits the time.
The eminent Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White:
"Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd" (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford University Press: 1965.)
"I have an interest here in the unimportant, in the nuances, which might betray a redactor's faulty knowledge of the context of a precise but unimportant statement. I submit that it is exceedingly hard to reproduce secondhand, in one's own style, intricate reports of fact. Yet we can check the trivia of Acts against the inscriptions: "town clerk" at Ephesus, "politarchs" at Thessalonica, "first man" at Malta...Less obvious but more pervasive are the marginal things, the incidence of personal names, the illustrations of the customs in verbal uses...And there is the factor of the subtle interlocking of pieces...the dates of the Gallio inscription...the expulsion of the Jews from Italy...There are in fact incidentals...which contribute unemphatically to the building of a picture which correlates with external literature and with archaeology" ("Luke the Historian" in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, No. 60, pp.36,37)
M. Hengel compared Acts with other 'histories' of the time, noticing that Luke also abbreviates, omits, elaborates or repeats when he writes:
"All this can be found in the secular histories of Greek and Roman antiquity. On the other hand, one can hardly accuse him of simply having invented events, created scenes out of nothing and depicted them on a broad canvas, deliberately falsifying his traditions in an unrestrained way for the sake of cheap effect. He is quite certainly not simply concerned with pious edification at the expense of truth." (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, ET: 1979, p.61)It is important to realize that this careful (and accurate) writer of Acts is the SAME PERSON WHO AUTHORED THE GOSPEL OF LUKE. This adds a heightened credibility to that document.
D. Data from the NT's setting in history
[Interestingly enough, we get the opposite problem--too many people wrote COMPLEMENTARY accounts! The NT apocrypha, with all the elaborate mythical stories about the child Jesus, shows that 'uncontrolled' writing was OBVIOUSLY possible! The Jewish culture had produced 'inter-necine warfare' documents earlier in the pre-NT OT pseudepigraphic writings. A comparison of the pro-Hasmonean 1st and 2nd Maccabees with the anti-Hasmonean Psalms of Solomon will show that the Palestine of the NT was able to generate 'rebuttals' to its internal factions and groups. And, that the NT had circulation outside of the early 'Jewish church' can be seen from the fact that the Rabbis made references (and rules, of course!) relative to these documents in Talmud and Midrash (e.g. b. Sab. 116a,b; t. Sab. xiii.5; b. Gitt. 45b; t. Jad. ii.13). There is even some evidence that the Qumran community--before its destruction in the late 60's--had access to the gospels (cf. Thiede's work on the Markan fragment and the Pastoral fragment in Cave 7--TRKW.) All this leads up to the fact that there was ample opportunity, ability, and forum for rebuttal of inaccurate historical claims.]
The explosive growth of the Jewish church (1st) and then Gentile church, as demonstrated by (1) Claudius' expulsion of the Jews & Christians from Rome in 49 ad, only for there to be another group significant enough for Nero to blame the burning of Rome on in ad 64; and (2) the letter from Pliny the Younger to Trajan (c. 112) on how to deal with the Christian group composed of 'many of all ages and every rank and also of both sexes" in Bithynia (south of the Black Sea);
and (3) the growth numbers in the early chapters of Acts; JUST WOULD NOT HAVE OCCURRED if the early factual claims of miracles, and esp. the resurrection, would have been popularly known to be false (or could have easily been shown to have been false). The resurrection was the proof of Christ's messiahship and proof that God would 'raise' His people as well.
This too-short a timeframe for legendizing can be illustrated from the case of Alexander the Great. The early (an reliable) historians of Alex were Arrian and Plutarch, who wrote more than 400 years after his death in 323BC. Yet the legendizing of Alex into a divine figure only occurred in the centuries AFTER them! (Robin L. Fox, The Search for Alexander).
Similarly, the Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White demonstrated from analysis of Herodotus and Thucydides that "Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition" (RLRS:190-192).
