Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?

Posted: August 31, 2010 by pastorerichann in Apologetics, IS Articles, PastorEricHann
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(This is part 2 of the “IS” articles series by Pastor Eric Hann)

An introductory study of Christian apologetics reveals that the claims of Christianity were presented by the early apostles/messengers as verifiable, objective truth. Whereas most other world religions/cults avoid empirical and historical investigations, Christianity rests on the fact of real events having taken place (I Cor. 15:17). In fact, Dr. Steven Collins goes so far as to point out “Christianity might be the only belief system in the world that rests its validity on the reality of certain events.” This is one of the primary reasons (along with the claim of the exclusivity of Christian truth – or even truth in general), that Christianity is such a regular target of derision. The premise that Christianity is “true” is based on the acceptance of “truth” according to the “correspondence” view – meaning that truth is that which corresponds to reality. This stands in opposition to concepts of truth being determined according to “that which is existentially relevant,” or “that which works” (pragmatic view), or truth as that which “feels good.” These latter views of truth can be shown to be not only self-defeating, but also virtually absent in our everyday lives, activities, and systems. Hence, individuals are often torn between their own professed worldviews and the everyday lives they live. Norman Geisler points out that if the pragmatic (“what works”) view of truth were applied to our everyday culture, our whole judicial system would be thrown into disarray, since witnesses in court are not asked to “swear to tell ‘what works for you,’ ‘the whole of what works for you,’ and ‘nothing but what works for you’” (for a detailed discussion on this and a refutation of Immanuel Kant’s agnosticism, see Norman Geisler’s chapter in Why I Am a Christian entitled “Why I Believe Truth is Real and Knowable” pp. 30 – 45)

We saw in the previous article how there is actual empirical evidence (through what’s called general revelation Romans 1:20, 2:14-15) which reveals there is some kind of “god” who “creates” (cosmological argument), “designs” (teleological argument), and who through this creation bears evidence of the existence of at least a general “morality” (moral argument) and meaning (religious need / joy). Though some people to whom we witness and inquire about evidences for the Christian faith will not require this sort of “systematic” approach, the “classical apologist” affirms the above premises and ideas in order to have a certain grounding for presenting evidences pertaining more specifically to Christianity. Geisler expresses the classical approach this way:

“The basic argument of the classical apologists is that it makes no sense to speak about the resurrection as an act of God unless, as a logical prerequisite, it is first established that there is a God who can act. Likewise, the Bible cannot be the Word of God unless there is a God who can speak. And Christ cannot be shown to be the Son of God except on the logically prior premise there is a God who can have a Son” (Geisler, ECA) 

Thus, in the progression of “classical” Christian apologetics, we now move on sequentially to issues pertaining more particularly to Christianity. The question arises: Has this “god” who is evidenced by means of general revelation ever, in time-space history, been revealed to us inany kind of objective, verifiable manner?(not pertaining to merely “feelings” – or even mere personal, “mystical experiences” although these can be considered “some” evidence for a Christian view of God). The Christian answers “yes,” meaning that this true God revealed himself through an actual, historically verifiable person known as“Jesus,” who is “the Christ.” “Testing” whether or not the Christian’s answer is true can be done using the same accepted ways we test all historical truths. Along with considering extra-biblical evidences for the Jesus of history, what is often termed as “normal historical procedures” can be applied to the New Testament itself in order to present “evidence” that it is a valid source of historical information. This practice is known as historiography, or the “science of historical investigation.” The reason for starting with the NT as a valid source of history is broken down by Dr. Winfried Corduan as follows:

1. The New Testament as history shows that…

2. it is reasonable to believe in the deity of Christ, who…

3. taught us to accept the Bible as the Word of God

Consequently, based on what evidence do we consider the NT to be historically reliable?

