In his book How We Got Our Bible (1) Bill Donahue says there are four tests that are used to determine the reliability of any statement or document. They are the Character Test, the Corroboration Test, the Conviction Test, and the Consistency Test. Donahue says if a document meets all four tests, then there is strong evidence for the reliability of that document.
Let’s look at these tests with regard to the Bible.
Character Test: The historical accounts in the Bible contain details of the author’s lives some of which are not very flattering. If I were to write about my life, I most likely wouldn’t include all the times my actions were less than stellar. But the accounts in the Bible give us the good, the bad, and the ugly along with the times when great faith was exhibited. The authors were eyewitnesses to the events which occurred and all indications are they were men of integrity who recounted the events accurately.
Corroboration Test: The authors of the Bible travelled extensively and lived in different places, yet the events they wrote about do not contradict. In the New Testament, the apostles were sent out to preach the gospel message. Peter went to Samaria and Caesarea. Paul went on three missionary journeys and proclaimed the gospel from Syria to Rome. Paul founded churches in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. James stayed in Jerusalem and led the Jerusalem church. They wrote their accounts years apart in vastly different locations. Yet the details of their accounts are the same. “The Bible is remarkably accurate and unified.”
Conviction Test: Did the authors of the Bible believe in what they were writing about? They believed in their message enough to endure severe hardships, torture and even death for those beliefs. This is confirmed in biblical and nonbiblical history.
Consistency Test: We know the over 40 authors of the Bible wrote over a period of about 1500 years. They lived on three different continents and were from very different walks of life. Yet each topic in the Bible is consistently dealt with throughout Scripture. "The Bible has a clear and unified body of teaching.”
Donahue says, “No one test alone is strong enough. For example, anyone can have convictions and be sincerely wrong or misinformed. And people with good character make mistakes. But when you combine strong personal character, unwavering conviction, corroborated evidence by multiple eyewitnesses (followers of Christ and non-followers alike) and consistent treatment of subject matter, you have a strong case for the reliability of the documents of the Old and New Testaments.”
I am blown away by the consistency of the Bible - how as you move through each historic era and God’s redemptive plan for mankind unfolds - it all connects together with a consistent message. He is a loving merciful God who provided a way for us to be with Him.
But as I think about the four tests of reliability of a document I am particularly in awe of the conviction of the New Testament writers.
Peter denied the Lord several times and deserted Him. What would have given this coward the courage to boldly proclaim the Gospel in Jerusalem?
The disciples went into hiding when Jesus was arrested and crucified. They were afraid and in grief at the death of their Lord, but suddenly they went out into the world risking their lives.
James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t believe his brother was the Son of God. But after Jesus' resurrection James was boldly preaching the Gospel. James became the leader of the Jerusalem church. What caused this skeptic to suddenly change? 1 Corinthians 15:7 tells us James saw the resurrected Christ.
We know the writers and followers of Christ went to their deaths proclaiming Christ and what He had done.
Part of page 449, The Complete Guide to the Bible by Stephen M. Miller (affiliate link)
What do we know about their deaths? The Bible tells us that the disciple Judas Iscariot felt remorse at betraying Jesus and went out and hung himself. The death of James the son of Zebedee is recorded in Acts 12:2. We know of the other apostle’s deaths from early church tradition. There are contradictions in some of the accounts.
I compiled a list of how the apostles died by starting with the list from The Complete Guide to the Bible by Stephen M. Miller (2) and looking at several other resources. Where sources were in conflict, I put “Not sure.”
Simon Peter. “Crucified at Rome with his head downward,” wrote Origen.
Andrew. Crucified on an X-shaped cross.
James, son of Zebedee. Beheaded with a sword by King Herod Agrippa. The first apostle to die as a martyr. Mentioned in the Bible in Acts 12:2.
John. Died a natural death in about AD 100 at what is now Ephesus, Turkey. Still suffered greatly by being exiled on the prison island of Patmos.
Philip. Crucified in Turkey.
Bartholomew. Not sure. One tradition has he was skinned alive and beheaded after preaching in India. The Martyrdom of Bartholomew says he was stuffed in a sack and dumped in the sea. I saw in two sources he was flayed with a whip.
Thomas. Speared to death in what is now India after starting several churches there.
Matthew. Not sure. Martyred with an ax or a sword in Ethiopia. Another tradition says he was burned to death. He may have died of natural causes.
James, son of Alphaeus. Not sure. May have been crucified.
Thaddaeus. Not sure. Crucified or hacked to death with Simon, the Zealot in Iran.
Simon the Zealot. Not sure. Crucified with Thaddaeus in Iran. Another story says he was cut in two with a saw.
Matthias. Stoned and beheaded.
The apostle Paul was reportedly beheaded around A.D. 67 on the orders of Emperor Nero. Paul was a Roman citizen and would have been exempt from a death by lingering torture (such as crucifixion or stoning.) Paul's conversion from a Pharisee who persecuted Christians to a believer who suffered imprisonments, lashes, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked,... for his faith in Jesus as the Christ is especially astonishing (read 2 Corinthians 11:21-27.)
According to Halley’s Bible Handbook (3), the martyrdom of the apostle James, the Lords’ brother, leader of the Jerusalem Church, was recorded by Josephus (a Jewish historian); and Hegesippus (a Christian historian of the second century), and the narrative was accepted by Eusebius. (Another source says Clement of Alexandria also recorded James death.) In A.D. 62 many Jews in Jerusalem were embracing Christianity and the High-Priest, Ananus, and the Scribes and the Pharisees commanded James, “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ,” to state from one of the galleries of the temple that Jesus was not the Messiah. But James cried out instead that Jesus was the Son of God and Judge of the world. They hurled him to the ground. He survived the fall and while he was on his knees praying for God to forgive them, they stoned him.
It is not so important the exact method each apostle died, as it is that they were willing to suffer horrendous brutal deaths for what they believed.
Many people have died for a lie, but they did so believing it was the truth. If the Resurrection had not happened, obviously the disciples would have known it.
Who would die for a lie, knowing it was a lie?
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.
- C.S. Lewis, English author and Christian apologist
Overnight Jesus’ followers went from hiding from the Roman and Jewish authorities to becoming courageous evangelists! The only logical conclusion is they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had seen Jesus alive from the dead. They were convinced Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
These men did not die for a lie. They died for the truth.
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Books mentioned in this post:
Bill Donahue, How We Got Our Bible, (Willow Creek Association, 2000), 25-26
Stephen M. Miller, The Complete Guide to the Bible, (Barbour Publishing, 2007), 368-369
Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, (Halley’s Bible Handbook, Inc., 1965), 657