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THE ROLE OF HISTORICAL and LEGAL APOLOGETICS IN DEFENDING THE FAITH

November 7, 2009

By Dr. Gary S. Day

The methods of legal and historical reconstruction are different, yet similar.  Legal reconstruction attempts to ascertain whether an event happened or not.  All information is gathered to form a coherent story which is deemed true.  The same method is applied to the historical narratives of the Bible by the Christian Apologist to ascertain if they are true.

The measure of legal and historical truth is broader than the physical sciences and differs from scientific proof, which must be repeatable.  Proof from history cannot be repeated like a test tube experiment.  The historical/legal proof is demonstrated as true if an event can be shown to have taken place beyond reasonable doubt, and is also the best explanation of the collected data.  Total proof is impossible.  So, the general trustworthiness of various historical facts that can be checked are considered to be true, or are considered as sufficient proof of the trustworthiness of the statements made in connection with those facts, such as the existence of Abraham, the prophets of the Gospel narratives.

The tools of historical apologetics are archaeology, dating techniques, linguistic studies and manuscript studies.  Biblical archaeology is a subset of secular archaeology having its birth in 1798, beginning with Napoleon’s study of Egyptian monuments and artifacts.  Chronologies and histories are also a part of archeological studies.  The chronology of the books of Kings in the Biblical account had been puzzling until it was discovered that up to five different calendars were being used to date the reigns of the kings in those books.

Dating techniques discover the age of things, such as the Shroud of Turin, which is only 600 years old despite what the Catholic perpetuators say.  The three types of dating techniques are: 1) Historical dating; 2) Comparative dating; and 3) Scientific dating.   All three have helped Bible scholars correlate Biblical history with secular history, though in many cases more is know about the former than the latter.

Linguistic study covers the Biblical languages and their cognate languages, the literary writings of the surrounding areas and their cultures.  At least 43,000 tablets, fragments and scrolls have been found and used to assure the texts of the Bible.  These studies have also been used to gain a better understanding of word usage and cultural customs related in the Bible.  The linguistic studies also authenticate the Biblical manuscripts.

Today there are about 48,000 New Testament manuscripts in Greek, Latin and other Mid-East languages, plus thousands of text fragments.   A reconstruction of the original Biblical text is assured.   No other ancient writing comes close “to this kind of witness to its reliability,” indicates Dr. Johnson C. Philip and Dr. Saneesh Cherian in their article on the subject, “Historical Apologetics.”

Since the Christian faith is dependant upon the reliability of the historical narratives of the Bible, Christian apologists, through application of the legal and historical tools, constantly battle the radical theologians and rationalists who would disembowel the Biblical narratives of their historicity.

Additional advantages gained through the application of the legal and historical methodology of investigation are, insights into Biblical Chronology (such as indicated before), ancient cultures and customs, language meanings, plus insights gained through the reconstruction of historical events, such as the fall of Jericho.   A better understanding of the Biblical text grants a deeper appreciation of the reliability of the Biblical Scriptures and Biblical prophecy, including Messianic prophecy which Jesus fulfilled.

Yet, even the historicity of the person Jesus has come under attack.  However, no matter how plausible the presentations to negate Jesus as a valid historical person, when the facts of the ancient written witnesses among even secular writings are examined, the existence of an historical Jesus becomes a recognized fact.  Those ancient written witnesses are: The Talmudic writings (AD100-500) who refer to Christ Jesus several times; Justin Martyr AD 50; Flavius Josephus (b. AD 37), a Jewish historian who wrote about and alluded to Jesus many times, and whom will be discussed further momentarily; Corenelius Tacitus (b. AD 52) a Roman historian, as was Seutonius (AD 120); Pliny the Yonger (AD 112, governor of Bithania; Thallus; a Samaritan born historian who wrote around AD 52; Tertullian, a theologian in Carthage in AD 197; and finally, a letter from the Syrian Mara-ben-Serapion to his son in AD 73.  

All of these people wrote directly or indirectly about Jesus the Christ.  These facts give great weight to the historicity of the life of Jesus, for considering the paucity of ancient records in general, compared with the number of times the individual, Jesus, is mentioned or alluded to in those records available, makes solid the assertion for an historical Jesus.

Yet in saying this, some would say there is legitimate criticism to be introduced against the presentation of the material by the authors of the article, “Historical Apologetics” mentioned above.  For the material of Josephus presented by the authors of this article begs the question, ‘Were some of the statements from Josephus’ Antiquities xviii, 33, inserted at a later date?’, but the question was not addressed.  Because if a comparison of the two portions presented is made, a seeming discrepancy between them is obvious.  The first paragraph names Jesus thusly, “He was the Christ,” while the second paragraph presents Jesus as “The so-called Christ.”  I recall from my Bible College days that the portion from the first paragraph, beginning with “He was the Christ,” and ending with “ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him, was considered to be a later insertion, or interpolation, into Josephus, even by some conservative scholars.  Even Origin, an early Church Father, didn’t believe that Josephus believed Jesus to be the Messiah (cf., Contra Celsus 2.47; 2:13).   

Even one misrepresentation of the facts will overshadow the verity of the whole.  So, it seems to me that extra precaution should be made when presenting material to students of the Word; else they pass on unwittingly the misrepresentation and hinder their witness for Christ.

The paragraph quoted by the authors, from Antiquities xviii, 33 is as follows: 

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receives the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and, many of the Gentiles.  He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first, did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.  And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.” 

 The highlighted portions are the debated words that some say appear to have been inserted into Josephus’s writing latter.  Except for a couple of missing commas and parentheses around “[the] Christ,” the text is the same as is found in Ecclesiastical History 1.11 by Eusebius (C. AD 325), and the wording exists in all the extant copies of his book.  F.F. Bruce sees that the phrase “if indeed we should call him a man” is authentic, but believes that it is said as a sarcastic reference to Christian beliefs about Jesus being the Son of God (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 109).  Another 4th century Arabic copy of the Josephus text found in a tenth century Arabic manuscript, according to Josh McDowell, may reflect the original intent (The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 57); “They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”  

When the dust settles the question still remains open, but at least when questions are examined clearly, an honest report can be given about the questions, even if the answers are inconclusive.

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