Is the Bible a reliable historical document? Can we trust it?
How can we know the truth of the Bible?
A careful examination of the introduction to Luke’s gospel gives us a lot to think about.
After all, he wrote it to someone asking exactly the same questions.
Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. — Luke 1:1-4 (HCSB)
On the surface, it looks like nothing more than Luke’s dedication to his patron Theophilus. Theophilus means “lover of God,” so some scholars think it is just a dedication to a generic Christian and not an actual person. Others think the dedication actually goes to a Greek named Theophilus.
If Theophilus is an individual, he may not necessarily have been a Christian. He may have heard a lot of preaching, but not yet persuaded that it was true.
In that case, perhaps Luke writes not so much a dedication but an answer to a question: How can Theophilus trust what he hears or reads? How, indeed, can anyone else? Who is this Jesus, anyway?
How can we know that anything we hear or read about him is true and not just legend? Theophilus represents everyone who wonders about Bible truth today.
By the time Luke wrote his gospel, at least thirty years had passed since the events he described. That would be like someone today writing about the Camp David accords, Kramer vs Kramer’s Academy Award, the beginning of the space shuttle program, or the greatest hits of the BeeGees.
Or it would be if the society of Luke’s day had had the sheer volume of writing that we do now. Back then, people had to rely much more on oral tradition for their understanding of the past–even the recent past.
People who want to be sure they can trust what they read–about any subject–want to know how the author came with his facts. They want to know something about the author himself that would give them reason to trust him.
Why would it have been any different two thousand years ago? What does it matter if someone is questioning the truth of a written document (the Bible or anything else presented as factual) or the spoken word?
Writings and teachings about Jesus before Luke’s gospel
Before reading Luke’s writings, what could Theophilus have known about Christianity? After Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles preached about his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension as eye witnesses. They repeated many of the same stories over and over again.
As the apostles established churches, they had to train leaders. They had to teach them the stories and their meaning. After a while, more and more of the leaders had no personal acquaintance either with the events surrounding Jesus’ life or with the apostles. They had to rely either on learning and memorizing the oral tradition or pass around notes.
By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Mark had written one, but it’s so short and lacking in detail that in the next century, he was nicknamed “Stumpy Fingers!” Tradition says that Matthew had written one in Aramaic. No trace of it remains. It’s not at all clear if the Greek version existed yet when Luke wrote.
So Theophilus could certainly have heard a number of oral teachings that supposedly dated back to the apostles. He may or may not have encountered the earlier written gospels or the notes used by various teachers.
That’s essentially what Luke meant when he said that many had undertaken to draw up an account. The oral tradition supported by various written notes had wide circulation. Perhaps a number of teachers had tried to put everything together for their own use.
Which teachings were the most reliable? And how was Theophilus to know? No one could yet ask about Bible truth, because there was no Bible yet. Many could and did ask about the truth of all the stories going around. So Luke investigated and wrote so Theophilus would know the certainty of the gospel.
An archeologist’s view of Luke’s reliability
William Ramsey, a British archeologist needed to read every ancient document he could get his hands on in preparation for a long project on the Roman Empire. He was initially skeptical of the usefulness of the Bible, but his field work changed his mind.
In 1895 he reported that he had found Luke (also author of the book of Acts) absolutely reliable in the details of geography and structure of the various political units he described. If Theophilus knew Luke well, and knew how careful he was about truth and getting all the details right, Luke’s statement that he had personally investigated everything provided all Theophilus needed to know to trust his account.
Christians need to exercise faith that the Holy Spirit inspired all of Scripture. In order to get us to that faith in Bible truth, He has included passages like this one from Luke that provide some natural assurances that we can trust the Bible.
People who are not Christian, but genuinely interested in discovering if it is reliable, can read the works of scholars like Ramsey, who started as skeptics and spent years grappling with the details. Fortunately, Ramsey’s St. Paul the traveller and Roman citizen (1898 revision) has been digitized, and anyone can read it on the web.
If you are honestly asking the same questions Theophilus did, please do.