On the truth of the New Testament
Here is an argument that I frequently encounter (in one form or another):
We know that the Gospels must be accurate because they were written within the lifetime of witnesses. If they were false, then witnesses would have come forward and declared them false.
There are a number of general reasons that I find this to be an unconvincing line of reasoning. Namely:
- My understanding is that there was not a lot of travel in the first century (just last week I heard an apologist on a Christian podcast say that most people in Jesus’ day never traveled more than seven miles from their home). However, Jesus’ apostles made a point of traveling far and wide. Odds are that the apostles would not encounter many who could contradict what they said.
- We have quite a lot of literature dedicated to urban legends and other untrue stories that are widely believed even though they are untrue, so we know that popular belief of false stories — particularly those with morals attached — is not uncommon.
- It is rare to have a witness who can definitively say that something that didn’t occur at a specific place and time didn’t happen. For example, who could say with authority, “I know that Jesus never fed a multitude with fishes because I was there when it didn’t happen.” At best, a witness could say that a miracle wasn’t performed on a specific occasion, but if the story doesn’t list an exact date, then there is no reason for a witness to speak up.
- If Jesus’ miracles are only legends, and legends cannot be believed where there are witnesses to contradict them, then we would expect that there would be few legends about Jesus told where he is well known. This seems to agree with the Gospel accounts of Jesus not being respected (and doing few miracles) in his home town.
I recently thought of another way to answer this particular challenge, and wanted to try it out in this blog before using it in conversation (please leave your thoughts in the comments). My argument would go something like this:
Let’s say that there was a Jewish man named Eli who lived in the decade after Jesus died. Eli encounters two men, a Disciple and a Witness. The Disciple tells Eli about Jesus Christ, who did many miracles, rose from the dead, and will grant everlasting life to those that put their faith in him. The Witness, on the other hand, says that he was at the wedding in Cana and didn’t hear anything about water being turned into wine.
This gives Eli a lot to think about. The Disciple certainly had more information, so that’s a point on his side. And the Witness couldn’t absolutely prove that the miracle didn’t happen, because it could have happened without him noticing. But as a religious man Eli knows that the decision whether or not to believe Jesus is the Messiah is an important one, and he wants to make the right choice.
As Eli sees it, there are four possibilities:
- If Jesus is not the Messiah and Eli doesn’t believe in him, then all is well.
- If Jesus is not the Messiah and Eli believes in him, then at worst he is mistaken. So long as he keeps the law, he is still one of the chosen people and all is well.
- If Jesus is the Messiah and Eli does not believe in him, then he is back where he started before he even heard of Jesus, having lost nothing.
- If Jesus is the Messiah and Eli believes in him, then Eli will gain forgiveness and everlasting life.
After weighing these possibilities, Eli realizes that he cannot lose by believing in Jesus, so he discounts the testimony of the Witness and believes the Disciple. In fact, so many people reason as Eli does that the Witness is completely unable to spread his message that Jesus is a false prophet.
Is it possible that the Gospel stories, although untrue, could have propagated in the face of witnesses to the contrary because religious-minded people thought as Eli did? Yes, but only if we can show that religious people sometimes think in this way. Fortunately for us, we can show precisely that.
Eli’s argument is a minor variation of Pascal’s Wager — a common argument for the belief in Jesus. If Eli is right to reject an eye witness and believe a legend for these reasons, then we must agree that the stories in the Gospels could have propagated despite the contrary testimony of witnesses. If Eli is wrong to reject an eye witness for these reasons, then Pascal’s Wager is not valid in the face of evidence contrary to belief.
All of which leaves modern Christians with two choices: either agree that Pascal’s Wager is false if there is any reason to doubt Jesus’ divinity, or agree that the Gospel stories of miracles may be nothing but legends.