[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
Decades before ultrasound technology became available and commonly used for discovering the sex of the baby before birth, there was a doctor who was quite famous locally for having 100% accuracy in predicting the sex of the child (if the mother asked). Sometimes after the birth, the mother would say that the doctor had been mistaken, but he could produce her chart and show that he had written the correct sex, on the date of her appointment in which she asked his opinion. He was always right!
Finally, at the end of his career, he gave away his secret: he simply wrote the opposite of what he told her! If he guessed boy, he wrote girl. You see, if he guessed right, the mother would never ask to see what he had written, because the doctor was right; so the only time he would be confronted with being wrong is if he had actually guessed “girl” when it was a boy, but since he would write “boy”, then the written “proof” was there that he had said “boy” all along, and the mother had simply misremembered it.
Imagine if the mother had been accompanied by her husband or a friend or two at that appointment. They would all remember that he had said “boy”, and it would have been much harder to convince them that they had all remembered incorrectly.
No single witness
What does that have to do with Christian apologetics? Simply this: The Bible did not come down to us via the voice of one witness. The New Testament didn’t come to us from a single witness. The Apostles and other early disciples did not go out and preach individually – notice that when Paul went out on his first missionary journey, he went with Barnabas (and at least one other – Mark, who is not mentioned at first, but we find out later left them mid-journey); and even when he and Barnabas had such a sharp disagreement over whether Mark should accompany them or not (since he had left them earlier) that they couldn’t go together, they went out in teams of two – Barnabas with Mark and Paul with Silas (also accompanied sometimes by at least Luke, and possibly others).
Nor did they convert a single person in any given location who went on to evangelize others with their single witness, but rather, they often converted whole families at a time and converted multiple people in every location. Further, Paul told the Corinthians (ch. 4) that he was sending Timothy who would remind them of Paul’s life “which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” – that is, that what Paul told to one church, he told to all churches.
We see this principle repeated again whenever the elders (plural) of a church are mentioned, such as in various letters where the elders are charged with remembering what they had been taught, and also when Paul met with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 warning them of “grievous wolves… not sparing the flock”. Then there is the time when Paul charged Timothy to pass on the things that he had been taught “to faithful witnesses” (plural!) who could teach others.
This is the pattern throughout all of Scripture, in that God often showed His power to multiple people at once (the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, God speaking from Mt. Sinai with fire and smoke, the drying up of Jordan, the wall of Jericho, etc., were all witnessed by the entire congregation); and when God told only one person something, (such as to an individual prophet like Samuel or Isaiah or Elisha, who was to tell the rest of the people), He provided confirming evidence via miracles (Deut. 18 & 20), so that even if thousands of people at once didn’t hear directly from God, they had no reason to doubt that God had actually spoken to them. Moving into the NT, we see that Jesus was often surrounded by crowds of people who witnessed His teaching and His miracles (sometimes numbering in the thousands, such as “the feeding of the 5,000”), but always at least three (Peter, James, & John).
Further, Jesus preached for three years at least, and the Twelve were in near-constant attendance (the only exceptions would be such as when Jesus sent out the seventy disciples – two by two, not as individuals!), so they would have heard the same sermons preached in every town. They may have even repeated Jesus’s sermons sentence by sentence when He preached to thousands at once without being in a natural amphitheater (as some of the preachers of the “Great Awakening” did in the 1700s, so that the people in the back could hear what was preached, even if they couldn’t hear the preacher themselves).
Even if they didn’t, they still would have heard the sermons preached over and over and over and over and over again for three solid years. Do you think they would soon forget what He said? They also themselves certainly preached the same sermons when they went out two by two, and if one of them forgot, the other could remind him.
Later in the NT, we see that the 120 in the upper room grew to some 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost, and in a short time grew to 5,000! Would 5,000 people all experience the same amnesia or forgetfulness of what had been taught? While we are not given a precise date for when the church at Jerusalem began experiencing persecution so that some of the members left to go elsewhere, we do see that when that happened, that there was still communication between the Apostles and other leaders in Jerusalem and these further churches; and as previously mentioned, we have the missionary team of Paul and Barnabas or Paul and Silas, not just a single person. The lone exception would be Philip and the eunuch, but that could serve as “the exception that proves the rule”.
