Christian Historians Assume Christianity is True?
Are certain historians just assuming that Christianity is true when they examine the Bible for information about Jesus? William Lane Craig (Ph.D., University of Birmingham; ThD, University of Munich) finds that many laypeople misunderstand the decisions of critical historians in examining the New Testament documents. He points out that the best information available about the life of Jesus comes from the Bible. Other sources were written later and are therefore not as reliable. So why should we expect a historian to choose inferior sources in his or her historical research? Dr. Craig explains this in his own words.
Now I find that many laymen don’t understand…. They think that if you examine the New Testament writings themselves rather than look at sources outside the New Testament, then somehow you’re reasoning in a circle, using the Bible to prove the Bible. If you even quote a passage out of the New Testament, they think you’re somehow begging the question, presupposing that the New Testament is reliable.
But that’s not at all what historians are doing when they examine the New Testament. They’re not treating the Bible as a holy, inspired book and trying to prove it’s true by quoting it. Rather they’re treating the New Testament just like any other collection of ancient documents and investigating whether these documents are historically reliable.
It’s important to understand that originally there wasn’t any such book called “The New Testament.” There were just these separate documents handed down from the first century, things like the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, Greece, and so on. It wasn’t until a couple centuries later that the church officially collected all these documents under one cover, which came to be known as the New Testament.
The church chose only the earliest sources, which were closest to Jesus and the original disciples, to include in the New Testament and left out the later, secondary accounts like the forged apocryphal gospels, which everyone knew were fakes. So from the very nature of the case, the best historical sources were included in the New Testament. People who insist on evidence taken only from writings outside the New Testament don’t understand what they’re asking us to do. They’re demanding that we ignore the earliest, primary sources about Jesus in favor of sources that are later, secondary, and less reliable, which is just crazy as historical methodology.
William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, 1st ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010).