On Using the Bible to Prove the Bible
The charge is sometimes made against biblical apologists that they just use the Bible to prove the Bible. The implication, of course, is that this is circular reasoning and, therefore, erroneous. They want other sources outside the Bible that verify it, not the Bible itself. Once they set the Bible aside as being unable to testify for itself, they can then argue that there is no evidence for the central events that are the foundation of the Christian’s faith — primarily the resurrection and appearances of Jesus after He was confirmed dead. Since such other sources are lacking and the only source we have to use is the Bible itself, the very book that we are supposed to prove in the first place, then our case is said to be non-existent. Therefore, using the Bible to prove the Bible proves nothing, is circular, and should be rejected.
On the surface, that sounds like a pretty hard hit against those who believe the Bible to be true. After all, we would make a similar case against an author who wants to use only his own book to prove his case, and since he is the only one making a particular claim, then his case is built on circular reasoning and therefore unconvincing. It would indeed be circular for someone to say that the proof of his position is that he said so. However, there are some flawed assumptions in this objection that need attention, and much of the problem revolves around a misunderstanding (intentional or not) of the nature and composition of the Bible.
First, the Bible is made up of many books, not just one. This is one of the most basic facts about the Bible, but its implications are tremendous, and people tend to forget. Ironically, to argue that the Bible cannot be used to prove itself actually assumes that there is a unity to the Bible as a whole — a unity that critics want to deny (1). They cannot have it both ways. If Matthew cannot be used to verify anything about Luke, or vice versa, then the assumption must be that they are unified in a way that somehow negates their ability to be used independently. Why would this be assumed? Matthew and Luke did not sit down together and write in unison or collusion. They are separate works. Mark is different from Matthew and Luke, and even if, as is usually assumed, Matthew and Luke used Mark some, that still does not explain their divergences from Mark. Regardless, there is nothing wrong with writers using other sources, and Luke even indicates that he did just that. Even so, their works are not clones of each other, as even a casual reading reveals. Even if there was some literary dependence, this would not negate the point. Add to this that “dependence may also be an illusion resulting from ‘a natural overlap’ in oral tradition or the presence of terms that would be common even if all four Gospels” were independent (2). In other words, they are telling the same story and using the same terminology that would have naturally grown out of an oral tradition (3). What we see in the four Gospels is exactly what we would expect from oral traditions that were then written down.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all first century documents. They were not compiled together into a single entity when they were written. Further, Paul and Peter are two more authors who wrote first century documents independently of the Gospel accounts and each other. Their works were not compiled together until later (the canon of Scripture is another issue, but is not a factor for dealing with this objection). Therefore, to argue that these documents cannot be used to help verify or prove each other would be like compiling the works of several different authors today, putting them into one volume, then arguing that they cannot provide any witness for one another because they are all in one book. The argument is fallacious because it ignores the fact that the Bible is a collection of many books written by many authors over several years, all dating to the first century and earlier. They are not just one book written by the same person.
History and Inspiration
Second, the objection conflates historical claims with claims of inspiration. We aren’t using the claims of the Bible’s inspiration in order to prove inspiration. That would be a flawed procedure because of the nature of that type of claim. Rather, we start by looking at the historical claims just as we would consider the historical claims of any other ancient works. If the historical claims bear out, then talk of inspiration may later follow. Consider, for example, the opening lines of Luke’s Gospel:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”
Notice that there are no claims of inspiration here (which is not the same as saying there are no marks of inspiration in the book or no reason to accept it as inspired). Instead, these are historical claims that need to be taken first at face value. Further, this opening statement in no way akin to a fairy tale opening, and to try to turn it into one is disingenuous and an abuse of historical texts. Luke writes of “things accomplished among us” and that which was “handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitness.” He speaks of “investigating everything carefully from the beginning” so that “you may know the exact truth” about what happened. Luke’s clear intention is to tell the truth based on what really happened in front of eyewitnesses. His method was one of careful investigation. For someone to say that we cannot use Luke’s account to help verify something in another book assumes that the history must somehow be flawed. To say that we cannot use Luke historically is to call into question every work of ancient history. Why, then, do skeptics call this into question? The answer lies not in counter-evidence of the time, but in a presupposition against the supernatural activities attributed to Jesus. “A major reason some scholars doubted the Gospels to begin with was that they report miracles, which modern Western critics felt could not be attributed to eyewitnesses.”
If nothing supernatural were being written about, we suspect that the account itself would be considered a perfectly good historical source by most historians.
There is a fundamental difference between the claims of history and the claims of inspiration. The claims of history are simply speaking to what actually happened; the claims of inspiration speak to the character and ultimate origin of a work (i.e., is God ultimately behind it?). We are capable of studying the historical claims without first having to prove inspiration. Studying the historical claims is the same as if we were studying the claims of any other ancient authors. What the truth of these claims may imply about inspiration is another study that can be taken up after first considering the history. For example, the resurrection claim is a claim about what happened: did Jesus really die and was He later seen alive again? Why or how He was raised can be considered after the first question is answered, and we cannot assess the character of the text until we first know what is being stated. If He was seen alive again, then that historical claim needs to be seen for what it is. The objection that we cannot use the Bible to prove the Bible fails to see the difference between the historical claims and the reasons why the events happened as they did. We must start with the claims before we can consider anything else, and several sources document the same claims. Dismissing them out of hand due to presuppositional biases does not bode well for honest, historical investigation.
