David Hume v Miracles

spring blossoms

David Hume (1711-1776) has been a celebrated skeptic since he put forth his argument against miracles. In this blog post, I plan on refuting it. Here is the argument in syllogistic form:

Premise 1: Natural law is by definition a description of a regular occurrence.

Premise 2: A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.

Premise 3: The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.

Premise 4: A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.

Conclusion: Therefore, a wise man should never believe in miracles.

If the four premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows—the wise man should never believe in miracles. Unfortunately for Hume and for those over the years who have believed him, the argument has a false premise. Premise 3 is not necessarily true. The evidence for the regular is not always greater than that for the rare.

In the age of instant replay, premise 3 seems to make sense. For example in football, a referee sees a play from one angle at full speed, while we (the audience sitting at home) get to see it from several angles in slow motion. We have greater evidence seeing a play over and over again (the regular) than does the referee who only sees it once (rare).

But what may be true for a videotaped football game is not necessarily true for every event in life. To disprove premise 3, we only need to come up with at least one counterexample:

The origin of the universe happened once. It was a rare, unrepeatable event, yet virtually every naturalist believes that the Big Bang proves that the universe exploded into being because of the mathematical and scientific evidence.

David Hume’s birth happened only once but he didn’t disbelieve in that rare event.

So we know by one of these counterexamples that Hume’s third premise is false and thus his entire argument is invalid. But to go a little further with this…what are some of the problems with Hume’s argument even if all the premises is true?

First, it confuses believability with possibility. Even if the argument goes through, it would not disprove the possibility of miracles; it would only question their believability. So even if you personally witnessed Jesus Christ rising from the dead as he predicted, Hume’s argument says that you (a “wise” person witnessing a rare occurrence) shouldn’t believe it. There’s something wrong with an argument that tells you to disbelieve what you have verified to be true.

Second, Hume confuses probability with evidence. He doesn’t weigh the evidence for each rare event; rather, he adds the evidence for all regular events and suggests that this somehow makes all rare events unworthy of belief. But this is flawed reasoning. There are many improbable events in life that we believe when we have good evidence for them. For example, a hole-in-one is a rare event, but when we witness one we have no trouble believing it. We certainly don’t say to the golfer: Since the evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare, I’m not going to believe your shot unless you can tee it up and do it five times in a row! Likewise, we certainly don’t tell a lottery winner who beat 76-million-to-one odds that he’s not going to get his money until he can win it five times in a row! No, in these cases, the evidence for the rare is greater than that for the regular. Sober, sane eyewitnesses provide greater evidence for a rare hole-in-one no matter how regularly that golfer had missed the hole in the past. Likewise, a winning ticket provides greater evidence that a certain person improbably won the lottery no matter how regularly that person had failed to win in the past.

So the issue is not whether an event is regular or rare—the issue is whether we have good evidence for the event. We must weigh evidence for the event in question, not add evidence for all previous events.

Third, Hume is actually arguing in a circle. Instead of evaluating the veracity of the evidence for each miracle claim, Hume rules out belief in miracles in advance because he believes there is uniform experience against them. As usual, C.S. Lewis has great insight on this:

“Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.” 1

His false presupposition is that all human experiences have been against miracles. How can he know that? He can’t, so he presupposes it.

Finally, although Hume defines a miracle as a rare event, he then punishes it for being a rare event! It’s as if Hume is saying: If only miracles happened more often, then we could believe them. But if miracles happened more often, then they would cease being miracles (i.e., rare events), and we might consider them natural laws or part of unexplained natural phenomena. But as soon as we consider them natural in origin, then they would no longer get our attention as special acts of God. Its rarity is one of the characteristics that distinguishes a miracle from everything else!

So by Hume’s logic, even if there is a God who performs miracles, we shouldn’t believe any miracles he performs because they are not regular events. Again, there’s something wrong with an argument that tells you to disbelieve what has actually occurred. And there’s something wrong with an argument that requires that miracles not be miracles to be believed. 2

  1. C. S. Lewis, “Miracles,” p. 105.
  2. Much of the information comes from the book Normal Geisler and Frank Turek, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist” which I highly recommend reading.

Eyewitness claims in the New Testament

eyes of a woman in a letterbox frame

When considering whether a document has within it eyewitness testimony, probably the first question that should be asked is: Does the writer of said document claimed to be an eyewitness or claims to get information from eyewitnesses? I think we have this in the New Testament.

