Questions fool me sometimes. Someone asks, “Do you want to try my broccoli salad?” I wonder, is she just offering to serve me a scoop? Or, does she want me to sample and compliment it even though I formed an opinion about broccoli salad before the end of the Cold War? How about when someone asks, “Is there evidence outside of the bible that Jesus was a real person?” I saw that question last week. I also asked the same thing decades ago, trying to deflect any authority over me. It wasn’t a real question.
A prudent question is one half of wisdom.– Francis Bacon
“Bible” means “book,” but it is a collection of 66 separate “books.” Originally, every one of them was “outside the bible.” If we had more credible evidence, then we would have more bible. Authors with varying educational backgrounds from diverse cultures penned these documents for audiences in different places who lived centuries apart. Would a 67th “book” settle the historicity of Jesus? Let’s consider three reasons the bible can be judged on its own merit.
Anything we know from history we know from eyewitnesses
You’re interviewing for a job and the director of HR opens a file to view your transcript. That one document represents all your hard work over four years. Your future employer looks up from her desk and asks, “Is this the original?” So you say, “It’s an official copy of my undergraduate record with a raised seal.” She responds, “That’s all well and good, but we need to see your original work. Then we’d like another college to verify that you are qualified for this degree.”
A transcript represents the overlapping witness of dozens of professors, administrators, and grad students documenting your college career. Graded papers, tests, and attendance records constitute that record. Accountability is built-in.
Even with a file of all your graded work, an HR director must trust the eyewitnesses who did the grading. You cannot reconstruct four years of work. A transcript gathers together the testimonies to your work on the basis of trust. Without eyewitnesses, a court cannot justly sentence anyone to prison. Likewise, you cannot even know whether your parents were married since you weren’t there to see it.
The bible is a library in one book
The bible was not manufactured by committee or cult leader in the first century AD. 5800 Ancient Greek manuscripts support the New Testament record. Each of the original documents also had an original, public audience and purpose. Some of it is poetry, written metaphorically. Other books appeal to people’s own memory of historic accounts to make a point. Still other parts of scripture were written under heavy persecution by people risking their lives to give their report.
What we call the bible came together over thousands of years, composed by people making public record of shared experiences. Some prophetic books describe current events which strangely tie into later events with profound depth.
For example, during the 1950’s, a group of archeologists unearthed pots hidden in a cave near Qumran. One of these pots contained a complete manuscript of the Book of Isaiah. Carbon-14 dating shows the papyri dated back hundreds of years BC. One section of Isaiah makes statements like the following one:
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.Isaiah 53:5
The original audience recognized illustrations of a future Messianic figure. This particular account came centuries before Christ and well before crucifixion was a thing in the Roman world.
Scripture holds together around a person, not proofs
All I’ve intended to do here is offer a little common sense. My basic research supports no air-tight defense, nor does that kind of apologetic motivate me. I’m moved by a narrative that mysteriously coheres across genre and author, time and culture.
Scholars East to West have marveled at how scripture holds together from Genesis to Revelation. Other academics have strained the bible through a dozen trends in textual criticism. The narrative endures. Its testimony centers upon a personal God who made specific promises about redeeming a broken world and who fulfills these promises personally.
The opening question about “outside evidence” tacitly suggests Jesus is a legend. This old claim assumes stories morphed from one generation to the next. However, the image above, a fragment from the Gospel of John, dates back plausibly to John’s own lifetime. But again, evidence-based claims don’t move us much. Nothing compares to the compelling life of Jesus itself: his brilliance under fire, deep insight about human nature, and his sacrificial, servant leadership.
So the prudent question is not whether we have enough evidence to “convict” Jesus for the claims he made. The testimonies of his life are more extensive and accountable than any other figure in human history.
The better question once you look at his life is this: Who do you say that he is?