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Set Forth Your Case – Paper #9

Part 9 of a 16 part series…

To catch you up, my father, Dr. Michael Ruth (an author, family therapist, and pastor since the late 70’s) gave me an assignment to read the book Set Forth Your Case by Clark Pinnock and to write a 1-2 page response to each of the chapters.  It might be a little difficult to fully understand my responses to or summaries of the chapters without reading the book, but I wanted to share my work anyway.

Set Forth Your Case by Clark Pinnock
Chapter 9: The Historical Documents

Pinnock switches his focus in this chapter from a tone of philosophical persuasion and defense to a more fact-based discussion about the historical legitimacy of the Gospel records.  Pinnock has frequently stated that Christianity can stand up to rigorous historical examination, which is one of the great inherent benefits of the Faith to an apologist trying to defend it, or any other minister of the Good News attempting to share the Gospel with an unbeliever.  Pinnock says, “It is a matter of public fact, not of unreflecting faith, that the historical foundations underneath the Christian message are exceedingly secure.”  I am glad he decided to devote a chapter to expanding on these claims.

Pinnock begins by shining a light on something that definitely needs to be exposed – the fact that non-believers criticize the authority and accuracy of the Bible with a degree of scrutiny that they routinely toss aside when considering other historical writings.  Pinnock cites a number of examples:

  • The writings of Tacitus: he is considered a supreme historical source for his period; however, the oldest manuscript copy of his work is dated approximately 1,000 years after he wrote it.
  • Caesar’s Gallic Wars: once again, 1,000 years separate the oldest surviving manuscript from the original authorship date.
  • Aristotle’s Poetics: in this case, over 1,400 years separate the oldest manuscript from the original work.

When you contrast this with the anthropological and archeological data we have to support the accuracy and validity of the New Testament, the differences are staggering.  For example, over 4,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have survived, and one of the best of these – Vaticanus – dates only 300 years after the four Gospels were written.  The Chester Beatty papyri date to 150 A.D. and contain large portions of the New Testament.  The Rylands fragment of the book of John dates back to 120 A.D.  Not only that, but we can estimate, with a good degree of certainty, when each Gospel was written.  Given what we know about other events in history (e.g. the martyrdom of Peter in the mid-sixties A.D., the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.), we can assume the Gospel of Mark must have been completed by a mere 30 years after the resurrection.  Similar investigation traditionally places the completion of the Gospel of Matthew soon after Mark, with Luke being written by 65 A.D. and John being completed latest of all, but still by the end of the first century A.D.

Pinnock also takes a page of this chapter to counter the “form criticism” movement that was gaining a foothold in his day.  This philosophy tried to claim that the Gospels and other early church documents were not written as historically accurate accounts based on eye-witness (and in some cases, first-hand eye-witness) testimony, but rather were a concoction brewed by early church leaders to try and corral disparate beliefs and ideals under a single banner.  Of course, the main problem with such an approach is simply that there is no evidence to support such a claim.  In addition, at some point we must try to apply some common sense to the investigation.  As Pinnock points out, “…until one piece of positive evidence turns up to explain how the community, scattered around the then known world, conspired together to perform so gigantic a fraud in the space of three decades, form criticism is unproven speculation.”

One of the great joys of being a Christian is simply meditating on the miracle of Christ’s birth.  Unfortunately, what can sometimes get over-shadowed by the stories of angels, wise men and a virgin mother is the fact that a real baby – the Christ child – was actually born on a particular day in an actual place!  God veiled his deity and inserted Himself into “the midst of ordinary secular history, in the flesh and bone of history itself” as Pinnock says.  He goes on to say, “The separation of saving history from ordinary history is monstrous.  There is only one history.  And the gospel claims that God showed himself in that.”

There is much more supporting evidence available to prove that the Bible is accurate and sound for those who are interested in searching.  The following are some additional examples provided by Pinnock:

  • Parables are scattered throughout the Gospels but are all but absent from the epistles.  The apostolic governance of the Church at that time, according to Pinnock, presumably wanted to keep “mythmaking tendencies” to a minimum.
  • Jesus refers to Himself several times in the Gospels as the “Son of Man”, but no such reference is made to Him in the epistles.  Pinnock believes this is because a clear distinction was drawn in the early church between historical records (i.e. the four Gospels) and early church doctrine (i.e. the epistles).
  • Jewish oral and written traditions were taken very seriously and passed on with much care.  Citing one example, Pinnock mentions that the Isaiah scroll form the Qumran library and the one from the Masoretic text (regarded as the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish bible) show only the slightest variations…even though there is over 1,000 years of hand-copying between the two texts.
  • The Talmud contains allusions to the person of Jesus.
  • Josephus, the Jewish historian, gives us many details regarding rulers mentioned in the New Testament, such as Pilot, Agrippa and the Herods.

In conclusion, we need to open our eyes and see that there is just as much (indeed there is more) evidence to support the validity of the Bible as there is to support many other books and documents that are widely accepted as being factual.  The Gospels and early church documents were written by men who – in many cases – were martyred for their beliefs.  Writing these books under some false pretense would have done them no earthly good.  This chapter builds upon the last in that it reiterates the importance of toning down “existential temperature” in order to realize that the personal decision to follow Christ must incorporate the evidence that supports the claims of the of the Gospel message of salvation.  As Pinnock so eloquently states, “The fact is that we can come to know Jesus Christ historically before we know him personally.  Indeed we must.  Otherwise the Christ we know personally is the mirror of our own visage.”

Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Ruth

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