When taking the New Testament as a whole, both the apostles and those who wrote the New Testament documents claim to be eyewitnesses. In addition to Peter’s proclamation throughout the early part of Acts (Acts 2; 3; 4; 5; 10) and John’s writing in his own gospel (John 19 & 20), we have many more examples.  Here’s a sampling:

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

1 Peter 5:1, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and an eyewitness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed…

2 Peter 1:16, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

1 John 1:1-2, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us

It’s kind of hard to not get the impression that they actually saw something. In addition, Luke (Luke 1:1-2) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 2:3-4) claim to be informed by eyewitnesses.

At the very least, Peter, Paul, and John all claim to be eyewitnesses, and Luke and the writer of Hebrews claim to be informed by eyewitnesses. Paul cites in the 1 Corinthians 15 oral creed that Jesus appeared to over 500 people as well as to the disciples and himself. In addition, Matthew and Luke confirm the appearances to the apostles. All four Gospels mention the women as eyewitnesses. Not only do the apostles claim to be eyewitnesses, on several occasions they tell their audience that everyone knows what they’re saying is true. These are radically bold statements to make in front of people.

Probably the boldest eyewitness claim was from Paul in front of King Agrippa and Governor Festus while he was on trial. Paul was explaining why he converted to Christianity and how Christ rose from the dead as predicted by the Old Testament when suddenly Festus interrupts and exclaims that Paul is insane! The exchange is recorded by Luke in Acts 26:24-28:

While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.”

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.”
Agrippa replied to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian?”

Do you see how brave and brash Paul is? He not only boldly witnesses to the king and his governor, but he has the audacity to tell the king that he already knows Paul is telling the truth! Why is Paul so confident of this? Because the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were “not done in a corner.” They were common knowledge and surely had not “escaped [the king’s] notice.” Imagine a defendant challenging a ruler or judge in that way! Such a witness must know that the events he describes are well known.

This approach is taken by several New Testament characters, who are not shy about challenging their hearers to test the truth of their testimony. For example, the apostles, led by Peter, are just as brash and confident when the angry Jewish authorities question them. Luke records the incident in Acts 5:27-32:

Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Peter and other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are eyewitnesses of these things, and so it’s the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

The account goes on to say that the Jewish authorities “were furious and wanted to put [the apostles] to death,” but a well-respected Pharisee named Gamaliel talked them out of it.

The risk Paul, Peter, and the other apostles took to claim that they were providing eyewitness testimony certainly suggests that they were telling the truth. If these accounts are true, the apostle’s uncompromising testimony and bold challenges demonstrate that they were eyewitnesses who really believed Jesus rose from the dead.

Dating the New Testament books

Titus destroys temple

All of the New Testament Documents were written before 100 AD

In letters written between 95-110 AD, three prominent church fathers [Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp] quoted passages from 25 of the 27 New Testament books.1 Only the brief books of Jude and 2 John were not referenced, but they certainly had to have been written (Jude, being Jesus’ half-brother, was almost certainly dead by 100 AD and 2 John would have to be written because it came before 3 John, which is quoted by the church fathers.).

Most if not all of the NT books were written before 70 AD

The problem is that the destruction of the temple in 70 AD is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament books. Jesus Christ prophesies this, yet there is no mention of its fulfillment. How strange it would be to leave out something that helps prove Jesus is who he said he was.

This isn’t just an argument from silence. All the gospels, Acts, and Hebrews at least mention the temple but they do not say anything about its destruction.2 Even if it was an argument from silence, that doesn’t mean its wrong. 70 AD marked the end of such a terrible war that Josephus—who himself surrendered to the Romans in 67 AD—called it the “greatest” war of all time. The Jews lost their entire country, their capital city, and their temple, which had been the center of their religious, political, and economic life for the last thousand years. In addition, tens of thousands of their countrymen were dead and hundreds of their villages burned to the ground. We can reasonably conclude that most if not all of the New Testament books were written before 70 AD.

Many NT Books were composed before 62 AD

Luke records all kinds of details in Acts, which is the history of the church. Luke records the deaths of two Christian martyrs (Stephen and James, the brother of John), but his history account ends with James, Jesus’ half-brother, and Paul still alive and well. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome and there’s no mention of James having died. We know from Clement, writing around 95 AD, and other church fathers, that Paul was executed sometime during the reign of Nero, which ended in 68 AD. And we know from Josephus that James was killed in 62 AD. So we can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the book of Acts was written before 62.

