Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament valid historically? This question is central to those who are ready to consider Christ once they are sure the Gospels are accurate. Can we get a reliable picture of Jesus' claims from the New Testament?

We won't naively assume the "inspiration" of "infallibility" of the New Testament records, and then by circular reasoning attempt to prove what we have previously assumed. We will regard the documents, even though today they are usually printed on fine India paper with verse numbers, only as documents, and treat them as we would any other historical materials. We shall go directly to the documents themselves and subject them to the tests of reliability employed in general historiography and literary criticism. These tests are well set out by C. Sanders, as bibliographical, internal, and external. (Incidentally, since Sanders is a professor of military history, it seems unlikely that I will be criticised for theological bias).

1. Bibliographic Test
This first test refers to the analysis of the textural tradition by which a document reaches us. In the case of the New Testament documents, the question is: Not having the original copies, can we reconstruct them well enough to see what they say Jesus claimed? The answer to this question is an unqualified 'Yes'. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, formerly director and principal librarian of the British Museum, summarises the textural advantage of the New Testament documents over all other ancient manuscripts by writing "In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. The books of the New Testament were written in the latter part of the first century; the earliest extant manuscripts (trifling scraps excepted) are of the fourth century - say, from 250 to 300 years later. This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles, yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poet's death. Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Thucydides are in the same state, while with Euripides the interval is increased to 1600 years. For Plato it may be put at 1300 years, for Demosthenes as low as 1200".

But even this is not the whole story. Since the time when Kenyon wrote the above words, numerous papyri portions of the New Testament documents have been discovered. These go back to the end of the first century and bridge the 250 to 300 year gap of which Kenyon spoke. In evaluating these discoveries shortly before his death, Kenyon concluded, "The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extend evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established".

Moreover, as A.T. Robertson, the author of the most comprehensive grammar of New Testament Greek, wrote, "There are some 8000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1000 for the other early versions. Add over 4000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Besides all this, much of the New Testament can be reproduced from the quotations of the early Christian writer". To be sceptical 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.

2. Internal Evidence
In this second test, historical and literary scholarship continues to follow Aristotle's dictum that the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself. This means that one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies. In the case of the Pauline letters we must give considerable weight to their explicit claim to have been written by the Apostle. In the case of the whole gamut of New Testament documents we must take the authors seriously when they say, again and again, that they are recording eyewitness testimony or testimony derived from equally reliable sources.

Examples can be multiplied. Luke's Gospel begins with the words, "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed". The Fourth Gospel claims to have been written by an eyewitness to the crucifixion. In John 19:35 the author says, "He who saw it has borne witness - his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth..." 1 John, in its opening lines, likewise affirms eyewitness contact with Jesus; "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life - the Life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal Life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you".

Sometimes the internal evidence of primary historical authority is not as direct as in the above instances, but is no less decisive. For example, C. H. Turner pointed out that Mark's Gospel reflects an eyewitness account of many scenes, for when the third person plural passes on to a third person singular involving Peter, we have the indirect equivalent of first person direct discourse, deriving from the Apostle. Such internal considerations, both direct and indirect, provide a weighty basis for the claim that the New Testament documents are reliable historical sources.

3. External Evidence
In this test, the question is asked, "Do other historical materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents themselves? Careful comparison of the New Testament documents with inscriptions and other independent early evidence has in the modern period confirmed their primary claims. For example, Sir William M. Ramsey came to his conclusion after years of painstaking archaeological and geographical investigation of Luke's Gospel. He rejected the negatively critical attitude to Luke taken by the 19th century Tubingen school. He wrote, "Luke's history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness". Moreover, as to the author and primary historical value of the Gospel accounts, confirmation comes from independent written sources.

Papias, bishop of Hierapolis around 130 A.D., writes as follows on the basis of information obtained from the "Elder" (Apostle-John). "The Elder used to say this also; Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he (Peter) mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord, but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adopted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he (Peter) mentioned them, for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, nor to include any false statement among them".

Of the Gospel according to Matthew, Papias says, "Matthew recorded the oracles in the Hebrew (i.e. Aramaic) tongue" (ibid), and the acceptance the book received in the primitive Church argues strongly for its early date and historical value. McNeile and Williams wrote, "(Matthew's) Gospel was the first favourite in the early Church although it lacked the prestige of the two chief centres of Christendom, Rome and Ephesus; and the prestige also of the two chief apostolic names, Peter and Paul. And the strongly Judaic elements in it would have discredited it if it had appeared in the second century. All of which imply its early, widely known and apostolic credit".

Another superlative external testimony to the primacy of the Gospel accounts is provided by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons who writes, "Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews (i.e. Jews) in their own tongue when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure (i.e. death, which strong tradition places at the time of the Neronian persecution in 64 A.D.), Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching. Luke, this disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast (this is a reference to John 13:25 and 21:20), himself produced his Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia". The value of Irenaeus' remarks is especially great because he has been a student of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, martyred in 156 A.D. after being a Christian for 86 years. Polycarp in turn had been a disciple of the Apostle John himself. Irenaeus had often heard from Polycarp the eyewitness accounts of Jesus received from John and others who had been personally acquainted with Jesus.

We have now looked at powerful bibliographic, internal, and external evidence. Competent historical scholarship must regard the New Testament documents as coming from the first century and as reflecting primary-source testimony about the person and claims of Jesus. Specifically, present-day scholars date the more important New Testament materials as follows: the Pauline letters 51-62 A.D., Mark's Gospel 64-70 A.D., the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke 80-85 A.D., Acts shortly after Luke (which is really "Part One" of the two-part work) and John's Gospel no later than 100 A.D.

It should be emphasised that the dates here given are in general the latest possible ones for the books in question, there is excellent reason for earlier dating in most cases. For instance, Luke-Acts should probably be dated prior to 64 A.D., since Paul almost certainly died in persecution by Nero, yet Acts does not record his death. As a sensitive barometer to the current archeologically-based trend toward even earlier dating of these documents, we have the statement of the world's foremost Biblical archaeologist, W.F. Albright "In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptised Jew between the forties and eighties of the first century A.D. (Very probably sometime between about 50 and 75 A.D.)".

4. Conclusions
Here is a clear statement of the implications of the evidence that has been presented. F.F. Bruce is one of the foremost contemporary experts on the Dead Sea scrolls, and presently serves as Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester. He writes as follows of the primary-source value of the New Testament records, "The earliest preachers of the Gospel knew the value of... firsthand testimony, and appealed to it time and again. 'We are witnesses of these things', was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.

Indeed, the evidence is that the early Christians were careful to distinguish between sayings of Jesus and their own inferences or judgements. Paul, for example, when discussing the vexed questions of marriage and divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, is careful to make this distinction between his own advice on the subject and the Lord's decisive ruling, 'I, not the Lord', and again, 'Not I, but the Lord'. And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with, there were others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of wilful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so.

On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers, they not only said, 'We are witnesses of these things', but also, 'As you yourselves also know' (Acts 22:22). Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective".

What, then, does a historian know about Jesus Christ? He knows, first and foremost, that the New Testament documents can be relied upon to give an accurate portrait of Him. And he knows that his portrait cannot be rationalised away by wishful thinking, philosophical presuppositionalism, or literary manoeuvring.

Written by John Montgomery, reprinted from History and Christianity

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