And on top of that, not only were there eyewitnesses who could and did give oral testimony, but there were also the written Scriptures – first the OT and later the NT – which provided guidance and correction, in case anybody forgot anything. Indeed, we see that Paul in multiple letters said that the epistle was to remind them of what they had been taught. These letters were read in the entire congregation (and copies were undoubtedly sent on to other nearby churches, who likewise would have made and distributed more copies to other churches and to individuals – which is one reason why we have thousands of ancient manuscripts) so there again we have multiple witnesses to what was said. It would have been impossible to have materially altered the teaching of the Apostles, with so many witnesses!
A different standard
Contrast that with something like what we see with modern-day “prophets” like Joseph Smith. Almost all of his claims of being a prophet (receiving revelation, etc.) were private and had no witnesses – that is, he would simply announce that he had received revelation, but nobody else in the room saw or heard anything; and there is evidence that much of what he claimed as revelation would have been only a thought that entered his mind, so he wouldn’t have even claimed to have heard some audible voice from God or anything like that. Occasionally there is the claim that more than one person saw or experienced the same event, but often if not always, the first evidence we have for that event comes many years after it supposedly occurred – it was “backdated”, we might say – and was unknown at the time it supposedly happened, which renders it suspect.
There is also little or no confirming evidence (such as fulfilled prophecy) for JS having actually received revelation from God. Deut. 18 & 20 are the main Biblical texts that tell us what a true and a false prophet will be like, and one of the evidences of a false prophet is if he predicts something that does not come to pass. While JS may have occasionally gotten a “prophecy” or a prediction correct, so do sports announcers and it doesn’t make them true prophets of God. In Deut. 18 God even said that He might allow a claimed prophet to make a prophecy that comes true, but that would be a test to see if they would follow the Scriptures and past revelation, or if they would start following some false prophets who taught false gods.
Even though JS’s original preaching was largely orthodox, by the end of his ministry, he certainly taught a god unknown in the Bible (see the King Follett Funeral Sermon preached in April 1844, in which JS taught that God had not been God from all eternity but had to become God, and that his listeners themselves could also learn to become gods). This means that JS must be counted as a false prophet, no matter what else he may have said that was true.
A pattern change?
The larger point is that what JS taught was mostly if not entirely the testimony of one man, with no confirming evidence from God, like the prophets of the Bible had; nor were there any great total-congregation experiences like hearing God speak on Mt. Sinai or seeing the walls of Jericho come falling down. And when we look at other claimed prophets of that time (and there were many!), we see the same thing – lack of evidence – like with Joseph Smith. The question becomes, why would God change the pattern He had always demonstrated from ancient times, to reveal things only to one person (whether Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White, Charles Taze Russell, or any of hundreds of other lesser-known putative prophets of the 1800s) without giving them confirming signs?
Further, all of these claimed prophets contradict each other, so they all certainly cannot be true (though they can all be false). Yet they all claimed to have the same authority (not just “speaking for God”, but usually if not always their “proof” that they were true prophets was some sort of ethereal feeling or “knowing”, rather than physical signs such as healing the lame or some other miracle, as happened in the OT & the NT), so how can we determine who is true?
Again, we must go to the Scripture, since they all claimed to be guided by the One Who gave the Scriptures in the first place. But when we do, we see that they fail the test of being a true prophet. That alone should be enough to discount their testimony, but we have an additional admonition from Scripture, and that is that there should be 2-3 witnesses on serious matters – and surely the claim that one is speaking for God is a serious matter!
In short, the Bible constantly gives multiple witnesses – usually far more than the minimum two or three required – as proof of its truthfulness, and in olden days God constantly gave witness to the truthfulness of His Prophets. Those witnesses are sadly lacking from any putative prophet of the 1800s, so it behooves the person who truly wants to follow the Bible, to carefully examine any claimed prophet, and follow only those who do have the requisite witness, while dismissing any who don’t.