Do you have kids? Do you know any Christian young people, perhaps heading off to college this fall, who you hope will remain Christians all their lives?
Then I have a suggestion: Don’t leave them intellectually unarmed.
I am an unabashed evidentialist in the area of apologetics, and I think evidentialism can be defended on philosophical grounds. But even suppose, per impossible, that it couldn’t. I encourage my readers to consider from the point of view of outcomes that it is a dangerous thing to send your carefully nurtured young Christian off to college and off into the world without arming him with evidence for his faith. I have heard more stories than I care to remember in which young people had questions about Christianity, went to a pastor, and were given poor answers or no answers at all. In one such story, a young man went with his doubts to his pastor, whose only response was to push the Bible across the desk and ask him, “This is the Word of God. Do you believe it?” The young fellow thought for a moment and then said, “No.” And that was the end of that.
So I have asked my Resident Expert to suggest some accessible ammo for the Christian parent, teacher, or friend. He suggests the three B’s—Bennett, Blaiklock, and Bruce.
Edmund Bennett’s, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899) is an old book, but all the better for that. Delivered repeatedly as a lecture within his lifetime, it can be read all the way through easily in an afternoon. It was published in 1899, is now in the public domain, and can be downloaded from the Internet and/or printed. Bennett’s style is spare, lively, and accessible. I suggest skipping the introduction, which is a slightly sappy call for ecumenical unity (in which he includes Unitarians), and moving directly to the meat of the book.
The greatest value of Bennett’s approach is his use of a now little-known type of evidence for the contemporary time period and historical genre of the Gospels—the noting of undesigned coincidences. Undesigned coincidences, which are far more numerous in the New Testament than Bennett can convey, provide a powerful argument against any thesis that places the writing of the Gospels (and Acts) late and regards them as “developments of the faith community” rather than as historical documents written by people actually acquainted with the times and events described.
Here are just a couple of examples: Bennett points out that in Matthew 26 Jesus is tormented by being struck and told, mockingly, to prophesy about who struck him. Bennett notes that in Matthew there is no mention of any reason why Jesus should not have been able to identify his tormenters by ordinary means. But Luke 22 states that he was blindfolded. Upon reflection, one can see that the omission of the blindfolding in Matthew is not what one would expect from someone writing a fictionalized or “developed” account, since its omission makes the narrative itself somewhat odd.The fact that the two narratives fit together in this way is best explained by their being separate accounts of a real incident.
Nor is Luke always the one to give the explanation. In Luke 9, Bennett notes, we find the bare statement that the disciples told no one about the transfiguration—a surprising reticence on their part, considered in the abstract, and one that would not be left unexplained in a late document intended to be “filled in” with made-up material developed in the “faith community”—but it is Mark (ostensibly the earlier Gospel) that says in chapter 9 that Jesus told them not to tell about the event. As Bennett says, “Is that a contrived variation, or is it the natural and accidental difference into which honest witnesses constantly fall?”
New Zealand classicist E. M. Blaiklock (1903-1983) has written many books relevant to Christian apologetics. His Compact Handbook of New Testament Life features his characteristic beautiful prose, combining historical erudition with vivid expression and clarity. He must have been a wonderful teacher. Blaiklock confirms in more external detail and at greater length than Bennett the historical veracity of the New Testament documents and the familiarity of the authors with the Roman, Greek, and Jewish worlds of the 1st century A.D. prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Blaiklock tells the story of the 19th century archeologist W. M. Ramsay and his growing confidence in the historicity of Luke. “It was gradually borne in upon me that the narrative showed marvellous truth,” said Ramsay. “In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations.”
As but one example of Luke’s historical deftness and familiarity with actual mid-first-century facts, Blaiklock mentions Luke’s account of the riot in Ephesus. The city clerk (Acts 19:38) rebukes the crowd by telling them, “There are proconsuls”—that is, to whom they can take any complaint, instead of rioting. Normally there would have been only one proconsul for the province, but just at that particular time there seem to have been two as a result of the assassination of the previous proconsul Silanus by the two imperial stewards at the urging of Nero’s mother, an event independently documented by Tacitus. Says Blaiklock, “The tactful plural in the official’s speech seems to be evidence in a single letter of the aftermath of political assassination, and the delicate relations between a ‘free city’ and Rome.”
