It is a well known historical argument that things which would otherwise be embarrassing, or exceptionally hard to explain, are more likely to be true because why would someone make them up? It, of course, doesn’t mean every piece of nonsense must be true because it sounds so fantastical. People do have reasons for making nonsense up sometimes. But when people say unbelievable things that would seem to do the opposite of advancing their cause, they are more capable of being believed because why would you say them if they weren’t what happened?
There are all sorts of examples of this in the Bible. I have previously spoken about the trinity, for example. Why on earth would anyone make up a triune God? Most people can wrap their heads around a unitarian God – which is largely why Unitarianism began as a thing altogether – and can conceive of tri-theism, three separate gods working together. But a trinitarian God is not what you would make up if you were trying to win people to a made up religion. At best, it is just too hard to describe and defend.
But more directly, things such as women being the first witnesses at the tomb of Jesus are a good example. Again, if you were making up a religion and trying to defend Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah, the last thing you would want to do in that culture at that time is rely on the testimony of women. This is a prime example of a detail that would actively undermine your case at the time – women were generally disbelieved and their testimony not legally regarded – and there really would be no reason to include it. Whilst to our modern eye there is absolutely nothing untoward or weird about women testifying, and being the first witnesses, of the empty tomb, that is a fairly recent, western-centric phenomenon. For most cultures, throughout most of history, such a detail would actively undermine your case. This suggests the only reason to include it in the gospels is because it is what happened – women were the first to witness the empty tomb and they testified to what they saw.
Similarly, the crucifixion itself would fall under this sort of category. The cross was not expected of the messiah. The cross was, indeed, the most shameful of deaths one could endure. It was so shameful that the very word was not deemed acceptable to be spoken in polite society. There was equally nothing in Jewish or pagan thought that reckoned crucifixion to be anything positive or good. But that the cross is deemed central to the Christian faith and it was a major part of the gospels. Why would anyone include this in their description of what happened – especially as followers of the one it happened to – unless it was what happened?
Then there are the myriad ways different bible characters – even heroes of the faith – behaved. There are dozens of Old Testament examples beginning with Adam and Eve bringing sin into the world through disobedience, Noah getting so hammered on wine he couldn’t be woken, Abraham telling porky pies and fathering an illegitimate child he sends away and David abusing his power to have sex with Bathsheba and then murdering her husband. Judges is something of a trash fire altogether and king upon king is a nightmare. Things aren’t any better by the New Testament either. The Apostles – who wrote the gospels – present themselves as a bunch of bickering idiots, arguing over who will have the best seat in heaven. They all run away in the end and Peter goes to town cursing and lying to stop anyone think he had anything to do with Jesus. Again, these are not positive details. Why would anyone include them unless they are just the things that happened?
Lots more could be said about these things. But it is worth reading through the books of the Bible, and particularly the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – to see these things. They are all over them. The sort of details that are embarrassing. The kind of things most people airbrush out or spin to make themselves appear better than they really are. But not these writers. It calls us to ask, why on earth would they include these things if they are not simply what happened? If they are open and honest about themselves, not painting themselves in very glorious colours at all, does that not lend credence to the view that they were, in fact, telling the truth in as unvarnished a way as possible? If they can be that honest about themselves, and the case they are making, doesn’t that make it altogether easier to believe?