If Acts was written before 62, then the Gospel of Luke was written before that. We know this because Luke reminds the recipient of Acts, Theophilus what he had written to him earlier. “In my former work, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…” The “former book” must be the Gospel of Luke, because Luke addresses that to Theophilus as well. 3

If Luke was written by 60 AD, then Mark and Matthew must have been written in the mid-to-late 50s if not earlier. Why? Because Luke says that he got his facts by checking with eyewitness sources (See Luke 1:1-4).

Some NT Books were composed in the 40s and 50s AD, with sources from the 30s

Even non-Christian scholars would agree that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and that it was composed in 55 AD. In this letter, Paul speaks about the moral problems in the church and then proceeds to discuss controversies over tongues, prophecies, and the Lord’s Supper. This helps demonstrates that the church in Corinth was experiencing all kinds of miraculous activity and was already observing the Lord’s Supper within 25 years of the Resurrection. What is most significant about this letter is the oral creed Paul wrote in the letter.( See 1 Cor. 3:3-8.)

Why is this important? Because most scholars (even non-Christians) believe that this testimony was part of an early creed that dates right back to the Resurrection itself—eighteen months to five years after, but some say even earlier.

In addition to 1 Corinthians, there are other documents written in the 50s and one in the 40s. Galatians (48 AD), 1 Thessalonians (50-54), and Romans (57-58) are all in that category.

The pre-Markan passion story, which Mark used in writing his Gospel, predates his writing of the gospel itself. Most of Mark’s gospel consists of short anecdotal stories strung like pearls on a string, but when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we encounter a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Last Supper through Jesus’ burial and finally to the empty tomb.

The main reasons the passion story in Mark is extremely early is because 1) Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be even older than that and 2) the pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House” and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly, the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37 (we learn this from Josephus), this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must have been composed within seven years of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Christian scholars aren’t the only ones who consider early dates on the New Testament documents. Atheist John A.T. Robinson, admit the New Testament documents were written very early. He wrote a book called Redating the New Testament, in which he posited that most New Testament books, including all four Gospels, were written sometime between 40 and 65 AD. The great and once-liberal archaeologist William F. Albright, after seeing how well the New Testament fit with the archeological and historical data, wrote: We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about 80 AD. 4

  1.  Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVasity Press, 1986), page 38-40.
  2. Predictions of Destruction: Luke 21:5-6, Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2. The temple is mentioned many more times continuously through the Gospels, Acts, and Hebrews 5:1-3; 7:23, 27; 8:3-5; 9:25; 10:1, 3-4, 11; 13:10-11.
  3.  Luke 1:1-4, “Many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
  4.  William F. Albright, Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1956), page 136.

Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels – Part 2

light glares down between two opposing puzzle pieces

In my last post, I explained what undersigned coincidences are and how they show that when applied can demonstrate eyewitness testimony. What I said in the last post can seem a bit abstract and hard to understand unless more examples are provided. I only gave one example but in this post I like to give a few more examples of undersigned coincidences within the Gospels.

Question 1: Matthew 14:1-2
Why did Herod tell his servants that he thought Jesus was John the Baptist, raised from the dead?
Answer: Luke 8:3
Some of Jesus’ followers were from Herod’s household.

Question 2: Luke 23:1-4
Why didn’t Pilate find a charge against Jesus even though Jesus claimed to be a King?
Answer: John 18:33-38
Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world so it’s not a threat to Caesar.

Question 3: Matthew 26:71
Why did the maid notice Peter?
Answer: John 18:16
A disciple spoke with her when he brought Peter inside.

Question 4: Mark 15:43
Why did Mark say Joseph of Arimathea acted “boldly”?
Answer: John 19:38
Joseph was previously a secret disciple who was in fear of the Jews.

Question 5: Matthew 26:67-68
Why would Jesus’ attackers ask him “Who is the one who hit you?”
Answer: Luke 22:63-65
The attackers blind-folded Jesus and then hit him.

Question 6: Matthew 4:18-22
Why would James and John follow Jesus after Jesus approached them out of nowhere and asked them to follow Him?
Answer: Luke 5:1-11
James and John heard Jesus preach and saw the miracle of the abundant catch of fish.

Question 7: Mark 6:30-44
Why was this crowd in the area in the first place?
Answer: John 6:1-13
First, the people searched for Jesus because he had performed miraculous healings. Second, John alone mentions that it was nearly Passover, a holiday that caused thousands of Jews to arrive at Jerusalem.

