Can we really know what happened? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
On Halloween afternoon and early evening, there was a news story broke about a radical Islamic terrorist that killed multiple people in New York. My wife and I go to Celebrate Recovery on Tuesday nights at our church, so we only got to hear bits and pieces, yet as it turns out, I did hear different things. That evening on the news, I had heard that he got shot in the abdomen. Another report said he got shot in the stomach. Still, another said he got shot in the buttocks.
Yesterday, my wife and I had the news on and heard even more different stories. This time, we heard that he had been shot in the leg and then it was more specifically, the thigh. We could say that this is a later story that is more clear, but as an outsider, I can’t really know. I could hypothetically go to the hospital and see for myself, but that’s not really an option right now.
So what do I gather from all of this? If we were in the area of New Testament studies, there are some things that some people would conclude. For instance, there are some who would be consistent and conclude that there never was a shooting or even that there never was a terrorist. After all, shouldn’t there be agreement?
Some will point to the idea of eyewitness testimony being unreliable. To an extent, it can be, but there are cases where it isn’t. In a time of chaos when people are dying around you and you could be looking out to save your own life, you might not remember everything that happens well. There will be some things you would not be at all mistaken about. You would not be mistaken about being at the scene or seeing a terrorist mowing down people in a vehicle and you would likely remember the peace that came when he was taken down.
I also often think that if we want to see how reliable testimony is over time, we need to check with people whose lives were significantly impacted by the event in question. Consider 9/11. Who is more likely to remember and relive the events in their mind over and over? Is it someone who was a passerby on the street and knew no one who worked in the towers, or is it someone who lost a spouse on that day? I don’t know of any such study like this, but it would be good to see it done.
When we compare this to the Gospels, there can be times that there are supposed contradictions that do differ on minor details. I am not saying all differences are like this, but many are. These are differences much like the shooting of the terrorist. It might be unclear to those of us on the outside without direct proof to know where the terrorist was shot, but we all know that he was. (Well, aside from perhaps some fringe conspiracy theorists who are no doubt convinced this was all staged, but then that is an apt comparison with the mythicist community.)
Minor differences do not do anything to change the fact of the major events. Someone might be tempted to say that it’s different when we talk about the New Testament. It’s supposed to be the Word of God isn’t it? At this point then, one is treating the New Testament with an entirely different standard. You’re not doing history so much as you’re doing religion. There is no reason to have a position where either all of it is true or none of it is true.
Instead, one can approach it much like any other document. Sure, there might be a few differences, but does that detract from the major points? Note I am not saying you have to sacrifice Inerrancy at all. I am saying you do not have to make it everything.
So what happened in NYC? A radical Muslim terrorist killed several people and was stopped when he was shot. Do I know the minor details beyond that? No. Do I have any reason to believe the major ones are false? No. Do I have justification to believe they are true? Yes.
When we come to the New Testament, we need to do the same. Let’s first see what the major outline of the story is. Then we can work on the minor details. Maybe we won’t even resolve them all, but we can still trust the major points.