|By: Dr. John Ankerberg / Dr. John Weldon; ©2005|
|If you watch the NBC special on the “real” story of Christmas, you heard that we cannot trust the Bible as a reliable source of historical information. Many scholars disagree, and the authors explain.|
Christians and skeptical non-Christians have different views concerning the credibility of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. For the Christian, nothing is more vital than the very words of Jesus Himself, who promised, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Jesus’ promise is of no small import. In essence, if His words were not accurately recorded, how can anyone know what He really taught? The truth is, we couldn’t know. Further, if the remainder of the New Testament cannot be established to be historically reliable, then little can be known about what true Christianity really is, teaches or means.
Who is right in this debate, the Christians who claim that the New Testament is historically accurate or the rationalistic critics who claim otherwise? The latter group usually approaches the Bible from a rationalistic materialistic viewpoint, discounting the Bible’s supernatural elements, employing higher critical methods and maintaining that it wasn’t written until the late first or early second century. After summarizing the critical and conservative views, in a brief point-by-point format we offer the following analysis designed to show why the New Testament is historically reliable.
The skeptics’ argument, characteristically based on the use of higher critical methods such as source, form, and redaction criticism, is often given as follows: by a number of criteria the reliability of the New Testament text may be doubted. This includes its dominant “mythological” (supernatural) character; the fabrication of a fictitious view of Jesus on the basis of erroneous Messianic expectations, the theological embellishments of the Apostle Paul, and finally, the invention of most of the teachings of Christ to suit the spiritual or other needs of the early church, and, some argue, the removal of the actual teachings of Christ in later church councils for the purpose of political expediency or theological bias. The Jesus Seminar, for example, widely employs higher critical methods, especially for criticism, to supposedly determine what Jesus actually said. They conclude that less than 18 percent of Jesus’ sayings recorded in the New Testament are original. The remainder are inventions by the early church.
Thomas C. Oden provides a common view of Jesus held by most modern scholars:
James W. Sire, who cites the above, remarks,
The conservative view takes quite another approach based on historical facts, logic and common sense. It maintains that, on the basis of accepted bibliographic, internal, and external criteria, the New Testament text can be established to be reliable history in spite of the novel and sometimes ingenious speculations of critics who, while often familiar with the facts, refuse to accept them due to a preexisting bias. Textually, we have restored more than 99 percent of the autographs, and there is simply no legitimate basis upon which to doubt the credibility and accuracy of the New Testament writers. Further, the methods used by the critics (rationalistic higher critical methods) which claim “assured results” proving the Scrpture unreliable have been weighed in the balance of secular scholarship and been found wanting. Their use in biblical analysis is therefore unjustified. Even in a positive sense, the fruit they have born is minuscule while, negatively, they are responsible for a tremendous weight of destruction relative to people’s confusion over biblical authority and their confidence in the Bible.
In this sense, the critics, who continue to advance discredited theories, conform to the warnings of Chauncey Sanders, associate professor of military history at The Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. In his An Introduction to Research in English Literary History, he warns literary critics to be certain they are also careful to examine the evidence against their case:
What allows us to resolve this issue and logically demonstrate the credibility of the conservative view is the following ten facts:
To begin, the historical accuracy of the New Testament can be proven by subjecting it to three generally accepted tests for determining historical reliability. Such tests are utilized in literary criticism and the study of historical documents in general. (These are discussed by military historian Chauncey Sanders in his An Introduction to Research in English Literary History.) These involve the 1) bibliographical, 2) internal, and 3) external tests of historical evidence.
The bibliographical test seeks to determine whether we can reconstruct the original New Testament writings from the extant copies at hand. We have 5,300 Greek manuscripts and manuscript portions, 10,000 Latin Vulgate, and 9,300 other versions, plus 36,000 early (100-300 A.D.) patristic quotations of the New Testament—such that all but a few verses of the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from these alone.
Few scholars question the general reliability of ancient classical literature on the basis of the manuscripts we possess. Yet this manuscript evidence is vastly inferior to that of the New Testament manuscripts. For example, of sixteen well-known classical authors (Plutarch, Tacitus, Seutonius, Polybius, Thucydides and Xenophon, etc), the total number of extant copies is typically less than ten, and the earliest copies date from 750 to 1600 years after the original manuscript was first penned. We need only compare such slim evidence to the mass of biblical documentation involving over 24,000 manuscript portions, manuscripts, and versions, with the earliest fragments and complete copies dating between 50 and 300 years after originally written.
