Are biblical testimonies inadmissible because the writers had biases informed by personal convictions? So goes the charge frequently made against the biblical narratives – that what the authors of the New Testament documents were expounding were lies they were holding on to because of their prior personal convictions. But just how reasonable is this claim? Are prior personal convictions by themselves sufficient to lead people to espouse certain truth claims? And would those claims on their own be justification for their beliefs? Can we not trust the historical contents of the biblical narratives because its writers were committed to the ideas they espoused, and would be in favor of the propagation of those ideas?
Now, how do biases form? Typically one first needs a personal conviction of some sort. And for this to take place, one needs to have information. Information intake is either passive, such as in upbringing, or active, such as formal education. Whether or not the information is made up or just untrue is, at the moment, secondary. What’s important to note is that biases don’t spontaneously spring into existence. There is a process that takes place. The stronger biases tend to have the backing of some tradition that imbues the convictions of a group of people into the conscience of the generations that follow.
But if we give ourselves the privilege of claiming that evidence is inadmissible because of bias, why is it not also good enough to object to that objection itself simply by saying that the original objection is invalid because of bias? After all, no man is an island, and everyone’s impacted by the ideas that ebb and flow in society. The self-refutation is ironic in that it is not typically easily discerned. Everyone has a particular vantage point and at any given moment of one’s choosing, may object to any number of things by charging others with bias. This does little to affirm his primary arguments. At best it acknowledges the vantage point of the people whose positions he’s interested in objecting to without any acknowledgment of the same dilemma that he’s facing without anything whatsoever to prove his claims to reality. Making this kind of charge is a bit like refusing to hear the testimonies of witnesses to a particular crime just because they witnessed the crime, and now supposedly, as a result, their perspective is tarnished by a ‘bias’ of their personal desire.
If we can dismiss the historical claims of the New Testament authors by claiming it to be merely the result of bias, then perhaps we should also reject the work of a good chemist simply because he’s biased towards chemistry? Or perhaps dismiss the work of great archaeologist merely because he’s got leanings towards ‘old stuff.’ Absurd, right? When people are expressing a preference, then this manner of speaking may have some significance – an artist would have a favorable view of art. A musician would have a favorable view of music. And one person or large groups of us don’t have to prefer them, have any opinions about them or even care about those things. We can choose an entirely different set of preferences of our own. But when it comes to truth claims, this particular argument does not work. Truth claims are not expressions of subjective preference. They are explicit and objective claims to reality. And when it comes to history, we are not speaking about preferences, but trying to determine truth against falsehood.
A personal conviction may be the result of what some would call “bias.” But it can also be the result of a set of events. If a personal conviction is the product of historical facts or eyewitness accounts, it does not qualify as a bias. A belief that typically comes after one is convinced of the compelling of the facts cannot be utilized to discredit the testimony itself because of a supposed bias. To make a claim to the contrary is to put the cart before the horse. The ‘bias’ may be the result of events, not the cause, nor the reason we can use to reject the authenticity and veracity of the testimonies themselves.
Now, what of the actual substance of the charge of Christian “bias” as a way to dismiss the New Testament documents – is there any merit to that? Very few consider the fact that the earliest Christians were of Jewish cultural and theological heritage. As such, they did not have a “Christian” bias. If anything they would have had a “Jewish” bias. The Jewish Scriptures contained (and still do) the promise of a Messiah, who would restore Israel. The Jews who persisted in their Judaism in the first century and those who continue to do so, are awaiting that Messiah. The Jews (and increasingly Gentiles) who were convinced that Jesus was that Messiah began to believe in Jesus, which is what caused the split of Judaism into what later became known as “Christianity.” The Jews of the first century had no “Christian” bias. In fact, they were seen by the Jews as polytheists and heretics.
“Skeptics must provide more than alternative theories to the Resurrection; they must provide first-century evidence for those theories.” – Gary Habermas (quoted in, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler, Frank Turek)
These people abandoned their cultural and theological heritage to embrace what was seen to the religious leaders of the day, to be a blasphemous belief system that centralized the deification of a poor carpenter. The number of foreign concepts that was required of them to embrace, which they did quite willingly, was quite astounding. For Jesus, the early Israelite believers gave up their core monolithic view of God that did not explicitly include any dynamic triunity, which was readily available to them and had been for thousands of years. As far as the culture was concerned, they compromised this belief system by making room for the trinitarian view of God, which was obviously deemed to be heretical. This is one of the main reasons why Jesus was crucified – the religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God, and thus, equal with God and therefore, God Himself.
