The Bible is a difficult book to believe.
If you try to read the Bible from the beginning, you’ll find yourself face to face with a talking snake and enchanted fruit before you’ve finished the first three chapters. When you run across such plot devices in the works of Rudyard Kipling or the brothers Grimm, you immediately recognize them as surefire marks of a fable or a fairy tale. In the Bible, they somehow qualify as history.
Before you reach the final page of the first book of the Bible, the Almighty has already drowned most of humanity and obliterated entire cities with fire from the sky. In the second book of the saga, God calls for a conquest that sets the stage for more than a millennium of multinational bloodletting over a scrap of land smaller than the entirety of Great Britain. After all this, the virgin birth and resurrection that show up in the New Testament Gospels actually seem somewhat tame. At the same time, divine conception seems like it could be an all-too-convenient strategy to explain an unplanned pregnancy, and it doesn’t take many trips to the graveyard before you realize resurrection is far from the most common outcome for a corpse.
So how can anyone take the Bible—especially the New Testament Gospels—as a truthful recounting of historical events?
Why I Believe Finland Exists, Barack Obama Was Born In Hawaii, and the Moon Landing Wasn’t Faked
History is crafted by constructing scenarios that draw together textual accounts and artifacts to make the most plausible sense of the surviving evidence. If an alleged event happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, much of this evidence must be reconstructed from documents that survive only as copies of long-lost originals. Such reconstructions can’t prove what happened beyond any possible question or doubt—but that’s true not only of events that took place in the ancient past but also of more recent happenings. If you don’t believe me, search the Internet for information about Barack Obama’s birth certificate or the Apollo 11 space flight that landed two men on the moon in 1969. It won’t take you long to unearth entire communities of people who claim that former U.S. president Barack Obama was born in Kenya or that Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was faked on a military base or a Hollywood soundstage. Look hard enough on the Internet and you’ll even find a group that denies the existence of Finland. Even when presented with evidence, diehard Finland-deniers always find some detail to doubt about the dominion of the Finns. (‘Name one world-famous person from Finland. See? You can’t do it!’)
Despite such objections, I remain quite confident that Finland is no fiction, just as I contend that the historical accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ are not fabricated. And yet, the reason I believe there really is a country between Russia and Sweden and that a dead man really came back to life is not because I can comprehensively counter every conceivable question that anyone might ask about both of these assertions. I believe in the existence of Finland, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and the Hawaiian nativity of Barack Obama because texts and artifacts and other evidence have produced a certain plausibility when it comes to these realities. None of these claims can be proven beyond every conceivable question or doubt, and each one requires some measure of faith—but it is faith that is grounded in evidence.
To see how evidence sustains the truthfulness of incidents that seem unbelievable, let’s take a look at a historical event which seems absurd but which is widely believed to have happened.
The Day that Meat Fell from the Sky
Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction.
In 1876, about a hundred miles east of where I live today, a grandmother was making lye soap on her front porch. Suddenly, an odd series of thuds in the field beside her house interrupted the silence of her labors, and she sent her grandson to see what was happening. Her grandson claimed it was snowing, but the weather was too warm and too clear for snow. And so, Mrs. Crouch stepped off the porch to see for herself.
What the grandmother saw when she walked across the field still sounds unbelievable today.
Scraps of raw meat were raining from a cloudless sky.
Before the shower was over, more than a half-bushel of fresh meat was flattened across a strip of earth the size of a football field.
In the months that followed this incident, the Kentucky Meat Shower was featured in newspapers and academic journals throughout the United States. Scientists and amateur investigators offered a multitude of speculations about the cause. Early hypotheses ranged from airborne bacteria to meteorites made of meat (“meatier-ites,” perhaps?). A flock of vomiting vultures emerged as one of the most promising explanations for the meatfall. Still, no one knows for certain how a half-bushel of meat fell from the heavens in the late winter of 1876. The very idea of a meat shower seems absurd.
So why would anyone today think that this event actually happened?
There are many reasons—but, in this blog post, I want to look at only two: (1) Witnesses with nothing to gain, and (2) stories that originated in the locations where the events took place.
Witnesses with Nothing to Gain in the Gospels
One reason that renders the Kentucky Meat Shower believable is the fact that reports related to this event can be traced to multiple witnesses who had little or nothing to gain by making their claims. Newspaper reports preserve the names not only of Mrs Crouch but also of at least four other witnesses who glimpsed the results of this bizarre bestowal from the sky. One of these individuals was a certain Mr. Harrison Gill whose truthfulness and integrity were—according to The New York Times—“unquestionable”. And so, despite the sheer absurdity of the Kentucky Meat Shower, firsthand testimonies and secondary reports have convinced those who study such matters that dozens of fragments of raw meat did indeed fall to the earth in 1876. And what does such an odd and obscure historical event have to do with why someone might choose to trust the Bible? Simply this: the evidence that drives me to admit the plausibility of the Kentucky Meat Shower isn’t all that different from what leads me to be open to believing the New Testament Gospels.