Unbelievers in a Better Position?
Third, the objection assumes that unbelievers in the ancient world were in a better position to tell the truth about those events than were believers. Skeptics may argue that bias distorts historical reporting, but they need to recognize that they are defeating their own arguments by this objection, for they, too, fall under the same scrutiny of bias. Even so, their assumption is that since the biblical writers all were passionate and defended Jesus Christ, then somehow their testimony must be flawed. Instead, we need the witness of unbelievers to testify to the very same events. This concept, however, stacks the deck unfairly because if the unbelievers testified to the very same events (e.g., that Jesus was, in fact, seen alive again), then they would be believers in the reality of the events and therefore disqualify themselves from their own witness. Such is absurd. This would be like saying that the only viable historians of an event are those who are opposed to the events in the first place. We recognize that “enemies” can provide important evidence (and they do such even in the documents under question), but requiring that unbelievers be the ones who verify all the details is beyond reason.
That said, there are other ancient writers who verify certain aspects of the Gospels (5). Josephus speaks of James, John the Baptist, Pilate, and Jesus, for example. Other historians and officials spoke of some of the people and referenced certain events like the crucifixion. But we cannot expect unbelievers to argue for the resurrection of Jesus. They do speak of certain “mischievous” beliefs of Christians, and clearly the growth of the church was based upon a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. They reference enough to infer that the Gospel writers did not just fabricate their accounts, which ought to be enough to promote further investigation into those accounts. Interestingly, the first century documents compiled in the Bible do record how the enemies of Jesus recognized what happened. Would these records count only if they are recorded in another work written by an unbeliever?
If the authors of the Gospels were in a position to know what they were talking about, and if they make clear that their intent was to tell what really happened, then they need to be considered on their own merits as would any ancient author writing about events of their time. To deny the Gospel writers this courtesy is to do so out of presuppositions against what they write about rather than out of the weight of actual evidence. To give the Gospel writers the same courtesy we would give to any other ancient author requires that we take their historical claims for what they are.
Fourth, as referenced earlier, using one book to help testify about events recorded in another book does not require proof that there are no points of conflict or difference anywhere between the accounts. A study of alleged contradictions and discrepancies can come later, but the initial veracity of well-testified events does not require that all accounts of it agree perfectly and flawlessly in every detail. If this is made an a priori requirement, then once again nothing in any ancient account can be trusted. Historians do not say, “Before we can believe this event, all accounts of it must be proven flawless and with no differences.” Witnesses in a court room might differ on some details, but if they all agree on the primary issue at hand, then a jury can still reach a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt based on their testimony.
Are we saying here that the Bible contains a bunch of contradictions? Not at all, though the skeptics do argue such. We are talking priority of historical reporting, and for the purposes of answering this particular objection, it is not necessary to prove that there are no contradictions in the accounts. If several different documents agree on principle historical events, then we recognize a high probability that those events really happened. When it comes to Scripture, all the Gospel accounts testify to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul gives a fifth witness to it. If they all agree on the same essential events (and they do), then we can speak of these events as being historical without being sidetracked by other questions about how much detail they all agree on. Again, the study of those similarities and differences (e.g., the Synoptic Problem) can come later, and we believe that there are reasonable answers that are available. However, this is secondary, for Paul writes that the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus are of “first importance” (I Corinthians 15:1-4). Even without the Gospel accounts, skeptics must still grapple with Paul, for even they admit that he wrote I Corinthians within 25 years of the events in question. Paul wasn’t just pulling these ideas out of a hat, but was appealing to what was already well established by eyewitnesses. Since several first century documents all agree that these events occurred, then either we accept these as historical realities or we reject them out of our own worldview biases. Yet they cannot be easily or honestly dismissed. If these events did not occur, then whether or not the accounts differ would be irrelevant anyway. Therefore, a skeptic arguing that there are contradictions does not change the principle historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, but is, rather, a diversion that draws attention away from the central case of the Gospels, which involves essential historical claims upon which they all agree.
The objection that we cannot use the Bible to prove the Bible is itself built upon fallacious assumptions about the nature and composition of the Bible. Since the Bible is comprised of many books written by several different authors and not compiled until later, since their central claims are historical in nature, since they were in a position to know what they were talking about, and since the authors agree on the central claims, then there is no reason why these first century texts cannot be used to provide testimony to help verify each other. Such is the way we would use any other ancient sources, whether compiled into one book later or not. After all, there is a reason why these works were compiled as they are. Let’s start with their central claims and see what they tell us.
- While I have encountered this argument and given responses to it, this particular essay was written after reading the cited article. I am making a couple of the same points, but with some added thoughts. See Michael C. Patton, “You Can’t Use the Bible” to Prove the Bible and Other Stupid Statements. Parchment and Pen. Sept. 10, 2013. Web. <http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2013/09/you-cant-use-the-bible-to-prove-the-bible-and-other-stupid-statements/>
- Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010. p. 207.
- As Wright says, “It is of course virtually impossible for four sources to tell essentially the same story without using any of the same words.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God,
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. p. 589)
- Craig S. Keener, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels,” In Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics. ed. William Lane Craig and Paul Copan. B&H Publishing, 2012 (Kindle Loc. 2015).
- I am not reproducing all of these here because of space and the fact that they are readily available. See the chapter, “What Others Have Said,” in my book, “Mind Your Faith: Essays in Apologetics." Many other sources are available.