Indeed, it can be shown that INSTEAD of embellishing the actually historical with ADDITIONAL 'supernatural' data, the tendency was to do the opposite--to abbreviate, to summarize, to condense (other than the gap-filling in the NT apocrypha). One can see this OUTSIDE the NT (e.g. summarized parables in the "Gospel of Thomas") and INSIDE the NT (e.g. parallel narratives in Mr/Mt and Mr/Lk).
With so much public data--much oral public, some probably written down--the fact that the NT writers had earlier documents to work with shortens the gap from event to recording. If Paul's earliest knowledge of the details of Jesus' life came from the 'traditions' he received (paradosis - cf. I Cor 15.3) and passed along (I Cor 11.23), and his earliest writing was approx. 50 AD. (again, if we assume James wasn't written in the 40's) then the 'traditions' he received which where in synch with the material that the synoptics used, were much earlier than that. They were probably a mix of oral and written materials, which were kept in Jerusalem (where most of all the 'corrective' and 'check' data was in circulation).
"...although the sayings of Jesus are reproduced freely and adapted to special purposes, the amount of significant variation between the same saying in our sources is relatively small.
...if the tenacity and relative stability of oral tradition in the first half of the second century was as impressive as we have seen it to be, the trustworthiness of that oral tradition in the middle decades of the first century was, if anything, even more substantial." (p256, 259)
Rabbi's memorized the entire OT plus many, many oral laws. Education for many Jewish boys from ages five to 12-13 was mandatory and entirely by rote memory--studying only the Bible (Gerhardsson and Reisner, cited in JUF:32). All major Jewish groups had community prayers that they committed to memory. (Bock, JUF:80)
Shorthand and speed-writing was commonly used (in private) by Rabbinic disciples (JUF:33) and in Graeco-Roman writing (TRKW:80-83). For examples: Plutarch tells us (Cat min 23) that Cicero had stenographers placed around the senate to record Cato's speech, in 63BC. The emperor Titus (ad 39-81) was said by Suetonius to be a master of the art of shorthand (De Vita Caesarum, 8.3.2). Archeologists have found an early-2nd century leather mss. in Greek shorthand at Wadi Murabba'at by the Dead Sea. It has been advanced that Matthew/Levi, who would have had such skills for his job as tax collector/customs official, used those skills to take some notes during Jesus' longer sermons. His accounts are considerably longer than the other synoptics, perhaps betraying this use of more detailed sources.
"Most of the New Testament Apocrypha show little overlap with the information found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This fact alone is significant; it means that even in those circles where early Christians apparently felt free to invent stories about Jesus, they almost never tried to deny the truth of the canonical accounts. Instead they went about 'filling in the gaps' in the historical record, imagining what Jesus' childhood was like, describing his correspondence and travels to other lands, and adding adventures of his disciples..." (op. cit. p 216)
The 'net' of this: the gospels far well within the range of the historical genres of the day, and conform to the standards for accuracy for those genres.
"'Without adding or deleting anything' is a motto some ancient historians applied to the accurate use of sources or facts (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 5, 8; Lucian, History 47; Josephus, Antiquities 1.17). This meant sticking to the general sense of the sources, not transcribing them verbatim..." (David Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Westminster: 1987, p.82)
"Personal visual knowledge, i.e. eyewitness evidence (autopsia) was thought the most reliable historical source. (Herodotus 2.99; Polybius 12.27.1-6; 20.12.8; Lucian History 47)."
(Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment, Westminster: 1987, p 81.)
In addition to the points made above on historical method (i.e. about 'contradictions' being a GOOD thing and about not throwing the data out for ONE mistake) the following issues are important to note.
