The Confident Christian
11/25/13 at 07:06 AM 1 Comments

JFK and Trusting the Bible

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This past week was filled with news stories and personal recollections of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas fifty years ago. What you didn’t hear in the news, though, were accounts from people claiming that JFK had survived Oswald’s bullets and recovered to resume his presidency and then go on to become a two-term president.

The reason such nonsensical assertions aren’t made is because the facts are sure and the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination are relatively young from a historical perspective; that is, they are within reach of a generation of people who are still alive and who can attest to the truthfulness of the reports regarding what really happened.

Whether it is the shooting of JFK or any event in history, one of the key ways we establish the truthfulness of a historical account is by referring to recorded testimony by trusted eyewitnesses who were there. While there will always be those who call into question eyewitness testimony and point to errors that witnesses have made about various events in the past, the truth is that checks and balances have always existed to help ensure the truth nearly always wins in the end.

I’m saddened when I receive notes from people who claim that the New Testament can’t be trusted because it was written hundreds of years after the life of Jesus, and was changed and edited countless times so that we have no idea what the original texts said. The fact is, nothing could be farther from the truth. As with the accounts of JFK’s life and death, we have good reasons for believing we have solid reports of accurate information regarding Jesus.

Answering Lisa Simpson

In an episode of the Simpsons, Lisa asks her neighbor Ned, “How do we know the guys who wrote the Bible just didn’t make all that stuff up?”

The answer is the same for the New Testament as it is for the reason why we have no credible claims arguing that JFK didn’t die in Dallas. The recording of eyewitness accounts by trusted individuals who personally interacted with the events in question, and early circulation of those writings with people alive at the time who could refute error, provides confidence in the position that the accounts we refer to today are accurate.

Bible skeptics always try and push out the writing of the gospels and the compilation of the New Testament to periods that are far removed from the actual events. For example, Dan Burstein in his book “Secrets of the Code” says, “Eventually, four Gospels and twenty-three other texts were canonized into a Bible. This did not occur, however, until the sixth century.”[1] Such a statement exaggerates the true completion of the New Testament and the early dating of the actual books that comprise it.

The fact is the composition of the New Testament was officially settled at the Council of Carthage in A. D. 397. However, the majority of the New Testament was accepted as authoritative much earlier.

The first collection of the New Testament was put forward in A.D. 140 by Marcion[2] and included Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. Next came the Muratorian canon, dated A.D. 170, which included all four gospels, Acts, thirteen of Paul’s letters, 1, 2, 3 John, Jude and Revelation. The final New Testament Canon was first identified by the Church father Athanasius in A.D. 367 and ratified by the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. These dates show that the gospels had to have been in circulation very early in the first century for them to be compiled and put forward as a unified book.[3]

Further proof of early writing consists of New Testament citations from early Christians such as Clement (c. A.D. 95), Ignatius (c. A.D. 107), Polycarp (c. A.D. 110), Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 133), and others. Biblical historians have determined that the entire New Testament can be completely reconstructed from citations from the early Church fathers, with the exception of 27 verses most of which come from 3 John.

This data, along with the over 24,000 ancient Greek, Latin, and miscellaneous manuscripts help solidify the dating of the gospels and other New Testament documents to all being written within just a few years after Jesus death to at most A.D. 90. This material, recorded by eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses (e.g. Luke) who had firsthand experience with Jesus, was in circulation during a period where false reports could have easily been refuted by others alive at that time.

This means that the time between Jesus’ death and the writing of his biographies leave too little room for legend to creep in. This point has been attested to by A. N. Sherwin-White in his work Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. It’s important to note that Sherwin-White wasn’t a Christian, but a scholarly historian of the ancient world.

Using the writings of Herodotus, Sherwin-White maintained that it takes the passing of at least two generations before myths can develop, be introduced, and remain in the record of a historical figure. When Sherwin-White considers the New Testament gospels, he says that for the gospels to be fables, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to have been "unbelievable."[4] 

Why? Simply because living eyewitnesses can refute distorted claims of a known individual and bring any false stories down in flames; the legend is unable to ‘take’. For example, it took centuries after Arrian and Plutarch’s biographies of Alexander the Great before miraculous stories of the great conqueror began to circulate.

What About All the Errors?

OK, so the New Testament was written early and during the lifetime of Jesus by those close to Christ or associates of the apostles. But, it’s got errors out the wazoo right? For example, haven’t people like Bart Ehrman proven you can’t trust what’s written down in the gospels?

Actually, no, they haven’t.

While those like Erhman say that the number of differences (“variants”) in the existing New Testament manuscripts can be pegged at about 400,000[5] we need to remember that one variant of one letter of one word in one verse in 2,000 manuscripts counts as 2,000 variants and there are nearly 6,000 Greek manuscripts alone to compare.

Next, the overwhelming majority of variants are completely inconsequential, consisting of spelling and numerical differences that can’t be translated in certain manuscripts, sentence word order changes, etc. This leads scholars like Dr. Maurice Robinson to conclude that the New Testament text is 99% pure in terms of us having today what existed back in the first century.[6]

Echoing Robinson is Neil Lightfoot who says in the middle of his book How We Got the Bible: “The conclusion reached in the foregoing study is that practically all of the variations found among the manuscripts do not affect our present text. Although a few textual problems remain, these are explained in the footnotes of most recent translations.”[7]

The bottom line is that you can trust that the New Testament you read today is what they had back in the first century and that it was written by those who had experienced the events of Jesus’ life or had carefully researched the facts before they wrote.

Jesus and JFK

I received an email this week from a friend who described an encounter with a person who thought the gospel biographies of Jesus couldn’t be trusted. He asked her if she remembered the day JFK was killed and she replied yes. He then shared some of the information in this article with her, and the end result was that she agreed to re-read the gospels and look more into the truth of Christianity.

No, we don’t have videos of Jesus rising from the dead or walking on water like we do of JFK being shot by Oswald. But what we do have are multiple eyewitness testimonies that were written very close to the time of Jesus by people of high character that were eventually collected into one account of His life.

In the science of ancient history, it doesn’t get any better than the New Testament. If you want to reject its accounts based on something other than the type of forensic evidence historians routinely use, you can certainly do so. But, don’t try and assert that the New Testament is some doctored, flawed, legendary compilation because, in reality, you’ll really be no better than someone who says JFK is alive and doing well today.



[1] Dan Burstein, Secrets of the Code (Vanguard Press, 2006), pg. 116.

[2] Marcion was a docetist – a person who believed Jesus was just spirit and not human. He edited his copies of the New Testament books to reflect this belief, which led to their rejection.

[3] To see a visual presentation on how the Bible was compiled, visit: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/the-word-the-compilation-of-the-bible.

[4] A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 188-91.

[5] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), pg. 89

[6] Dr. Maurice A. Robinson, Senior Professor of Greek and New Testament at Southeastern did an exhaustive manuscript study and concluded that there was 92.2% stability in the text during the time Bart Ehrman asserts the highest number of variants was introduced. Of the 7.8% in dispute, only 1% of the text has variants considered meaningful. And “meaningful” variants involve discrepancies such as In 1 Thessalonians 2:7 where Paul describes himself either as ‘gentle’ or as ‘little children’, with there being a one letter discrepancy with the Greek terms used in the differing manuscripts (epioi vs. nepioi).

[7] Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pg. 104. The problems Lightfoot cites are those such as the longer edition of Mark that most theologians affirm as being the work of a redactor and the passage of the woman caught in adultery in John.

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