Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[1] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century AD.[2] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.[3] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[4] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[5]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era. The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around AD 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century BC, and the oldest manuscript is dated around AD 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 BC, and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[6] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[7] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[8] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[9] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[10]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting.

Notes

  1. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  2. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  3. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  4. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  5. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  6. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  7. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  8. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  9. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  10. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.

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