How can History be evidence?

It’s a popular idea to say that Christianity is way too old to be useful or relevant today. Another related idea is that Christianity has been changed over time. But few are aware how much is at stake with these casual assertions.

So why are people saying this? One reason is that historians and people generally are much more critical of received history. For example we’re rightly critical of the agendas and motives of those who have written the versions of history that we have. We like to have some idea of what drove a person to write their account. And we ask: ‘What history are we missing?’ The old saying goes: ‘There are always two sides to a story’. Well, sometimes there are more than two sides. It’s important to acknowledge that we don’t have those versions of history from the ones who chose not to write. It’s rare to have history from the losers of wars or the repressed and certainly not from the murdered or those whose writings were lost for any number of reasons.

But this doesn’t mean all history is bankrupt. We mustn’t dismiss history as a pointless exercise. It’s far from that. If we were to dismiss history as an impossible task then we’d need to shut down our law courts. We could never convict a murderer based on evidence given by witnesses.

In fact, we can only make convictions in courts if we believe in knowing things from history. In court, witnesses give testimony. And no witness is ever completely impartial. They have opinions and experiences that prejudice them. For example, the strong conviction of a witness that a defendant is guilty may be well founded. The prejudice is justified.

History is so critical for understanding who we are. We can never hope to understand ourselves unless we come to grips with our history. At the very least, History tells us what humans are capable of doing, and are likely to do again.

The Bible is a central text that documents human activity. It is a long book of rich history written by approximately 40 authors with remarkable internal coherency in message amongst its authors. All of it’s authors believe in God. But this doesn’t invalidate their testimony. Just like the witness in court the Bible writers have an opinion about the evidence they give. And sometimes they’re enthusiastic in sharing it. Our task is to decide what kind of witnesses they are. In court, a witness can be an innocent bystander or have connections to those present in the court from the judge (in a small town) to the defendant. Such connections need to be borne in mind when weighing their testimony. Likewise, the character of the witness is important.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to cross-examine the authors of the Bible now and it’s true, the Bible doesn’t provide much in the way of explicit character information with every author. But there are a few exceptions. For example there’s a good deal of information provided about the New Testament missionary named Paul (originally Saul of Tarsus). However the Bible was written before our formal conventions of writing history were developed so it’s quite unfair to judge it by modern methods. Later on Christian historians such as Eusebius would introduce such methods with their concern for precision in preserving verbatim quote and source.

The Bible purports to be a record of God’s interventions in history. As such, its authors often have inconsequential backgrounds and at times are brought reluctantly into the ‘action’. What needs to be judged is the integrity of their testimony. You will need to make your own decision about this. Given that the claims of the Bible’s authors are so serious and that so many people in this world accept them, it’s important for you to read the Bible and do this.

Please don’t do this superficially. Acknowledge your prejudices! And when you come to something that seems unfair or contradictory or even offensive don’t rush to judgment. First of all acknowledge your assumptions and then seek to find out how Christians have approached this difficulty down through the ages. To read the Bible on it’s own terms is to bring a very powerful God into the picture. His opinion of humanity and what is right and wrong may well be very different to yours. But he won’t vanish just because you don’t like his opinions.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are a great many well-respected historians who respect the integrity of the Bible authors. In fact, many are even Christian. Perhaps some Internet bloggers and commenters are braver than they ought to be when they heap ridicule and contempt on the Bible and anyone who takes it seriously. So often such sites are lacking in grace and fair mindedness and full of error and fallacious logic. That serious historians don’t interact in such places is usually a testimony to the pointlessness of the exercise. We encourage you to avoid such sites on the Internet and seek out sites where the evidence presented is well documented and the discussion respectful.