Can we Trust the New Testament?
One of the most common objections to the Bible when witnessing to an atheist is the question of reliability. Many will claim that the Bible was written centuries after the events, while others claim that the entire story was concocted by the church. Some skeptics will argue that the accuracy was lost during the many translations, while others question the credibility of the authors. There are really three issues which are often expressed in different ways. The first is the accuracy of the Bibles that we are reading in the 21 century. Can they be counted on to transmit exactly what the apostles wrote down 2,000 years ago. Next, you have the question of reliability. Does the New Testament properly record the events that happened in the first century? Of course they include miracles, so for some atheists this will discredit any evidence you may provide. The final question is one of trustworthiness, or put another way, does the Bible reveal the truth about life, heaven and the universe. So let's tackle each question in a general sense and then we can go into a little more specifics.
Is it Accurate – Are We Reading What the Apostles Wrote?
The single most important issue here is the amount of manuscripts, which are simply copies from the original document. Suppose I had two copies (manuscripts) of a letter originally written by my great grandfather. Both manuscripts where copied by family members from the original letter. One claims he smoked cigars, the other says he never smoked cigars. Clearly one of the two people making the copies made a mistake. It would be hard to tell what the original letter said about my great grandfather's smoking.
Now suppose I have twenty copies, and nineteen say he never smoked cigars, while only one claims he smoked cigars. clearly we can determine that the original letter said he never smoked cigars. And this is why the number of manuscripts matter because you can check them against each other and have a good idea about what was in the original document.
- Manuscripts – Do we have enough for the New Testament? – more than any other ancient source by a large margin.
- Are there conflicts? – Yes, thousands, of which 99% are spelling errors and 1% are issues that do not change any important Christian doctrine.
- Even if we didn't have the manuscripts, according to Oxford professor John William Burgon we have over 86,000 Bible quotes from church fathers as early as the first century.
- Some divergence in accounts of the four Gospels reveals that they were not in collusion with one another or that they were not tampered with later.
- What is a translation? A translation is a new writing in a different language. Can they be trusted? – Yes, particularly those that use early Greek manuscripts as the source.
Reliability - Is it a Real Account of What Happened?
The single most important issue when speaking of reliability is the amount of time between the events and the writings. How dependent are we on oral transmission, which as we know can be very flawed. Was the story handed down for several generations, opening it up to embellishment and myth, or were witnesses around during the writings to serve as a check against forgery? Do we have archaeological and outside sources to support the claims of the writers, or are they dependent on the writings of one man, such as the Quran and the Book of Mormon?
In the case of the Gospels, three were eye witness accounts. We have many reasons to think that all but New Testament one letter (Revelation) was complete before 70 A.D., because that is the time when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed which Jesus had foretold. Had they been written after, it is likely that at least the three Gospels which mention the prophesy would have also recorded its fulfillment. And just as likely, that it would have been mentioned in at least one of the New Testament letters. In the case of Luke, he closes out the book of Acts with Paul in prison and never mentions his death, which happened in 64 A.D. Finally Peter, who died in 67 A.D. is already referring to Paul's epistles.
- How much time between the events and the writings? About 20-50 years.
- Matthew was in circulation during the time of the eyewitnesses.
- Many ancient historians and critical scholars today believe that the Gospel of Mark was written as early as 50-54 A.D.
- Luke is considered to have been composed around 58-60 A.D.
- Who are the sources? – eyewitnesses and a historian.
- Honesty about themselves - Throughout the Gospels, the disciples appear to lack faith and express weakness and doubt.
- Archaeology – supports the claims of the Bible.
- Extra-Biblical accounts – support historicity of the Bible.
Trustworthy - Is the Bible the Word of God
Biblical inerrancy is the idea that the scriptures are without error. Biblical infallibility is the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice are factual and true and free from possible error. Or to use another word, trustworthy.
- Accurate prophesies - Many New Testament prophesies have been fulfilled.
