In my experience, I’ve heard tons and tons and tons of trash talk from atheists who insist that the only way the Bible is “true” is if it is literally, historically and scientifically accurate. This is understandable given our indoctrination into truth grounded in the availability of things like camcorders. The ancients had no such luxury and they knew it. They did not write scientifically or historically in our sense but poetically, mythically to convey truth by story and symbol. Even biographies were not called “histories” but “lives.” The ancients knew this as well.
Yet dogmatic (largely atheist) critics continue, even when they are told the historical facts, to read it as 21st century moderns. All too often they then sophomorically demean the ancients and the books they wrote. The loud and proud ignorance from people who practically worship evidence is as one put it, “jaw-dropping.”
These folk often insist on having me explaining to them how they are to believe it. Obviously, this is a non-sequitur. For me it’s easy: tell me the facts and I’ll believe intellectually based on the facts and leverage them in the faith they reflect. Learning the facts of the New Testament has let me do just that: believe. I believe in God; my spiritual forebears also believed in God. I live on the same Earth as did they. However, by necessity my worldview is radically different from theirs. How does the fact that their vision and mine of the Earth, which of course do not agree, in any way lessen the reality of the planet we live on? Analogously, my vision of God is also different but in no way lessens the reality of God. We are looking at the same facts with different visions. And to properly understand what the Bible, esp. the New Testament contains, I have to understand that ancient worldview clearly in order to do any faithful translating from that one to mine. Why? Because their worldview is what produced The New Testament and the Bible in the first place! I can’t really believe what I don’t understand.
And this is where Bart Ehrman, my current favorite biblical scholar, comes in. He writes why and how the historical approach is important for this understanding:
…The New Testament has always been much more than a book for Christian believers. It is also an important cultural artifact, a collection of writings that stands at the foundation of much of our Western civilization and heritage. These books came into existence at a distant point in time and have been trasmitted through the ages until today. In other words, in addition to being documents of faith, these books are rooted in history; they were written in particular historical contexts and have always been read within particular historical contexts…
Many…historians, including a large number of those mentioned in the bibliographies scattered throughout this book, find historical research completely compatible with—even crucial for—traditional beliefs; others find it to be incompatible. This is an issue that you yourself may want to deal with, as you grapple intelligently with how the historical approach to the New Testament affects positively, negatively, or not at all your faith commitments. I should be clear at the outset, though, that as the author of this book, I will neither tell you how to resolve this issue nor urge you to adopt any particular set of theological convictions. My approach instead will be strictly historical, trying to understand the writings of the early Christians from the standpoint of the professional historian who uses whatever evidence happens to survive in order to reconstruct what happened in the past.
That is to say, I am not going to convince you either to believe or to disbelieve the Gospel of John; I will describe how it probably came into existence and discuss what its message was. I am not going to persuade you that Jesus really was or was not the Son of God; I will try to establish what he said and did based on the historical data that are available. I am not going to discuss whether the Bible is or is not the inspired word of God; I will show how we got this collection of books and indicate what they say and reflect on how scholars have interpreted them. This kind of information may well be of some use to the reader who happens to be a believer; but it will certainly be useful to one—believer or not—who is interested in history, especially the history of early Christianity and its literature.
So, I believe the Gospels because the ancients wanted to learn who Jesus was so that they might believe in him and have “eternal life.” I have, as his disciple, precisely the same objective using the historical facts to inform my faith. And that’s what theologians mean by “a faith beyond reason [and fact] not against reason.”