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Is The Bible History or Myth?

by Ernest O'Neill
 

Why Ask?

Because many of us accept the circumstantial evidence for the existence of God that Darwin1 and Einstein2 put forward, but we question if there is any hard, touch-and-see, empirical evidence. We have got as far as calling ourselves theists: like Darwin and Einstein we accept that the existence of a god is the most probable explanation for the order and design of the universe and of our own personalities, but we feel that he must surely have expressed himself directly in some way if he exists!

We can see that the first cause must have intelligence (since order and design cannot result from time plus chance), and must be at least as personal as ourselves (since an inanimate object cannot make an animate one), but this limited information about the Creator is about as much as one can get from the circumstantial evidence provided by His creation.

God's Nature

Just as you can tell little about the kind of man a carpenter is by studying the table he has made, so you can tell little about the character of the Creator by studying His creation. Yet information about His nature is vital since He obviously is the One to whom we all owe our lives and the One who must know the purpose of our lives. If He is a cruel tyrant or a despotic monster then He will not be concerned if we live the same way, but if He is honest and thoughtful then He may require us to be the same. In other words, the existence of God can be an academic question for us, but His nature is a vitally relevant question if we want to live in the light of reality.

Has God Ever Spoken?

But how can you tell what a person is really like unless you hear him speaking or see him acting? You really can't! And this is particularly true of the Supreme Being who created the universe: unless He chooses to express Himself or reveal Himself to us human beings, there is just no way in which lesser beings can come to understand the character of a greater being.

The central question, then, for those of us who want to know what God is like is--has He ever spoken? And have we a reliable record of what He said? Down through the centuries many of our forefathers have professed to tell us the very words that our God has spoken and the very deeds that He has done.

Greek and Latin Myths

Homer, for instance, is the earliest Greek writer whose works are available, and in 900 B. C. he described the scene as God spoke in heaven: "Zeus now addressed the immortals. 'What a lamentable thing it is that men should blame the gods and regard us as the source of their troubles when it is their own wickedness that brings them sufferings worse than any which destiny allots them!'"3 From this incident we can see that the Supreme Being, Zeus, is expressing to his fellow-gods resentment that we human beings blame them for our misfortunes .... but wait a minute! We can't take these words of Homer as a real account of our Creator's words - they're just the product of Homer's imagination. "The Odyssey" is simply a novel about the imaginary wanderings of Odysseus on his way home from the sack of Troy.

What we're dealing with is myth - imaginary stories built on a skeleton basis of real military history, so we are reading here the words that Homer made up in his own imagination. If we're getting anything about God at all, we're getting only Homer's subjective idea of what the Creator might say, but not even Homer claims to be giving us actual words spoken by the Supreme Being behind the universe. This is an important distinction to make in our search for words and actions of the Creator - the difference between the myth made up by a man's imagination and the history of what actually happened in time and space.

Buddhist Scriptures

In our search for any verbal communication that the Creator has made to mankind, let us, therefore, leave aside the purely literary imaginative creations of the Greek and Latin myths, and let us turn to some of the outstanding human beings who have been regarded by millions as religious leaders - men who claimed to be able to tell us something about the reality behind the universe.

One of these men lived about 500 B.C. and is regarded by millions as a trustworthy religious leader: the basis of his authority is in the heart of his own personal experience, and it is described in the following passages of the Buddhist scriptures: "When the great seer had comprehended that where there is no ignorance whatever, there also the karma-formations are stopped - then he had achieved a correct knowledge of all there is to be known, and he stood out in the world as a Buddha. He passed through the eight stages of Transic insight, and quickly reached their highest point. From the summit of the world downwards he could detect no self anywhere. Like the fire when its fuel is burned up, he became tranquil. He had reached perfection, and thought to himself: "This is the authentic Way on which in the past so many great seers, who also know all higher and all lower things, have travelled on to ultimate and real truth. And I have obtained it!"4

This is, of course, the man known as Buddha, but can you see any mention of the Creator in these words? The truth is that Buddha himself made little mention of God: indeed, it is doubtful if he actually believed in a personal, objective Creator; he regarded God as more of a state to be achieved and experienced. Actually he stressed a method of transcendental meditation that helped people adjust psychologically and psychically to an imperfect world: this was his emphasis rather than any claim to be able to tell us what the Creator was thinking.

