The reason it is important to question the reliability of the New Testament is because it links itself with history. Throughout the New Testament there are numerous historical references that establish the books as intrinsically linked with world events. Particularly for the unbeliever, before the revealed word can be accepted as such, it must be established that these historical references are valid. The first step in discovering whether the New Testament is reliable is to define what is meant when we use the term ‘reliable.’ While many academic texts have explored this issue as an indication of reliability in terms of the revealed word of God, a larger portion of skeptics will examine the question from the standpoint of whether it is reliable from a historical perspective first. This reliability provides some evidence that the ‘revealed’ word was actually aware of world events at the time and removes some of the doubt regarding the more fictional-sounding elements. While this exploration necessarily includes some theology, given the nature of the study, the primary purpose is to discover the historical elements that help to support this theology for those who otherwise have difficulty accepting the New Testament as the revealed word of God through Jesus Christ. “Christianity as a way of life depends upon the acceptance of Christianity as good news. And this good news is intimately bound up with the historical order, for it tells how for the world’s redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.” To accomplish this goal, the present study will seek to examine the historical reliability of the New Testament through a broad examination of what the scripture has to say about its own reliability and more in-depth examinations of the Gospels and the historical approach itself.
Consider the source
The scripture itself presents numerous problems to the historical researcher though, as it suggests numerous contexts. Beginning with Genesis, the scriptures present issues of historicity as it is suggested that God created the world in six days despite a geologic record of the earth’s development suggesting many thousands of years between each stage described. According to Genesis, all of the beasts of the earth as well as mankind were created on the same day while geologists tell us there were beasts of the earth created more than 230 million years ago and were already extinct approximately 65 million years before mankind emerged in his earliest incarnation. This presents an even greater issue as tracing through the various genealogies presented throughout the Scriptures suggests the earth is only around 6,000 years old. How can these vast differences in beliefs regarding the age of the world be reconciled? While some efforts have been made pointing to passages referring to ‘dragons’ that might have been an ancient form of the more modern term ‘dinosaur’ within the Bible, there remains the problem of scientific evidence when one is working from a historical viewpoint. The question is again complicated as the Bible itself refuses any stretching of the period of a day in its assertion that the heavens and the earth “stood up together” rather than coming into existence years apart. Scientists using a variety of what are independently considered reliable methods of measuring both earth and space time have also independently reached the conclusion that the earth is not 6,000 years old but closer to 4.5 billion years old. In looking at these issues, it seems impossible to establish any kind of historic reliability for the Scriptures in the minds of those who are unconvinced of their authenticity.
However, when one moves into the New Testament and begins examining evidence of historical reference here, there are events that can be agreed upon by creationists and evolutionists alike, perhaps opening the door for reasonable, rational discussion. For example, Luke 3:1 tells us that John the Baptist began his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.” The chapter then informs us that Jesus began his ministry shortly after John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod and that he started his ministry at about the age of 30. It is known through numerous other sources that Tiberius succeeded Augustus as princeps in AD 14 at the age of 56 and that he reigned for 23 years until AD 37. Indeed, enough is known about this man’s life and works that he is easily accepted by the most doubting individual as a true historic figure. A closer examination of the New Testament, particularly the more historically-oriented Gospels, from a historical viewpoint reveals several ways in which the text supports the reliability of the New Testament even for skeptics.
There are numerous troubling issues regarding the reliability of the Gospels in revealing the words and life of Jesus and the early church. For instance, it is known that the Gospels were written several decades after Jesus died. While Jesus’ crucifixion is generally considered to have occurred sometime around AD 30, the earliest of the Gospels is generally not believed to have been written for another four decades following this event, calling its verbatim reporting of Jesus’ words into question. The date of Jesus’ death is generally fixed by the Gospels themselves and supported by external evidence. Having established his age at the time he began his ministry through Luke, John provides us with the details of three Passover feasts following Jesus’ ministry, two of which Jesus attended and the third approaching when Jesus “knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father.” Evidence provided in the passages regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, such as the suggestion that it occurred under the direction of Pontius Pilate, again provides us with the means of verifying the information, or part of the information, through external sources.Although the sources don’t necessarily agree in their characterization, the point here is that they do agree on the existence of a man named Pontius Pilate, for instance, who ruled between a fixed set of dates. The Gospels, however, were not written until many years later.