"The historian arrives at truth through probability" but "this does not mean 'a doubtful kind of truth' but a firm reliance on the likelihood that evidence which has been examined and found solid is veracious." (Barzun and Graff, The Modern Researcher, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: 1977, p.92)
"...a presumption which one exercises in the reading of all history. Without it no historiography, ancient or modern, would win acceptance. Briefly, it is this, that one accepts a statement upon the word of the reporter unless he has reason not to do so" (CBQ 34 (1972), p.446)This finds statement even in books on historical method:
"We may find...an event is known to us solely through an authority based entirely upon the statements of witnesses who are no longer available. Most of the works of Livy, the first books of the history of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, belong to this category. Since there is no other way of knowing the story they tell us, we must provisionally accept their version. This brings us back full sail to accepted history as the starting point for all investigation." (G.J. Reiner, History: Its Purpose and Method, George Allen & Unwin: 1950, pp90-91.
Historians of the Roman Empire often refer to "Caesar's crossing the Rubicon" as an undisputed fact of historic significance, even though it is attested only by four ancient writers, two to three generations after the event, all dependent on one eyewitness account [long since disappeared!], and preserved in significantly different forms corresponding to the various authors' ideologies, including one which attributes Caesar's decision to enlarge his frontiers to divine guidance.
"it is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn." (A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford: 1963, p.187)
It is important to note what the critical scholarship community has to say about the trustworthiness of the NT documents, as well as the general trends in that scholarship.
Critical scholarship has four 'tests' for the authenticity of a passage:
"On each of the subjects enumerated, we can invoke the testimony of many exegetes. To the extent that researches go on, the material acknowledged as authentic grows ceaselessly until it covers the whole Gospel" (Finding Jesus through the Gospels, Alba: 1079, pp238ff.)
So the picture that emerges is one of increasing authentication of the text--by a wide range of scholars, from a very wide range of critical and skeptical orientations.
On the one hand, there is what has been called the "third quest" for the historical Jesus...Numerous recent historical analyses of Jesus have moved in an increasingly positive direction, believing that we can recover substantial amounts of information about what he did and said. These studies tend to set Jesus and the gospels squarely within the milieu of ancient Judaism much more so than did their predecessors. Two prolific contributors to this third quest, E.P. Sanders and James Charlesworth, agree that 'the dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.'
I have given tons and tons of detail to demonstrate the realistic and restrained and authentic character of the NT documents. I have shown from representative historians (of ALL 'bias' persuasions) that these documents are excellent material to work with in building historical understandings. I have cited professional historians to show that the 'skeptical' doubt is both NOT required and is, in fact, NOT admissible as proper method in scholarly historical research.
Yet for all this, the skeptic could still say "Yeah, so the NT documents DO look like authentic and realistic data...but the writers simply FABRICATED them to look like that--to trick us". This 'advanced level' of skeptical paranoia and conspiratorial thinking has EVEN LESS plausibility attached to it THAN the accusation of 'fraud'...it would require the NT writers to be brilliant beyond expectation to weave such a fabric of subtle detail and perspectives and 'spin'. Maybe advanced aliens from outer space could do it, but certainly not our less-than-gifted apostles! [Oops--I hope I didn't create a new skeptical theory with that last sentence! How would I ever carry the 'burden of proof' to show that Aliens DIDN'T WRITE the NT?!!! I can see it now--the skeptic uses I Peter 2.11 to come up with the 'YoYoDyne' theory of gospel formation...;>)]
There is much more that could be said, and indeed, many more issues that would need to be addressed to make this complete. And I would not want to leave you with the impression that there are no difficulties in this view (as in ANY viewpoint). But this should be enough data to demonstrate that the modern view (as opposed to the views of say 50-100 years ago) of the NT is that of high reliability in its portrayal of the life and times of Jesus Christ. [For the fairest discussion of the 'tough' questions, I refer you to Blomberg's excellent work -- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, cited above, and JUF, RF, TJQ, CSSG.]
And as to that most difficult of all miracles--the resurrection of Jesus from the grave--I like the harsh, pragmatic words of Barnett (Is the New Testament Reliable: A Look at the Historical Evidence, IVP:1986, p. 172.)
"Philosophically and scientifically there are problems with a resurrection, and I feel those as keenly as most. But I cannot escape the historical question. Did the resurrection happen or not? If it happened, it happened--and so much the worse for my dogmas."
Glenn M. Miller, 4/6/96