Alexander the Great, also known as Alexander III, was one of the most successful military commanders in history. By the time of his death, one month shy of his 33rd birthday, Alexander managed to conquer most of the known world. He was the child of Phillip II of Macedonia, and his exploits and conquests far exceeded those of his father. He was educated by Aristotle and had a thorough grasp of science and medicine, and was a master of rhetoric and philosophy. Alexander defeated the Persian Empire and invaded India. He was courageous, compassionate to his men, loyal to his friends and ambitious. In short, Alexander truly lived up to the “Great” name ascribed to him.
How do we know all of this information? The first answer might be that some middle aged professor of world history, with tortoise shell glasses slipping off his nose, taught it to us from a 40 pound text book at eight AM while we were in college (such was the case with me). That, however, only deals with one dimension of the question. How do we collectively, as a society, know this information? Where did the pointy-headed academics find it, so that they could put it into their textbook that cost us $64.50 at the campus bookstore?
They got it from Plutarch and Arrian, the two earliest biographers of Alexander. Archeology has been used to validate their record, but everyone who has written about Alexander has used Plutarch and Arrian as their source material.
Historians consider Plutarch and Arrian to be trustworthy and we speak about Alexander the Great using definitive statements of fact. However, would it effect your perception of the facts of his life to know that Plutarch and Arrian wrote their biographies more than 400 years after Alexander’s death? These are, by no means, eyewitness accounts.
Why the history lesson? I recently caused a dear friend of mine to temporarily loose all ability to speak when I told him that, yes, I believe that Scripture is the inerrant, divinely inspired word of God. He was completely flabbergasted that I, a seemingly intelligent and college-educated individual, would ascribe truth to something as obviously unreliable as the Bible.
Many people, who have no reservation quoting Plutarch in order to give a factual account of the life of Alexander the Great, scoff at the record Holy Scripture provides us of the life of Jesus Christ. Secular scholars put just as much faith in the writers of antiquity as Christians place in the Writer of Holy Scripture – and with much less historical evidence to justify that faith – and are unapologetic. We Christians must also be bold in giving the reason for the hope we have; for proclaiming the life-giving message of Scripture: that God has redeemed fallen, sinful man as he has promised, by the work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“We know very little about Jesus. The first full-length account of his life was St. Mark’s Gospel, which was not written until about the year AD 70, some forty years after his death. By that time, historical facts had been overlaid with mythical elements which expressed the meaning Jesus had acquired for his followers. It is this meaning that St. Mark primarily conveys rather than a reliable straightforward portrayal,” (Armstrong, 79).
In other words, the Gospels were written after the fact, preserve no reliable, meaningful historical information, and paint a portrait of Jesus that was a product of imposed religious belief. They do not record the true Jesus; merely Christianity’s evolved mythology of him.
Christianity teaches that Holy Scripture is the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God, written by Him through men under inspiration by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christianity teaches that the original autographs of Scripture are completely free from human error or inconsistency. Any typographical and/or copy editing errors in the manuscripts we possess today are the result of sinful, fallen man.
Let us, though, set the theological aside for a moment. Is there any reason to believe that Scripture, particularly the Gospels, is not simply a collection of mythology, or have they been hopelessly compromised and fallen victim to the ravages of time?
By the standards of a historian, there is logical reason to trust the Gospels. Compared to Plutarch, we have many more manuscripts from diverse locations that can be compared so as to find any deviation. Also, whereas Plutarch and Arrian are 400 years removed from the events they chronicle, the Gospels are dated to within 20-30 years of the crucifixion. Craig L. Bloomberg, an authority on the Gospels, concurs, in an interview recorded in the book, "The Case for Christ":
“[The Book of Acts] cannot be dated any later than AD 62…Since Acts is the second of a two part work, we know the first part – the Gospel of Luke – must have been written earlier than that. And since Luke incorporates parts of the Gospel of Mark, that means Mark is even earlier…we’re talking about a maximum gap of thirty years or so,” (Strobel, 34).
It seems as though 30 years is much smaller of a window for discrepancy to creep in, compared with 400 years. Yet, Plutarch is not questioned, St. Mark is.
Consider other works of antiquity. The more copies of a work that exists, the more opportunities there are to cross check for errors, deviation, and discrepancy. Approximately 650 Greek manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad survive, and they date from 900 to 1,000 years after the work was originally composed.
By contrast, more than 5,000 Greek copies of original manuscripts have been found dating back to about 100 – 150 AD. Among these second generation manuscripts, only a relative handful of textual discrepancies exist, none of which effect doctrinal issues. In the book “The Case For Christ”, Biblical scholar Bruce M. Metzger comments on this:
“The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity…Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad, which was the bible of ancient Greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Some are quite fragmentary. They come down to us from the second and third century AD and following. When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800 BC, you can see there’s a very lengthy gap,” (Strobel, 60).
Lutherans, in order to discern God’s intended meaning, read the Scriptures as historical, literary documents. This method, the Historical-Grammatical approach, seeks the meaning of Scripture in the text itself, not from some special revelation or extra-biblical source. Scripture is the written word of God – not a primarily human witness to revelation, and thus not subject to human failings. Scripture, like Our Lord, has two natures – the human and the divine – and has them equally and fully.
I am reminded of the ad campaign for RCA Victor records. Their advertising icon was a little dog sitting in front of a victrola, with its head cocked to one side as though listening to a recording. The caption under the picture was, “His master’s voice”, implying that the recording was so lifelike that the dog could recognize the call of his master, even though it was artificially reproduced from scratches on wax plates.
Over time, as we all know, the stylus of the record player will scratch and pit the grooves of the record, causing static and popping noises to obscure the recording. However, through those imperfections, the pure recording still exists and can still be heard. Such is the case with Scripture. Though while in man’s stewardship, God’s record may have become slightly scratched and pitted, the original perfect recording still remains, and can still be known.
Through all the human static, we can still hear our master’s voice.