Evidence and Other Ancient Writings

The N.T. time period is known as “ancient” history. Our common knowledge of ancient history is based on what is known as documentary or “written” evidence. Keep in mind that the secular world relies upon ancient writers for its knowledge of the past. Examples include: Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Julius Caesar, and Josephus. Many of these who recorded history were let alone not eyewitnesses, they were not even contemporaries of the people and events concerning which they reported. For example, Herodotus (480 – 425 BC) wrote about events that preceded him by hundreds of years – yet his version of events in history are generally accepted (or “believed”) to be accurate. They’re generally accepted because there isn’t any good reason to doubt the basic integrity of the documents. One important question which should be applied is: Are the surviving manuscript copies that we have “original in force?” “Documentary” evidence helps draw conclusions for the answer to this question. This evidence involves, in the very least, the following subjects:

A. Primitive Manuscripts (Do early manuscripts of the documents exist?)

B. Quantity and Quality (Do they exist in sufficient quantity and quality so that the readings of the original texts can be accurately reproduced?)

C. Internal Consistency (Does consistency exist within the contents of the text itself)

D. Time Proximity (How does the date of writing compare with the time of the events themselves?)

Evidence Supporting the New Testament

Gary Habermas notes that “if the same criteria that are regularly applied to other ancient writings are also implemented by New Testament scholars, a solid historical basis emerges for the life and teachings of Jesus.”  Thus, let’s explore an application of each of these criteria to the NT. The following is a breakdown of these historiography subjects and some notable facts pertaining to each when comparing the NT with other ancient documents:

A. Primitive Manuscripts and their (B) Quantity and Quality. One will notice that applying these rules to the N.T. lend it overwhelming support, especially in comparison to other ancient documents.

Other Ancient Works: Aristophanes (playwright – writing dates 450 – 385 BC) Number of primitive manuscript copies: 10; Aristotle (philosopher – writing dates 384 – 322 BC) Number of primitive manuscript copies: 5; Plato (philosopher – writing dates 427 – 347 BC) Number of primitive manuscript copies: 7; Suetonius (historian – writing dates AD 75 – 160)Number of primitive manuscript copies: 8; Tacitus (historian – writing dates AD 100) Number of primitive manuscript copies: 20; Sophocles (playwright – writing dates 496 – 406 BC) Number of primitive manuscript copies: 100; The most documented ancient secular work is Homer’s Iliad, which survives in 643 primitive manuscript copies. Compare all of the above with the New Testament(Date of writing AD 45-70) with 5,686 primitive Greek manuscripts in existence.

The date of the earliest copy compared to the time of writing: For most –over 900 to 1,000 years or even longer. An example is Aristotle – with the date of writing being 384-322 BC – and the date of the earliest manuscript copy being AD(CE) 1100

Concerning the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates (who lived in the fifth and fourth centuries BC [BCE] there are no existing manuscript copies which date prior to AD [CE] 1000).

Compare this to the NT: Date of writing AD 45 – 70; Fragments (AD 125) Many whole books (AD 200)

(* Keep in mind that the comparison which is being made is between what are typically accepted by secular scholars as secular documents of the same variety – meaning a text preserved on perishable material that was intended to be distributed on that material. Comparing these to the rare case of a bronze tablet affixed to the sides of a tomb, or inscriptions carved on temples is comparing apples to oranges *)

C. Internal Consistency: This is in reference tointernal tests dealing mainly with the consistency of the individual documents and their general harmony with other documents reporting the same events.

On the subject of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection in… Matt. 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 13 -Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20  concerning variances in details…the case is actually strengthened, where minor differences in the retelling of the same event are actually legal earmarks of authenticity.

According to Historian Paul Meir; “Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable

D. Time Proximity

Meaning an examination of the time-proximity of the original writing compared to the events they report. In the midst of skepticism from radical critics about supposed late dates for the writing of the New Testament, because of newly-discovered New Testament manuscripts (whole and fragmentary – which are very early in date) it has become increasingly difficult for critics to hold to their previous assumptions. Take into consideration the following:

The dating of the Gospel of John: The John Rylands papyri fragment (P52) from Egypt (found in 1920) dated from 117 to 138, and possibly as early as AD 94. The fact that this writing was composed in either Palestine or Asia Minor, and yet the fragment was found in Egypt, bears evidence that the Gospel of John had already been copied numerous times and circulated. For this to have happened, it had to have been written early enough to allow for this fairly wide distribution. This at least pushes the date of John’s original document back into the middle or latter part of the 1st century – which pushes back the date of the original documents of the other Gospels even earlier.

