Criticism usually carries negative connotations of condescension and condemnation. However, in a more scholarly sense, criticism is a neutral, reasonable evaluation of something. As I began reading Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? : A Study on Credibility of St. Luke, 2nd Edition which was written in 1898 by a scholar named William Mitchell Ramsay, it dawned on me that as I engage with people in discourse over the merit of the Bible, we rarely have a mutual approach of neutral criticism. I always start out trying to prove the Bible is the true word of God, and non-Christians always start out under the impression that the Bible is rife with errors. But what would it look like if we took a more neutral approach to evaluate the books of the Bible?
This is exactly what Ramsay did back in 1898, and what we seem to have forgotten how to do in the 21st Century. So how can we go about taking a neutral approach and evaluating the books of the Bible?
With St. Luke, Ramsay treats the document with the standards of what the account itself claims to be — true and accurate history of real events based exclusively on credible sources. In other words, the author of the accounts traditionally attributed to Luke claimed to be a historian. This is not in itself a religiously charged claim. It is a claim that readily lends itself to be evaluated.
But what standards should we use to evaluate a historian? Ramsay states that all men are imperfect and prone to error, but at the same time, “it is absolutely necessary to demand inexorably from a real historian accuracy in the essential and critical facts.”
So what does this mean for Christians or non-Christians as they approach the issues and debated topics within the Gospel of Luke?
For Christians, “it must be the aim of those who believe in the high character of Luke’s History, to discover new evidence which shall remove these difficulties and justify the controverted statements.”
For non-Christians, Ramsay calls for a rational, non-dogmatically biased approach. Commenting on the state of debate around the turn of the nineteenth century, Ramsay wrote, “The commentary on Luke… degenerates into a guerilla warfare against him; the march of the narrative is interrupted at every step by a series of attacks in detail. Hardly any attempt is made to estimate as a whole, or to determine what is the most favorable interpretation that can be placed on any sentence in the work. There is a manifest predilection in favor of the interpretation which is discordant with external facts or with other statements in Luke. If it is possible to read into a sentence a meaning which contradicts another passage in the same author, that is at once assumed to be the one intended by him; and his incapacity and untrustworthiness are illustrated in the commentary.”
I recently wrote an article about “Atheism’s Literary Impoverishment” and it looks like Ramsay faced the same issue in his day on a historical level. At what cost does such blind dogmatism come? Ramsay writes, “Scholarship and learning sacrifice their vitality, and lose all that justifies their existence, when they cease to be fair and condescend to a policy of “malignity.”
This is only the introduction to Ramsay’s work. He goes on to consider some of the most controversial statements within Luke. But it is impossible to have a rational conversation about such things unless we “conduct the investigation as one of pure history, to apply it to the same canons of criticism and interpreation that are employed in the study of the other ancient historians, and to regard as our subject, not “the Gospel according to Luke,” but the History composed by Luke. The former name is apt to suggest prepossession and prejudice: the latter is purely critical and dispassionate.”
I hope to write further on Ramsay’s arguments for the veracity of Luke as a historian. But in the meantime, I hope the reader has found a new appreciation for a dispassionate, rational criticism of the books of the Bible. Current religious discourse would benefit immensely by heeding the words of a brilliant scholar who wrote over a century ago.
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