Have you ever taken a history class in high school or college? If so, you are probably aware of the term “primary sources”. Primary sources are documents from the time period that is being discussed. They may confirm or perhaps change the way we view an event or time period in the past. They are considered valuable, because instead of having to guess the meaning or purpose of archaeological discoveries or attempting to assume the thoughts and motives of the people involved, we have answers in the actual words of the people who lived during that time. Primary sources can also be more generic writings like lists, court documents and other rather mundane records.
In Christianity, the Bible is considered a primary source document. The Gospels, for example, are the writings of the men who lived during the time of Jesus and recorded what happened. Lee Strobel and other authors do a great job of explaining what excellent and reliable primary source documents the books in the New Testament are.
There are other documents, outside of the Bible, that discuss Jesus, Christianity and Christians. Are they reliable? Could they help answer the questions and doubts of teens who have independently decided they don’t trust what they read in the Bible? Possibly, but it’s really important to understand some basic strengths and weaknesses of primary source documents outside of the Bible.
- Just like today, various people may have thought differently about things. A person can truly only speak to his own interpretation of life. The writer may indeed reflect the common opinions of the day, or he or she may be an outlier whose opinion was the exception, rather than the norm.
- Primary sources often reflect the culture in which the person lived. What someone in the first century described as a wedding, for example, is very different from a modern wedding. It is important to understand whether the words used to describe an event in the first century would be different than the words we might use to describe what happened. (Remember when the word “bad” once meant something was really good?)
- Just because the writer of a primary source outside of the Bible considers himself to be a Christian, does not mean his beliefs or practices are necessarily biblical. Only the books of the Bible are considered to be inspired by God. Any writer outside of the Bible may or may not be sharing biblical truths. Before accepting something as true, it should be compared to any applicable scriptures.
- If you are reading a first century primary source in English, it has been translated from another language. If you’ve ever had social media automatically translate another language into English, you can understand some of the inherent difficulties of translations. If something is confusing, it can help to look at more than one translation of the same document. Josephus, for example, has possibly had some words of his words altered by translators over time.
- You should look for primary sources that encourage students to engage with scripture whenever possible. There are many reasons a historian may use a primary source document. As a Bible class teacher, you should be looking for primary source documents that confirm the historicity of scripture or answer questions about how things were done in the first century. Introducing the writings of someone who was considered a heretic in his time can only confuse struggling students more.
- It is important to know when primary source documents were written. Different people have different views on what they consider a primary source document. Since Christianity is nearly 2000 years old, there are different types of primary source documents. Documents written while the Apostles were still alive are considered to many to be the most helpful in understanding how the Apostles and the people they taught interpreted scripture. Primary source documents written in the second and third centuries can give a perspective on how early decisions – like which books constituted the New Testament – were made. Anything past that is more so called “church history” and can possibly contain quite a bit of what are sometimes called heretical ideas. These more recent primary source documents have little value in a teen Bible class in my opinion. (The possible exception would be to discover when ideas like instrumental music were first introduced into Christian practices – the thought being that many of these later ideas were possible, but not instituted by the Apostles for wise reasons not necessarily commented upon in Scripture.)
- You can find many Christian primary source documents for free online. Because they were written so long ago, copyright laws don’t cover the original material (although some translations may be covered). This often means you have more freedom to quote or make copies of the material. Check the fine print on the site where you find the material for any restrictions.
Primary source documents won’t help every teen, but for some they can provide the information they need to encourage them to continue on their faith journey.