Question 8: Mark 14:58; 15:29
Why were the Pharisees saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days?
Answer: John 2: 18-19
It was a distortion of Jesus saying to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Question 9: Luke 2:4
Why is Joseph not concerned that his future wife is pregnant and he wasn’t the one responsible for it?
Answer: Matthew 1:18-21
God sent an angel to appear in his dream to not divorce Mary and that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Question 10: John 18:10, 36
Why does Pilate not say that his servants were fighting for him?
Answer: Luke 22:51
Jesus touched and healed the servant and erased all evidence of fighting.

Question 11: Matthew 13:2
Where did that boat come from?
Answer: Mark 3:9
His disciples prepared a boat so the crowds won’t push Jesus into the water.

Question 12: John 1:32-34
How does John the Baptist know that Jesus is the Son of God?
Answer: Matthew 3:17
John the Baptist witnessed the Father saying that Jesus is His Son.

Question 13: Matthew 11:2-3
How was John able to send a message to Jesus through his disciples while John was in prison?
Answer: Mark 6:20
Herod was afraid of John because of his righteousness and holiness and so that probably allowed a good deal of freedom that includes John sending a message to Jesus via John’s disciples.

Question 14: Luke 9:36
Why did the disciples keep silent over such a wonderful event?
Answer: Mark 9:9
Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone of what they saw.

If you want to find more undersigned coincidences, just pick up your Bible, and read through the four Gospels. Start asking questions that naturally arise when you read a passage and take notice if the question you have in mind is answered by the other Gospels. This is what eyewitness testimony looks like.

For those interested in more information on this fascinating argument, check out these books:

Horae Paulinae (1850) by William Paley
A View of the Christian Evidences (1865) by William Paley
Undesigned Coincidences (1869) by John James Blunt
Evidences of Christianity (1886) by John William McGarvey
The Four Gospels from A Lawyer’s Standpoint (1893) by Edmund Bennett
Cold-Case Christianity (2013) by J. Warner Wallace

Keep in mind the ones written in the 19th century can be found free online. There is a Christian philosopher by the name of Tim McGrew who teaches this on youtube. He explains in much more detail what these undersigned coincidences are and how they show the reliability of the gospels.

Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels – Part 1

Have you ever read the four gospels straight through? You begin reading and as you’re going through Matthew, you’re like, well that’s interesting, confirms everything I heard in church, but then you get to Mark and it starts to confirm a lot of what you read from Matthew. So then you start cross-referencing and noticing that a lot of what Mark says, so does Matthew and so out of curiosity you start reading Luke and you get more of the same. Then you get to John and then you notice John seems to avoid talking about the same stuff the other gospels talk about but at the same time adds a story here and there that is confirmed in the other Gospels.

Here’s a question to consider: Can we tell by comparing two passages of Scripture with one another, that both are authentic, credible historical records?

Now you might think: sure, we can find passages where two different writers tell the same story, and perhaps with the same words…and that’s true, we can find that. Just to humor me, I want you to let loose your inner skeptic out briefly and ask: Well considering they are so identical in story and words, maybe they copied from each other…or maybe they were copied from some underlying document. I mean you don’t compare two of the same newspapers of the exact same day and conclude you have independent writers reporting the same story. They’re the same, so why suggest they were written by two different writers?

So how can we tell that these are independent eyewitness accounts based on internal evidence and not one writer copying from another writer who was copying from some other source? The answer is undesigned coincidences. How does this work out?

Sometimes we will have two works by different authors interlock in a way that would be very unlikely if one of them were copied from the other or both were copied from a common source.

For example, one book may mention in passing a detail that answers some question raised by the other. The two records fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. If we have that kind of evidence, then it is highly probable that we are not dealing with fictions or forgeries.

Why do I say that? It’s because if you’re fabricating something, you’re just making it up; why would you leave loose ends that raise questions when you could just go ahead and avoid that altogether and tie them off. I mean you’re not constrained in anyway. It’s a work of fiction; fill it out however you want. Moreover, if there are documents written by other people, you can’t control what the other people will write to make it interlock with what you have written.

But we would expect to find such interlocking in authentic, detailed records of the same real events told by different people who knew what they were talking about.

 As an example, let’s look at Matthew 8. Jesus enters Peter’s house, heals his mother-in-law and then that evening a crowd of people come to be healed by Jesus.