George Rawlinson, in The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records: Stated Anew (1860) makes a similar point regarding the New Testament authors, specifically with regard to the exceedingly messy history of Palestine:
The political condition of Palestine at the time to which the New Testament narrative properly belongs, was one curiously complicated and anomalous; it underwent frequent changes, but retained through all of them certain peculiarities, which made the position of the country unique among the dependencies of Rome. Not having been conquered in the ordinary way, but having passed under the Roman dominion with the consent and by the assistance of a large party among the inhabitants, it was allowed to maintain for a while a species of semi-independence, not unlike that of various native states in India which are really British dependencies. A mixture, and to some extent an alternation, of Roman with native power resulted from this arrangement, and a consequent complication in the political status, which must have made it very difficult to be thoroughly understood by any one who was not a native and a contemporary. The chief representative of the Roman power in the East—the President of Syria, the local governor, whether a Herod or a Roman Procurator, and the High Priest, had each and all certain rights and a certain authority in the country. A double system of taxation, a double administration of justice, and even in some degree a double military command, were the natural consequence; while Jewish and Roman customs, Jewish and Roman words, were simultaneously in use, and a condition of things existed full of harsh contrasts, strange mixtures, and abrupt transitions….These facts … render the civil history of Judaea during the period one very difficult to master and remember; the frequent changes, supervening upon the original complication, are a fertile source of confusion, and seem to have bewildered even the sagacious and painstaking Tacitus. The New Testament narrative, however, falls into no error in treating of the period; it marks, incidentally and without effort or pretension, the various changes in the civil government….Again, the New Testament narrative exhibits in the most remarkable way the mixture in the government—the occasional power of the president of Syria, as shown in Cyrenius’s “taxing”; the ordinary division of authority between the High Priest and the Procurator; the existence of two separate taxation—the civil and the ecclesiastical, the “census” and the “didrachm;” of two tribunals, two modes of capital punishment, two military forces, two methods of marking time; at every turn it shows, even in such little measures as verbal expressions, the coexistence of Jewish with Roman ideas and practices in the country—a coexistence which (it must be remembered) came to an end within forty years of our Lord’s crucifixion. [Emphasis added]
Something Rawlinson here alludes to cannot be stressed too strongly and explicitly, though modern skeptics and Christians alike are all too prone to forget it: In a world without contemporary methods of communication and information storage, lacking even so much as a printing press, such detailed information would not have been widely preserved and available for a later “novelistic” fictional treatment of the times by the “Christian comunity,” even had anything remotely like the genre of historically accurate fiction been known, as indeed it was not. The sure and even casual movement of the New Testament writers within the first-century world is overwhelming evidence of the genuine first-century nature of the texts and, even more specifically, of their origin at the times when they themselves purport to be written and when details of circumstances would have been available to eyewitnesses. Blaiklock, with his classicist’s historical eye and eloquence, shows us external evidence that dovetails well with the internal evidence cited by Bennett.
The third book in the group of recommendations is F. F. Bruce’s small textbook on textual scholarship, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Bruce introduces the student to textual scholarship and to such matters as text families and questions of canonicity. One limitation in Bruce is that he accepts (a conservative version of) the Q hypothesis and hence accepts Markan priority, placing Luke’s writing not long before A.D. 70 and Matthew’s writing not long after. These commonplaces of textual scholarship (Markan priority, Q, and a Matthew after 70) deserve to be questioned and corrected by the strong patristic considerations in favor of Matthean priority which in turn support an earlier dating for Matthew. These are laid out by Wenham.
Nonetheless, Bruce is in no sense a liberal scholar, and he answers the question in his title clearly in the affirmative. One of his most useful comments concerns a point which skeptics often use to confuse the unwary: The canonical books of the New Testament did not somehow “become” authoritative by being said, centuries after the events, to be canonical by the Church. We should not think that there is no independent or rational way to tell which books were authentically of apostolic origin, as though the Church had been left to make a mysterious, black-box decision. Rather, the canonical books were declared to be so on the basis both of external evidence and indeed strong traditional tracing of their provenance and on the basis of internal evidence that distinguishes them clearly from other texts not included in the canon. It behoves all Christians to be aware of this and not to give aid and comfort to the skeptic by arguing that it is impossible to tell why some books should be canonical and others not.
Bruce also does not share the anti-supernatural bias of so many in New Testament studies, though it is possible that some sources on which he is relying for his acceptance of the two-source hypothesis were directly or indirectly affected by such a bias. But Bruce’s own treatment of the inclusion of miracles in the texts is sensible and objective. He does not reject texts as late on the basis of the circular argument that they include miracles—the argument that, since miracles obviously do not happen, they must have been added long after the ostensible time of the events recorded. He joins Bennett and Blaiklock in showing the reader how these matters should be approached—in a scholarly fashion and without any double standard to bias us against religious material.
It is worth stressing that each of these books is short, readable, and hence unthreatening. (Moreover, the two still under copyright--Blaiklock and Bruce--are inexpensive.) Bennett can and should be read straight through (except for the introduction). Blaiklock and Bruce can be read or studied more selectively, though it would be easy to read them through as well. All of them and more besides could easily be assigned for a college or high school course on Christian evidences, perhaps for a home school or Christian high school. Together they have the potential to ground the student in a sensible, rational, historical approach to Christianity and evidence that may be new to him but should become a normal part of his mental life and a defense against the assaults of the enemy.