Special Report: “Fixing” the Gospel?
Vol: 63 Issue: 28 Thursday, December 28, 2006
The other day, an OL member emailed me to ask what I thought was a question whose answer was complex enough and interesting enough to merit its own column.
She writes that she has no personal doubts that the Bible is the Word of God. “What,” she then asks, “do you say to an agnostic or young Christian. . . [who argue] that the latter writers simply read what the former writers said about the coming of Messiah and just made the prophecies “fit”?”
The problem, she continued, was that, “Somehow, saying “just have faith” doesn’t suffice, and that’s the only answer I’ve ever gotten.”
As I see it, the biggest problem lies in keeping an agnostic’s attention long enough to explain the answer. Its a long and complicated one, because there are actually several questions contained inside that question that have to be answered first.
The first question goes to the human authorship of the Bible and its subsequent preservation. It is a matter of undeniable, irrefutable archeological fact that the Book of Isaiah, including its multiple Messianic prophecies, was written at least 100 years before Christ.
In point of fact, the Book of Isaiah is universally dated by Jewish records as existing five hundred years before Christ, but the copy found in Qumron buried among the Dead Sea Scrolls is positively dated to 100 BC.
So even using the date of the oldest existing manuscript, the prophecies of Isaiah preceded the events they predicted by more than a century.
Isaiah predicted the Messiah would ‘despised and rejected of men’. Isaiah said He would be ‘wounded for our transgressions’ and ‘bruised for our iniquities’. The NIV translates Isaiah 53:4-6 “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows . . . and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
Isaiah notes that He was ‘cut off from the land of the living’ for ‘the transgression of My people’.
That these are independently verifiable historical facts is indisputable. Roman custom was to crucify the condemned under a banner proclaiming the crime for which they were being punished.
Josephus and the Jewish Talmud confirm His execution under the banner ‘King of the Jews’. Pilate ordered that proclamation because Pilate found Him guilty of no other offense.
Jesus could not have engineered His own Death or arranged the crime for which He was convicted. It was so unique one had to be invented.
The Gospel of John records that Caiaphas, another verifiable historical figure, making his case to send Jesus to Pilate for execution, argued that, “it was expedient that one man should die for the people.” (John 18:14)
And the Gospels were first circulated within living memory of the event. If they weren’t generally accepted as an accurate reflection of what the citizens of Jerusalem had personally eyewitnessed, the Gospels would never have achieved the level of respect accorded them.
I often use by way of analogy, a new history book that claimed John Kennedy wasn’t shot in Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, that it never really happened. There are two many living eyewitnesses to the actual event for the book to survive its first printing.
Isaiah said He was assigned a grave with the wicked, but with the rich His death.
Jesus could not have arranged to be crucified between two thieves and He was already dead when Joseph of Aramithea petitioned Pilate for His body, which was later placed in a rich man’s tomb.
And if it WERE possible to do so, why would He? That is a worthy question. If He were not Who He said He was, what would be the point? Wise man and prophet? Liar and Lunatic? Or the Son of Israel’s God, crucified as “King of the Jews.” as Israel’s King? Which logically fits the known facts?
The Book of Isaiah could not have been tampered with without attracting the attention of the Jews. And we have irrefutable evidence Isaiah’s prophecies are unchanged since the Isaiah Scroll found buried at Qumran was in circulation since 100 BC.
The Gospels could not logically have been tampered with after they were first circulated on the streets of Jerusalem, beginning around 45 AD with the Book of Mark. They reflected events of less than fifteen years before that took place in what was a small and very close-knit community of Jews.
If they didn’t reflect the facts as the eyewitnesses remembered them, there would be some record of their dispute, given that Jews boasted one the most literate and carefully documented societies of antiquity.
And if they do accurately reflect the events they record, then it is more than significant that there is no record of any serious contemporary dispute of the accounts of the dead being raised, sight being restored to the blind, paralytics being healed. etc.
The accuracy of the Gospel is as much a matter of logic as it is one of faith.
Is it even remotely logical to believe that the Gospels could have been altered in any significant way without attracting the notice of the early Church? To alter them after they entered the public record, considering the eyewitness factor already discussed, would be impossible.
And once they entered the public record, history shows they were so universally accepted as truth that Christians chose the lion’s den rather than to deny their contents.
The Gospels were in circulation by about 45 AD. The first documented persecution of the Christians was during reign of Nero. (37-68) So many of those who refused to deny Jesus were eyewitnesses to the events recorded by the Gospels.
The Roman historian Tacitus recorded in Book 15, Chapter 44 of his Annals of the History of Rome, “[Nero] falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated.”
If the Gospels were well-entrenched enough to inspire martyrdom within living memory of Jesus, then any subsequent alteration to make them ‘fit’ would not escape notice.
Then, we have the record of the Acts of the Apostles. Once again, we are relying as much on logic here as we are on faith to seek the answer to our questions from what is more or less undisputed historical fact.
We know that the Twelve were eyewitnesses to the events recorded by the Gospels from their own written testimony.
“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His Majesty.” (2nd Peter 1:16)
Did Peter write the Gospel that bears his name? The people to whom he was writing believed he did — and they were in the best position to know.
His epistles were accepted as Divinely-inspired doctrine by the early Church, many of whom were ALSO eyewitnesses to His Majesty’.
Ancient records confirm that Peter was crucified for preaching the Gospel. Roman custom demanded he be allowed to recant. It is logical to assume, since he was crucified, that the Bible’s account of his refusal is an accurate record.
It was Peter that specifically noted that “prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2nd Peter 1:21)
If Peter didn’t believe it was true, it is illogical to believe he would have allowed himself to be crucified for a lie.
Then there are the rest of the Apostles. All met similarly gory deaths. None of the accounts are historically disputed. All had the opportunity to renounce Christ, all chose grisly deaths.
(Only John escaped death by martyrdom. He was banished to Patmos — after John survived an attempt by Nero to martyr him by boiling him alive.)
Logically, then, we have the undeniably prophetic passage in Isaiah, fulfilled in the life of Christ through a series of humanly uncontrollable events that led to His historically verifiable torture and execution to consider.
Then, we have the eyewitness factor and that the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Gospel were accepted within living memory of the events described.
That it was believed as absolute truth is testified to by the rivers of blood shed by Christians as early as the reign of Nero.
Finally, we have the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles, who were alive at the time the Gospels they published made them the undisputed leaders of the early Church.
For the Messianic prophecies to be the result of a later conspiracy to ‘fix’ them, given the known facts, is both a logical and historical impossibility.
It is illogical to conclude that the early Church, its persecution and the reams of historical evidence attesting to its faithfulness in the face of grisly death, was founded upon an easily-disproveable lie concerning events that occurred within living memory.
And it is illogical to assume they could have been subsequently altered without those who were willing to die for the truths contained therein noticing the changes.
There is a principle of logic dubbed ‘Occam’s Razor’, named for the philosopher, Sir William of Occam, who first published it. It states that; given a variety of explanations, the one that most closely fits the known facts is logically the most likely to be true.
Both logic and deductive reasoning demand the conclusion that the Gospel accounts MUST be true. Any other reading of history would be illogical. And, as Bill O’Reilly says on his TV program, it would also be ridiculous.