However, there is an even greater problem with the Buddhist scriptures. Buddhists have a different attitude to history from Westerners: the result is they make no distinction between what was written in 500 B . C . and what was written over the next fifteen hundred years, so that even the original words of Buddha are very difficult to separate from the mixture of comment and myth that in the Tibetan scriptures extends to 325 volumes. In our search then, for verbal communication from our Creator, let us lay aside the non-historical emphasis which we find in the mixture of early and late commentary on the psychic life that characterizes collections such as the Buddhist scriptures.

The Koran

Let's turn therefore to some scriptures that make a distinction between the original record and later commentaries that accreted to it. Around the year 610 A. D . a man called Mohammed was asleep or in a trance when the angel Gabriel came to him and said: "Recite!" He replied: "What shall I recite?" The order was repeated until the angel himself said: "Recite in the name of your Lord, the Creator, who created man from clots of blood. Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bounteous One, who by the pen has taught mankind things they did not know." When he awoke, these words, we are told, seemed to be "inscribed upon his heart."5

This, according to Muslim tradition, was the beginning of the revelations that Mohammed continued to receive about God: they were remembered by other people before being officially collected about the year 650 A.D. In them Mohammed tells us that the Supreme Being is merciful and forgiving, stern in retribution and justice, and demands faith in his apostle, Mohammed. Where does Mohammed get this information? Obviously, since he calls mankind back to the religion of Abraham, he was able to get much of it from the original information that he read in the Old Testament.

The rest of it, however, he derived from subjective, mystical experiences or "revelations." Is there any way to confirm that these subjective insights actually came from the Creator? There is just no way to get inside a man's mind and prove that the ideas existing there are from an external source rather than from his own imagination. In other words, Mohammed's ideas may exist simply in his own mind--we have no way of corroborating: we are at the mercy of one man's subjective experiences.

Is this man in some way unique and therefore likely to have insights that an ordinary person does not possess? Mohammed disclaimed any power to perform miracles; he was involved in all kinds of vengeful and sinful incidents; and he died, as did Buddha and Homer, like an ordinary man.

In other words, most so-called "holy scriptures" which are regarded as communications from God to man are either the creations of literary imagination, the non-historical accretions of psychic commentators, or the historical accounts of a man's subjective visions. But it seems most difficult to find historical accounts of actions and words that are corroborated by many different sources over a long period of time as coming directly from a Supreme Being. Is there empirical, touch-and-see evidence anywhere of this kind of communication by the Creator to us creatures?

Is the New Testament History?

Yes. From 26 to 29 A.D. a unique human being lived in Palestine and His life was observed and recorded by a group of men and women whose writings exist today in a collection known as the New Testament. Their record shows that this unique man, Jesus, spoke and acted as you would think the Son of the Creator of the world would--and that He died, disappeared from the earth, and then came back for more than a month to prove that He actually had been through death to His Father and was indeed the Supreme Being alive in human form. But how does this New Testament record differ from the Greek and Hindu myths or the Buddhist and Islamic scriptures? It's reliable history NOT Myth! How do we know it's reliable history?

We Have Eye-witness Accounts

The New Testament writers actually saw Him and lived with Him. Peter and John and the others were contemporary eye-witnesses --not "friends of friends" --they themselves saw Jesus heal lepers; they saw the nails pierce His hands; they put their fingers into the hole in His side when He came back from the grave. Here are Peter's words: "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 eye-witnesses of His majesty. For when He received honour and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain."6