Secondly, these early believers were readily willing to be ostracized for their apparent apostasy from Judaism. They were denounced by the Jewish religious leaders, persecuted, brutalized, stoned to death. They had little to gain by going against the grain of their cultural orthodoxy. And the notion that they withstood all of this with such resilience without having witnessed something that could not possibly have warranted this sort of stand is preposterous. If their inclination of siding with the theology expounded by Jesus was merely a matter of preference, how much of this kind of persecution would be needed for them to simply change their preference? But if their convictions were the result of what they witnessed and knew, in other words, if it was base on facts, then this persistence is easily explained, as it is extremely difficult to be convinced of something you know for a fact is not true, based on personal experience.
While the intent of the writers of the NT narratives was meant to communicate the word of God, and to provide an account of man’s dealings with God, and God’s continual revelation of himself through Christ to the world in a very real historical sense, skepticism of the narratives based solely on the claim that the source is “Christian” or “biased” is one giant mistake. If the intent of the writers were to merely propagate their faith regardless of the facts, it should strike us as an incredible oddity that they took great pains to document actual historical details along with the lies they supposedly spread, often claimed to be the result of a ’bias.’
‘Oh, but the person who’s come to believe such things could be merely defending his views despite the knowledge deep down that what he’s espousing is wrong.’ Well, we know some people who do this. What appears to militate against that argument, however, is the way people carry themselves and what is said about them, and written about them. For example, the early Christians were readily willing to expose hypocrisy, heresy, and apostasy, but no _early_ credible charge of hypocrisy has ever been unearthed about any of the writers of the NT, nor any of the faithful believers. What we find instead is a very straightforward and credible attestation to the genuine faith of these people written by others living virtually during the same time period. Additionally, if this were indeed the case, then the person espousing such beliefs would be acutely aware that he is lying, even if he is not willing to admit this to anyone else. But that would entail that he’s willing to undergo persecution for things that he knows to be false. Imagine going through such horrible persecution as the early church did, all the while being aware that recanting the testimony you were fully aware was a sham anyway, would end your misery and set you free. Imagine being unwilling to put a stop to such torture and insisting that the lie you knew for a fact was a lie, was the truth. One would think that even the most ardent of masochist would eventually recant his false testimony and end his false confession when faced with the possibility of a cruel death by being burned alive or being fed to the wild animals in the Coliseum, as was frequently done to Christians in first century Rome.
‘But people can be genuinely wrong about something they believe in.’ True. But the Bible tells us that hundreds of people saw Jesus alive after his death and resurrection. Ancient non-Christian sources tell us that Christianity was a rapidly growing phenomenon. The biblical narratives also tell us that people talked with Jesus and ate with him after his death and resurrection. These people specifically would be far less reliant on information being provided to them by others rather than the experience, which they had for themselves. Incidentally, the brazen stand by so many martyrs would be entirely consistent with the accuracy of their testimony. Let’s also remember that these people were not brought up with Christianity. Most were castigated as heretics by the Jews and were charged with atheism by the Romans because they would not acknowledge the Roman gods and pay homage in worship to Caesar. Apart from the implications of the truthfulness of their testimony, there was absolutely nothing to be gained. And yet, they insisted on these truths even as they were being crucified, beheaded, pierced, burned alive and fed to wild animals.
‘But their testimony cannot be reliable because we know that supernatural things do not happen.’ This is where the claim of the supposed ‘bias’ of the early Christians should be scrutinized the most, and it can be done easily by providing a mirror to the person making such a claim. It would seem that the skeptic who is boldly proclaiming that Christian sources were biased, has himself undertaking the presumption of philosophical naturalism as his bias against anything supernatural possibly ever happening. As such, evidence to the contrary to his preconceived view is without question deemed unacceptable. And this bias is a real one, one which informs and puts limitations on the information that will be admissible. Any testimony, therefore, regardless of how valid and truthful, if it falls outside the parameters of his worldview, he will quickly dispense of since such evidence if inconsistent with what he holds. Such a person would not seem to be interested in truth at all, but only after the kinds of facts and figures (generally twisted) that would support his premises and bolster his own worldview, despite the veracity of any other competing worldview, without regard to logical plausibility, testing, explanatory power and scope. To avoid this bias one would have to be open-minded about truth claims and favor humility and truth above self-pride. To close a mind to a particular conclusion merely because of displeasure with such a conclusion is pure self-delusion since such a position will lead one to happily embrace potential falsehoods, all the while hatefully rejecting the truth. The truth does set you free, often from your own self.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.
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