Question: I have friends who have been convinced by university or seminary professors that the New Testament is not historically accurate but is a fictional story written long after the events supposedly took place. They can’t prove that to me, but neither can I prove them wrong. Is there some simple way, without going into a detailed study of archaeological evidence and historical research, to help them to see that Christianity began as the New Testament said it did?
Response: Yes. There is a purely logical argument made famous by Mark Hopkins, though not originated by him, that should be helpful. In his Evidences, he referred to an earlier writing titled Short and Easy Method with the Deists, by Leslie. That author presented four essential criteria, which, if met by any event recorded in writing, would establish it as truly historical: “1) That the matter of fact be such that men’s outward senses, their eyes and ears, may be judges of it; 2) That it be done publicly, in the face of the world; 3) That not only public monuments be kept up in memory of it, but some outward actions be performed; and 4) That such monuments, and such actions and observances, be instituted, and do commence from the time that the matter of fact was done.”
Leslie explains that “the first two rules make it impossible for any such matter of fact to be imposed upon men at the time, because man’s eyes and ears and senses would contradict it.” We know that the Gospels and most of the epistles were written within a few years after the events recorded therein. Thus there were many people still alive who would have refuted what was written if it had not offered a true account of events witnessed by them. For example, the account of Christ calling Lazarus from the grave, if not true, would have been rejected and exposed as fraud by numerous friends and relatives who would have responded indignantly either that Lazarus had not yet died and been laid in any grace or, if he had, that he was still dead and buried.
It is unthinkable that anyone in the small country of Israel and so soon after the supposed events would dare to publish fictitious reports of alleged miracles, naming persons and places. Multitudes of people who were still alive from those days and from those regions would have rejected the accounts as lies. Rather than helping to authenticate Christianity, such false accounts would have become known as frauds and the new movement would have been promptly and publicly discredited.
Remember, Christianity began right there in Jerusalem. It was based upon the claim that this Jesus, the carpenter-from-Nazareth-turned-prophet, who was acclaimed as the Christ by multitudes and whose miracles were spoken of all over Israel and whom the Romans had crucified, was alive, having died for the sins of the world. The very fact that 3,000 people converted to Christ on the day of Pentecost in the heart of Jerusalem and that thousands more in Jerusalem continued day after day to join this “new faith” is irrefutable evidence that these events really happened. The opposition did not deny the facts. Christianity was opposed only because it contradicted the authority and teachings of the rabbis.
There is no escaping the fact that this was not a political movement based upon arguable ideologies, nor was it a religious movement based upon emotional attraction to unprovable spiritual theories. Christianity was based upon events that had happened in the small country of Israel and had been consummated right there in Jerusalem. The claims could not have been presented (that Jesus of Nazareth had healed the sick, opened blind eyes, raised the dead and Himself rose from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb) right there in Jerusalem and throughout Judea unless these events had actually occurred. It was for this reason that Jesus told His disciples to begin their preaching first in Jerusalem, to establish the church there first of all, and only then to spread the word to a wider audience.
Obviously, the multitudes who heard Peter and the other apostles preach knew the facts and could not refute the message. That short walk outside the city wall to verify that the tomb, which all Jerusalem well knew had been guarded by Roman soldiers, was indeed empty must have been taken by many skeptics. The word quickly spread in confirmation of this greatest of miracles, a miracle that seemed to put the final stamp of approval by God himself upon the claims of Jesus Christ.
Why Christianity Couldn’t Have Been Invented Later
Leslie then points out that deception would be possible only if the tale were “invented some time after, when the men of that generation wherein the thing was said to be done are all past and gone, and the credulity of later ages might be imposed upon to believe that things were done in former ages which were not.” This was clearly not the case with Christianity, for it was proclaimed openly in Jerusalem from the very beginning.
How can we be sure, without checking historical and archaeological records, that Christianity began as it is claimed at the very time of Jesus and the apostles? Leslie points out that the last two criteria he prescribes prevent the fabrication of a fictitious story years after the supposed date of the alleged event being foisted upon later generations as though it were true. He goes on to explain:
For, whenever such a matter of fact came to be invented, if not only monuments were said to remain of it, but likewise that public actions and observances were constantly used ever since the matter of fact was said to be done, the deceit must be detected by no such monuments appearing, and by the experience of every man, woman, and child who must know that no such actions or observances were ever used by them.
For example, suppose I should now invent a story that for the past thousand years every man at the age of twelve years had a joint of his little finger cut off…it is impossible I should be believed…because everyone could contradict me as to the mark of cutting off the joint of the finger; and that being part of my original story, must demonstrate the whole to be false.
Applying this line of reasoning to the New Testament and its testimony of Jesus Christ and the founding of Christianity, Hopkins then argues:
For any man to have invented the New Testament after the time of Christ, and to have attempted to cause it to be received, would have been as if a man had written an account of the [American] Revolution, and of the celebration of this day [July 4, 1776] from the first, when [in fact] no revolution was ever heard of, and no one had ever celebrated the Fourth of July. Nor, when such a festival was once established, would it be possible to introduce any account of its origin essentially different from the true one.
But the case of…Christian[ity] is even stronger; because we have several different institutions which must have sprung up at its origin; because baptism and the Lord’s Supper have occurred so much more frequently; and because the latter has always been considered the chief rite of a religion to which men have been more attached than to liberty or to life. (Hopkins, Evidences, cited in Linton, Lawyer, pp 164)
No Escape from the Truth
There is no refuting these arguments. That Christianity involves established customs, churches, and a history going back to its very foundation by Christ is beyond dispute. That secular historical evidence supports these claims as far back as we are able to trace cannot be called into question. Furthermore, it can be shown that at many stages in history disputes have arisen as to what the true practice of Christianity ought to involve. In each case, the disputants have gone back to the Bible as the authority.
Even today, when some practices differ widely between Catholics and Protestants, between various Protestant denominations and among factions in the Roman Catholic Church, the appeal is continually both to Scripture and to history. Although Protestants [in theory] look to the Bible alone as the final authority, Catholics look to tradition as well, which they claim goes back to Christ, and to the decisions of Church Councils, which have maintained this continuity. Hopkins then concludes the argument:
We have seen that it was impossible that the apostles should have been either deceivers or deceived, and that the books [New Testament] could not have been received, either at the time they purport to have been written, or at any subsequent time, if the facts recorded had not taken place
The testimony of the New Testament highlights the very logic in the above arguments. On more than one occasion we have the account of the accusations made by the Jewish religious leaders who wanted Paul executed, and we have Paul’s defense. The complaint against Paul had to do with Christianity being contrary to Judaism. Never was there an accusation that it was based upon fraud or that any of the facts Paul presented were simply false.
Paul appealed to the knowledge that the Roman officials had of the facts. We are told that Governor Felix had “perfect knowledge of that way” (Acts:24:22) – i.e., of Christianity. Indeed, far from seeing anything contrary to the facts in Paul’s testimony, “Felix trembled” as Paul reasoned with him (v. 25). And when he defended himself before Felix’s replacement, Festus, and King Agrippa, Paul declared:
The king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him, for this thing was not done in a corner. (Acts:26:26)