Justin, your comments in my Introduction to External Evidence were so insightful I thought conversation should continue around them with a post. You summarized my intent by surmising
I guess your main aim was to convince us that the Bible’s content is not ‘mythical’ in the sense that it was not entirely made up, and I agree with that (except in the case of the creation story)…
And that indeed was my aim. I was not trying to prove or state that the Biblical account is true, proven or inspired, but that it sits on a tight historical framework. So why do I think that to be significant? Permit me to draw upon my university experience to illustrate.
When I started out in Forest Engineering I took courses like statics, dynamics, physics and mathematics. They were rather tough courses for us first year students so the failure rate was high. “Why are they loading us down with so many hard assignments and killer tests?” we would complain to each other. The word spread that in fact the professors intentionally structured things this way to ‘weed out’ students. And in fact that is what happened. We ended that year with about half the number of students that started. Those of us who remained were still not ready to graduate and get our engineering rings – other difficulties lay ahead and not all would make it – but now the professors would continue our education with smaller, more focused classes.
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
This illustrates my first reason for looking at external evidence – it ‘weeds out’ many spurious candidates. And you will find that there are many contestants in this ‘class’. There are enough to make us wonder if we can make any sense of it.
For example, if you google ‘flying spaghetti monster’ you will find that the FSM (to use the acronym) is touted by some as a deity. Now they do so in parody and satire (they are pastafarians of the church of the FSM!). By their satire they are asking a very pointed question: “Why should anyone take a biblical account more seriously than how you take the FSM deity (which you dismiss)? If you dismiss the FSM out-of-hand why not dismiss the Bible out-of-hand?” Applying external evidence is my ‘first cut’ by which I rationally weed out pretenders from contenders. Why do I dismiss the FSM? There is not one shred of evidence that the FSM has interacted through history in any way. This is not the case for the Bible. FSMers, however, in their mockery, have never informed themselves enough of the Bible to see the difference. Their scorn for the Bible has kept them in ignorance of its historical evidence.
Similarly, I have friends who claim that Jesus never existed. External evidence shouts that this is nonsense. Historical writers outside the Bible, living in the first century (ex. Josephus) , affirm Jesus’ existence. I know others who worship pagan deities such as Thor. External evidence allows me to ask, “Has this god/figure ever intersected with humanity in a historical way?” External evidence allows me to dismiss Thor and accept Jesus at a purely historical level. External Evidence is a great way to make a ‘first cut’.
The Mormon Claim
External evidence is also useful in assessing the claims of those who have added or interpret the Bible in an unusual way. Mormons are a good example of that. When I was a university student, Mormon missionaries met with me over multiple weeks to explain their message. I learned that their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, had discovered scriptures in the early 19th century buried in the ground in New York State that told the history of a clash of civilizations in North America. These civilizations stemmed from a small Jewish community that left Jerusalem around the time of its first fall (586 BC) and emigrated to North America. This discovery by Smith was written in a book made from golden plates in a language of ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’.
External evidence allowed me to ask and assess some basic questions. Why would Jewish people write in ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’ when in all their other (numerous) writings they used Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek? In fact, there is not one shred of one historical document in existence anywhere in the world today written in ‘Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics’ (the gold-plated original that Smith discovered was ‘lost’ just after he translated it into English), so there is no external evidence, within a sea of data from that era, that even such a language ever existed, let alone that this gold-plated document existed. All other writings from that era were written on scrolls made from animal skins or papyrus plants. Why would these Jews start using gold plates? No other gold plate documents from any culture in that era exist. There is no archeological evidence of any civilization in North America having a Jewish distinctive (and remember that Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the world for millennia and have always maintained their Jewish distinctive customs and scriptures). The lack of external evidence starts to scream against these claims.
Jews have existed in various countries around the world, living distinctive from the native population for thousands of years. Whether religious or not they have always maintained the ritual of circumcision. Mormons claim that the indigenous natives of North & South America are the descendants of these first Jews who came from Jerusalem in 586 BC. Yet not one Native American tribe or civilization maintains in their culture any circumcision ritual. Jews in India, Tunisia, Jamaica, Turkey, Morocco, Spain etc. have maintained the circumcision ritual. Yet all the ‘Jewish’ Native American forgot it? That makes no sense. The Native Americans were not Jewish, and the whole Mormon story falls apart for this lack of external corroborating evidence.
Krishna and External Evidence
The significance of the external evidence supporting the Gospel may perhaps be better appreciated by comparing it with a non-Western scripture. The central figure in Hinduism is Krishna who is the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. The pivotal event in his incarnate life was when he was a charioteer in the Kurukshetra War, and he gave wise advice and indispensable aid to one of the armies in this war. So historically, when did this pivotal war for the central figure in Hinduism happen? Wiki sums it up well:
The Kurukshetra War is believed to date variously from 6000 BCE to 500 BCE, based on the astronomical and literary information from Mahābhārata…. The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear… The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details.
There is no external evidence at all to help us find this most important event of the Hindu scriptures in history, and thus there is about a 5000 year range in (basically) guessing when this may have happened. In comparison with this, the external evidence from both extra-biblical writers and archeological artefacts concerning the Gospel, as we saw in Session 4, is stunning.
Substantiating miracles in the Biblical record?
But perhaps you have already done your ‘weeding’ and have your ‘short-list’ and you are perhaps feeling stuck because external evidence does not help you further at this point. In particular you are asking whether the biblical account is a “distortion of the truth, rather than ‘mythical’”, and whether (or not) the Gospel writers fabricated details around a historically verifiable kernel of truth. I think you wonder about this because the Bible contains accounts of miracles. As you ask:
The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?
It is at this point that the Bible itself introduces a specific and impossible-to-fake test to determine whether there is a supernatural or miraculous Mind behind it or not. The test is to make precise long-range predictions about the future and see if they were fulfilled or not. The reasoning is that though some humans may be clever or charismatic enough to draw a following (eg. Joseph Smith founder of Mormons) no human knows the future. If there is a God, only He does. So verifiable prophetic predictions inked out in black and white for all to evaluate provides an objective test to determine if there is a Miracle-working God or not.
Whether you approach the Bible and God with scorn as the Flying Spaghetti Monster people do, or whether you come from a biblical offshoot sect like Mormons do, or from another ancient religion with a different scripture, or just wonder if there is anyway to know, it certainly is worthwhile to be informed of the prophetic credentials of the Bible so that you can make an informed opinion. My article here will introduce you to the basics.