A Historiographical Critique of Modern Biblical Skepticism


The goal of this post is not to delve deep within a philosophical discourse or theological treatise, but rather to examine some critical ideas within Christian historical and theological thought to fully flesh out the context of the narrative of Jesus Christ in history. The thesis discussed is whether the narratives are historic in their own right and not assented to merely on the basis of faith and whether there is enough evidence on historical and cultural grounds to reasonably hold any historicity of the narrative of Jesus Christ. Why is this important? In many contemporary discussions, skeptics like Bart Ehrman have become skeptical of the narrative of the gospels and have claimed their skepticism is rooted in the contradictions of the text with other historical understandings. Naturally, the challenges from scholars like Ehrman have indicated the importance of answering this skeptical age’s demand for ‘evidence’ for claims of historicity and truth. A significant characteristic of Christianity is that it is stubbornly a historical faith; it makes historic claims; the greatest claim being that Jesus Christ rose from dead.

The secular critique is based mostly on the lack of verifying secular historical documents and archaeological evidence – not on the existence of contradictory evidence. Scholars, like Bart Ehrman, use a minimal approach towards evidence within the historiographical record in an attempt to create these counter traditional Christian historiography.  The study of writing history—historiography and a basic understanding of how people wrote their particular accounts of the past in their culture—called historicism, must be fully considered when concluding the truth of the gospels as historical documents. Furthermore, the indication that a source has other confirmation sources (as the gospels do confirm each other in the tradition with the epistles of St. Paul), and shows to have the intention of writing an accurate historic account unless contradicted by any other evidence, should be considered an authentic account until further evidence is discovered. Pope Benedict XVI understands this approach when examining ancient documents when he cites Klaus Berger’s commentary on the New Testament, ““Even when there is only a single attestation … one must suppose, until the contrary is proven, that the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers, but rather to inform them concerning historical events … to contest the historicity of this account on mere suspicion exceeds every imaginable competence of historians”[1]

The minimalist school of thought from the skeptical approach by some scholars with a minimalist reading of the documents which attempt to discredit historical documents because there is no archaeology to verify particular historical events is anti-historical and needs to be rejected. The consequence of such an approach leads to a challenge of all ancient history, which has fewer manuscripts than the thousands of written manuscripts like the gospels. Werner Keller wrote in his book The Bible as History, “Archaeology cannot produce extensive evidence from the world of the New Testament. For the life of Christ offers nothing that would leave any material traces on this earth: neither royal palaces nor temples, neither victorious campaigns nor burnt cities and countrysides . . . no manuscript of any classical author has come down to posterity in anything like so many ancient copies as the scriptures of the New Testament. They can be numbered in the thousands, and the oldest and most venerable among them are only a few decades removed from the time of Christ.”[2]

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 119.

[2] Werner Keller, The Bible of History (New York: William Morrow, 1965), 356.