Does the New Testament sound like an ancient fable?

Published by 1c15 on

Reading Time: 15 minutes
  • Introduction
  • Truthtelling criteria
    • Authors include embarrassing details about themselves
    • Embarrassing details and difficult sayings of Jesus
    • Demanding sayings of Jesus
    • Authors carefully distinguished their words from Jesus’ words
    • Included events related to the resurrection they would not of invented
    • Includes historically confirmable people
    • Challenging the readers of the time to verify the facts, even miracles
    • Describing miracles like other historical events with simple, unembellished accounts
    • Abandoned their long-held sacred beliefs and practices, adopted new ones, and did not deny their testimony under persecution or threat of death
    • Non theological verbiage: precious papyrus

Introduction

One piece of evidence often overlooked or presented in an inconsistent way is the internal evidence for the Bible. Now that may appear strange at first the concept, to appeal to internal evidence, however there are verifiable details you can establish if you treat the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament documents as that, just historical documents. What do historians establish about the text without the Christian bias? What is left? What signs of authenticity can be established?

Truthtelling criteria

1. Authors include embarrassing details about themselves

Scholars have established that if a passage is embarrassing to the author who wrote it, it is likely to be true since the author would have preferred the event would of never happened. We can see plenty of examples of this criteria. Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 14:15 report challenges the Christians wrestled with. The factor of the Bible recording such struggles adds to the level of authenticity, awkward parts haven’t been edited out. 

This is not to say simply because there are embarrassing details that makes the document true, what the criterion of embarrassment does is make it more likely to be true. It’s a weighing probability factor. What is being understood with this criterion is, have any filters been applied to stifle out details that would make the authors or the characters look bad? Or have they been preserved? You may not Facebook about intentional lies to make yourself look bad in most scenarios that won’t get any likes and put people off you (In most cases!). The New Testament authors often come across as silly who often fail to understand who Jesus is (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16). Let’s examine a few examples

Uncaring

They fall asleep on Jesus twice when he asks them to pray (Mark 14:32-41). The New Testament writers later believe Jesus is the God-man, yet they admit they twice fell asleep on him in his hour of greatest need! Moreover, they make no effort to give their friend a proper burial, but record that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin—the very court that had sentenced Jesus to die. Not great for the CV’s of Peter, James, John etc.

Rebuked

Peter is called “Satan” by Jesus (Mark 8:33), and Paul rebukes Peter for being wrong about a theological issue. Paul writes, “ When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11). Considering Peter is the lead disciple, the great evangelist, details such as this are left to show even he made mistakes.

Cowardice

The disciples, except for John, flee in terror and hide when Jesus goes to the cross. And this is especially embarrassing for Peter who denied him three times after explicitly promising, “I will never disown you” (Matt. 26:33-35). To make it worse, in a culture where women really were second rate citizens culturally, they were the first witnesses at the tomb and the bearers of truth.

Doubters

Despite being taught several times that Jesus would rise from the dead (John 2:18-22; 3:14-18; Matt.12:39-41; 17:9, 22-23), the disciples are doubtful when they heard of his resurrection. Some are even doubtful after they see him risen (Matt. 28:17)! 

If you’re trying to sell the Gospel to a first century world that not only holds completely opposite cultural values, but leaves in the embarrassing details about the first disciples, the leaders of the church about how they were cowards, doubters, rebuked by their own master, lacked empathy for him also, it’s not a good start at all. It could be painful for them to share but as we look back, we admire their honesty.

2. Embarrassing details and difficult sayings of Jesus

The New Testament writers are also honest about Jesus. They not only include details about themselves which are tricky, but they record embarrassing details about their leader, Jesus, that seem to place him in not in the best of lights always. Here’s what I mean.