- Can you live out the Bible? - Only in the teachings of the Bible can mankind live out his greatest aspirations.
- The teachings of the Bible brought us the modern concept of human rights, equality, the modern scientific process, the greatest charities including the hospital system, the concept of universal public education, etc. No other worldview has come close to achieving the social progress like the Biblical worldview.
- Are there contradictions in the Bible? – no (see Are there Contradictions in the Bible?).
- What books are ‘inspired’ and how do we know? (See Is the Bible Inspired).
In the past, the Bible has demonstrated that its accounts are trustworthy as far as they have been verified. Moreover, the Bible has never been controverted by solid historical data. Therefore, the benefit of the doubt should go to the Bible in places where it cannot be verified, when there is no evidence to the contrary, and when it seems clear that the author intended for us to understand the event as historical. Gary R. Habermas, A Case for the Resurrection of Jesus
Jesus and other Biographies
Historian of ancient Christianity, John Dickson compared the life of Jesus to the other religious biographies: Islam - The earliest biography of the founder of Islam, Mohammed, was composed around 760 A.D., 125 years after his death, but continued to be edited for another 50 years. Buddhism - The first written records of the life and sermons of the Siddharth Gautama (Buddha) appeared 350 years after his death. The most famous of ancient Israel’s rabbis was a great scholar named Hillel, who died early in the first century A.D. His teachings and stories appear in writings for the first time in the Mishna, composed about 200 A.D. Nevertheless, scholars still treat these writings as serious historical texts.
The Gospels were written within 40-60 years after Jesus’ death. These establish beyond doubt that Jesus’ teachings, death, and resurrection, are historically reliable if anything can be historically reliable.
As mentioned, when speaking of reliability and accuracy, manuscript count and the time lapse between the events and the writings are the two most important factors when analyzing ancient documents. Manuscript count is important because they help weed out errors and embellishments. By cross-checking numerous writings, one can make better estimations of the original writings. Time span is important because stories change over time because witnesses are no longer around to contest the events. As mentioned, the New Testament documents where written by eyewitnesses shortly after the events. So how do the New Testament documents hold up? First, lets review several ancient documents which are taken as true and reliable by historical scholars as a comparison.
Writings Date written Earliest copy Time span Manuscripts
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. A.D. 1100 1400 yrs 49
Plato 427-347 B.C. A.D. 900 1300 yrs 7
Caesar 100-44 B.C. A.D. 900 1000 yrs 10
Homer (Iliad) 900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 yrs 643
The Bible we have today is remarkably true to the original writings. The manuscript count is as follows:
Ancient Greek manuscript; 5,300
Latin Vulgate: 10,000 copies
Other manuscript versions: 9,300+
The New Testament documents are better-preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writing. If you can’t believe in the authenticity of the Bible, you can’t believe in the authenticity of any ancient text.
Overview of Early Manuscripts
John Rylands Manuscript
One of the earliest surviving pieces of New Testament scripture is a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33 and 37-38. This papyrus was found in Egypt, and has been dated about 125 A.D. It currently resides at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.
The Muratonian Canon
Discovered in the Ambrosian Library in Milan by Father Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750), the fragment dating from 170 A.D. lists the same New Testament that we have, without Hebrews, James and 1 & 2 Peter.
Papyrus Bodmer II
This collection of approximately fifty Greek and Coptic manuscripts was purchased by M. Martin Bodmer of Switzerland in 1955-56, and has been dated at around 200 A.D. The documents were discovered in Egypt. The manuscripts include Old and New Testament texts and writings of the early churches.
Chester Beatty Papyrus
Dated 200-250 A.D. with some of the codex dating back to the second century. It was made public in 1931 and contains the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, and Revelation.
