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Persuasive Themes in Historical Apologetics

By John Y. May –

Our aim is to identify several dominant themes highlighted in historical apologetics. These subjects are often mentioned by leading proponents of this method of defense, including such names as John W. Montgomery, Gary R. Habermas, Frederick F. Bruce, Bernard L. Ramm, and a whole host of biblical studies specialists.

Emphasis on Facts and Historical Data

Gary R. Habermas, historian, suggests that apologetics should stress that historical argumentation is considered to “be both the strongest, as well as the most versatile data” l for this endeavor. It is not only a legitimate avenue, he maintains, but may be the best way to proceed in Christian defense.2

This approach begins with focusing primarily on facts and events. Bernard L. Ramm, philosopher-theologian, reminded us: “By showing the tangency of the Bible to material fact we show its factuality and relevancy to this actually existing world.”3 John W. Montgomery, historian and legal scholar, affirms that the “New Testament writers seem to go out of their way to assert the full facticity of the gospel events.”4

“The Bible, after all, is a record of events; the gospel is good news about something that has happened,” insisted J. Gresham Machen.5 Peter F. Jensen concurs that the gospel recounts the greatest of God’s acts. Without these events the gospel would be void since these events are the gospel.6 “The crucial point,” Edinburgh scholar James S. Stewart claimed, “is that it [New Testament] was dealing with events, not abstractions or theories…but concrete, actual events localized in time and space.”7

”The Scriptures,” Edward J. Carnell reported, “witness to a body of redemptive events that are as much a part of history as the voyage of Columbus.”8 The very essence of the biblical gospel, Philip E. Hughes asserted, is its indissoluble connection with particular historical events proclaimed as the acts of God himself.9 Herbert Butterfield, Cambridge historian, concluded:

“[T]he Bible itself conveys a message to men by the narration and exposition of historical events in general…. Christianity…has rooted it’s most characteristic and daring assertions in that ordinary realm of history…………………. “10

Genuineness of Biblical Sources

One important concern is the authenticity of the scriptural records available to us. What assurance do we have that we are in possession of credible texts that make up our Old and New Testaments? The manuscripts we have, it turns out, are substantially representative of the original writings. For the sake of brevity, our observations here will be limited to the New Testament narratives.

“When archaeology provides us with the material for tracing the text of the New Testament farther back and establishing it on a firmer basis,” textual expert F. F. Bruce asserted, “it renders an inestimable service to Biblical studies.”11 Frederick C. Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and archaeologist, pointed out:

“The interval then between the dates of original com­ position and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible and the last foundation for doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”12

A.T. Robertson noted that when we consider all the copyings and translations, it is a marvel how accurately the text of the New Testament can be restored today free from heresy or real error.13 Robert C. Newman argues that “If there is any reason for confidence in having substantially the original texts for other ancient historians, we have more for the Gospels.”14

Princeton textual expert Bruce M. Metzger agreed that we have great confidence in the fidelity with which this [New Testament] material has come down to us especially compared with any other ancient literary work.15 F. F. Bruce emphasized:

“The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning…. in point of fact there is much more evidence for the New Testament than for other ancient writings of comparable date.”16

Accuracy and Historical Reliability of Biblical Documents

Established, then, is the confidence we have in the integrity and dependable quality of the recognized textual sources. A related issue is that of the accuracy and historical reliability of their contents.  Observe, then, the attention to factual, historical scrutiny.