  1. Jesus is accused of being out of his mind by his mother and brothers who come to seize him in order to take him home (Mark 3:21, 31)
  2. His own brothers didn’t believe in his ministry (John 7:5)
  3. He’s seen as one who deceives (John 7:12)
  4. Is deserted by many of his followers (John 6:66)
  5. Some Jews who had believed in him turned away out of disinterest with his message (John 8:30-31), and some wanted to stone him (v59)
  6. Called a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19)
  7. Called “demon-possessed” (Mark 3:22; John 7:20, 8:48)
  8. called a “madman” (John 10:20)
  9. Feet wiped with the hair of a prostitute which could’ve been perceived as a sexual advance (Luke 7:36-39)
  10. Crucified by Romans and Jews and scripture says anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13)

Now if this document was embellished or dishonest it may sound like so:

  1. Jesus’ mother and brothers trust his every word
  2. His brothers trusted in his Messianic leadership
  3. Seen by religious leaders as a figure of wisdom
  4. Many come to follow him after hearing all his teaching
  5. Many Jews joined him agreeing with all his teaching
  6. Called a sober-minded man
  7. An exorcist
  8. In control
  9. Would not have allowed the prostitute near him
  10. Would of never been cursed and dying in such a way. He would’ve died valiantly for the cause of the Jews and inspired a generation

But, this second list is not what happened in the end.

Difficult sayings

Another type of detail are sentences that could potentially throw the reader at first glance. If you were making up the story, these sentences would be counterintuitive.

  1. Jesus declares, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
  2. Appears at first to predict incorrectly that he’s coming back to earth within a generation (Matt. 24:34) to which he then says about his second coming, that no one knows the time, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son” (Matt. 24:36)
  3. Jesus denies his deity by asking the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? . . . No one is good—except God alone” (Luke 18:19)
  4. Jesus is seen cursing a fig tree for not having figs when it wasn’t even the season for figs (Matt. 21:18ff.)
  5. Can’t really do miracles in his hometown except heal a few sick people (Mark 6:5) 
  6. Moreover, Jesus makes what seems to be a completely morbid claim: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). After this hard saying, John says, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). 

Leaving in these sentences makes life a lot harder for the authors to get the message across, you’d only leave them in if there was some depth and truth to them being said. Of course there is more to it than this for us Christians, but misinterpretation could throw the reader.

3. Demanding sayings of Jesus

What about the demanding standards laid out by Jesus that appeared to make it impossible to follow him? If you’re trying to recruit, why make the standard appear so high? There are some very demanding requests in the Gospels

  1. “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).
  2. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32).
  3. “I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:39-42).
  4. “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). 
  5. “Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
  6. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
  7. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2).

For a generation that wants a spiritual God with no moral demands, this would a non-starter for many. 

4. Authors carefully distinguished their words from Jesus’ words

Even though quotation marks did not exist in first-century Greek, It was possible to distinguish the words of Jesus compared to the disciples easily enough. Why is this important? Well it shows that the New Testament authors would not add more than what was due, why are there not a lot more sentences of Jesus which are highlighted in red letter edition Bibles? Why not have an entire book of sayings? They could have easily added sentences like “So this is what Jesus says for all time now concerning predestination and how creation happened….”

Despite unending frustration with some early believers, the New Testament writers never do this. Instead of pulling rank in this way, the New Testament writers seem to stay true to what Jesus did and didn’t say. Paul, the man who wrote nearly half of the New Testament books (at least 13 of the 27) and dealt with most of those controversial problems in the church, never pulls rank. He quotes Jesus just a few times. And on one of those occasions, he goes out of his way to explicitly distinguish his own words from those of Jesus (1 Cor. 7:10-12). Why would Paul have been so careful if he were not telling the truth? Again, the best explanation for the accuracy of the New Testament writers is that they really were telling the truth.

5. Included events related to the resurrection they would not of invented

The resurrection is the central event of the Christian history, even with this information, embarrassing details are portrayed!

The Burial of Jesus

Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which sentenced Jesus to death for Blasphemy, buried him in his own tomb. Considering many Christians harboured much hostility towards the Jewish leadership, this would be quite embarrassing to admit and would entail not being able to afford to bury him in one of their own tombs, if they even owned any. Jewish history has never denied being responsible for burying Jesus

The First Witnesses

Women were the first witnesses at the tombs in all four accounts of the empty tomb. One of the women was Mary Magdalene, who Luke admits had been demon-possessed (Luke 8:2). This would never be inserted in a made-up story. Not only would a once-demon-possessed person make a questionable witness, but women in general were not considered reliable witnesses in that first-century culture. In fact, a woman’s testimony carried no weight in a court of law. So if you were making up a resurrection story in the first century, you would avoid women witnesses and make yourselves— the brave men—the first ones to discover the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. Citing the testimony of women—especially demon-possessed women—would only hurt your attempt to pass off a lie as the truth.

The Conversion of Priests

“Why didn’t the risen Jesus appear to the Pharisees?” is a popular question asked by sceptics. The answer might be that it wasn’t required. One fact overlooked is that many priests became believers. Luke writes, “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). We see these same priests mentioned in Acts 15:5 with the circumcision controversy of the gentiles.

The Explanation of the Jews

Matthews’s Gospel supplies the reasoning of what the Jews saw about the empty tomb: 

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (Matt. 28:11-15).

Not only does this tell us that everyone thought the tomb was empty, Christian and Jew alike, but it’s given an opposing theory so early on and close to the event. Could this cause some doubt for the reader? Why include their excuses of theft? In fact, Justin Martyr and Tertullian, writing in 150AD and 200AD claim that the Jewish authorities continued to offer this theft story throughout the second century.

6. Includes historically confirmable people

To invent a story, including historical characters who could be checked historically in records, who were still living at the time the Gospels were shared would risk exposure if they stated details which were not true. Using real people in a fictional story would blow their credibility. Telling lies about about Pilate, Caiaphas, Festus, Felix, and the entire Herodian bloodline would leave you wide open for criticism, yet they are not criticised by any contemporary of their portrayal of these historical figures. The best explanation is these eyewitnesses knew what they were talking about.

7. Challenging the readers of the time to verify the facts, even miracles

We’ve already seen some of the claims of accuracy the New Testament writers made to the recipients of their documents. These include Luke’s overt assertion of accuracy to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4); Peter’s claim that they did not follow cleverly devised tales but were eyewitnesses to Christ’s majesty (2 Pet. 1:16); Paul’s bold declaration to Festus and King Agrippa about the resurrected Christ (Acts 26); and Paul’s restatement of an early creed that identified more than 500 eyewitnesses of the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15).

Paul declares that he previously performed miracles for them. Speaking of his own qualifications as an apostle—someone who speaks for God—Paul reminds the Corinthians, “The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance” (2 Cor. 12:12). Now if this is a lie, then the community would tear him apart for it, but there’s no record of such response. 

8. Describing miracles like other historical events with simple, unembellished accounts

Embellished and extravagant details are strong signs that a historical account has legendary elements. For example, there’s a legendary account of Christ’s resurrection that was written more than 100 years after the actual event. It is from the apocryphal forgery known as the Gospel of Peter, and it reads like this:

Early in the morning, as the Sabbath dawned, there came a large crowd from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas to see the sealed tomb. But during the night before the Lord’s day dawned, as the soldiers were keeping guard two by two in every watch, there came a great sound in the sky, and they saw the heavens opened and two men descend shining with a great light, and they drew near to the tomb. The stone which had been set on the door rolled away by itself and moved to one side, and the tomb was opened and both of the young men went in. Now when these soldiers saw that, they woke up the centurion and the elders (for they also were there keeping watch).While they were yet telling them the things which they had seen, they saw three men come out of the tomb, two of them sustaining the other one, and a cross following after them. The heads of the two they saw had heads that reached up to heaven, but the head of him that was led by them went beyond heaven. And they heard a voice out of the heavens saying, “Have you preached unto them that sleep?” The answer that was heard from the cross was, “Yes!”

There is nothing as sensational as this in the New Testament, the Gospels are rather simple and bland when it comes to listing miracles. Mark describes what the women saw this way:

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”

Mark 16:4-8

This contrasts significantly from the forged Gospel of Peter. Mark of course is said to be Peter’s account dictated to Mark so Peter vs Peter, the less embellished, earlier copy wins out. Luke’s description is almost as simple:

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words” 

Luke 24:2-8

John’s Gospel briefly mentions Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, adds the experience of Peter and John, and then returns to Mary outside the tomb. Again, nothing appears embellished or extravagant in this account:

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot” 

John 20:1-12

Matthew’s account of the women’s experience is more dramatic, but contains nothing as bizarre as the long heads or the walking and talking cross found in the Gospel of Peter:

“There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you”

Matt. 28:2-7

On Paul, he makes clear that the Resurrection is the central event in Christianity. 