 What’s puzzling about that passage? If the people truly believed that Jesus could heal the sick, why did they wait until evening to come to Him? If you look around in Matthew, you will find no answers.

Why would you wait? Matthew doesn’t say but Mark has the answer. Mark tells the same story, but he goes further into the background and fills it out for us so we can see it happening continuously. Mark says almost the same thing but mentions that this was all done on the Sabbath.

Do you see the explanation that comes out? Devout Jews, especially during the 2nd temple period, were fanatical about doing anything that a Pharisee might construe as a breaking of the Sabbath, but the Sabbath ends at sundown. Jesus has gone into Peter’s house, He’s cured Peter’s mother-in-law, word went around, the sun went down, and then he gets mobbed and he heals the sick. Do you see how these interconnect? Is Matthew copying from Mark? Not plausibly so because otherwise he would have included all of the settings that Mark has. Is Mark copying from Matthew? He can’t be, he’s got details that Matthew doesn’t even have, but the two of them interlock, and the bit that Mark provides us with gives us the answer to a natural question about what we read in Matthew.

I think it’s important to note that the strength of this argument comes when you have numerous undersigned coincidences that are crisscrossing the Gospels. In my next post, I’ll give more examples of undersigned coincidences in the gospels.

What’s In a Name?

2 Peter 1:16 – For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

Skeptics will often charge that the gospels were not written by people with first-hand knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus but were myths which were fabricated generations later by people who weren’t familiar with the area or time period they were describing. High-profile textual scholar Bart Ehrman, who has wrote many books trying to disprove the many beliefs in Christianity (see a list on Amazon.com here), believes that the authenticity of the Gospels are seriously in question and should not be trusted because they were written late, away from good sources, and derive mainly from legends that grew out of stories told in corruptible fashion around campfires for decades.

All of the gospel writers described a large number of people and described these individuals by their names. As it turns out, these names provide us with important clues to help us determine if the writers of the Gospels were actually familiar with first century Palestine.

In 2002 an Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan did some seemingly boring work that has yielded important fruit for the authentication of the New Testament. She sorted through documents, engravings, scraps of papyrus, ossuaries and the like from the time period surrounding Jesus and the apostles in order to make a list of over 3,000 personal names It was as if she were compiling a phone book from ancient trash heaps.

Because of her work, it became possible for the first time to find out what personal names were the most popular during the time of Jesus and how those names were used. Why is this important you ask?  Well, if the Gospel writers really had no solid contact with the characters in the stories, if they were writing decades later and had never visited the lands about which they were writing, getting the names right would be unlikely to the point of impossible. It would be as if a person, who had never set foot out of Vermont, were attempting to write a story about people living in Sweden 60 years ago and the writer perfectly captured all the details of the personal names of the day without traveling, without the Internet, without encyclopedias or libraries. Clearly, guesses and intuitions about Swedish names from over a half-century earlier are exceedingly unlikely to match the real history.

But this new research shows that the Gospel writers were “spot on” in regard to the popularity, frequency, proportion and usage of personal names in the text of Scripture, indicating very deep familiarity with life in the exact area and time frame of Jesus and his earliest followers.

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, examined all the names discovered by Ilan 1, and he found that the New Testament narratives reflect nearly the same percentages found in all the documents Ilan examined:

Popularity of Names Cited in Palestinian Literature of the Time

15.6% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

41.5% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

7.9% of the men had a name no one else had

28.6% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

49.7% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

9.6% of the women had a name no one else had

Popularity of Names Cited by the New Testament Authors

18.2% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

40.3% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

3.9% of the men had a name no one else had

38.9% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

61.1% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

2.5% of the women had a name no one else had

If the gospel writers were simply guessing about the names they were using in their accounts, they happened to guess with remarkable accuracy. Many of the popular Jewish names in Palestine were different from the popular names in Egypt, Syria, or Rome. The use of these names by the gospel writers is consistent with their claim that they’re writing on the basis of true eyewitness testimony.

When names are very common, people find themselves having to make a distinction by adding an extra piece of information. When you see the addition of a descriptor, you can be sure that the name being amended is probably common to the region or time in history. We see this throughout the gospel accounts. The gospel writers introduce us to Simon “Peter,” Simon “the Zealot,” Simon “the Tanner,” Simon “the leper,” and Simon “of Cyrene.” The name Simon was so common to the area of Palestine in the first century that the gospel writers had to add descriptions to differentiate one Simon from another. This is something we would expect to see if the gospel writers were truly present in Palestine in the first century and familiar with the common names of the region (and the need to better describe those who possessed these popular names). The same could be said of Jesus and how others in the Gospel narratives identify him versus how the narrator identifies him.