Historical revelation is real, Bernard Ramm contended, in the sense that it does take place according to the typical categories of history.17 John W. Montgomery also recognizes: “Christianity …declares that the truth of its…claims rests squarely on certain historical facts, open to ordinary investigation.”18 As regarding Christ himself, F. F. Bruce stated, “the historical facts…are our court of appeal…for the establishment of truth.”19

These factual assertions often are directed to crucial events. V. Philips Long, historian, alleges: “History, or more precisely the historicity of certain core events recorded in the Old and New Testaments, is Indispensable to the vitality…of the Christian faith.”20 Francis R. Steele, archaeologist, emphasized that “scores of historical events recorded in the Bible have been confirmed, often in minute detail. The names of kings and generals, people and nations, all lost to us for centuries — apart from the Biblical record — are now known from contemporaneous monuments and records which exhibit remarkable agreement with the Hebrew text.”21 Legal scholar J. N. D. Anderson stressed:

“Here [in the N.T.] is a faith…firmly rooted in certain allegedly historical events, a faith which would be false and misleading if those events had not actually taken place.”22

High regard or the reliability and trustworthiness of the Scriptures is enhanced by archaeological research. Allan A. MacRae declared that archaeology “has produced many bits of interesting confirmatory evidence as to the accuracy and dependability of both the Old and New Testaments.”23 The past century of archaeological research, Francis R. Steele commented, has demonstrated in hundreds of instances that the Bible contains a remarkably accurate record of ancient history.24 Edward M. Blaiklock, classics scholar, remarked:

“It is important to note that Near Eastern archaeology has demonstrated the historical and geographical reliability of the Bible in many important areas.”25

Looking first at the Old Testament, linguist Robert D. Wilson indicated that the chronological and geographic statements are more accurate and reliable than those offered by any other ancient documents, and the biographical and other historical narratives harmonize with the evidence afforded by extra-biblical documents.26 “In terms of general reliability,” archaeologist Kenneth A. Kitchen explained, “the Old Testament comes out remarkedly well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and evenhandedly, in line with independent data, open to all.”27

Similarly, John W. Montgomery advises us that the documents on which the case for Christianity depends are the New Testament writings, for they claim to have been written by eyewitnesses or by close associates of eyewitnesses.28 He says: “On the basis of accepted principles of textual and historical analysis, the Gospel records are found to be trustworthy historical documents — primary source evidence for the life of Christ.”29 The Epistles, like the Gospels and Acts, are documents of first-century history, Edward M. Blaiklock mentioned, and afford a glimpse into…life not to be disregarded by the serious student of ancient history.30 Montgomery advocates:

“What, then, does a historian know about Jesus Christ? He knows, first and foremost, that the New Testament documents can be relied upon to give an accurate portrait of him. And he knows that this portrait cannot be rationalized away by wishful thinking… or literary maneuvering.”31

Keystone of Christian Veracity: The Resurrection

Christ’s resurrection is both event and doctrine. As event, it is a historical happening enjoying remarkable evidentiary support. John W. Montgomery points out:

“Christ’s resurrection can be examined by non-Christians as well as by Christians. Its factual character, when considered in the light of the claims of the One raised from the dead, points not to a multiplicity of equally possible interpretations, but to a single ‘best’ interpretation (to an interpretation most consistent with the data) “32

Detailed elaboration of the evidence for the resurrection will not be furnished here.33 That extensive evidence covers four main avenues: (1) the credibility of the documentary sources. (2) the empty tomb, (3) the testimony of convincing post-death appearances, and (4) the value of the cumulative case.

As to doctrine, the resurrection functions at the central core of the gospel message and meaning. Jesus’ resurrection is inseparably connected to both revelation and redemption. Concerning revelation, the God who spoke to Moses on the mountain and guided the traveling Israelites by means of a visible cloud and fire, now showed himself supremely and fully in the person of Jesus Christ. Any guesswork about the revelation agenda is forever removed though God’s disclosure today primarily through (a) a reliable, written account — the Bible, and (b) its focus on the risen Lord (Heb. 1:1,2; John 14:9).

Likewise, the resurrection confirmed God’s redemptive plan. If there was any doubt about God’s intentions in sending Christ to earth, this was replaced with Christ’s demonstrative victory over death (1 Pet. 1:3; Rom. 4:25). His saving work on our behalf is now clearly evident as the definitive solution to our moral dilemma. Edinburgh scholar Thomas F. Torrance summarized:

“The wholeness and integrity of the Gospel are surely at stake here, for our redemption stands or falls with the reality of the risen body of Jesus Christ…. Reconciliation between man and God through the initiative of God’s grace is finally achieved and consummated in the resurrection….”34

We have now briefly highlighted several topics commonly employed in historical apologetics. Convinced that these can be beneficial in advancing gospel proclamation and acceptance, we commend their widespread use.



lGary R. Habermas, Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 193.