Codex Sinaiticus – Sinai Book
The word ‘Sinaiticus’ derives from the fact that the Codex was preserved for many centuries at St. Catherine’s Monastery near the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. Discovered in 1844-1859 by Constantine Tischendorf, the codex is the remains of a huge hand-written book that contained all the Christian scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, together with two late first-century texts, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. Codex Sinaiticus is generally dated to the fourth century, and sometimes more precisely to the middle of that century.
This is the Latin Bible, or ‘versio vulgate,’ which means 'common translation.' Translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic by Jerome between 382 and 405 A.D., the Vulgate was the standard version of the Bible for Roman Catholics for over 1,500 years. Until 1450, copies were also very rare and expensive. During the Protestant reformation in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Bible was finally translated into modern languages.
This is the most famous manuscript in the possession of the Vatican library. It is generally believed to be from the fourth century, and is thought to be the oldest (nearly) complete copy of the Greek Bible in existence. Lacking from it are most of the book of Genesis, Hebrews 9:14 to the end, the Pastoral Epistles, and the book of Revelation; these parts were lost by damage to the front and back of the volume, which is common in ancient manuscripts.
Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
A text produced in the 12th century by Ephraem the Syrian was discovered to have the remains of what was once an almost complete Greek manuscript from the early 5th century, containing some of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament. It had been washed off to accommodate the later version but has since been recovered.
This is a 5th century manuscript of the Greek Bible, containing the majority of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the New Testament. Along with the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, it is one of the earliest complete manuscripts of the Bible. It derives its name from Alexandria, where it resided for several years before being given to the British in the 17th century. Due to damage and lost folios, various passages are missing or have defects.
A 6th century manuscript on vellum of the Epistles of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews in Greek and Latin on facing pages.
It was named by Theodore Beza because he obtained it in the town of Clermont-en-Beauvaisis, near Paris.
An important codex of the New Testament dating from the 5th or 6th century. It is written on vellum and contains, in both Greek and Latin, most of the four Gospels and Acts, with a small fragment of 3 John. The importance of the Codex Bezae is such that an academic conference held at Lunel, Herault, in 1995 was entirely devoted to it. Academic papers later discussed the many questions it poses to our understanding of the use of the Gospels and Acts in early Christianity, and of the text of the New Testament.
Contains the book of Acts written in both Latin and Greek (parallel style) dating from the 6th century.
New Testament – Extra Biblical Accounts
Gospel of Luke
Luke is a historian of the first order. In his account of the Gospel, he lists 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. He names tax collectors, proconsul, magistrates, etc., without making a single mistake.
Extra – Biblical accounts of Christ
There are 39 ancient sources such as Pliny, Josephus, and the Talmud, which refer to the life of Christ, His teachings, crucifixion and resurrection, in addition to the New Testament accounts.
Josephus (Jewish Historian, A.D. 37-100)
“…the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James…Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
Cornelius Tacitus (Roman Historian, A.D. 55-120)
“Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius…”
Lucian (Greek Satirist, A.D. 125-180)
“…the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws…”
Suetonius (Greek Historian, A.D. 120)
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [another spelling for Christus or Christ], he expelled them from Rome.” “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
Pliny the Younger (A.D. 112)
“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, and never to deny a truth when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”
An inscribed stone was found that refers to Pontius Pilate, named as “Prefect of Judaea.” Luke 3:1, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea...”
Gallio Proconsul of Achaia
“A decree of Claudius found at Delphi (Greece) describes Gallio as proconsul of Achaia in A.D. 51, thus giving a correlation with the ministry of Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:12).” (The New Bible Dictionary) Acts 18:12, “But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat.”
Erastus the Roman city-treasurer
Excavations have revealed a text naming a benefactor Erastus which may be a reference relating to the city-treasurer of Rom. 16:23. (The New Bible Dictionary) Rom. 16:23, “Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, the brother.”
The Arch of Titus
This is a relief that depicts the Roman General Titus carrying off the spoils of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. We see soldiers, part of a procession of several hundred, carrying off the Menorah and Table of the Showbread. Also seen being taken are the silver trumpets that called the Jews to the festivals. The signs they are carrying commemorate the victories that Titus had won. This event was foretold by Jesus during his ministry (Luke 19:41-44, Matthew 23:37-39).