The approach the gospel writers took when they referred to people (using the names and descriptors we would expect in first-century Palestine) corroborate their testimonies internally. The gospel accounts appear authentic from the “inside out.” The words of the Gospels themselves are consistent with what we could expect from eyewitnesses reporting historical events. 2

  1.  For more information, refer to Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 330 BCE-200CE (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002).
  2.  Another popular book that explores using names in the Gospels as eyewitness evidence, take a look at Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace.

It’s All In the Details

When the gospels and Acts are seen as eyewitness testimony, they gain a lot of credibility in the eyes of nonbelievers which makes it all the more easier for us as followers of Christ to tell them about Jesus and the offer of salvation by placing their trust in him. In my last post, I’ve talked about the principle of embarrassment as evidence of the gospels being reliable eyewitness testimony. There is another way to tell if an historical document is generally reliable and that is when it has numerous, verified details within the text.

Suppose someone wrote a book describing your hometown as it was in 1950. In this book, the author correctly identifies the local industry, the laws and penal codes, the town’s roads and geography, the politicians of that time, local houses of worship, town statues and sculptures, area hotels, the depth of the water in the town harbor and numerous other unique details about your town of that year. Here’s a question to ponder over: If this author claimed he had visited your town that year, or at least said he had gotten information from people who lived in that town, would you think he was telling the truth? Of course, because he provides details only an eyewitness could provide. That’s the type of testimony we have in Acts and John.

Luke, Paul’s physician and companion, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In addition, Luke was an eyewitness of many of the things that happened in Acts. In the second half of that work, Luke displays an incredible array of knowledge of local places, environmental conditions, names, customs, and other circumstances that make sense only if he was an eyewitness or had access to eyewitness testimony. In his work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, the classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer combs through the second half of Acts and sorts out incredible historical details that are confirmed by epigraphical, paleographical, archeological, and historical evidence from the first century. Hemer was able to find up to 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts. Let’s look at some of the details Luke drops in Acts that are confirmed by outside testimony:

  1. The correct language spoken in Lystra, which is Lycaonian (Acts 14:11)
  2. The correct order of approach to Derbe and then Lystra from the Cilician Gates (16:1; 15:41)
  3. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1)
  4. An alter to an “unknown god” (17:23)
  5. The proper term for those holding court (19:38)
  6. The common way to obtain Roman citizenship at this time (22:28)
  7. The best shipping lanes at the time (27:5)
  8. The right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:12)
  9. The precise place and name of this island (27:16)
  10. The local people and the superstitions of the day (28:4-6)

Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White has stated:

“For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” 1

The classical scholar and archaeologist Sir William Ramsey has said:

“Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness…Luke is an historian of the first rank…He should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” 2

If Luke is this accurate with Acts, could he not also be trusted when it comes to his own gospel that he authored? I don’t see why not. And if Luke can be trusted to give accurate information in his own gospel, then Matthew and Mark can be trusted for accuracy as well because they tell the same basic story.

What about the Gospel of John? Is it reliable? On the face of it, the author has inserted himself into the gospel as “the disciple” or “the beloved disciple” and so in effect the author is claiming to be an eyewitness of the events of Jesus. Could we find the same kind of details in John that we find in Acts? Like the work Colin Hemer did in Acts, the New Testament and Johanine scholar, Craig Blomberg has set out to do just that in his book, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel where he examines John’s Gospel verse by verse and identifies numerous historical details. In all, he has identified 59 details in the Gospel of John that have been confirmed by literary works and archaeology or are historically probable. The events John describes in his gospel are restricted to Israel so it doesn’t contain quite as many geographical, topographical, and political items as the book of Acts. Despite the limitation, there is a remarkable amount of details that either confirmed by outside sources or are historically probable given that early Christians would most likely not invent them. Here I’ll list a small sample to give you an idea of how reliable John’s gospel is when looked at in depth:

  1. Archaeology confirms the use of stone water jars in New Testament times (John 2:6)
  2. Given the early Christian tendency towards asceticism, the wine miracle is an unlikely invention (2:8)
  3. Josephus (War of the Jews 2.232) confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9)
  4. Jesus’ own testimony being invalid without the Father is an unlikely invention (5:31); a later redactor would be eager to highlight Jesus’ divinity and would probably make his witness self-authenticating.
  5. Archeology confirms the existence and location of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)

When we couple John’s knowledge of Jesus’ personal conversations with these nearly sixty historically confirmed/historically probable details, could there be any reasonable doubt that John was an eyewitness or at least had access to eyewitness testimony? 

