Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 1

Are the Gospels true?

Are the New Testament gospels the true eyewitness history of Jesus Christ, or could the story have been changed through the years? Must we simply take the New Testament accounts of Jesus by faith, or is there evidence for their reliability?

The late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings was in Israel broadcasting a television special on Jesus Christ. His program, “The Search for Jesus,” explored the question of whether the Jesus of the New Testament was historically accurate.

Jennings featured opinions on the Gospel accounts from DePaul professor John Dominic Crossan, three of Crossan’s colleagues from the Jesus Seminar, and two other Bible scholars. (The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars who debate Jesus’ recorded words and actions and then use red, pink, gray, or black beads to cast votes indicating how trustworthy they believe statements in the Gospels are.)1

Some of the comments were stunning. There on national TV Dr. Crossan not only cast doubt on more than 80 percent of Jesus’ sayings but also denied Jesus’ claims to divinity, his miracles, and his resurrection. Jennings clearly was intrigued by the image of Jesus presented by Crossan.

Searching for true Bible history is always news, which is why every year Time and Newsweek go on a cover story quest for Mary, Jesus, Moses, or Abraham. Or—who knows?—maybe this year it will be “Bob: The Untold Story of the Missing 13th Disciple.”

This is entertainment, and so the investigation will never end nor yield answers, as that would eliminate future programming. Instead, those with radically different views are thrown together like an episode of Survivor, hopelessly convoluting the issue rather than bringing clarity.

But Jennings’s report did focus on one issue that ought to be given some serious thought. Crossan implied that the original accounts of Jesus were embellished by oral tradition and were not written down until after the apostles were dead. Thus they are largely unreliable and fail to give us an accurate picture of the real Jesus. How are we to know if this is really true?

Read part 2 of Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 2

Lost In Translation?

So, what does the evidence show? We begin with two simple questions: When were the original documents of the New Testament written? And who wrote them?

The importance of these questions should be obvious. If the accounts of Jesus were written after the eyewitnesses were dead, no one could verify their accuracy. But if the New Testament accounts were written while the original apostles were still alive, then their authenticity could be established. Peter could say of a forgery in his name, “Hey, I didn’t write that.” And Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John could respond to questions or challenges aimed at their accounts of Jesus.

The New Testament writers claimed to be rendering eyewitness accounts of Jesus. The apostle Peter stated it this way in one letter: “We were not making up clever stories when we told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming again. We have seen his majestic splendor with our own eyes” (2 Peter 1:16NLT).

A major part of the New Testament is the apostle Paul’s 13 letters to young churches and individuals. Paul’s letters, dated between the mid 40s and the mid 60s (12 to 33 years after Christ), constitute the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ life and teaching. Will Durant wrote of the historical importance of Paul’s letters, “The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Saint Paul. … No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known Christ in the flesh.”2

Read part 3 of Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 3

But Is It True?

In books, magazines, and TV documentaries, the Jesus Seminar suggests the Gospels were written as late as a.d. 130 to 150 by unknown authors. If those later dates are correct, there would be a gap of approximately 100 years from Christ’s death (scholars put Jesus’ death between a.d. 30 and 33). And since all the eyewitnesses would have been dead, the Gospels could only have been written by unknown, fraudulent authors.

So, what evidence do we have concerning when the Gospel accounts of Jesus were really written? The consensus of most scholars is that the Gospels were written by the apostles during the first century. They cite several reasons that we will review later in this article. For now, however, note that three primary forms of evidence appear to build a solid case for their conclusions:

  • early documents from heretics such as Marcion and the school of Valentinus citing New Testament books, themes, and passages
  • numerous writings of early Christian sources, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp
  • discovered copies of Gospel fragments carbon-dated as early as 117 A.D.

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 4

Biblical archaeologist William Albright concluded on the basis of his research that all the New Testament books were written while most of the apostles were still alive. He wrote, “We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book after about 80 A.D., two full generations before the date of between 130 and 150 A.D.given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.”4 Elsewhere Albright put the writing of the entire New Testament at “very probably sometime between about 50 A.D. and 75 A.D.”5

The notoriously skeptical scholar John A. T. Robinson dates the New Testament earlier than even most conservative scholars. In Redating the New TestamentRobinson asserts that most of the New Testament was written between 40 A.D. and 65 A.D. That puts its writing as early as seven years after Christ lived.If that is true, any historical errors would have been immediately exposed by both eyewitnesses and the enemies of Christianity.

So let’s look at the trail of clues that takes us from the original documents to our New Testament copies today.

Read part 5 – Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 5

Who Needs Kinko’s ?

The original writings of the apostles were revered. Churches studied them, shared them, carefully preserved them and stored them away like buried treasure.

But, alas, Roman confiscations, the passage of 2,000 years, and the second law of thermodynamics have taken their toll. So, today, what do we have of those original writings? Nothing. The original manuscripts are all gone (though each week Bible scholars, no doubt, tune in to Antiques Roadshow hoping one might emerge).

Yet the New Testament is not alone in this fate; no other comparable document from ancient history exists today either. Historians aren’t troubled by the lack of original manuscripts if they have reliable copies to examine. But are there ancient copies of the New Testament available, and if so, are they faithful to the originals?