Temple of Artemis
At Ephesus, parts of the temple of Artemis have been uncovered as is mentioned in Acts 19:28. "And when they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians'."
It is known that Quirinius was made governor of Syria by Augustus in 6 A.D. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions, the first time several years prior to this date... archaeology has provided some unexpected and supportive answers. Additionally, while supplying the background behind these events, archaeology also assists us in establishing several facts: (1) A taxation-census was a fairly common procedure in the Roman Empire and it did occur in Judea, in particular. (2) Persons were required to return to their home city in order to fulfill the requirements of the process. (3) These procedures were apparently employed during the reign of Augustus (37 B.C. – 14 A.D.), placing it well within the general time frame of Jesus’ birth. Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus
The Gospel of Luke
The historical trustworthiness of Luke has been attested by a number of inscriptions. The ‘politarchs’ of Thessalonica (Acts 17:6, 8) were magistrates and are named in five inscriptions from the city in the 1st century A.D.. Similarly, Publius is correctly designated proµtos (‘first man’) or Governor of Malta (Acts 28:7). Near Lystra inscriptions record the dedication to Zeus of a statue of Hermes by some Lycaonians, and nearby was a stone altar for ‘the Hearer of Prayer’ (Zeus) and Hermes. This explains the local identification of Barnabas and Paul with Zeus (Jupiter) and Hermes (Mercury) respectively (Acts 14:11). Derbe, Paul’s next stopping-place, was identified by Ballance in 1956 with Kaerti Hüyük near Karaman (Luke 2:2) and to Lysanias as tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1) have likewise received inscriptional support. Luke’s earlier references to Quirinius as governor of Syria before the death of Herod I (Luke 2:2) and to Lysanias as tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1) have likewise received inscriptional support. The New Bible Dictionary
Is the Bible a Legend or a Book of Myths?
One of the most famous classical historians who ever lived was A.N. Sherwin White of Oxford University. He studied the rate at which legend grew up in the ancient world. He determined that even the passage of two generations of time was not adequate for legend to grow up and wipe out a solid core of historical truth.
The Gospel of Luke is astonishing because of the pain staking effort he made to give us such detail about the events he records. "Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed." (Luke 1:1-4)
Kenneth Kitchen, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology, University of Liverpool, England, has made the point that in the ancient world, “people did not write ‘historical novels’ with authentic research.... Conclusion: There was not enough time to produce a legend. Furthermore, the Bible reads like a history book, not a book of legends and myths.
What about the “Lost” Gospels; aren’t they Important?
The idea of "lost Gospels" has made headlines over the past decade. Many claim that there were other letters that should have been considered into the New Testament canon, and some were considered. Lets review the most popular ones.
- The Gospel of Thomas – discovered in 1890. Dated beginning of the third century. Quotes from 14 New Testament books, and it quotes from Tition, which is dated 175 A.D.
- Gospel of Peter – Dated the third century
- Gospel of Judas – Dated the beginning of third century
- Gospel of Mary – Dated 200 – 250 A.D.
- Gospel of Mark – Fraud
- Jesus Paper – Fraud
Conclusion – The New Testament was written in the first century; all these others are long after and never considered during any canonical discussions.
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels – An Important Apologetic for Christianity Partick Zukeran
Should Additional Gospels Have Been Included in Our Bibles ATRI Staff Writer
Has the Text of the Bible Been Accurately Preserved? Charlie Campbell
Does Archaeology Support The Book Of Mormon? Luke P. Wilson
The Dating of the New Testament Norman Geisler
Non-Mormon Archaeologists Speak on Book of Mormon Evidence Rick Branch
Islam's Holy Book apologeticsindex.org
Why the Lost Gospels lost out Ben Witherington III
Is There Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible? J. Warner Wallace