But have we just their word that they were there? Not at all! Hundreds of references in writings of those days confirm that Peter and John, Paul and Luke and the other writers of the New Testament history books were well-known figures of the time. In his public defence before King Agrippa, Paul says: "the king knows about these things . . . for this was not done in a corner."7 In his letter to the Corinthians, he states that Jesus, after His Resurrection, "appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time most of whom are still alive,"8 and all the thousands of references to Paul in the letters of those days confirm that both the eye-witnesses and the things they wrote about are true. The writings of men like Clement, Barnabus, and Ignatius in the first century are filled with references to the written records of the men who observed Jesus first-hand.9

Even the next generation recorded their personal interviews with these eye-witnesses of the Son of the Creator:

Papias, born in 60 A.D., records what the old apostle John told him about the writing of the gospels: "Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote accurately all that he remembered; though he did not record in order that which was done or said by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him; but subsequently, as I said, [attached himself to] Peter who used to frame his teaching to meet the [immediate] wants of his hearers; and not as making a connective narrative of the Lord's discourses.' So Mark committed no error, as he wrote down some particulars just as he recalled them to mind. For he took heed to one thing, to omit none of the facts that he heard, and to state nothing falsely in his narrative of them."10

Irenaeus, who lived until 203 A.D., tells how Polycarp, who died in 154 A.D. "would describe his intercourse with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words. And whatsoever things he had heard from them about the Lord and about His miracles and about His teaching, Polycarp, as having received them from eyewitnesses of the life of the Word, would relate it altogether in accordance with the Scriptures."11

We Have Hostile Witnesses

But, if "this was not done in a corner," surely even historians who were hostile would make references to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth! And so they do -- non-Biblical, non-Christian historians like Porphyry, Celsus, Josephus, Pliny-- all confirm that the New Testament writers wrote truthfully about the events they observed personally in Palestine in the first century.

Tacitus, the leading historian of Imperial Rome writes: "The author of that name (Christian) was Christ who in the reign of Tiberius suffered punishment under his Procurator Pontius Pilate,"12 while the Jewish historian Josephus writes, "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 receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst 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 ..."13

The public nature of the record and the objective corroboration of the facts recorded by Paul and Peter and the others is evidenced most plainly in the statement of Tertullian, the juris-consult, familiar with the Roman archives. "Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ's divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected this proposal. Caesar held to this opinion, threatening death against all the accusers of the Christians."14

No other ancient history has better corroborated eye-witness records!

We Have Reliable Manuscripts of These Accounts

But myth is "imaginary stories built on a skeleton basis of real history"--the kind of stories that spawned hundreds of years after Buddha or Socrates died. How do we know that we are reading in the New Testament what the eye-witnesses originally wrote? How do we know that they or their followers or later generations didn't exaggerate or embroider the original life of Jesus the same way as other admirers have done with their ancient heroes?

Manuscript Evidence for the Classics

The obvious requirement for the development of a myth is time for the eye-witnesses and their written records to die so that new, exaggerated records can be written. In the case of Caesar's History of the Gallic War, time exists - 900 years of it - between the time that Caesar wrote his account and the date of our earliest manuscript of that account - 900 years during which all kinds of authors could have embroidered the manuscript that they read, destroyed the original and passed on their embroidered version.

Even if they did not destroy the original deliberately, time destroys it so that the human eye makes mistakes as it tries to read the deteriorating papyrus or vellum: in this way different copyists copy words differently so that "variant" readings result in most ancient manuscripts. The earliest manuscript therefore is likely to be the closest to the original, and the most accurate reading of the earliest manuscripts is the one attested to by the greatest number of manuscripts.

Unfortunately Caesar's Gallic War is dependent on only ten such manuscripts, and the earliest one is dated 1000 years after Caesar wrote his history, so the late age of the manuscripts leaves plenty of room for the development of myth, and the small number of manuscripts leaves lots of room for erroneous copying. Yet generations of scholars accept Caesar's History of the Gallic War as absolutely reliable.

Nor do they question that we have Plato's Republic as he wrote it in 400 B.C. even though we have only 7 manuscripts and the oldest is a copy made 1200 years later. The same kind of manuscript evidence is accepted as proof positive that our present copies of the "classics" are reliable reproductions of what the authors originally wrote. So we accept the authenticity of Herodotus' History on the basis of eight manuscripts of which the earliest is dated 1300 years after Herodotus died, Aristotle's works with five manuscripts and the earliest 1400 years later, Lucretius' works with two manuscripts and the earliest 1100 years later.

