The New Testament apologetic arguments of the last several decades have been a tremendous aid to the ministry of many believers. From popular level works such as Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter to scholarly and highly sophisticated works like Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, the church is not in want for good New Testament apologetic resources on the reliability of the New Testament.
But the same cannot be said for the Old Testament. There are good resources making a case for the trustworthiness of the Old Testament, but such works are not numerous, not as extensive, and for popular readers usually not as navigable. A large reason for this is that the Old Testament is simply more foreign, more diverse, and much longer than the New Testament. The entire New Testament has essentially been composed within the same framework—the 1st century. The Old Testament was composed over 1,500 years, with the result that it is much harder to produce generalized treatments of Old Testament reliability.
Overview & Contributions of Kaiser’s Old Testament Documents
It is for this reason that Walter Kaiser’s recent book The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? is a welcome addition to the church’s arsenal. It has the potential to do for Old Testament apologetics what F. F. Bruce’s slim volume The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? did for New Testament apologetics.
Kaiser’s book makes several relevant contributions to the task of Old Testament apologetics. First, it recognizes that demonstrating the relevance of the Old Testament is just as important as demonstrating the reliability of the Old Testament. Kaiser is obviously alluding to Bruce’s work in the title of his book. Hence, it is noteworthy that he has added something to his title that is not in Bruce’s. For his title is not simply “The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable,” but “Are They Reliable and Relevant.” This underscores a major obstacle to Old Testament apologetics and major difference with New Testament apologetics—namely, the contemporary person does not generally appreciate the relevance of the Old Testament, and even if he does he does not generally feel equipped to know how to apply the Old Testament to himself today.
In some respects, Old Testament apologetics has perhaps not received its share of work because the Old Testament itself doesn’t matter as much to people. Who cares about demonstrating the reliability of the Old Testament when you don’t also care much for what the Old Testament says? It is too tempting to view it as outdated and less necessary, since it is after all the Old Testament. For many, it seems that the main relevance of the Old Testament is in using its alleged contradictions and problems to debunk Christianity. But when it comes to applying the message of the Old Testament or listening to what it actually says that we may obey it, many suddenly loose interest. Hence, any Old Testament apologetic must, as Kaiser’s book does, simultaneously demonstrate the tremendous relevance of the Old Testament for us today. And part of demonstrating its relevance is answering questions of application such as “how, then, might we hear God in the prophets,” as Kaiser does in part 4.
Second, Kaiser’s book models an approach to Old Testament apologetics that is both topical and historical. He divides his discussion into four topics—the reliability of the Old Testament canon and text, the reliability of the history in the Old Testament, the reliability of the message in the Old Testament, and the relevance of the message of the Old Testament. Yet, in line with the method he applies to Old Testament theology, Kaiser follows a historical approach in his discussion of each topic.
For example, in part 3 on the reliability of the message of the Old Testament, he discusses individually the reliability of the Torah, wisdom writings, and prophets. This is a significant contribution in that it helps break up the task of Old Testament apologetics into more manageable (and natural) segments.
Third, Kaiser’s book provides good apologetic arguments to the church. Perhaps one of the biggest questions people have about the Old Testament is how we know the church “selected” the correct books for the canon. His discussion in chapter two covers this masterfully and briefly. Another hot topic is the reliability of the text of the Old Testament. This is covered very well in chapter 3.
Fourth, Kaiser treats the subject of archaeological confirmation straightforwardly. It is this field that provides some of the most helpful confirming evidence for the Old Testament’s reliability, and Kaiser gives us that. Here he is in line with many past treatments. For example, Josh McDowell has made significant use of archaeology in his apologetic works, most notably Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
Most noteworthy are McDowell’s quotes from Joseph Free and Nelson Gluek. Joseph Free has said: “Archaeology has confirmed countless passages which had been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contrary to known facts.” And Jewish archaeologist Nelson Gluek confidently said that “It…may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”
But Kaiser also does a good job of not overstating the case—which only sets people up for a fall—by noting that archaeology has created some problems for us as well (but there is no reason to regard the problems as decisive and irresolvable). Kaiser presents us with an improved treatment of archaeology over previous popular level works.