“if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins”

1 Cor. 15:17)

If the Resurrection were a made-up story designed to convince sceptics, then the New Testament writers certainly would have made their accounts longer with more detail. They might even add that not only was the tomb empty, but they saw him rise! But of course, the account doesn’t read that way, they didn’t see him arise. The point is, compared to dramatic, fabricated miracle claims of grandeur, the ones in the Gospels are written like condensed reports, “just the facts ma’am” approach. So compared to some of the miracles claimed in later works, these are relatively tame in appearance, the writers were very restrained. But why so restrained? The Gospel writers were recording history not theology in the most parts (John perhaps moreso). The implications of the history are drawn out in the Epistles of Paul and others.

9. Abandoned their long-held sacred beliefs and practices, adopted new ones, and did not deny their testimony under persecution or threat of death

Many systems that Jews held to for thousands of years were gone, overnight almost to the Christians and replaced with the following:

  1. The animal sacrifice system—they replace it forever by the one perfect sacrifice of Christ.
  2. The binding supremacy of the Law of Moses—they say it’s powerless because of the sinless life of Christ.
  3. Strict monotheism—they now worship Jesus, the God-man, despite the fact that 1) their most cherished belief has been, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4); and 2) man-worship has always been considered blasphemy and punishable by death.
  4. The Sabbath—they no longer observe it even though they’ve always believed that breaking the Sabbath was punishable by death (Ex. 31:14).
  5. Belief in a conquering Messiah—Jesus is the opposite of a conquering Messiah. He’s a sacrificial lamb.

Why did these things happen? They cry out for explanation and the resurrection is the strongest force for change present for this to happen.

The Christians also adapt new practices:

  1. Sunday as a day of worship when previous it as a day of work
  2. Baptism as a sign that one was a partaker of the new covenant (Circumcision being the old one)
  3. Communion as an act of remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for sins

These are just nonsensical belief systems for Jews.

10. Non-theological verbiage: precious papyrus

This is the sort of material that if scribes were making it up, would prefer to cut this material and fill it with more weighty texts considering the space given on a papyrus scroll.

Some examples of these text types would be Paul’s greetings, like in Romans where they are quite excessive in a long volume. Other examples are like 1 Corinthians 16:5-8 where Paul mentions he will be visiting Macedonia but he’ll stay in Ephesus for a time. 2 Timothy 4:13 on instructing to bring Pauls cloak and books that he left in Troas.

There are more examples where names of followers of Jesus are just listed like in Luke 8:2-3. Mark 15:21 the names Alexander and Rufus being sons of Simon of Cyrene also arn’t likely to be made up. They would only matter for people early on and carry no lasting theological significance later on since Alexander and Rufus are not as well known to us now compared to back then.

Well what reasons would there be for including these verses if the bible was corrupted later? This was a waste of precious space if you’re encouraging a myth…unless it’s not…

These verses were included and preserved because they were valued to the people they were written to. The fact that they are included speaks to the credibility of later scribes. If a scribe was only concerned with preserving the text that mattered, we would expect passages like these would have been removed, but textual criticism has shown us thousands of times that this is not the case.

Papyrus also 2,000 years ago was not cheap. To copy and preserve a document was an expensive process. Papyrus the size of Mark’s gospel or 1 Corinthians alone costs roughly 2 Denarii (a days wage was 1 denarii) possibly more. Something around the size of Luke or Mark would cost about 5 denarii and this doesn’t even include the cost of ink as well as the time it takes to write. Also, If you don’t know how to write, which was relatively common back then, you would have to hire and pay a scribe. This was a full blown project!

Despite all this, small details that didn’t help the later generations was maintained. The scribes recorded everything with integrity and no one, I believe, has ever taken leaving a coat in Troas as a command… On a serious note, by taking out this non-theological verbiage, the scribes and authors could tackle the more pressing issues, clarify hard sayings, explain in more depth certain doctrine. But they didn’t.

Resources

  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist – F. Turek & N. Geisler

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