2Ibid., 338.

3Bemard L. Ramm, Protestant Christian Evidences (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954), 17.

4John   W.  Montgomery,   Where   Is   History   Going?   (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1972), 107.

5J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 9.

6Peter F. Jensen, The Revelation of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 88.

7James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 16.

8Edward J. Carnell, The Kingdom of Love and the Pride of Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 145.

9Philip E. Hughes, “The Truth of Scripture and the Problem of Historical Relativity” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson & John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995): 178.

lOHerbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 3.

llF. F. Bruce, “Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958):323.

12Frederick C. Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology (New York: Harper & Bros., 1940), 288.

13A. T. Robertson, “The Transmission of the New Testament” in The Abingdon Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1942), 866.

14Robert C. Newman, Chap. 5.3 in Evidence for Faith, ed. J. W. Montgomery (Dallas: Probe, 1991), 295.

15Bruce M. Metzger, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 63.

16F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed., (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 15. Again, he claimed: “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (New Jersey: Revell, 1964), 168.

17Bernard L. Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 94. He reassured us: “The backbone of Scripture is history. If we ask descriptively speaking what category covers more of Scripture than any other, we must say that it is history.” Ramm, “Scripture as a Theological Concept,” in Review and Expositor 71 (Spring 1974), no. 2: 150.

18John W. Montgomery, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity” in Evidence for Faith (Dallas: Probe Books, 1991), 319.

19F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 86.

20v. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 94. Also, he suggests that “historians should acknowledge that in terms of the biblical worldview, actual historical truth claims are being made.” Long, Israel’s Past in Present Research (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 588.

21Francis R. Steele, “God in History,” Eternity (Nov. 1951): 45.

22J. N. D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale Press, 1969), 13.

23Allan A. MacRae, Biblical Archaeology (Marshallton, DE: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1967), 57.

24Francis R. Steele, “Those Troublesome Hittites, His (March 1950): 22.

25Edward M. Blaiklock, The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, eds. E. M. Blaiklock and R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), vii.

26Robert D. Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959), 162-163.

27Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 500.

28John W. Montgomery, “The Jury Returns,” 322.

29John W. Montgomery, Where Is History Going?, 35.

30Edward M. Blaiklock, “The Epistolary Literature” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979),552.

31John W. Montgomery, History and Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1972), 40. He makes it clear  that  “in  the final  analysis  the issue of the truth of the resurrection and of  Christ’s claims depends squarely on the reliability of the New Testament records….” Montgomery, “A New Approach to the Apologetic for Christ’s Resurrection by Way of Wigmore’s Juridical Analysis of Evidence,” Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics 3, (2010)  no. 1: 25.  Historian John Dickson  notes: “In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that historians (no matter what their persuasion) universally regard the New Testament writings as the earliest, most plentiful and most reliable sources of information about the Jesus of history.” Dickson, The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know about Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 48.

32John W. Montgomery, Faith Founded on Fact (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 34.

33Readers can consult such works as: J. N. D. Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001); Gary R. Habermas, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), and “The Resurrection of Jesus in History” in The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield,  2003);  William L. Craig,  The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), and Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, NY; Edwin  Mellen, 1989);  and Paul Beasley-Murray, The Message of the Resurrection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).

34Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 66.

Mr. May received his B.A. at Lehigh University, and earned his M.A. degree in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He did additional study at the University of Wisconsin and Drew University. His published articles have appeared in periodicals such as Foundations, Evangelical Journal, Mid-America Journal of Theology, Founder’s Journal, Midwestern Journal of Theology, Emmaus Journal, Ashland Theological Journal, and The Presbyterian Standard.

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