  1.  A.N. Sherman-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 189.
  2.  Quoted in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 90-91.

Wow, That’s Really Embarrassing

Imagine working outside trimming the bushes in your front yard on a hot sunny day. After much trimming you enter your house so you can get an ice cold glass of water. You enter the kitchen where you find the cookie jar shattered on the floor with the cookies scattered everywhere. You call your six-year-old son to come into the kitchen.

You ask him: Did you knock over the cookie jar?

Your son looks down and mutters: Yes, I thought I could get a cookie without dropping the cookie jar.

Here’s an interesting question: Why would you believe him? Maybe because he has nothing to gain by telling the truth and everything to gain by telling a lie.

This is one of many ways historians use to verify whether a historical document is speaking truth on a particular subject or is truthful as a whole. Historians refer to this as the principle of embarrassment. This principle assumes that any details embarrassing to the author or embarrassing to their goal in writing a document are probably true. Why is that? It’s because the tendency of most people is to leave out anything that makes them look bad or make their cause look bad. What do the gospels look like in light of this revelation?

The gospel writers include embarrassing details about themselves and the other disciples:

They are dim-witted: Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16

They are uncaring: They fall asleep on Jesus twice when he asks them to pray for him in his time of need (Mark 14:32-41). Moreover, they don’t even have the courage to give their rabbi a proper burial and instead it was a member of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea) who is in the very court that sentenced him to death.

They are rebuked: Peter is called Satan by Jesus (Mark 8:33). Can you imagine Mark saying to Peter: Hey Pete! I’m going to have the Lord call you Satan, what do you think about that? Peter would rightly say back, Have him call you Satan, why do I got to be called Satan! This is certainly not something you would make up off the top of your head.

They are cowards: All of the disciples abandoned Jesus (except one) when he was crucified. Peter denies him three times after saying to Jesus’ face he would never disown him (Matthew 26:33-35). While the male disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews, the brave female disciples stood by Jesus at the cross, during his burial, and visited the tomb on Sunday morning.

They are doubters: Despite being taught several times that Jesus would rise from the dead, they still doubted after being told by the women that he resurrected. Thomas doubted until he saw Jesus for himself and some even doubted after he was risen (Matthew 28:17).

The gospel writers included embarrassing details about Jesus:

Jesus:

  • is considered out of his mind by his family (Mark 3)
  • is thought to be a deceiver (John 7:5)
  • is deserted by many of his followers (John 6:66)
  • turns off Jews who had believed in him to the point that they want to stone him (John 8:30-31, 59).
  • is called a drunkard (Matthew 11:19)
  • is called demon-possessed (Mark 3:22; John 7:20; 8:48)
  • is called a madman (John 10:20)
  • has his feet wiped with the hair of a prostitute (an event that had the potential to be perceived as a sexual advance – Luke 7:36-39)
  • is crucified by the Jews and Romans despite the fact that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13)

The gospel writers include difficult sayings of Jesus:

Jesus:

  • declares “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
  • says no one, including himself, knows the time of his second coming (Matthew 24:36)
  • is seen cursing a fig tree for not having figs even though it was not the season for figs to be on the tree (Matthew 21:18)
  • seems unable to do many miracles in his hometown (Mark 6:5)
  • makes a morbid claim about how eating the Son of Man’s flesh and drinking his blood will give you eternal life (John 6:53)

While there are reasonable explanations for these sayings and others 1, it doesn’t make much sense that the gospel writers would complicate things by leaving these statements (and many others) in there.

The gospel writers left in many demanding sayings of Jesus:

  • Jesus speaks about just having sexual thoughts about someone is equal to committing adultery against your spouse (Matthew 5:28)
  • Jesus talks about not divorcing your spouse unless it’s because of sexual infidelity. (Matthew 5:32)
  • Jesus talks about when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to him. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:39-41)
  • I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:44-45)

I’ve only highlighted some of the many embarrassing moments in the gospels.2 It would appear that there is a lot of embarrassing material in the gospels and so that should tell us that the gospel writers are habitually truth tellers and that we should give them the benefit of the doubt when talking on subjects we aren’t able to verify. This is one of many reasons why the gospels are considered to be eyewitness testimony.

  1.  When trying to understand alleged contradictions or errors, books like The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (formerly known as When Critics Ask) by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe and the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer.
  2.  A lot of the content from this post was taken from the book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).

Apologetics…Endorsed by Jesus

In my last post, I briefly mentioned three reasons why everyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ should engage with apologetics, or in other words, should have a defense for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). I want to highlight one of those reasons in this blog post and expand on what I said.

So why should we think that doing apologetics will help us reach out to unbelievers with the gospel? I have three reasons:

  1. Jesus did it.
  2. The apostles taught and practiced it.
  3. It works.

Jesus Did Apologetics

So let’s take one point at a time. First, Jesus did it. I’m not sure if many Christians who don’t use apologetics know about this but Jesus did not just come on to the scene and only say, “Believe me or you will perish in your sins.” He gave reasons why you should take him seriously. 1

So what were the reasons Jesus gave for taking him seriously? Jesus used testimonial evidence for his claims. Jesus states that there are five witnesses who testify on his behalf:

John the Baptist

Jesus’ own works (i.e., miracles)

The Father

The Old Testament scriptures

Moses 2

Jesus also used His resurrection from the dead to verify his claims. 3  And Jesus’ use of prophecy is evident in the gospels. 4  In addition to that, Jesus used His very life as an apologetic. 5  In his public dialogues, Jesus is shown to be a skilled logician. In His dialogues with the Pharisees and Sadducees, He is constantly using logic and reason to confound His opponents while amazing the crowd with His wisdom. 6

The Apostles Taught and Practiced Apologetics

My second major point, the apostles taught and practiced it, is also important. Again, I’ll have to be brief but I’ll point to a few passages about how the apostles taught their disciples and other Christians to do apologetics:

Peter taught it:

1 Peter 3:15-16 – “…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”

Paul taught it:

Colossians 4:5-6 – “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Titus 1:9 – “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

Jude, Jesus’ brother taught it:

Jude 1:3 – “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

The apostles practiced it: Peter used Jesus’ miracles and resurrection from the dead 7 as well as miracle healings Peter performed as evidence of Jesus’ identity; 8 Stephen, the first martyr of the church, confounded his opponents with wisdom and his miracles 9 as well as appealed to prophecy; 10 Philip uses prophecy as a defense of Jesus’ identity; 11 Apollos vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate and proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 18); and Paul was the biggest example of an apostle who used apologetics. 12

And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” Acts 17:2-4

Apologetics Works

My third and final point, apologetics works. I could go on and on about the testimonies that I have seen and heard from numerous people who believed based on the evidence they were given, but I want to get real personal with this. I am not a Christian because I grew up in a Christian home. I am not a Christian because someone preached the gospel to me or they gave me their personal testimony. I am a Christian because I looked at the evidence and arguments for the reliability of the New Testament, Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead…and I believed the most rational thing I could do is place my faith (i.e., trust) in Jesus and what He did for me. I grew up as a cultural Christian. I didn’t really believe in Jesus but I identified as one because my parents were Christians. It was about half-way through college when I slowly became skeptical of Christianity being true. Fortunately, I made friends with actual Christians who got together and had a Bible study every Wednesday…except they were not doing a Bible study, they were studying The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. Over time, after looking at the evidence, I found it impossible to disprove and gave my life to Jesus as a result. This is really my main reason why I’m so passionate on this subject. It works and I’m living proof of that.

Some may say, “Well it doesn’t work on everybody,” and I would agree with that. People reject God for all kinds of reasons: intellectual, volitional, or emotional reasons.  Apologetics can only take you so far. All I’m saying is let’s not throw it away just because it doesn’t work on some people, because I’m living proof is does work for some.

Image Credit: Stefan Lins, “Coffee On a Winter’s Morning” via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

 

  1. I have to point to a resource on this. For those who want to look more into this area check out the book, The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters by Norman Geisler and Patrick Zukerman. It is a phenomenal resource on this topic.
  2. John 5:31-47
  3. John 2:18-22
  4.  Matthew 21:1-3 & John 5:39
  5. John 8:41-51
  6.  Matthew 12:9-14 & John 7:21-24
  7. Acts 2
  8. Acts 3
  9. Acts 6
  10. Acts 7
  11. Acts 8
  12.  Acts 9; 13; 17; 18; 19