Dating the NT by way of the book of Acts: Numerous evidences point out that Acts had to have been written at least prior to AD (CE) 70. Roman historian Colin Hemer cites 15 reasonable evidences for Acts being written between AD (CE) 60 and 62, including these four:

1) There is no mention in Acts of the crucial event of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

2) There is no hint of the outbreak of the Jewish War in AD  66 or of serious deterioration of relations between Romans and Jews before that time.

3) There is no hint of the deterioration of Christian relations with Rome during the Neronian persecution of the late AD 60’s.

4) There is no hint of the death of James at the hands of the Sanhedrin in AD 62 which is recorded by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (20.9.1.200).

The testimony of John A.T. Robinson – By the 1970’s, John A.T. Robinson had built a reputation as being a “liberal” Bible scholar. He was known for his role in what was called the “Death of God” movement. In 1976, he stunned his colleagues with the revolutionary book Redating the New Testament in which he carefully examined the available evidence for the dating of each New Testament book. After extensive detailed research, he concluded that all of the books of the New Testament were written before AD 70 by the traditional authors. Robinson even ended up dating NT books earlier than the dates of his “conservative” peers. As Geisler states: “Robinson places Matthew at 40 to after 60, Mark at about 45 to 60, Luke at before 57 to after 60, and John  at from before 40 to after 65. This would mean that one or two Gospels could have been written as early as seven years after the crucifixion. At the latest, they were all composed within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events. Assuming the basic integrity and reasonable accuracy of the writers, this would place the reliability of the New Testament documents beyond reasonable doubt” (Geisler, ECA)

Paul’s writings*: The early date of Paul’s writings, and what can be known of Jesus from Paul’s writings alone (Aside from the obvious facts of the Gospel and various teachings) Jesus was born a Jew(Gal. 3:16) from the family of David (Rom. 1:3) and lived under Jewish law (Gal. 4:4). Jesus had brothers (I Cor. 9:5), one of whom was James (I Cor. 15:7), as well as twelve disciples (I Cor. 15:7). Paul knew that at least some of Jesus’ brothers and apostles had wives (I Cor. 9:5). In fact, Paul knew personally James, as well as apostles Peter and John (Gal. 1:18-2:16). Paul also presents many of the details concerning the last week of Jesus’ life (I Cor. 11:23-25; Rom. 4:25; 5:8; 6:6; Gal. 2:20; I Thess. 2:14-15; I Cor. 15:3-8). Creeds and Hymns in Paul’s epistles, as well as some others, present some of the earliest documentary evidences of what true Christianity entailed (examples: Rom. 1:3-4; I Cor. 11:23ff.; 15:3-8; Phil. 2:6-11; Col 1:15-18; I Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8; also John 1:1-18; I Peter 2:18-22; I John 4:2). Dr. J.P. Moreland writes of three characteristic traits regarding these hymns: First, they are pre-Pauline and very early. They use language which is not characteristically Pauline, they often easily translate back into Aramaic, and they show features of Hebrew poetry and thought-forms. This means that they came into existence while the church was heavily Jewish and that they became standard, recognized creeds and hymns well before their incorporation into Paul’s letters. Most scholars date them from 33 to 48. Some, like Hengel, date many of them in the first decade after Jesus’ death. Second, the content of these creeds and hymns centers on the death, resurrection, and deity of Christ. They consistently present a portrait of a miraculous and divine Jesus who rose from the dead. Third, they served as hymns of worship in the liturgy of the early assemblies and as didactic expressions for teaching the Christology of the church” (Moreland: Scaling the Secular City c.1987 pp. 148-149)

(*Note, I personally had the privilege of  viewing a page of Papyrus 46 – one of the oldest known Greek manuscript copies of the letters of Paul – containing a section of the book of Romans. This was made available for viewing at the The Dea Sea Scrolls and the Bible exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Jan. 22, 2010 – June 6, 2010

The church “fathers:” Concerning only the four Gospels, there are 19,368 citations from the church “fathers” dating from the late 1st century onward. Papias (as a companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John) quoted John. From this fact the argument is made that the Gospels were in existence before the end of the first century.  It’s even been noted that there are enough quotations from the early church fathers that “even if we did not have a single copy of the Bible, scholars could still reconstruct all but 11 verses of the entire New Testament from material written within 150 to 200 years from the time of Christ” (Mc Dowell, “Evidence for the Historical accuracy of the New Testament,” in The Intellectuals speak Out About God, 273-274, as reference by Dan Story, Defending Your Faith, 38).

Determination about the time for the development of myth:

Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White, having done extensive studies on the amount of time required for “myth development” to take place defiantly rejects the mythological view of the New Testament (Geisler ECA)

C.S. Lewis (Oxford / Cambridge scholar of mythology) addressed the subject of “myth” and the Bible by saying: “Those who equate the New Testament with mythology have not studied enough myth”

Determination about time and the influence of myth:

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi (Professor of History and Archaeology at Miami University Oxford, Ohio) presents extensive research on the subject of similarities from “stories of Greek gods” and concludes the stories were not prior to but after the time of Christ. Hence, if there is any influence of one on the other, it is the influence of the historical event of the New Testament on the mythology, not the reverse” (ECA, 518) (For an excellent, comprehensive breakdown and responses to the “Christianity copying mythology” arguments, consider visiting the J.P Holding multi-essay examination available at the following site http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/copycathub.html)

The General Historical Reliability of the New Testament:

The NT “Gospel” of Luke** (read chapter 1 verses 1-4, along with noting that Luke was a physician by profession); F.F. Bruce writes: “He (Luke) relates his story…to the wider context of history …courting trouble if not careful…he affords his readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy.” Sir William Ramsey (considered one of the greatest archaeologists of all time) stated “Luke is an historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense…he seizes the important and critical events and shows their true nature at greater length…in short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians”

(** Note: I personally had the opportunity to view a page of Papyrus 4, a very old Greek manuscript copy of the Gospel of Luke, which was made available for viewing at the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible Exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum from Jan. 22, 2010 – June 6, 2010)

Extra-biblical and archeological evidence: For many years (based on silence about events/people etc) extra-biblical and archeological evidence prompted many to question the truth of the Bible. Yet, the more people have critiqued, compared, etc. the more the scriptures come out shining (Examples: Gospel of John mentions the pool/pools of Bethesda concerning which there was no evidence until this last century; Details of governing and Roman judicial procedure – have been shown to have been accurate)

Sherwin-White (the renowned archeologist) on the book of Acts: “To reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd”

William L. Craig (philosopher, apologist, and author) on the Gospels: “The Gospels show an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem before its destruction, indicating that they were written before the terrible event (in AD 70)” “The Gospels are full of references to proper names, dates, cultural details, historical events, and opinions/customs of the time.” “The stories of Jesus’ weaknesses and the faults of the disciples are earmarks for authenticity”

Julius Africanus (an ancient extrabiblical historian who wrote in about AD 221) quotes from a work that has been lost (by an eastern Mediterranean – Thallus). Thallus wrote in AD (CE) 52 about an event in previous years of darkness which he explains away as probably being an eclipse of the sun. Likewise Phlegan – a Greek author from Caria writing a chronology soon after AD 137 reported that (in the AD 30’s) there was the “greatest eclipse of the sun” and that it became “night” in the sixth hour of the day (i.e. noon) so that the stars even appeared in the heavens.

Will Durant (historian from this century –and not a friend of Christianity) – from The Story of Civilization comments on the general reliability of the NT text: “If higher criticism was applied (in the same severity) to other works of antiquity, a hundred worthies (Hamurabi, Socrates etc.) would fade into legend…After two centuries of higher criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man”

John Warwick Montgomery (historian / law professor)“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”

The NT being “biased” as an obstacle to reliable history:

Since this is a common “obstacle” presented regarding the historical veracity of the NT, let’s take into account the following issues and quotes regarding whether or not the authors of the New Testament had merely a biased agenda when writing:

The assumption of agendas producing inaccuracies: First, this contradicts the internal consistency test (*see above*). Also, Dr. Ben Witherington III makes a convincing case for Gospels being a particular type of genre, which includes history (Dr. Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code) (For an excellent essay refuting the “biased” argument about the accuracy of the New Testament see Glenn Miller’s study at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/nuhbias.html).

Also, this invites the question: What we can know about Jesus / Christianity outside of the Biblical attestation?

– Extra-Biblical “friends” of Christianity: Concerning only the four Gospels, there are 19,368 citations from the church “fathers” dating from the late first century onward.

– Extra-Biblical “enemies” of Christianity: Utilizing only extra-biblical authors (mostly antagonists of Christianity) such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Josephus (etc), Dr. Edwin Yamauchi (Professor of History and Archaeology of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio) constructs the life of the person of Christ in the following manner:

“First, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64; and seventh, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside-men and women, slave and free-worshiped him as God”

The Most Formidable Obstacle to Considering the NT as Historical: Naturalistic Dogmatism: This leads us to what is perhaps the most formidable obstacle for many in regarding the NT as being historically reliable – that being an Anti -supernatural bias (a priori). When the issue of anti-supernatural, a priori bias is raised, one question which must be asked is; whatever happened to theism? Is Antony Flew’s “conversion” to deism – and a creator “god” – truly that far removed from a belief in a “god” who can act in history? (Interestingly, world-renowned God belief antagonist Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling book The God Delusion recently conceded during a public debate at Oxford University – October 21st, 2008 – that a good case could be made for a deistic explanation of the universe (see http://www.bethinking.org/atheism/the-john-lennox-richard-dawkins-debate). What many fail to understand, or at least admit, is that this simple “case could be made” acknowledgement is a radically abrupt worldview change – from a “closed system naturalism” to an “open system supernaturalism.” If an infinite being created, ultimately, something out of nothing – is it so far-fetched to hold that this “being” would/could reveal itself by means of the miraculous? If the anti-supernatural bias is stripped away and the same criteria that are regularly applied to other events in ancient history are applied to the New Testament, historiography bears overwhelming evidence that God has revealed Himself through the historical figure known as Jesus the Christ. Still, Witherington explains the somewhat moot nature of this argument in light of our current post-modern culture where people “are not less prone, but in fact are more prone, to believe in miracles, magic and a host of other so-called non-rational things.” In light of this, exposure of the double-standard bias in rejecting the New Testament as history can be seen: I.E; It is not history one won’t accept (Plato – with comparatively weak historiography), it is Christian history that one won’t accept (Christ – with extremely strong historiography). It is not “supernatural” events one refuses to accept, it is Christian supernatural events one refuses to accept.

Sources:

Steven Collins, Championing the Faith

William Lane Craig, from Collins  op. cit.

Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics

John AT Robinson, from Collins op. cit. 

Dan Story, Defending Your Faith

FF Bruce, from Collins op cit

Sir William Ramsey, from Collins op cit. 

Gary Habermas, Why I Believe the New testament is Historically Reliable from Geisler/Hoffman eds. Why I Am A Christian

JP Holding, “Texture Tantrum” http://www.tektonics.org/af/avalostext.html

Colin Hemer, from Habermas op cit, from Geisler/Hoffman eds. Op cit.

Will Durant,from Collins op cit

John Warwick Montgomery, from Collins op cit

J.P. Moreland, “Scaling the Secular City

Winfried Corduan, Why I Believe the Bible Alone is the Word of Godfrom Geisler/Hoffman eds.

Why I Am a Christian

Edwin Yamauchi, from Lee Strobel The Case for Christ

Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code

Justin Brierley, The John Lennox – Richard Dawkins debate: http://www.bethinking.org/atheism/the-john-lennox-richard-dawkins-debate

 

 

 

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