If The Bible Didn’t Exist—Would Jesus?

If The Bible Didn’t Exist—Would Jesus? March 23, 2022

If the Bible didn’t exist as we know it, would Jesus cease to exist? I think many Christians would answer, of course not. They may even note the fact there are extra-biblical sources indicating the existence of the historical Jesus. However, what if we were to ask this: Okay, so Jesus would still exist—but, could we know anything substantive about Jesus if the Bible did not exist?

Here is where it seems to become a problem for many fundamentalists and evangelicals. We can sort of see the problem here. I have a great deal of respect for Russell Moore. He had the courage, integrity, and principle to leave the Southern Baptist Convention when they made it clear they did not care for his criticisms of Trump. They also didn’t care for his continual attempts to push the Convention to do more as far as adequately addressing their race relations problems. He is to be commended for his stand and actions. In my opinion, more Southern Baptists should follow his lead.

Putting that aside, Moore demonstrates the problem I note—this need for a written record to confidently believe something about Jesus. We certainly see in this stance the modern prioritization of written communication over the oral/verbal. We also see the power of coming from a centuries long literate culture over an illiterate one.

In the time of Jesus however, very few could read or write. Only the elites of government, culture, and religion numbered those who were literate. For the rest, it was mostly an oral culture. People told stories, they spoke of history, they handed down the knowledge they had receive verbally to one another.

To the modern mind, this raises the question of accuracy. Surely something is more accurate if it’s written down rather than having someone relay the information verbally, right? Well, given the hundreds of different interpretations, books, commentaries, essays, and debates over the regarding the written Bible, I’m not so sure. If the person who wrote something is no longer alive, we are still faced with the question of accuracy and meaning.

Most of us have either played or heard of the game called “telephone.” This is where the teacher forms the children into a long line and whispers something to the first person in the line who then turns and whispers the same information to the next person. On and on this goes until it gets to the last person in line. That person then tells the teacher and class what was whispered to them. The fun of the game is that it often turns out to be something very different than what the teacher originally whispered.

Thus, we are asked, isn’t that what we could expect if all we had to rely upon was verbal/oral communication. The point is well taken. And yet, we should observe some differences between our time and Biblical times. In the oral culture of the time, because oral communication was so critical to having a trustworthy (especially in business for instance) and stable culture, it was probably taken more seriously. There was great attention to detail and being correct. Their capacity for listening and memorization was also probably much more honed than the modern person’s. Imagine a world without screens, constant distractions, modern noise, and the other impediments to hearing/focusing we experience as moderns.

Putting that aside, this idea that we couldn’t know much about Jesus but for the Bible fails as to history and reason. Dr. Moore notes the well known children’s song lyric, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But what about before the Bible? The Bible as we know it wasn’t put together completely until about 400 years after the time of Christ, even if a sense of the final canon was acknowledged earlier. Even then, many church gatherings and lay people didn’t have any copies of those writings. Even if they had, most could not read them.

Given such, are we to believe they didn’t know Jesus loved them? Of course they did. Think about the few decades after the crucifixion, when many of the writings that would make up the New Testament weren’t even written or copied yet. Did those earliest followers/believers not know that Jesus loved them? Of course they did.

A thought experiment: Imagine a man leaves his pregnant wife and goes off to war. Eventually his wife learns he has gone missing and is assumed dead. She gives birth to their child, a girl, and the child grows up never knowing her father. Her father never wrote her any letters, or anything for that matter. However, her mother tells her about her father. She tells her what a good man he was and how much he loved their family. The daughter believes what her mother tells her about her father and also sees that same love in the way her mother treats her.

Are we to believe that just because it wasn’t written down anywhere she couldn’t know and believe her father loved her? And yet, this seems to be what Dr. Moore is suggesting. And not only him, but this seems to be the understanding of many fundamentalists and evangelicals. The notion, however, isn’t supported by either early church history nor basic reason.

One has to wonder if a belief in the Bible isn’t more powerful and concrete for many modern Christians (especially fundamentalist and evangelicals) than their belief in Jesus, the one to whom (Christians believe) all scripture points. Would that be like believing a love letter from one’s spouse, was one’s actual spouse? Does that sound like a healthy or rational perspective?

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