Fifth, Kaiser does a super job of providing us with a book that is accessible at the popular level and yet not superficial. Significant issues created by scholarly debates of the last hundred years are not ignored, but clearly explained. The arguments are not superficial, but solid. Yet, they are clear and transferable. The person who reads this book will not be open to the charge that his ability to defend the Old Testament is a mile wide and an inch deep. This book will solidly equip believers in the task of Old Testament apologetics.
Kaiser’s book does the needed job of arguing for the reliability of the Old Testament on the basis of the Old Testament itself. He looks at the evidence from within the Old Testament and its era, the integrity of the textual transmission, and other evidential factors. This aspect to the apologetic must be done.
There is another aspect to doing Old Testament apologetics which complements this: establishing the reliability of the Old Testament on the basis of the authority of Jesus and the New Testament. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths of this approach is that it can marshal the solid state of New Testament apologetics to the support of the more difficult task of Old Testament apologetics. In what follows, I will sketch how I think the New Testament can be employed in support of the Old Testament.
My case rests ultimately on the authority of Jesus. In a nutshell, if Jesus is the Son of God, we should believe what Jesus taught about the authority of the Old Testament—whether we have any independent confirmation of the Old Testament from archaeology and other sources or not. But before getting to the issue of what Jesus said about the Old Testament, there are two prior questions: (1) Why should we trust the New Testament account of Jesus’ words? and (2) Why should we believe that Jesus is the Son of God?
Christ’s Teachings Have Been Accurately Recorded
The New Testament documents are historically reliable. The first reason to trust the New Testament account of Jesus’ words is that it can be demonstrated that the New Testament documents are generally reliable. For example, J. P. Moreland points out that there is good evidence for eyewitness influence upon the New Testament record. The form of Jesus’ sayings, unique characteristics of Jesus’ sayings, the presence of irrelevant material, and the presence of counterproductive features also argue in favor of an accurate portrayal of Jesus’ words in the New Testament.
Jesus’ teachings were carefully preserved before they were written down in the gospels. This is supported by several lines of evidence. In the first place, recent studies in ancient Jewish culture have conclusively demonstrated that the ancient Jews (which would include Jesus’ disciples) were able to memorize vast amounts of material, and it was customary for a student to memorize his rabbi’s teaching. It was said that a good pupil was “like a plastered cistern who looses not a drop.”
Further, when Jesus’ teachings are translated back into their underlying Aramaic, the original language He most likely spoke, they often reveal a rhyming cadence very suitable for memorization. This means that Jesus’ words were in a form that was easy to memorize and retain. This also provides confirmation that Jesus’ sayings in the gospels originated with the “historical Aramaic-speaking Jesus, rather than from the creative imagination’ of the early [Greek speaking] church.”
Christ’s Teachings Should be Believed
Even if it can be established that we have an accurate record of Christ’s teachings, why should we believe those teachings? The answer is simple: If Jesus is the Son of God, then what He taught is surely true and ought to be believed. And we know that Jesus is the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead—something no one else has ever accomplished—which is itself evidenced by a multitude of historical evidence. This is not the place to go into a detailed defense of the resurrection. The strong evidence is attested, however, by the statement of Gary Habermas that the resurrection can be demonstrated even if we limit ourselves to the data “that virtually all critical scholars who address the subject, whatever their school of thought, also accept.”
Jesus Taught the Inspiration of the Old Testament
Jesus made several statements which explicitly or implicitly affirm the inspiration, and hence reliability, of the Old Testament. Jesus emphatically declared that the Old Testament was indestructible–down to the smallest part of a Hebrew letter—thereby attesting to the fact that inspiration extends to the very words: “Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). Throughout His ministry, Jesus continually quoted Old Testament Scripture as final authority (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; 15:1-9). In a confrontation with the Sadducees, Jesus based a crucial argument concerning the resurrection of the dead on the tense of a single word. To prove that there was life after death, Jesus referred to the passage about the burning bush and pointed out that God said to Moses “I am” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even though they had died hundreds of years before. If there was no life after death, God would have said “I was” their God, not “I am” their God. We see this again in Matt. 22:41-46, where Jesus bases an argument for His deity on the reliability of the single word “Lord” in Psalm 110. These arguments would not have worked unless Jesus considered the very words of the Old Testament to be trustworthy.