A crucified prophet who returned to life two thousand years ago is inconsistent with all of my day-by-day experiences of life—but so is the claim that Mrs Crouch saw raw meat fall from a cloudless sky in 1876. And yet, testimonies about the Kentucky Meat Shower were shared in a context where witnesses were present and available to discuss what they had seen, and the testimonies came from people who had little or nothing to gain by fabricating their stories. In much the same way, when I examine the New Testament Gospels as historical documents, it seems that these testimonies originated at a time when eyewitnesses were still available in the contexts where the alleged events occurred.
I’m not suggesting that there are no historical problems or unresolved dilemmas in the Gospels (or in the reports of the Kentucky Meat Shower, for that matter). What I am contending is that there are good reasons, grounded in evidence, to believe that the New Testament Gospels have preserved testimonies from trustworthy witnesses.
Stories That Originated in the Locations Where the Events Took Place
I don’t know precisely how the Kentucky Meat Shower happened, but I do know where the event occurred. Every account of the event identifies a rural region along the southern edge of Bath County, Kentucky as the location of the mysterious meatfall. In 1876, a journey to Bath County required a long ride on a road that was, according to the New York Herald, in ‘first-class bad condition.’
I’ve hiked this region, and the southern perimeter of Bath County is still one of the most backwoods places you’ll find anywhere in the Midwestern United States. And yet, early reports related to the Kentucky Meat Shower preserve minute details about this area that would be nearly impossible to know unless the reports originated with people who were there; the newspaper articles mention obscure spots like Slate Creek, Spencer Pike, and an abandoned army barracks from the War of 1812. None of this proves the Kentucky Meat Shower happened, but it does make it unlikely that the event was fabricated by someone sitting in an office in Louisville or Nashville or New York City. Geographical details in the testimonies about this event render the claims far more believable.
Where Did the Stories in the Gospels Come From?
That’s even more true when it comes to testimonies that were first spoken nearly two thousand years ago, such as the ones that we read in the New Testament Gospels. Today, if you wanted to write about a location you’ve never visited, you might be able to unearth enough information on the Internet to fabricate a credible account of a particular place. Even in the nineteenth century, there might have been enough maps of Kentucky available for someone somewhere else to have produced a believable description of Bath County. In the first century C.E., however, there were no maps or texts that included deep topographical details about Judea and Galilee. Yet the descriptions of these locations in the New Testament Gospels reveal intimate knowledge of these locations. This awareness of the topography of these places is so detailed that it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the stories of Jesus originated among people who had spent time in those locations.
The Gospels reference not only well-known cities like Jerusalem and Tyre but also obscure villages that were virtually unknown beyond the borders of Galilee and Judea—tiny towns like Aenon and Cana, Bethphage and Bethany. Not only that, but the authors of the Gospels also describe very specific topographical trivia. The author of Mark’s Gospel knew, for example, that it was possible to proceed directly from the Sea of Galilee into the Galilean hill country—a detail that, while accurate, would have been unknown outside this region (Mark 3:7, 13; see also Matt. 14:22- 23; 15:29). All four Gospels repeatedly reference the fact that a journey to Jerusalem required going uphill (Matt. 20:17-18; Mark 10:32-33; Luke 2:4, 42; John 2:13; 5:1) and even more obscurely, that the trip from Cana to Capernaum was downhill (John 2:12).
According to Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, Jesus referred to the little-known village of Chorazin in the same context as Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-23; Luke 10:13-15). As it turns out, archaeological excavations taking place from 1869 to 1926 revealed that Chorazin was on the road to Bethsaida, only two or three miles north of Capernaum. No other known text from this era references Chorazin or its proximity to Bethsaida and Capernaum. These are only a tiny sample from hundreds of similar examples that reveal intimate knowledge of the topography of the lands that would later become known as Palestine. No one could know such minutiae without either trekking the terrain or writing down testimonies that had been repeated in detail by witnesses who lived in these locations. Not even Josephus or Philo or Strabo—all of whom did describe first-century sites and cities—provided data with the same level of firsthand detail that’s packed into the New Testament Gospels. This evidence, among many others, has led me to believe in the historicity of the Bible, that the facts presented in this book are true, and that the Bible can be trusted.
Continued discussion on how I came to trust this book and the God described within its pages can be found in Why Should I Trust the Bible?
Edited by Isabella Wu