December 14, 2017

The Historical Credibility of the New Testament, Part 3

David Potter

Part OnePart Two ♦ This is Part Three

In parts one and two of this series, I introduced you to Diane, a Mormon who had become convinced that the Book of Mormon was false. She was also ready to believe the same of the New Testament since the Mormon Church had taught her both books. My job was to persuade her of the historical credibility of the New Testament. In this series of posts, I am concentrating on the credibility of the accounts of Jesus. First, I surveyed the external evidence for the Gospels: what evidence do we have from ancient times as to the age and authenticity of the Gospels? In the second post, I looked at the internal evidence: what can we learn about the date and the genuineness of the Gospels by looking at their contents?

In this post I want to explore the attacks against the Gospels based on their contents. I will briefly consider two lines of argument.

The first line of argument is that the Gospels show evidence of being secondary and not primary accounts of Christ. Scholars claim they have detected a number of sources for the Gospels. The selection of material used by the writers/editors reflects the needs of the early church rather than the actual life of Christ. This is the approach of the Jesus Seminar.

I cannot answer these objections in detail, but I would like to point out their highly subjective nature. This sort of subjectivity reminds me of what happened to the attack of the Tübingen School more than a century and a half ago. Scholars from the University of Tübingen in Germany dated the Gospels very late based totally on their own theory of what must have happened. Their house of cards collapsed when other scholars brought the historical records to bear on the question.

The second line of argument, the sort advanced by the neo-atheists, is that the Gospel accounts are hopelessly contradictory. We must concede that apparent contradictions in the Gospel accounts definitely exist. I also admit that I do not know how to resolve every difficulty that these apparent contradictions cause. What is the significance of these “contradictions”? Let me suggest that if there were no “contradictions” the critics would claim that the Gospel writers were in collusion with one another. Their uniformity would mean that the four Gospels are not really four but one. I contend that the so-called contradictions refute this charge and establish that the four Gospels are indeed four independent sources. The “contradictions” increase rather than decrease their credibility.

I want to advance one further argument based on the internal evidence of the Gospels. After nearly a century of the “search for the historical Jesus,” as Albert Schweitzer termed it, one German scholar actually found Him. Otto Borchert (The Original Jesus, 1933) looked in the one place no scholar seemed to have thought to look: the Gospels. Borchert saw in the Gospels a Jesus that no one could have invented. The Jesus of the Gospels is so great that, if He were a human invention, the inventor would be an even greater man than the Jesus he had invented. The Jesus of the New Testament is so contrary to our natures and our imaginations that the only possible explanation for the pictures we see of Him in the Gospels is that He actually lived and said and did all the things that the writers attribute to Him.

We do in fact know what a humanly invented Jesus would look like. We find this artificial Jesus in the apocryphal Gospels. Here is a sample from the Gospel of Thomas, which, though a bit extreme, will give you the idea.

This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to his father Joseph: Behold, thy son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath. And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying: Wherefore doest thou on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do? And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying. And the Jews seeing this were amazed, and went away and reported to their chief men what they had seen Jesus doing.

After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse: for he is killing our children.

And Joseph called the child apart, and admonished Him, saying: Why doest thou such things, and these people suffer, and hate us, and persecute us? And Jesus said: I know that these words of thine are not thine own; nevertheless for thy sake I will be silent; but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway those that accused Him were struck blind.

One question that still remains unanswered is: Whatever happened to Diane, the Mormon inquirer?

Diane studied diligently. She not only read textbook and outside reading assignments, she read more than I assigned so that she would have a better understanding of the context of the assigned passages. Not content with that, she made photocopies of the outside reading so that she could take it home for her husband to read.

In April, near the end of the semester, I happened to be standing in the hallway just outside the seminary secretary’s office. Diane walked up to the door, her face radiant and her eyes moist with tears. “Mrs. Browning,” she exclaimed, “I just got saved!”

At this point I need to introduce the real hero of this story, David Innes, pastor of Hamilton Square Baptist Church and president of the seminary. Diane and her family had been attending services at HSBC for several months, developing personal friendships with a number of church members. When Diane came to her spiritual crisis, she wanted to talk with the pastor.

The next step for Diane was a very difficult one: she had to go home and tell her husband about her decision. Ed, who, like Diane, was a fifth generation Mormon and graduate of Brigham Young University, had not only been a Mormon missionary, he had been a Mormon missionary trainer. He was not a happy camper. He walked into Dr. Innes’ office the next day with steam coming out his ears. He entered the room a Latter Day Saint and emerged two hours later as a real saint.

This episode helps illustrate several useful lessons.

The battle we fight is not intellectual but spiritual. My teaching did not win Diane to Christ.

We cannot argue someone into believing. If the question is, “Does the historical evidence prove the Bible’s claims conclusively?” the answer is no.

We can use evidence to help honest inquirers. Faith is not contrary to reason. If the question is, “Is faith in the Bible reasonable?” the answer is yes.

Personal relationships matter. People are more willing to listen to what you have to say if they are convinced that you care about them as individuals.

Where are Diane and Ed now? I honestly don’t know. I have lost track of them. I do know this much: they were very eager to share their new-found faith, especially to reach Mormons with the Gospel.

Post Script–Two former Mormons are members of the church I pastor in Hungary.


David Potter serves as a missionary in Hungary with Baptist World Mission.


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