Honest to God?

Billions of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike all have sacred literature they live by. Yet today many traditional beliefs are under attack, especially those found in the Bible. It’s been said that you could use the Bible to prove anything because people claim it’s so open to interpretation. Or they say it can’t be relied on from a historical point of view. Is there any reason to trust the world’s best seller?

About 2.1 billion people around the world claim to be followers of Christ. Yet even many so-called believers don’t accept everything the Bible says. If these Christians don’t entirely trust the Book of books, should anyone else? In this episode of Insight we’ll consider the Bible’s historical reliability.

After seeing one of our earlier episodes, one viewer wrote to say that “there is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived.” Is that true?

Let’s consider the recorded words of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. Born in Jerusalem to a Jewish mother of royal descent and a father from the priestly line, Josephus was a soldier and leader in Galilee who fought against the Romans. But in defeat in 67 CE, he reneged as one of the last remaining of a mass suicide and defected. Prophesying that the Roman general Vespasian would become emperor, he gained imperial favor, especially when two years later his words came true. The following year he became a translator for the Roman general Titus at the siege of Jerusalem. Josephus was granted Roman citizenship and subsequently lived in Rome. There he wrote several works, including A History of the Jewish War and an account of world history through Jewish eyes.

For our purposes today, let’s consider what Josephus had to say about Jesus. In statements accepted as authentic by a majority of scholars, he wrote: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. . . . For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. . . . When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3).

We know from the Bible, from Josephus and from other literature that Pontius Pilate was the fifth Roman prefect, or governor, of Judea. He’s mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus and by the Jewish philosopher Philo. It seems that he was in office from approximately 26 to 36 CE. His name was also found on an inscription discovered in 1961 in Caesarea, the capital of Roman Palestine.

We also know that the biblical account of Jesus’ death is the world’s best-known example of crucifixion. It’s factually correct according to what secular history tells us of the practice among the Romans. Combining this with evidence of Pilate’s presence in Judea at the time, we have no reason to doubt that one of his victims was Jesus of Nazareth, just as the Gospel records say.

So is there evidence that Jesus actually lived? Well, there’s certainly evidence that He died.

Let’s now look at another interesting example of the New Testament’s historical reliability. The author of the book of Luke was a medical doctor. He set about to give as full an account of the early church as he could. Here’s what he says about his efforts: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1–4, New Revised Standard Version).

Luke was a careful man preparing to write down what he had carefully researched. He also traveled with the apostle Paul and gives an account of many events in his life in the book of Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke.

Paul’s 18-month stay in Corinth was punctuated by Jewish opposition. Luke tells us that the synagogue leaders took him before a Roman proconsul named Gallio. What do we know about this man? He is attested on part of a Roman inscription found at Delphi, which was probably at one time fixed to the outer wall of the temple of Apollo. It reads, “Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, of the tribunician authority for the twelfth time, imperator the twenty-sixth time. . . . Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend, and the proconsul of Achaia. . . .” This inscription can be dated to 51–52 CE. Gallio would have taken office in the early summer of 51 for a one-year period.

Luke tells us that two tent makers, named Aquila and Priscilla, had arrived in Corinth just before Paul did, and that they had been expelled from Rome under an order given by the emperor Claudius that Jews should leave the city. That order was given in 49 CE. All of this means that Luke was accurate and precise in his description of people, events and timing related to Paul’s stay. It began after 49 and ended not later than 53.

As it happened, Gallio would not hear the complaint against Paul, seeing it as an internal Jewish matter. He gave his judgment from what Luke calls the tribunal, or bema in Greek. This was a public platform where the proconsul stood and decided matters. That very place has been found, almost in the center of the Forum in ancient Corinth. It was identified from fragments of an inscription, and its construction is dated to between 25 and 50 CE. Gallio’s decision not to hear the case made it clear that Paul’s teaching was not contrary to Roman law. He was allowed to continue teaching for several more months in the city where God said He had many people.

So is the Bible historically reliable? From what we’ve seen so far, yes. But we’ve looked only at a couple of New Testament examples. There are many more throughout the Bible.