The Mystery of History

In his book, The Nature of Historical Explanation, Patrick Gardiner asked a worthwhile question:

“In what sense can I be said to know an event which is in principle unobservable, having vanished behind the mysterious frontier which divides the present from the past?  And how can we be sure that anything really happened in the past at all, that the whole story is not an elaborate fabrication, as untrustworthy as a dream or a work of fiction?”

Like many modern historians, Patrick Gardiner doubts whether we can know what actually took place in the past since we cannot directly observe the events or people in question.

If the sentiments of Patrick Gardiner and others who share his view are true, then we cannot truly know anything about anyone from any time.  Take, for example, Alexander the Great.  As far as we know, no eyewitness accounts of his life exist.   The earliest biographies we have of the great Macedonian conqueror were written approximately four hundred years after his death by Arrian and Plutarch.   Under these circumstances, how can we know with certainty anything about the life of this significant historical figure?

As I noted in a previous post, the Bible is an unusual religious book insofar as it claims connection with real events that happened in real places that involved real people. This is especially true of the first five books of the New Testament which are presented as historical narratives. Given that these books revolve around the ministry of an obscure first century Jew written by apparently anonymous authors, we might wonder about the accuracy of the accounts.  Perhaps we cannot know for certain anything about Jesus of Nazareth.

However, I would argue that there are many valid reasons to believe the gospel accounts and Acts accurately portray the life and times of Jesus.  Here are a few of those reasons:

  1. We have early testimony concerning Jesus.  There is good reason to believe that the first five NT books were all written within 60 years of Jesus’s life.
  2. We have eyewitness testimony.  Two of the gospel accounts were apparently recorded by apostles while the other two are strongly influenced by other eyewitness accounts.
  3. The eyewitnesses were trustworthy.  There is internal evidence that supports the credibility of the authors.
  4. Ancient, non-Christian writers corroborate some of the details within the gospel accounts.
  5. Archaeology also supports the authenticity of the gospel accounts.

Lord willing, I plan to explore each of these lines of evidence in upcoming posts.  As I draw this to a close, I will leave you with one thought:  I do not believe I can make an airtight case in defense of the gospel accounts.  However, I believe that the preponderance of evidence is sufficient to lead anyone to the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical figure, that He ministered to the nation of Israel, that He was crucified, and, most importantly, that He rose from the dead.  I look forward to sharing these reasons with you.