I believe there is one rigorous argument for biblical inerrancy, with five premises leading to this conclusion (as discussed last week). The first premise is that the four gospels are first-rate historical recordings of the life of Jesus. This week I’ll discuss why we should treat the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as extremely accurate historical documents.
Note the structure of this argument avoids the pitfalls of previous arguments for inerrancy I believe to be inadequate. First, it is not a circular argument, with the conclusion already smuggled into the premise. Nothing is being assumed about whether or not these books are divinely inspired. Rather, they are being treated as potentially historical documents. They are evaluated in light of their claim to be a recording of the events occurring during a specific period of time. Therefore the question is whether or not they are good historical documents—whether or not they succeed in recording the events of the period accurately.
This leads to the second virtue the structure of this argument. This first premise is provable or falsifiable by anyone, regardless of his or her religious inclination. In other words, it begins the discussion on common ground between those who do and do not believe the Bible to be inerrant. It allows everyone to look together at the historical evidence and determine whether this first premise is true.
Third and related, the first premise is falsifiable. If good evidence exists to show the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are inaccurate, they should not be trusted, and subsequently this argument for inerrancy fails. For these reasons this is the best way to approach the issue of inerrancy, and the historicity of the gospel accounts is the first issue to settle.
Determining the Historicity of the Gospels
To determine whether the four gospel accounts are historically accurate we must answer two questions: (1) What are the criteria used by scholars to determine if any document is historically accurate, and (2) how do the gospels do when evaluated by these criteria?
There are three tests used to determine the historicity of written texts (the field of historiography). The first test is the Bibliographic Test: are we certain we have the information contained in the original document (the “autographa”)? This first test is necessary because we usually don’t have the original document, but only copies (“manuscripts”), especially for works of antiquity. So how can we be sure we can reconstruct the autographa in the first place, to even begin evaluating whether what it records is historically accurate?
Determining what was contained in the original document is accomplished by collecting enough manuscripts that we are able to reconstruct what the autographa contained. If we have only a few manuscripts, we cannot be very certain we know what was originally written. Yet if we have many manuscripts, we can better reconstruct the autographa. The more manuscripts we have, the more we can compare them to one another and find the sections in the copies that are the same. This sameness is a good sign that they were all copied from a common source (the autographa).
We can further confirm we have the content of the autographa if the earliest manuscripts were copied soon after the autographa was written. If the earliest copy is many, many years after the writing of the original, we still may not be able to reconstruct the autographa. On the other hand, if we have copies made relatively soon after the original was penned, our certainty of knowing what the original contained increases.
Therefore the Bibliographic Test asks, “How many manuscripts do we have?” and “How close are the earliest ones to the date when the autographa was written?” Note again that this test does not seek to determine whether the text records events accurately. That is determined by later tests. This test simply seeks to establish textual reliability.
The good news is that we have a number of documents of antiquity that historians have concluded pass the Bibliographic Test. Therefore we have a benchmark by which to evaluate other documents of antiquity, including the gospel accounts. For instance, we have eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History, the earliest being 1400 years after the original autographa was written. Scholars studying classical history agree these are enough manuscripts, and the first copy is close enough to the original, that we can reconstruct the autographa. Therefore historians study what Thucydides recorded in his History.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars fares even better. We have 10 manuscripts, the earliest copy being 1000 years after the original was penned. But by far the best of comparative literature is Homer’s Iliad. We have 643 copies in our possession to date, the earliest written 400 years after Homer wrote the autographa. This is superb, a sure sign we can know what Homer wrote in his original composition. (More comparisons are recorded in F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?; Chapter 2: “The New Testament Documents: Their Date and Attestation”).
We now have a standard by which to compare the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The results are astonishing. We currently have 5366 manuscripts containing part or all of the gospel accounts! Furthermore, the earliest copy is from 130 A.D., less than 100 years after the events (the John Ryland Fragment, containing John 18:31-33, 37-38). After this comes the Bodmer Papyri II dated 200 AD and containing most of Luke and John, and the Codex Vaticanus of 325-350 AD, containing all of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and so on (see Bruce and Blomberg below for more).
Measured against the baseline established by scholars working in the field of historiography, the four gospels meet the criteria much, much better than any other work of antiquity. Therefore, we can be more certain of having what was recorded in the autographas of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John than what was written by Thucydides, Caesar, Homer, and all other authors of antiquity. The four gospels pass the Bibliographic Test with flying colors!
Objection: Where’s The Original?
One may object that no amount of copies equals the original. How can we be sure that we know what the authors wrote? Isn’t it possible we could be wrong? Five things can be said in response.
First, the point of the Bibiliographic Test is that enough copies, especially copied relatively close to when the original was written, does equal mean we know what was in the original document. By analogy, think back to the day of overhead transparencies. Suppose you found five transparencies that seemed to have the same text copied onto them. To confirm this you stack them on top of one another and hold the stack up to the light. The light shines through and confirms they are exactly the same—all the letters line up. From this you conclude that they must all come from one original document.
So it is with the Bibliographic Test. By comparing the various manuscripts, if they are consistent with one another, it is reasonable to conclude they all came from one source. (Note: given the number of manuscripts of the gospels we have, we are also able to identify the places of incongruity. In other words, if they were transparencies, we would be able to see the letters that did not line up. Only a very small percentage of the text contains incongruities. This is noted in Bibles by footnotes).
Second, one could certainly be wrong about this. But that is not a good reason to reject the conclusion, without adequate evidence that one is wrong. The mere possibility of being wrong is not evidence of being wrong. In fact, if this criterion was applied to what we know through scientific investigation, we couldn’t say we have ever proven anything! (See here for more on this.) In all fields (outside mathematics) we base our knowledge on what the majority of evidence supports, though it is always possible we are wrong.
Third, if we throw out the four gospel accounts for this reason, to be intellectually honest we must also throw out all other texts of antiquity—the works of Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Pliny, Livy, Tacitus, Herodotus, and so on. No classics scholar, historian, or reasonable person is willing to do this. Therefore one should not reject the gospel accounts for this reason either.
Fourth, in fact I believe we can be more certain of having the autographa by not having it, but determining what was written in it by comparing many manuscripts. This sounds counter-intuitive—let me explain. If we only had the one autographa, we could never be certain someone, at some point throughout the centuries since the document was written, didn’t tamper with it. However, since we have so many manuscripts, there is no way anyone, or any group of people, tampered with them all. Again, since they all point to one original due to them being nearly identical to one another, we can be more sure we have what was written in the autographa.
Fifth, in one sense we do have the autographa. A distinction is made in philosophy between a “type” and a “token.” For instance, I write “RED, RED, BLUE.” How many words did I write? Some would say three (the three specific words “RED,” “RED,” and “BLUE”). Others would say two (the word “RED,” written two times, and the word “BLUE,” written one time). Both would be right. I wrote three word tokens—specific instances of the word. But I only wrote two word types—the words themselves.
Applied to the current issue, the manuscripts are tokens of the gospel accounts: they are the specific copies of the recording. In fact, the autographa itself is a token, albeit the first token. Yet, since they all agree (“line up”), they are all specific tokens of one “type”—the one thing replicated in all the instances. So in this sense we do have the autographa—the original thing that the rest reflect as individual copies. (For more on the underlying assumption of this point see here.)
Therefore this objection fails.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John get high marks on the Bibliographic Test. But this only shows we have what the original authors wrote. It does not prove they didn’t make up much or all of what they recorded. The next two tests determine this.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading see F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?. For a more in-depth treatment, including responses to additional objections, see Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.