Unjustified Skepticism: The Reliability of Luke’s Testimony
by Melissa Cain Travis
The New Testament contains the most well-attested ancient texts in existence, yet its factual reliability is a matter of high controversy. The predominant reason? The books record supernatural happenings. Skeptics with a pre-commitment to materialism are philosophically compelled to reject any and all testimonies that allege divine activity– miraculous healings, resurrections, and the like. In other words, since the New Testament records such things, the entire collection is suspect and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a compilation of historical documents.
But is this justified? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If an ancient document withstands the pressures of scholarly scrutiny when it comes to historical details, if there are many early manuscripts still in existence that can be compared with one another and with our modern translations to demonstrate faithful transmission, and if independent facts can place the original writing of the document very close to the events it records, it seems only reasonable that we should at least carefully consider any supernatural happenings described in the text.
The typical rebuttal to this is that our everyday experience doesn’t include supernatural phenomenon and such happenings would violate the laws and regularities of nature. Therefore, supernaturalism is false and the New Testament isn’t reliable. This is a textbook example of begging the question. By definition, a supernatural occurrence is an anomaly; it stands out because it isn’t what we would predict based upon current scientific knowledge.
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However, that says nothing about whether or not a supernatural event is possible or could have happened in the past. I see no difficulty in the idea that God can work in the natural world either through the laws and regularities He has ordained or by their temporary suspension. To say that our cosmos is a self-contained, closed causal system that is never acted upon from “outside” is to make a philosophical statement, since science cannot, by definition, prove that immaterial, transcendent intervention in the world has never occurred or doesn’t continue to occur, detected or undetected.
My central argument here is that rejecting Scripture based on the fact that it testifies to events inexplicable by the natural sciences isn’t justified. It is reasonable to be open-minded about supernatural content, based on the demonstrable integrity of the remainder of the book.
With all that said, we can consider test cases from the New Testament. I am particularly fascinated by the writings of Luke, which include the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, so I’ll use those for this discussion. (Click here for a bit of background on Dr. Luke.)
Historical Veracity of Luke and Acts
When an ancient historical document is evaluated for accuracy, it is compared with other surviving historical records to check for potential corroboration of the alleged facts. The books of the New Testament are subjected to this scholarly scrutiny and fare quite beautifully. Using Luke’s writings a test case, here are some of the pertinent facts…