Verification is the process by which a proposition is shown to be true. Falsification is the process by which a proposition is shown to be false. Depending on the nature of the proposition, this process is by reason or sensory experience. Some propositions cannot be falsified, and some propositions cannot be verified.

Analytic propositions can be known by reason (a priori), while synthetic propositions require sensory experience (a posteriori) to be known. Knowledge rationalists hold that there is a class of synthetic propositions that can be known a priori. Analytic propositions are true or false by virtue of definitions, whereas synthetic propositions are true or false by virtue of how the world is.

Propositions like “All swans are white” can be falsified: only one counterexample is necessary to falsify this claim (e.g. a black swan). They cannot be verified because there is always the possibility of finding a counterexample, even if one has not yet been found (one cannot be certain of having found all the individuals in a given set).

Propositions like “There is at least one green car in the world” can, in principle, be verified (here by finding a green car), even if they cannot always be verified in practice. Not finding a green car yet does not make the statement false, since there is the possibility of finding a green car later.

Religions, such as Christianity, include propositions (statements that claim definitional relationships or states of affairs). “Christ walked on water” is a synthetic proposition: it is true or false by virtue of history, of a state of affairs, not by virtue of definitions. If someone witnessed this event, e.g. the Disciple Peter, that would constitute a posteriori verification of the proposition.

The Bible presents us with purported verifications of this kind. The question that arises from these accounts is whether they are reliable.Reliability is assessed according to a variety of factors such as the chain of transmission, available knowledge at the time, motivations for giving particular versions of events or fabricating evidence, past history of truthfulness or lying, details that conform with what we know of the period, hostile testimony, embarrassing testimony, and a propensity towards hallucinations and other forms of mental disorder.

The Bible also describes what the philosopher John Hick called “eschatological verification”. “Eschatology” is the part of theology dealing with “last things”, such as the end of the age, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the new heavens and the new earth. The Bible claims, that everyone will be face with God at some point, such that it will be impossible to deny His existence or that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as opposed to, say, the god Amun. For most, this verification happens after death, when their souls enter the Underworld and when their souls receive bodies again just prior to the Last Judgment. Others have this verification before death, when Christ returns visibly on the clouds and pours out the wrath of God on the unrepentent. Those being punished in this scenario cannot plausibly deny the existence of God, though they may continue to hate Him.

Various books have been written exploring the reliability of the accounts found in the Bible. The accounts must be read with an open mind. Miracles, if they exist, are by definition rare, so the rarity of miracles, in and of itself, is not a valid reason for dismissing an account. Nor are miracles impossible a priori, since they are not self-contradictory.

The Biblical accounts must be examined for credibility, the reader considering the broader meaning attached the events and words found in them. Do the accounts form a coherent whole? If there is a God, does the life of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Gospels accord with what God ought to be like?

If Jesus were presented as doing something immoral, that would not necessarily undermine the historicity of Jesus, but it would refute the claim that He is Yahweh, if such an account were true. Those accounts that present Jesus in a less than perfect light must be subjected to the same tests of credibility and reliability as the Gospels, if the inquirer is to remain unbiased and intellectually honest.

Most scholars who deal with these, and related, matters, believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived in the land of Israel, in the first century AD. They base their view on a variety of testimonies (hostile, neutral, and favourable), from near the lifetime of Jesus, that treat him as a real historical figure, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. (I myself, when in Israel, saw an authenticated inscription from the time of Pilate that confirmed he was Prefect of Judea in the time of the emperor Tibereus.)  These sources differ from the Gospels and Epistles in their interpretation of the greater significance of certain events: non-biblical sources may simply see Jesus as another wandering rabbi, who was executed out of fear of his causing a rebellion against Roman rule.

These sources (which are controversial) include:

  • Josephus
  • Tacitus
  • Suetonius
  • The Talmud
  • Thallus
  • etc

Those who hold that Jesus was a myth are a small minority, and considered “fringe” by mainstream academia. Being “fringe” is not, in and of itself, a refutation of one’s work. Correct and false are independent of minority and majority opinion. However, the fringe status of mythicists ought to provoke the honest inquirer to consider why the mainstream academic community rejects Jesus mythicism. A middle position is one of agnosticism, neither affirming nor denying the existence of a historical Jesus, but holding that one is not in a position to know with certainty one way or another (perhaps owing to a paucity of reliable evidence).

A few main issues are at the heart of this debate:

  • When exactly were the Gospels and Epistles written (how close are they in time to the life of Jesus, if Jesus existed)?
  • Are the texts that have come down to us faithful copies of the original autographs?
  • Is the Jesus of the Gospels an authentic development of the orthodox Judaism of the Old Testament?

Further reading

Craig L. Blomberg and Robert B. Stewart, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Broadman & Holman Publishers 2016)

John Hick, Faith and Knowledge (Wipf and Stock 2009)

John Lennox, Can science explain everything? (The Good Book Company 2019)

Frank Morison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media 2006)

Robert B. Stewart, The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue (Fortress Press 2011)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan 2016)

Peter J. Williams, Can We trust the Gospels? (Crossway Books 2018)

Triablogue also has excellent entries discussing the historicity of Jesus and other related matters, with many posts that review and discuss books by scholars and lay people.

Here is a post from Triablogue: