Is our New Testament text reliable?
Some critics doubt that we even have the original New Testament. This issue can only be settled by using bibliographical tests for reliability, similar to what would be used to judge the Iliad or Caesar’s writings.
The NT was completely written by baptized Jews1 in the 1st century AD. We have at least 24,000 manuscripts of NT, the earliest of which are dated within 100 years or so of its actual composition. The earliest known manuscript is the John Rylands papyrus fragment of John Rylands known as P52, containing John 18:31-33,37-38, dated to c. AD 125. Compare this to other great works (MSS = Manuscripts):
|Author||Date Written||Earliest MSS||Time Span||No. MSS|
|Caesar||100–44 BC||AD 900||1,000 yrs||10|
|Plato||427–347 BC||AD 900||1,200 yrs||7|
|Thucydides||460–400 BC||AD 900||1,300 yrs||8|
|Tacitus||AD 100||AD 1100||1,000 yrs||20|
|Suetonius||AD 75–160||AD 950||800 yrs||8|
|Homer (Iliad)||900 BC||400 BC||500 yrs||643|
|New Testament||AD 40–100||AD 125||25–50 yrs||>24,000!|
So, by applying the tightest standards scholars can muster (without eliminating all the other classical works), we can conclude that the NT we have is a trustworthy copy of the original.2 NT scholar F.F. Bruce (1919-1990) wrote:
“The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.”3
Reliability of the New Testament content
Given that we have a trustworthy copy of the original, is the original itself trustworthy? Liberal scholars usually argue that the gospels were written long after the events they claim to record. They typically date Mark between AD 65-75, Matthew at mid 80s, Luke and Acts between 83-90 and John about the turn of the first century. So with a time gap of 35-75 years, there is allegedly no chance that the gospels are reliable records.
However, there are cogent arguments by J.A.T. Robinson (1919-1983), who was a liberal and Bishop of Woolwich, for redating the gospels to between AD 40 and 65.4 If Robinson is right, the gospels were written in the lifetimes of people who knew Jesus personally. Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s demise and the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24:2, Luke 21:20-24) but do not record its fulfillment in AD 70.5 Matthew, especially, would not have failed to record yet another fulfilled prophecy if he had written after the event. Acts, written by Luke after he wrote his gospel, mentions neither the fall of Jerusalem, the horrific persecutions under Nero Caesar (mid 60s)—although other persecutions are mentioned—nor the martyrdoms of James (61), Paul (64) and Peter (65), so was probably written before then.6
The Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson has shown that the canonical gospels drew on a collective communal memory made strong by the oral teaching methods of the time. These techniques would have enabled ‘very accurate communication between Jesus and his followers’ and would have ensured “excellent semantic recall”.7,8
So Jesus’ disciples would have been very capable of recording His statements accurately, and they give evidence of having done so honestly. For example, they admit certain facts which forgers probably would have left out (e.g. the cowardice of the disciples, the competition for high places within the Kingdom, Peter’s denial, the failure of Jesus to work many miracles in His hometown of Galilee (because of their unbelief—Matthew 13:58, Mark 6:6), references to accusations against His sanity and parentage, and that He didn’t know the timing of His return.
If the gospels were written by church communities (as many skeptics argue) instead of the four evangelists, it is likely that they would have tried to solve their problems by putting solutions into the mouth of Christ. But the gospels do not mention some of the controversies of the early church (e.g. circumcision), but record things quite irrelevant to a mainly gentile church, such as Christ’s being sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6). Thus the internal evidence points to the gospels being written before many of the Church’s problems arose.
Paul wrote even earlier: the summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 was written in c. AD 55, but Paul says he is reminding them of something he preached to them about 15 years earlier. Therefore Paul records a tradition which was well established within a decade of Christ’s death.
Julius Miller (1801-1878) challenged 19th century skeptics to show anywhere in history where within 30 years, legends had accumulated around a historical person and become firmly fixed.9 But even if one accepts the late dates of most liberals, one must note that Prof. Sherwin-White (1911-1993), the eminent classical historian from Oxford University, has pointed out that legends require a time gap of more than two generations. Therefore, if the Gospels are legendary, the rate of legendary accumulation would need to be “unbelievable”.10 He wrote:
“For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming . . . any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”10
Also, John claims to be an eye witness (John 21:24). Luke claims, to have relied on eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4), and was a companion of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14). He may have been Cleopas’, un-named companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13 ff.).11 Mark relied heavily on Peter, who claimed that he “did not follow cunningly devised tales” (2 Peter 1:16). Matthew, according to early church tradition, was written by the disciple and ex-tax-collector of that name.
Is there any archaeological confirmation for the Bible?
In actual fact, we have many first-century non-Christian historians and writers who confirm the life and execution of Jesus: Cornelius Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Flavius Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara Bar-Serapion, and references in the Talmud and other Jewish writings. Encyclopaedia Britannica sums up the force of the data:
“These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”
The gospels have also been supported by archaeology. Sir William, Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939), the archaeologist and professor from Oxford and Cambridge Universities started investigating Luke’s gospel with the assumption that Luke was mistaken in many areas. But Ramsay discovered time and time again that Luke was absolutely precise about place names and the many varied titles of rulers. Ramsay concluded:
“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy . . . this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”12
The Old Testament has been supported repeatedly by archaeology. The Hittites were once thought to be a biblical myth, but their enormous ancient capital, Hattusa, was discovered at modern Boghazköy. Archaeology has also vindicated the war of four kings vs five in Gen. 14. and Belshazzar’s kingship in Daniel.
What is the key teaching of the New Testament?
So, given that Jesus existed, what are we to make of the reliability or unreliability of those documents that claim to give a historical account of His life and teachings? If we accept the historical evidence that the NT is a reliable record, what does it teach?
The bodily Resurrection of Christ is one of the key doctrines of Christianity, as it demonstrates His claims to deity (Romans 1:4), confirms the truth of all He said (Matthew 28:6), and shows that He conquered death, thus guaranteeing the resurrection of believers (2 Corinthians 4:14). The apostle Paul wrote:
“. . . And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. . . . . If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. . . . . If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19, 32b).
The Jews regarded the body as an integral part of Man, so the Resurrection must include the body:
“The notion that Jesus was resurrected in a totally spiritual sense, while his old body lay in the grave, is a purely modern conception. First-century Jewish thinking would never have accepted such a view and that is not how Jesus’ Resurrection was proclaimed in the earliest accounts. It would have been impossible for Resurrection claims to survive in the face of a tomb containing the corpse of Jesus.”13
One major difficulty for non-Christian scholars has been to explain what happened to Christ’s body, as a plausible alternative to the Resurrection. Christ’s enemies would not want to steal it, since that would promote the resurrection stories they wanted to quash—and they would have quashed them by simply producing the body. The disciples had no motive to confront a heavily armed Roman cohort and steal the body to promote Resurrection stories. The disciples were tortured and killed, and no-one would die for what he knows is a lie. However, one of the earliest arguments against the Resurrection was the story the Roman soldiers were bribed to say: “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we slept.” (Matthew 28:13). This is absurd: how could they know what happened if they were asleep? Also, any Roman soldier who slept on duty was executed.
Some critics try to explain away the empty tomb by claiming that there was no tomb, and that Jesus was buried in a common grave. However, Paul stated that Jesus was buried, which in Greek is etaphe, which literally means entombed (from en, ‘in’; taphos, ‘tomb’). Peter also contrasted Jesus, whose body did not “see decay” (NIV), with David, whose body still lay in his tomb (Acts 2:22-35).
Paul’s statement of the gospel in 1 Cor. 15 cites an ancient tradition dating back to only a few years after the event. Mark’s account of the empty tomb reflects the Aramaic, pointing to a very early source. Dr William Lane Craig gives much evidence for the reliability of the burial and empty tomb accounts.14 Also, James Patrick Holding provides at least 17 factors that meant Christianity could not have succeeded in the ancient world, unless it were backed up with irrefutable proof of the Resurrection.15
What’s it to me?
Scripture show that there is a God who created us and therefore owns us. He has set a perfect moral standard of which we fall short (Romans 3:23). He is perfectly just, so must punish transgressions. Since our transgressions offend His infinite holiness, the punishment must also be infinite.
Either we must suffer such punishment, or else a Substitute must endure it in our place (Isaiah 53). The Substitute must be fully human to substitute for humanity (Hebrews 2:14), and must be fully Divine to endure God’s infinite wrath (Isaiah 53:10). To be the mediator between God and Man, Jesus must be both. 1 Timothy 2:5 states:
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.
We cannot earn salvation by any deeds we do (Romans 3:24, 4:2, Ephesians 2:8-9). These verses teach that justification, the declaration of legal innocence before God, is a gift. It takes place the moment one has faith in Christ (Romans 5:1).
The content of faith (the Greek is pistil = belief) is set out by Christ’s chosen apostle Paul:
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what
I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).”
References and notes
- Including Luke, since “the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2); many Jews of the New Testament had Greek names such as Peter, Andrew, Stephen . . . Return to text.
- See also Holding, J., On the textual reliability of the New Testament, tektonics.org/lp/nttextcrit.html. Return to text.
- Bruce, F., Are the New Testament documents reliable? The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, UK, p. 19, 1956. Return to text.
- Robinson, J., Redating the New Testament, SCM Press Ltd, London, UK, p. 353, 1976. Return to text.
- NB:This is not an argument from silence, i.e. an event is not mentioned, therefore it didn’t happen. This form of argument is an example of the fallacy of denying the antecedent. Instead, we are using arguments from conspicuous absence, i.e. an event that almost certainly would be mentioned if it had happened, yet it wasn’t. E.g. we would expect anyone writing on the Twin Towers after 11–9 to mention their obliteration by terrorists; if such an event were not even hinted at, we would suspect that the author wrote before that attack. The same logic holds for the magnificent Jewish Temple destroyed in AD 70. This is a form of valid argument known as denying the consequent. Sarfati, J., Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation, Journal of Creation 12(2):142–151, 1998. Return to text.
- See also Holding, J., Basic issues in defence of the authenticity of the gospels, tektonics.org/ntdocdef/gospdefhub.html. Return to text.
- Gerhardsson, B., Memory and Manuscript Trans. Eric Sharp, Villadsen og Christensen, Copenhagen, 1964. Return to text.
- See also Holding, J., On the reliability of oral tradition, tektonics.org/ntdocdef/orality01.html. Return to text.
- Müller, J., The Theory of Myths, in Its Application to the Gospel History Examined and Confuted, John Chapman, London, p. 26, 1844, cited in Craig, Ref. 14, pp. 196–197. Return to text.
- Sherwin-White, A., Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Baker Book House, Michigan, USA, pp. 188–191, 1992. Return to text.
- See also Anderson, D., The nativity: fact or fiction? 23 December 2006. Return to text.
- Ramsay, W., Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Baker, Michigan, USA, p. 222, 1953. Return to text.
- Barnett, P., Jensen, P. and Peterson, D., Resurrection: Truth and Reality, Aquila Press, Sydney, Australia, p. 14, 1994. Return to text.
- Craig, W., Apologetics: An Introduction, Moody, Chicago, USA, Ch. 5.2, 1984, and lists at least 30 prominent scholars who agree. Return to text.
- Holding, J., The Impossible Faith, Xulon Press, Florida, USA, 2007; tektonics.org/lp/nowayjose.html. Return to text.
JONATHAN SARFATI, B.Sc.(Hons.), Ph.D., F.M.
Dr Sarfati’s Ph.D. in physical chemistry is from Victoria University, Wellington, NZ. He is the author of some of the world’s most well-known creation books. A former NZ chess champion, he works for Creation Ministries International (in Australia 1996-2010, thereafter in Atlanta, USA).
From Creation 33(1) 2011
Creation Ministries International
Used with permission