Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to defend the reliability of the New Testament Gospels to the students of San Jose State University. Jane Pantig (the director of the local Ratio Christi chapter) invited me, and I was delighted to come. I’ve been working with Ratio Christi across the country to defend the Christian worldview on college campuses. If you aren’t acquainted with the work of this growing apologetics movement, you really ought to familiarize yourself with Ratio Christi and find a way to support their efforts. At the end of my presentation, during the question and answer period, a polite young skeptic asked why Jesus didn’t reveal scientific facts in an effort to demonstrate His Deity. Why didn’t Jesus describe something well beyond the scope and knowledge of His contemporaries as a prophetic proof? He could easily have described the role of DNA, the proper organization of the Solar System, or the biological complexity of cellular structures. The questioner believed this sort of knowledge would have been persuasive to him as a 21st Century skeptic, and without it, he remained unconvinced.
I thought this was a great question, and one I often receive but seldom talk about on the podcast or here on the blog. There are a number of problems with this expectation of superior anachronistic scientific wisdom:
The Nature of the Gospel Accounts
The New Testament authors repeatedly referred to themselves as eyewitnesses. In the last chapter of John’s Gospel, John tells us he is testifying and his testimony is true. Language such as this presumes the author has seen something he is describing as an eyewitness. In addition, John and Peter identify themselves as eyewitnesses who directly observed Jesus, and were not inventing clever stories (1 John 1:1,3 and 2 Peter 1:16). While Luke clearly states he is not an eyewitness to the events in his gospel, he does tell us he is relying on the true eyewitnesses for his information (Luke 1:1). The gospel eyewitness accounts record the life and teaching of Jesus in the context of the 1st Century. They record Jesus’ ministry to 1st Century followers. The gospels are not unhistorical volumes containing proverbial wisdom statements; they are specific eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ historic interaction with a specific group in history.
The Nature of the Ancient Audience
The context of Jesus’ ministry and message were defined by the nature (and limitations) of this ancient audience. Sometimes it’s easy for us to approach the gospels from our 21st Century perspective (bringing our desires, needs and expectations to the text), rather than examining them from the perspective of the first hearers and readers. In order to illustrate this point, imagine yourself as Jesus. You’ve got three years to demonstrate your Divinity to those you live with in the 1st Century. Think about what approach you might take. You could reveal yet unknown scientific facts to your audience, but would this accomplish your goal? If you describe the role of DNA or the anatomy of the solar system, how would your 1st Century audience confirm your statements? Surely claims of this nature would be unimpressive to a world without the ability to assess their veracity. In fact, any combination of such claims with other demonstrations of Deity would only serve to dilute the power of your message. There are ways you could establish your Deity in front of such a 1st Century audience, but obscure, esoteric claims are perhaps the least effective approach.
The Nature of the Miraculous Evidence
Jesus chose instead to demonstrate His Deity through miraculous supernatural behavior. In fact, Jesus spoke openly about the evidential value of the miracles he performed. He said these miracles were intended to prove his Deity so His audience would believe He was who He claimed to be (John 14:11 and John 10:37-38). Miracles of this nature were the perfect tool to reach observers in the 1st Century. They were immediately accessible and verifiable. Unlike obscure statements to be confirmed over the course of two thousand years, these diverse miracles demonstrated the Divine nature of Jesus in a variety of ways available to both contemporary and future audiences. Miracles, unlike anachronistic wisdom statements, have the ability to validate the Divinity of Jesus across time.
The gospels are an account of Jesus’ activity in the 1st Century. They record Jesus’ interaction with an ancient audience, as He provided them with the kind of evidence they would find persuasive. If Jesus performed the miracles recorded in the Gospels, this evidence is still powerful in the 21st Century. If Jesus actually rose from the dead, this reality alone ought to be enough to persuade us.