As the number of churches multiplied, hundreds of copies were carefully made under the supervision of church leaders. Every letter was meticulously penned in ink on parchment or papyrus. And so, today, scholars can study the surviving copies (and the copies of copies, and the copies of copies of copies—you get it), to determine authenticity and arrive at a very close approximation of the original documents.

In fact, scholars studying ancient literature have devised the science of textual criticism to examine documents such as The Odyssey, comparing them with other ancient documents to determine their accuracy. More recently, military historian Charles Sanders augmented textual criticism by devising a three-part test that looks at not only the faithfulness of the copy but also the credibility of the authors. His tests are these:

  1. The bibliographical test
  2. The internal evidence test
  3. The external evidence test7

Let’s see what happens when we apply these tests to the early New Testament manuscripts.

Bibliographical Test

This test compares a document with other ancient history from the same period. It asks:

  • How many copies of the original document are in existence?
  • How large of a time gap is there between the original writings and the earliest copies?
  • How well does a document compare with other ancient history?

Imagine if we had only two or three copies of the original New Testament manuscripts. The sampling would be so small that we couldn’t possibly verify accuracy. On the other hand, if we had hundreds or even thousands, we could easily weed out the errors of poorly transmitted documents.

So, how well does the New Testament compare with other ancient writings with regard to both the number of copies and the time gap from the originals? More than 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament exist today in the original Greek language. Many of these manuscripts are merely fragments, while others are virtually complete books. When counting translations into other languages, the number is a staggering 24,000 – dating from the second to the fifteenth century.

Compare that with the second-best-documented ancient historical manuscript, Homer’s Iliad, with 643 copies.8 And remember that most ancient historical works have far fewer existing manuscripts than that one does (usually fewer than 10). New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger remarked, “In contrast with these figures [of other ancient manuscripts], the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.”9

Read part 6 – Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 6

Time Gap

Not only is the number of manuscripts significant, but so is the time gap between when the original was written and the date of the copy. Over the course of a thousand years of copying, there’s no telling what a text could evolve into—But over a hundred years, that’s a different story
German critic Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860) once contended that John’s Gospel was not written until about a.d. 160; therefore, it could not have been written by John. This, if true, would have not only undermined John’s writings but cast suspicion on the entire New Testament as well. But then, when a cache of New Testament papyri fragments were discovered in Egypt, among them was a fragment of the Gospel of John (specifically, P52: John 18:31-33) dated to roughly 25 years after John wrote the original.

Metzger explained, “Just as Robinson Crusoe, seeing but a single footprint in the sand, concluded that another human being, with two feet, was present on the island with him, so P52 [the label of the fragment] proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor).”10 Find after find, archeology has unearthed copies of major portions of the New Testament dated to within 150 years of the originals.11

Most other ancient documents have time gaps of from 400 to 1,400 years. For example, Aristotle’s Poetics was written about 343 b.c., yet the earliest copy is dated a.d. 1100, with only five copies in existence. And yet no one is going in search of the historical Plato, claiming he was actually a fireman and not a philosopher.

In fact, there is a nearly complete copy of the Bible called, Codex Vaticanus, that was written only about 250 to 300 years after the apostles’ original writing. The oldest known complete copy of the New Testament in ancient uncial script is named, Codex Sinaiticus, now housed at the British Museum.

Like Codex Vaticanus, it is dated from the fourth century. Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, going back to early in Christian history, are like other early biblical manuscripts in that they differ minimally from each other and give us a very good picture of what the original documents must have said.

Even critical scholar John A. T. Robinson has admitted, “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”12 Professor of law John Warwick Montgomery affirmed, “To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”13

The point is this: If the New Testament records were made and circulated so closely to the actual events, their portrayal of Jesus is most likely accurate. But external evidence is not the only way to answer the question of reliability; scholars also use internal evidence to answer this question.

Read part 7 – Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 7

The Discovery Of Codex Sinaiticus

In 1844 the German scholar Constantine Tischendorf was searching for New Testament manuscripts. By accident, he noticed a basket filled with old pages in the library of the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. The German scholar was both elated and shocked. He had never seen Greek manuscripts that old. Tischendorf asked the librarian about them and was horrified to learn that the pages had been discarded to be used as fuel. Two basketloads of such papers had already been burned!

Tischendorf’s enthusiasm made the monks wary, and they would not show him any more manuscripts. However, they did allow Tischendorf to take the 43 pages he had discovered.

Fifteen years later, Tischendorf returned to the Sinai monastery, this time with help from the Russian Tsar Alexander II. Once he was there, a monk took Tischendorf to his room and pulled down a cloth-wrapped manuscript that had been stored on a shelf with cups and dishes. Tischendorf immediately recognized the valuable remaining portions of the manuscripts he had seen earlier.

The monastery agreed to present the manuscript to the tsar of Russia as protector of the Greek Church. In 1933 the Soviet Union sold the manuscript to the British Museum for £100,000.

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament we have, and it is among the most important. Some speculate that it is one of the 50 Bibles the emperor Constantine commissioned Eusebius to prepare in the early fourth century. Codex Sinaiticus has been of enormous help to scholars in verifying the accuracy of the New Testament.

Read part 8 – Is the New Testament Reliable?