It is important here to make the distinction between reliability and absolute scientific accuracy, as it will have a bearing on aspects of this discussion. According to Terry Erikson, there are three basic questions one should ask when considering the reliability of any document, whether one is discussing the New Testament Gospels or this morning’s edition of the New York Times. These include: “Do I have what the author wrote?; Does the author claim to be telling the truth and is what he writes consistent with that claim?; Is there evidence from other sources that verifies that the author is a reliable source?” These questions can be seen in operation in the discussion of the dates of Jesus’ ministry above. These dates are based upon what is above simply assumed to have been what the author wrote, i.e. the quotes from Luke, the author claims to be telling the truth and includes a number of pieces of evidence to support that truth and these additional bits of evidence are indeed supported by other sources that verify at least some of the author’s information is reliable. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the rest of his information is reliable.
This consideration leads to the question of how close the present day Gospels are to what their authors originally wrote down. There are multiple accusations that the New Testament gospels are heavily corrupted, some of which come from highly reputable sources such as Bart Ehrman. These problems begin with the fact that the original documents have been lost for centuries. “None of the copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. So, rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs.” Despite having searched for ‘uncorrupted’ copies by learning the ancient Greek language in which it is believed the ancient texts were written, Ehrman only became more convinced that the original gospels can not be recovered, arguing that “We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently in thousands of ways.” While we do not have the originals, though, there are reasons to believe the gospels as they are known today are not so corrupted as to be unreliable.
Far more experts in the field indicate that there are plenty of reasons to believe the texts are reliable. Directly addressing the reliability of the Gospels in his book by that title, Dr. Craig Blomberg explicitly states that “one of the better kept secrets” of the New Testament is “how reliable the New Testament documents are.” While it is impossible to compare the original documents to what exists today, there are more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts or pieces of manuscripts that provide for some indication of what the original documents said. “These manuscripts have been found in hundreds of archeological sites all around the Mediterranean Sean and archeologists agree that these manuscripts were written in the first two centuries.” Although found in different places and obviously transcribed by different hands, these documents are nearly identical and complete enough that scholars suggest more than 99 percent of the original author’s words have been preserved with nothing of consequence left in question. “It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially this is the case with the New Testament. The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of the quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved.” This assertion is backed up by the many writers of the ancient period who quoted the gospels and the concept that other ancient texts presumed reliable actually have less ‘proofs’ than the texts of the New Testament.
Part of the problem many non-believers have with the reliability of the New Testament are the several ‘impossibilities’ they report. Called miracles, many point to the impossible deeds of Jesus as evidence that the Gospels are not true accounts but are rather the biased exaggerations of followers eager to establish their leader’s credibility upon a gullible public. According to Hume, “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” Emerging from the age of Enlightenment, naturalist tendencies typically held the miracles to be invalid simply because they were miracles, they defied the laws of nature which cannot be defied. “Thus, when reports of miracles are written, such as the Virgin Birth found in the New Testament, then we ask this question: Which is more probable? Did the early church uncritically accept legends abounding in the Greco-Roman world, or did the miracle happen? A rationalist accepts the first option as more probable.” In the face of the impossibilities contained in the Gospels, it is necessary to ask what makes so many Christians so willing to believe the Gospels as the absolute truth.
While it may be difficult to believe some of the impossibilities contained in the New Testament, there is plenty of reason to believe what was written were eyewitness accounts of events as they occurred, much as one would tend to believe a newspaper story about a solid concrete and steel bridge suddenly collapsing into a river. While it may be hard to believe, corroborating reports, a lack of evidence to refute that the event occurred and careful attention to providing the facts available within the story all contribute to the understanding that a bridge actually did suddenly fall into a river beneath, taking several cars along with it. In the same way, the events of the New Testament can be taken as truth. “There is evidence of careful eyewitness reporting throughout the New Testament. The caution exercised by the writers, their personal conviction that what they wrote was true and the lack of demonstrable error or contradiction indicates that the Gospel authors and, indeed, all the New Testament authors pass the [test of internal evidence].” In addition, with as many ancient manuscripts as are available supporting the New Testament documents, it would seem likely that at least some documents would be found refuting their claims had these events not actually taken place. Had anyone attempted to report that a bridge in Minnesota had collapsed as the result of two giant battling robot transformers, there would have been numerous reports elsewhere attesting to the falseness of the report and attempting to set the record straight. However, there are no such reports available regarding the miracles Jesus reports and thus they must be accepted as truth.
