Friday, June 22, 2007

What actually happened made all the difference

I'm reading Mark D. Roberts' new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? As a former teacher of history, but someone without any formal training in Bible, I find it very convincing. I recommend it as a very accessible source of information about the historicity of the primary documents of the faith.

At one point [pages 120-121] he says this about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John:
They, like the vast majority of Jews before them and Christians after them, believed that what actually happened made all the difference in the world. It was in the realm of history that God made his presence known, revealing himself and his salvation. Therefore history wasn't inessential. It was at the heart of the evangelists' theology.

In this regard the Gospel writers were quite similar to the apostle Paul. In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul dealt with the view that resurrections, including the resurrection of Jesus, don't happen. Here's what he wrote:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. [I Cor. 15:13-14]
In other words, it isn't nearly enough to regard the story of Jesus' resurrection as an inspiring fiction, or a symbolic rendering of some historic reality. Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised," in space-time reality, then Christian faith isn't true. What happened to Jesus has everything to do with theology.
Christianity is rooted in events that actually happened. If they didn't happen, if it's all just a nice story, then it is false. If it didn't happen, it doesn't matter.

There are those who demand proof, in a scientific sense, that the events occurred. Proof, in that sense, isn't available for any event in history. Things happen, and are past. They are unique and, although the sciences may have something to say about them, they cannot be proven the way experiments in a laboratory may make a conclusion increasingly likely. Later in the book [p. 135] Roberts makes this point [an observation any student of history will recognize]:
Reasonableness and proof are not the same thing, however. There is no way I can prove that Jesus actually did miracles or actually rose from the dead. Nor can anyone prove that he didn't, for that matter. History doesn't allow for such proof, but only for contingent knowledge based on evidence, probabilities, and reasoned argument.
We rely on that kind of knowledge for most of what we know. Mark Roberts makes a good case that the Gospels can be relied on, not just for theology, but for what they say about history.

He is posting some of the material from the book at his blog.