MANUSCRIPT EVIDENCE FOR CLASSICS
AND NEW TESTAMENT COMPARED

Author When Written Earliest Copy Time Span No. of Copies
Plato 427-347 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,200 yrs. 7
Tacitus 100 A.D. 1,100 A.D. 1,000 yrs. 20
Ceasar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,000 yrs 10
Livy 59 B.C.-17A.D. --- --- 20
Pliny 61-113 A.D. 850 A.D. 750 yrs. 7
Thucydides 460-400 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,300 yrs 8
Suetonius 75-160 A.D. 950 A.D. 800 yrs 8
Lucretius Died 55 or 53 A.D. --- 1,100 yrs 2
Euripedes 480-406 B.C. 1,100 A.D. 1,500 yrs 9
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. 1,100 A.D. 1,400 yrs 5
New Testament 48-100 A.D. 125 A.D. 25 yrs 4,000

Manuscript Evidence for the New Testament

What is the manuscript evidence for the authenticity of the history recorded in the New Testament? The oldest piece of manuscript which we have is not 1400 years after the original autograph as with Sophocles or 750 years as with Pliny but - 35 years! A piece of the Gospel of John exists in a Manchester library in England and is dated 125 A.D. - 35 years after John wrote his life of Jesus; in other words, some contemporaries of John would still have been alive when that actual piece of material was being passed from hand to hand!!

There was simply no time-lapse long enough to permit the facts of Jesus' life to be forgotten and replaced by mythical exaggerations. Moreover, the text of this piece of John's gospel is corroborated by three great manuscripts containing most of the Bible: the Codices Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and Sinaiticus dated from 350-450 A.D. - earlier by far than the earliest manuscript of any of the classical authors.

But how many such manuscripts exist between 125 and 1100 A.D.? As we saw before, the more ancient manuscripts you have, the surer you are of detecting any errors made by copyists. Are there eight as with Suetonius or 10 as with Aristophanes or even 20 as with Livy? There are 4,000 Greek manuscripts of the Bible in existence and 8,000 Latin manuscripts dated between 125 and 1100 A.D..

Papyrun Fragment of Gospel of John

Papyrus fragment of John 18:31-33 in John Rylands Library, Manchester, England (dated about 125 A.D.). See larger view.

No piece of ancient history is so certain and assured as the history recorded in the New Testament; no similar history is attested to by so many manuscripts of such an age. No other history has been subjected to such intense literary, textual, historical, legal, and theological examination and remained so unscathed. Only certain punctuation and spelling variations are debated by serious scholars, and those amount to, at most, a thousandth part of the New Testament history. If the New Testament is no reliable history that we can trust, then no ancient history can be trusted. If we say the New Testament is myth, then history doesn't exist!

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus dated 350 A.D. in British Museum, London, England. See larger view.

The fact is - if Caesar and Plato and Tacitus existed, then the record of every detail of Jesus' life in the New Testament is true, and each one of us has to face the fact that there lived on our earth 1900 years ago a man called Jesus who was perfect, had power over sickness and nature, could not be killed, and talked and lived like the Son of God!

 


Front Cover of Tract
  1. Bennet, Lincoln, The Universe and Dr. Einstein
    (New York, Wm. Sloane Associates, 1957) p.95

  2. Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species
    (Chicago, Great Books to the Western World, 1952) p.243.

  3. Homer's Odyssey, Book 1.

  4. The Acts of the Buddha: Cando 12 .

  5. The Koran, (Penguin) Introduction.

  6. II Peter 1:16-18.

  7. Acts 26:26.

  8. I Corinthians 15:6.

  9. McDowell, Josh, Evidence That Demands aVerdict, p.66.

  10. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History.

  11. Foakes-Jackson, History of the Christian Church to 450.

  12. Tacitus, Annals: Book 15:44.

  13. Josephus, Antiquities.

  14. Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 5.

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