There remains another possibility, however, and that is that the eyewitnesses to these events might have been more willing than a simple ‘objective’ reporter to believe that what they were seeing was indeed a miracle of suspension of natural law. “Some argue that the gospel writers’ reporting of miracles can’t be trusted because they were only giving their religiously excited ‘subjective experience’ of Jesus, not objectively reports real miraculous events. They thought Jesus did miracles, but were mistaken.” This is a valid concern as the sincerity of the authors is not called into question, only their ability to perceive the actual truth. However, the problem with this objection is that it depends on these events taking place in closed places, secret corners and with few eyewitnesses. This conception is refuted in passages such as Mark 2, in which Jesus entered a house in Capernaum “and straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door.” The miracle of healing that was performed in this place was done so in the open, in front of many eyewitnesses, believers and nonbelievers alike and was done to prove to those who doubted that Jesus was the son of God because he was able to do what only God could do. “The truth is that the teachings and miracles of Jesus, as any independent reading of the Gospels will prove, are so inextricably bound together that if one removes the miracles one must discard the teachings and vice versa. It is logically impossible to have any other Jesus than the biblical one.” While it is convenient to point to the Gospels and doubt them because they were written by ‘fans’ of Jesus and therefore must be heavily biased in his favor, the careful attention to detail, the reporting of negative elements and the very public element involved in his miracles all attest to the reliability of these documents as true accounts of what was seen.
An important element of the New Testament gospels that must be considered before a discussion of the reliability of these books can be put to rest is what they say about the Old Testament. According to the New Testament, Jesus is walking on Earth in fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament. One example of this can be found in the book of Matthew: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring for a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” This passage obviously suggests that Mary’s condition is in fulfillment of promises given in Isaiah 7:14 to the house of David, to which Joseph belongs: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Through their extensive quoting of the Old Testament texts, the New Testament seems to place the Old Testament as the ultimate authority for all things and sets itself up as a mere refinement of what had already been said before. “A very conservative count discloses unquestionably at least 295 separate references to the Old Testament. These occupy some 352 verses of the New Testament, or more than 4.4 percent. Therefore one verse in 22.5 of the New Testament is a quotation.” Although there weren’t many written copies of the Old Testament books available to the New Testament writers, their ability to quote to such a high level is offered by many scholars as evidence that these are the divine words of God, offering up the sophisticated level of cross-referencing as a sort of miracle in and of itself.
The New Testament authors themselves seemed to view the Old Testament texts as normative. “Nowhere do we find a tendency to question, argue or repudiate the truth of any Scripture utterance. Passages sometimes alleged to prove that the Lord and his apostles challenged at times the authority of the Old Testament, when carefully examined, turn out to bolster rather than to impair the evidence for their acceptance of Scripture as the Word of God.” Thus, the refinement concept continues to hold true throughout the New Testament texts, presenting information from the Old Testament in a new light as it becomes better understood through the human filter of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
- The general test for Historicity (1 1/3)
- The presence of Eyewitnesses (1 1/3)
- The Gospels and Jewish Oral Tradition (1 1/3)
- The time factor (1 1/3)
- The Resurrection of Jesus and His Appearances (1 1/3)
- Traditional Approaches (Apostolicity, Authorship, and Date). (1 1/3)
Should reflect the usefulness to apologetics.
Bassett, David V. (2008). “Biblical Age of Earth.” Albatrus. Web.
Blomberg, Craig. Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2007.
Bruce, F.F. (1959). The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? 5th Ed. Leicester, England: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship.
Erhman, Bart. Misquoting Jesus. New York: HarperOne, 2005.
Erikson, Terry. (2008). “Are the Gospels Reliable?” Evangelism. InterVarsity Press. Web.
Lendering, Jona. (2008). “Pontius Pilate.” Livius.
Litwin, Ronald J.; Robert E. Weems & Thomas R. Holtz Jr. (August 6, 2007). Dinosaurs: Fact and Fiction. Washington D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey.
Shotter, David. (2004). Tiberius Caesar. New York: Routledge.
Stassen, Chris. (2005). “The Age of the Earth.” Talk Origins. Web.