By: Garrett Best
Here are two facts that we must reckon with as moderns studying the Bible and the ancient world:
- Very little written and recorded history has survived down to us from the past millenniums. The reason the Dead Sea Scrolls have been such amazing discoveries is the incredible fact that documents written on fragile papyrus has managed to survive for nearly 2,000 years. With that said, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls survive in fragments, sometimes only a few letters or words, and others a few sentences. To put it into perspective, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (like the Great Isaiah Scroll) predated the previous oldest Hebrew manuscripts of Isaiah by nearly 1,000 years. By 1,000 years! Just recently, new discoveries were made at Qumran caves including Greek fragments of Zechariah and Nahum.
- As people living in the wake of the Enlightenment with video cameras in our pockets 24/7 and clouds that store any amount of information available to be pulled up at any moment, our expectations of accuracy and detail from ancient historical sources are unreasonable. Many Christians and skeptics alike demand a kind of certainty with regard to historical events recorded in the Bible that we will never be able to have (see #1).
Often for ancient figures like Alexander the Great, our first written historical sources for information about their lives doesn’t come until centuries later (i.e. Arrian, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus). Yet, even though these are our first written accounts of Alexander’s life, they are drawing on older sources which are no longer available to us (i.e. Callisthenes, Ptolemy, Nearchus, Aristobulus, Onesicritus).
I remember the first time I learned that Paul’s account of the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 around the year 53 CE might be our earliest written account in the NT of the resurrection. The Four Gospels were likely written after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. When I first learned this as a teenager, I thought, “WHAT?! Twenty years separate the events of Easter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians?!” This was an evidential problem for me.
What I have come to learn the more I study ancient sources is that I was projecting my modern standards of evidential certitude on ancient sources which cannot bear that burden. I have come to understand that to have multiple sources from various contemporary eyewitnesses which have survived down to us today is an incredible fact in and of itself. I was expecting a kind of evidence that was unreasonable based on ancient standards and practices.
I was recently reading through portions of the Christian Origen’s responses to the pagan Celsus. Origen wrote Against Celsus around the year 248 CE. Celsus had written a treatise–The True Word–against Christianity arguing that Christians were uneducated, deluded, and illogical, and anyone who became a Christian would lead to the downfall of the world. Celsus likely wrote this work sometime between 120-180 CE which means that his criticisms of Christianity went unanswered for about a century. All that we have of Celsus’s work is what survives in quotations in Origen’s critique.
What caught my attention was Origen’s comments in Book I Chapter 42 before he begins his critique of Celsus’s arguments.
“Before we begin our reply, we have to remark that the endeavour to show, with regard to almost any history, however true, that it actually occurred, and to produce an intelligent conception regarding it, is one of the most difficult undertakings that can be attempted, and is in some instances an impossibility. For suppose that some one were to assert that there never had been any Trojan War, chiefly on account of the impossible narrative interwoven therewith, about a certain Achilles being the son of a sea-goddess Thetis and of a man Peleus, or Sarpedon being the son of Zeus, or Ascalaphus and Ialmenus the sons of Ares, or Aeneas that of Aphrodite, how should we prove that such was the case, especially under the weight of the fiction attached, I know not how, to the universally prevalent opinion that there was really a war in Ilium between Greeks and Trojans? And suppose, also, that some one disbelieved the story of Oedipus and Jocasta, and of their two sons Eteocles and Polynices, because the sphinx, a kind of half-virgin, was introduced into the narrative, how should we demonstrate the reality of such a thing? And in like manner also with the history of the Epigoni, although there is no such marvellous event interwoven with it, or with the return of the Heracleidae, or countless other historical events. But he who deals candidly with histories, and would wish to keep himself also from being imposed upon by them, will exercise his judgment as to what statements he will give his assent to, and what he will accept figuratively, seeking to discover the meaning of the authors of such inventions, and from what statements he will withhold his belief, as having been written for the gratification of certain individuals. And we have said this by way of anticipation respecting the whole history related in the Gospels concerning Jesus, not as inviting men of acuteness to a simple and unreasoning faith, but wishing to show that there is need of candour in those who are to read, and of much investigation, and, so to speak, of insight into the meaning of the writers, that the object with which each event has been recorded may be discovered.” (Trans. Frederick Crombie)
I really appreciate Origen’s honesty here. It serves as a model for me as I offer apologetic responses to people who seek evidences for the trustworthiness of the Bible and the Christian faith. While we do not have a “simple and unreasoning faith” and there are many good and solid reasons to believe Jesus is who he claimed to be and the Bible can be trusted, at the same time, we must also have a certain “candor” about what we can know with certainty because of what has survived down to us today. To reject the historical claims of the Bible on the basis of modern standards of evidential certainty would be to throw our ability to know almost anything about history into chaos.