In sum, this type of argument for the reliability of the Old Testament that I am here outlining begins with Jesus and proceeds backward. By first establishing the authority of the words of Jesus in the gospels, it can then be demonstrated that it is reasonable to accept his view that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and hence reliable. The strength of this approach is that it allows the church at the popular level to capitalize on its current apologetic strength (namely, New Testament apologetics) in support of its current apologetic weakness (namely, Old Testament apologetics). However, this approach should not be used as a substitute for the approach that Kaiser takes. Rather, both approaches should be used to complement one another.
The Relevance of Wisdom Literature to Modern Man
In support of the relevance of the Old Testament, an especially striking point of contact can be made with the wisdom literature. The book of Ecclesiastes is especially relevant in our contemporary culture which suffers from a profound sense of vanity and purposelessness. Many modern people may identify with the author’s quest for meaning, and learn from him that true meaning can be found only in God.
Likewise, the book of Proverbs provides much insight into life and human nature that people can almost immediately see the relevance of. This can be a starting point to show people that the Old Testament is not as obscure as they might think, but that in reality there is much practical, down to earth teaching on how to live. A danger here would be to present the Old Testament (or, at least, Proverbs) as a purely secular set of principles for making your life more comfortable. Hence, it is important to emphasize the connection between wisdom and the fear of God. It is because of the emphasis placed upon fearing God that “scholars have become increasingly aware that Old Testament wisdom is not secular and human-centered, but based on the doctrine of creation and (like other ancient Near Eastern wisdom) deeply religious.” Through the Proverbs, then, an effective relation can be shown between recognizably relevant teaching and godliness.
Further, the wisdom literature’s emphasis on wisdom and the fear of God can be used to flesh out more fully to the church what it means to live a godly life and apply God’s law. It is always helpful to look at things from more than one angle. The wisdom literature often presents truths that are embodied in the law in principle and generalized form. This teaches us to take God’s law and not only obey it, but also become wise in applying it and living it out, lest we become mechanical in our obedience. The Old Testament wisdom literature is literally filled with insight on what it means to be wise and fear God. The fleshing out of these concepts in the wisdom literature is not duplicated anywhere in the New Testament to the extent that it is done here, and hence the New Testament church cannot afford to ignore the insights of the Old Testament documents.
Specific Ministry Plans
What are some specific ministry plans that can be implemented as a result of this study of the reliability of the Old Testament and Old Testament apologetics? These plans will obviously by largely influenced by my particular role in ministry. If I were the pastor of a church, I would perhaps plan to implement a seminar or Sunday School series to equip my church members to defend the reliability of the Old Testament. I would also make a point to preach regularly from the Old Testament, showing its significance and how to apply it to our lives.
Not being a pastor, however, my ministry plans will have to be slightly different. First, since one of my current roles is to serve as a buyer for our church bookstore, I can feature books on the reliability and relevance of the Old Testament, including Kaiser’s. This will serve to expose people to the issue more fully than they otherwise might have been.
Second, since one of my current roles is to develop the theological question and answer section of our ministry’s web site, I can make it a priority to address apologetic questions concerning the Old Testament and to provide people with online resources that will equip them to defend and apply the Old Testament. Especially useful might be a sketch of the most helpful books in this area, and a brief defense of the continuing relevance of the Old Testament, while not denying the primacy of the New Testament as the completion of God’s revelation in this world, until Christ returns.
Third, I can continue reading on and studying the relevance and reliability of the Old Testament so that I am equipped to promote the vision of the Old Testament and defend it against objections.
In summary, the defense of the reliability of the Old Testament is an important aspect of the church’s task to witness to the truth of the Bible in the world. Hand in hand with that task is the task of living out and demonstrating to others the continuing relevance of the Old Testament. There are multiple approaches to a successful Old Testament apologetic. Dr. Kaiser’s book The Old Testament Documents provides us with a crucial angle on the subject that out to be incorporated into any full-orbed attempt to equip the saints to defend the reliability of the Old Testament and live out and promote its relevance.
- Walter C. Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), 202.
- Joseph Free, Archaeology and Bible History (Wheaton: Scripture Press, 1969), 1; quoted in Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1977).
- Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959), 136; quoted in McDowell.
- See, for example, F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?; William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics, 193-233; Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; and J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 133-159.
- See Dr. Gregory Boyd, Jesus Under Siege (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1995), pp. 87-109.
- Boyd, Jesus Under Siege, p. 105
- Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 114.
- C. G. Bartholomew, “Wisdom Literature,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. Desmond Alexander and Brian Rosner (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).