Saturday, November 20, 2010

Essay on The Bible as a Historical Document

There is much debate over the issue of the Bible’s validity as a historical document. Many believe that the Bible was never intended as a historical text. Instead, these people believe that the writings were meant to teach us life lessons and open our eyes to The Light. Nonetheless, the Bible tells the story of Jesus’s life, so many people read the Gospels as historical documents. Therein lies the problem.

One cannot take everything within the four gospels as fact. Each gospel offers a different version of events; different individuals wrote all four at different times and in different locations. The basic outline of Christ’s birth, life, death, and subsequent resurrection is consistent through all four gospels. It is only when one investigates the intricacies of the stories that the numerous discrepancies are revealed.

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One example of an inconsistency between the four Gospels comes when Jesus and his disciples are marching toward Golgotha. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Simon carries Jesus’s cross to the crucifixion. According to John, however, it was Jesus who carried the cross. Although this is only a minor detail within the story, it is significant because it casts doubt on the Bible’s validity as a historical document. How can a book contain such contradictory accounts of the same story and still be considered factual?

Another inconsistency occurs between the accounts given about the time of Jesus’s death. According to Matthew, a tremendous earthquake shook the ground after the Messiah took his last breath. In the other three Gospels, there is no mention of an earthquake.

The dialogue that occurs at the time of Jesus’s death also differs between Gospels. Within the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, just before dying, Jesus yells, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” (Matthew 27.46). After which, a centurion who had been observing the crucifixion says, “Truly this man was God’s son,” (Matthew 27.54). In Luke, Jesus instead yells, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23.46). The centurion says, “Certainly this man was innocent,” (Luke 23.47). In the Gospel according to John, Jesus dies quietly and the centurion is never mentioned. Given the importance that the Christian religion places on the death of Christ, it is hard to believe that the accounts given within the four Gospels could differ in so many ways.

In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are the first to learn of Christ’s resurrection. In contrast, the Gospel of Mark presents a third woman, Salome, and in the Gospel of Luke, many of the women who followed Jesus are present at the tomb. According to the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the only woman at the tomb on the day after the Sabbath.

Matthew’s account describes how the women are aided by an angel who rolls back the stone from the tomb’s entrance. In the other three Gospels, the stone is already rolled back when the women arrive.

The four Gospels seem to tell the story differently regarding what the women see while at the tomb as well. The women see an angel in Matthew’s version. According to Mark, they see a man in a white robe, and in Luke’s Gospel, the women see two men in dazzling clothes. Mary sees two angels and Jesus in the Gospel according to John.

The Gospels also differ on how many times Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection. In Matthew’s account, the Messiah appears to the disciples once on the top of a mountain in Galilee. Mark never even mentions the disciples encountering Jesus after his death. Luke explains how Jesus appears to two of his disciples while they are walking outside of Jerusalem, but they don’t recognize him until after he breaks the bread at their table. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his disciples on three separate occasions. First, he appears to all except Thomas in their home. Then, in order to eliminate Thomas’s doubt, Jesus appears to the disciples again. He appears to them one more time while they are fishing.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the final chapter in his life story. Through this phenomena Jesus fulfills his prophecy, reassures those who have doubted him, and establishes himself as the world-renowned martyr people know him as today. How is it then that this section of the story has more discrepancies than all the others?

The only possible explanation is that the Bible was never intended as a historical document. Nor is that what it has been used for. People take faith in the teachings of the Bible, and they use this faith to help them live better lives. In their opinion, it is not necessary for the Gospels to be identical. The minor details are not what matters. The valuable component of the Bible is the lesson that the story can teach you.

There are people out there, however, who study the Bible as a historical text. These brave souls face many challenges. First of all is which account to believe. Many believe that Matthew’s Gospel is the closest to the truth factually because it was written earlier than the other three.

Others call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Synoptics and claim John is the only Gospel that tells a different story. Others still use other Gospels that aren’t even written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. With so many different opinions and so many different accounts to choose from, it is impossible to discover the one story that actually explains the history of Jesus’s life. The inconsistencies between the Gospels prevent the Bible from being read literally. It is valuable strictly as a religious text, not a history lesson.

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