Apologetics and Historical Reliability

By way of reminder…why do we do apologetics with our kiddos?  

 “Cultural unrighteousness assaults us from all sides.  It especially overwhelms the young and impressionable.  Countless children are raised in the church only to be lost to the pagan practices of secularism or the futile works-righteousness of Islam.  This is unacceptable.  We must equip our children both with a biblical world-and-life-view and with the skills to outthink their counterparts with sound reasons for the hope that is within them.  We must equip them with the wisdom to influence their culture…”  

Carl Ellis.  Free at Last? The Gospel in the African American Experience; (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL; 1996) 198.

The topic at hand is great in-depth for high schoolers.  Three of the books recommended below will be discussed in our home.  Yet even with my littles in elementary years, as we study ancient history there are plenty of opportunities to discuss the historicity of our faith. Your children will encounter books and conversations with a different worldview; it is our job as parents to prepare them ahead of time, that they may know that Scripture is historically trustworthy. 

As with the rest of this series begun here, this post is offered to introduce you to the topic of studying history for apologetic purposes, I hope you’ll consider adding one of these books to your TBR list.


To know whether you can trust an historical text, you must understand a bit about history, the philosophy of history.  How do historians work with historical texts? How do they deem them trustworthy? This is not a grassroots effort. Most people who question whether you can trust the Bible have no idea how historical study is pursued, nor do they have any knowledge of all the manuscript data we possess.  

“Has God acted in history? …The very thought that God has personally and perceptibly entered into human history should excite the soul.”  (Douglas Gaivett and Gary Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History; (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL; 1997), 276. God has acted, and we have historically reliable texts to delight in and study.  This book of essays covers a vast array of topics, and will prove most enlightening!

Another historian, writing a text book for students of history, says we must begin with an historical awareness, and must guard against reading the past anachronistically.  Most Christians only read the Bible ‘for me’ and fail to ask “who was the original audience of this writing? And how would they have understood it?” The question of who it was originally for is of upmost importance to the historian, the second question informs how the historian writes about the original document in instructing others.  (John Tosh. The Pursuit of History, (Longman: Harlow, England; 2000).

Historians must understand the writings in their historical settings.  (6-7)  Understand context; ancient history was not written as merely a chronological list of facts, and we cannot fault them for that or try to read documents looking for that.  (8)  Modern day government schools prefer text books with lists. No ancient historian wrote that way–we cannot throw out their works because they do not suit us.  

Use primary sources! (page 38ff)  Be immersed in them, and avoid reading into them.  We do not look first to the sources writing about original documents, but to the original documents themselves.  A good historian does his own research– so we who are not professionals should be trusting historians with knowledge of original documents, primary sources.

Finally, we cannot view history as a timeline of progress.  We are not reading about the good old days, nor are we better because that was “way back when…”  from page 14 “If the past exists strictly to validate the achievements of the present, there can be no room for an appreciation of its cultural riches.  Proponents of progress have never been good at understanding periods remote from their own age.”  Overall, this historian discusses how an historian can study history appropriately so as to pass on useful knowledge.  

The Logic of History

Sometimes, our apologetic ventures will have us focus on which primary sources that the critics of Christianity accept as authentic and reliable. Yet, many have attempted to change Christianity by being too selective. This is how Liberal Theology, Neo Orthodoxy, the Jesus Seminar, and the not-at-all-new ‘fad’ of Deconstruction have thrived.  They are so selective that they end up with a Jesus made in their image.  They turn away from primary sources that are historically reliable, and if you are not aware of their tactics you can be fooled by their writings.

I love this book, because Barnett walks through many opponents views, addresses their weaknesses, and builds us up in our faith as we see how history supports (rather than denies) our traditional faith.  Paul Barnett. Jesus and the Logic of History; (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL; 1997).  

Barnett defines history as including “human sayings, thoughts, deeds, and sufferings which occurred in the past and have left a present deposit; and it deals with them from the point of view of happening, change and the particular…seeks to explain them.” 18

“The phenomenon of the coming into existence of early Christianity is well attested.  Its sudden emergence is as historically secure as any event in Palestine in that century.  So the historian asks: what plausible explanation or explanations can be found for this event?” 19. And his book offers an elegant explanation as he examines primary sources.

Barnett teaches the important principals of understanding the bias of your sources, the type of source, and understanding which sources are problematic.  His book then walks through Christian sources, non-Christian sources, and establishes a history of Jesus’ life that is compelling.  There is good cause for trusting what Scripture says about Jesus, an historical study reinforces this.  

When grassroots (groundless) objections arise, they are easily dismissed by the historical data, even if your opponent will not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.  This historicity of our texts are well attested, they are reliable–even if your opponent does not believe in God or His ability to communicate.  The reliability of the text alone can be used to help us guard against doubts that arise, and answer deeply felt barriers to belief for some.  

Minimal facts Method 

For this section, I urge you to put Dr. Gary Habermas’ book on your wishlist.  After discussing current issues and methodology for studying Jesus’ life, Habermas presents a list of facts that critical scholars accept from our well attested texts.  He then uses these facts alone to walk through a “proof” for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Gary Habermas. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ; (College Press Publishing Company: Joplin, MO; 1996).   

The rules historians follow are used here, so all accepted portions will be:  Early and eyewitness accounts, multiple attestation (more than one eyewitness; only one historian writes of Caesar crossing the Rubicon–Suetonius–yet no one disputes this as fact), discontinuity (these critics say you can most sure of), embarrassment (you would only publish if true, because if false you are ruining your own life!), enemy attestation (i.e. the Jews claiming that perhaps apostles stole the body leads scholars to accept that the tomb was empty), coherence.    

Based on these rules, the minimal facts that Habermas discusses include: Jesus death via crucifixion, Jesus’ burial, the disciples despair, the empty tomb, the disciples belief in the appearances of the risen Jesus, the transformation of the disciples’ lives and willingness to die for their faith, early proclamation of the resurrection message, their preaching in Jerusalem, the birth of the Christian Church, Sunday Worship, James’ conversion, Paul’s conversion.

Knowing the methods, and the facts, one can make the case for Jesus’ life, and teaching; and reasonableness of being a disciple. Though establishing the historicity of these facts rarely leads to a conversion, they do quiet a contrary opponent, and allow young believers to realize the rock solid foundation we have for our faith.  As a Christian, I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture; but if conversing with someone who does not, I would always approach the conversation from the reliability of the text, and work towards the reasonableness of trusting what Jesus taught, as well as trusting what is taught throughout concerning life, and the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15) in Christ.  

For further reading:

Check out this recent article by Habermas:


Books I commend to you:

Paul Barnett.  The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years; (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI; 2005).  

Paul Barnett. Jesus and the Logic of History; (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL; 1997). 

Editors Douglas Gaivett and Gary Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History; (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL; 1997).

Gary Habermas. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ; (College Press Publishing Company: Joplin, MO; 1996).

Next week, we will look at C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and the importance of spotting logical fallacies used to deter many from our faith. 

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *