You’re sitting next to your cousin at a family reunion or visiting with a coworker over lunch and he says, “You go to church, don’t you? I suspect that means you trust the Bible? Why?” What do you say? Let me offer you a word (and its explanation) that you may find helpful: verisimilitude. You can see from the definition above that it has to do with having the appearance of being true. In other words, if something has the ring of truth, it has verisimilitude. What does this have to do with the Bible? Read on.
Let’s pretend we were going to write a novel set in 18th century France. What would we need to do? A lot of studying! We’d need to become familiar with the geography, the weather, the botany, the names in use in that era, the customs, and so much more. In other words, if we wanted our novel to have verisimilitude, we’d need to do a lot of research so that we could become an expert on that time and place. If we didn’t, if our novel had characters named Noah and Emma who communicated via text messages on their cell phones, for instance, our novel wouldn’t be believable.
This is the case, for instance, with The Book of Mormon. It details ancient Native Americans who supposedly lived on the continent from 2200 B.C. to the 400s A.D. It describes elephants, compasses, window panes, chariots, barley and wheat, and many, many more such things that didn’t show up until many years later. It’s precisely the sort of things you’d expect in a document written by someone from a different time and place making up a story about people from a different culture and time. In short, The Book of Mormon lacks verisimilitude. Truth is, archaeologists have never found one shred of evidence that the tribes mentioned in The Book of Mormon existed. So when it comes to verisimilitude, The Book of Mormon is an epic fail.
How does the Bible do? Let’s consider a few examples. Peter Williams, in his helpful book Can We Trust the Gospels?, details the numerous lines of verisimilitude in the Gospels. Consider their vast and specific geographic knowledge. Mr. Williams writes,
1. All writers display a knowledge of a range of localities from well known, through lesser known, to obscure.
2. No Gospel writer gains all his knowledge from the other Gospels, since each contains unique information.
3. All writers show a variety of types of geographical information (54).
They also know how the topography and towns relate to one another. For example, Mr. Williams writes,
The Gospels… know that Bethsaida and Capernaum are towns located by the Sea of Galilee… Matthew and Mark know that one can go from the Sea of Galilee directly into the hill country. Matthew, Mark, and Luke know that there is a Judaean desert near the Jordan (58).
Luke and John both show knowledge that there are two routes between Judaea and Galilee: the hilly route via Samaria and the indirect route avoiding Samaritan areas via the Jordan valley (60).
The geographical verisimilitude is so strong that Mr. Williams writes, “the Gospels are not merely accurate in their geography when compared with other sources; they are themselves valuable geographical sources” (62). In other words, historians consult the Bible to learn about the geography of first century Palestine. That’s impressive verisimilitude.
In addition to geography, the Bible displays verisimilitude when it comes the names of the people it details. It’s no surprise to learn that people had different naming patterns throughout the Roman Empire, but it may be surprising to discover that even Jewish groups throughout the empire had different naming patterns. In other words, it wouldn’t be enough to know a bunch of Jewish names; if you were going to make up a history set in first century Palestine, you would need to know the naming patterns of the Jews in that specific region. And the Bible does.
Even more, as is the case today, some names are more common than others. We have last names to distinguish people with the same first names. There were no last names in Bible times, but the authors of Scripture display knowledge of the most common names by disambiguating them with additional descriptors. In other words, the Bible doesn’t just get the names and the frequency of those names right, its authors even know which names were super common and would need to be distinguished with additional qualifiers. So we see these sorts of clarifications: Simon Peter, Simon the Zealot, Simon the Leper, Simon the Cyrenian (67).
Mr. Williams shares the implications of such knowledge for the Gospels:
It is quite unlikely that any of the writers, if living outside the land, would have been able to research the local naming patterns and thereby write a plausible narrative. It is beyond improbable to think that four authors might have been able to do this, as each contains names not in the other three (76).
The Gospels also display intimate knowledge of the local botany. Luke, for instance, mentions that Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree, which didn’t grow in other regions throughout the Mediterranean. The Gospels demonstrate familiarity with local tax practices, too. Matthew and Mark describe tax collectors in Capernaum, which was a strategic location for collecting customs on what crossed into the territory of Herod Antipas and Luke knows that tax collectors (like Zacchaeus) would have been in Jericho because it was also a major border town (82).
And Dr. Craig Evans, a renown Biblical scholar, adds in his book Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus?, “We find linguistic verisimilitude, and by this I mean Hebrew and Aramaic traces in what are otherwise Greek writings” (45). In other words, there is evidence in the Greek New Testament that they originated in the spoken Hebrew and Aramaic. Languages have unique ways of expressing thoughts and those unique ways are noticeable in the Greek. So, it’s exceedingly unlikely that someone inventing a story about Jesus would phrase their telling like the New Testament does.
What does it all mean? It certainly doesn’t answer every question about the Bible, but these details certainly establish the verisimilitude of the Bible. It has the ring of truth, communicating names and places and details that would be exceedingly hard for someone to make up. Therefore, it’s far more likely that the Bible is recording events that actually happened. And that’s worth sharing with your family member or coworker. – Pastor Conner