Given the fact that the early Greek manuscripts (the Papyri and early Uncials) date much closer to the originals than for any other ancient literature, and the overwhelming additional abundance of manuscript attestation, any doubt as to the integrity or authenticity of the New Testament text has been removed. Indeed, this kind of evidence is the dream of the historian. No other ancient literature has ever come close to supplying historians and textual critics with such an abundance of data.
Dr. F. F. Bruce, the late Ryland’s Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, asserts of the New Testament: “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” Professor Bruce further comments, “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical writers, 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.”
Further, Dr. Rene Pache remarks of the great Princeton scholar B. B. Warfield that he “goes on to say that the great bulk of the New Testament has been transmitted to us without, or almost without, any variations. It can be asserted with confidence that the sacred text is exact and valid and that no article of faith and no moral precept in it has been distorted or lost.”
It is this wealth of material that has enabled scholars such as Westcott and Hort, Ezra Abbott, Philip Schaff, A. T. Robertson, Norman Geisler and William Nix to place the restoration of the original text at better than 99 percent. Thus no other document of the ancient period is as accurately preserved as the New Testament.
Hort’s estimate of “substantial variation” for the New Testament is one-tenth of 1 percent; Abbott’s estimate is one-fourth of 1 percent; and even Hort’s figure including trivial variation is less than 2 percent. Sir Frederic Kenyon well summarizes the situation:
In other words, those who question the reliability of the New Testament must also question the reliability of virtually every ancient writing the world possesses! How can the Bible be rejected when its documentation is one hundred times that of other ancient literature? Because it is impossible to question the world’s ancient classics, it is far more impossible to question the reliability of the New Testament.
In addition, none of the established New Testament canon is lost or missing, not even a verse, as indicated by variant readings. By comparison, the books of many ancient authors are filled with omissions: 107 of Livy’s 142 books of history are lost, and one-half of Tacitus’ 30 books of Annals and Histories. For Polybius, only five complete books remain from the original forty. Finally, the Gospels are extremely close to the events which they record. The first three can be dated within twenty years of the events cited, and this may even be true for the fourth gospel. This means that all four Gospels were written during the lives of eyewitnesses, and that abundant opportunity existed for those with contrary evidence to examine the witnesses and refute them.
The Gospels, then, passes the bibliographical test and must, by far, be graded with the highest mark of any ancient literature we possess.
This test asserts that one is to assume the truthful reporting of an ancient document (and not assume either fraud, incompetence or error) unless the author of the document has disqualified himself by their presence. For example, do the New Testament writers contradict themselves? Is there anything in their writing which causes one to objectively suspect their trustworthiness? Are there statements or assertions in the text which are demonstrably false according to known archaeological, historic, scientific or other data?
The answer is no. There is lack of proven fraud or error on the part of any New Testament writer. But there is evidence of careful eyewitness reporting throughout. The caution exercised by the writers, their personal conviction that what they wrote was true and the lack of demonstrable error or contradiction indicate that the Gospel authors and, indeed, all the New Testament authors pass the second test as well (Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 21:24; Acts 1:1-3; 2:22; 26:24-26; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1-3).
For example, the kinds of details the Gospel writers include in their narratives offer strong evidence for their integrity. They record their own sins and failures, even serious ones (Matt. 26:56, 69-75; Mark 10:35-45). They do not hesitate from recording even the most difficult and consequential statements of Jesus (John 6:41-71). They forthrightly supply the embarrassing and even capital charges of Jesus’ own enemies. Thus, even though Jesus was their very Messiah and Lord, they not only record the charges that Jesus broke the Sabbath but also that He was born in fornication, a blasphemer and a liar, insane and demonized (See Matt. 1:19; 26:65; John 7:20,48; 8:41, 48, 52; 10:20, 33, etc.).
To encounter such honesty in reporting incidents of this nature gives one assurance that the Gospel writers placed a very high premium on truthfulness.
The test of external evidence seeks to either corroborate or falsify the documents on the basis of additional historical literature and data. Is there corroborating evidence outside the Bible for the claims made in the Gospels? Or are the claims of the New Testament successfully refuted by other competent reports or eyewitnesses?
Any honest investigation will reveal that the New Testament passes the test. For example, the resurrection itself has never been refuted, even by Jesus’ own enemies, and Luke’s careful historical writing has been documented from detailed, personal archaeological investigation by former critic Sir William Ramsay, who stated after his painstaking research, “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.”14or [the book of] Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.”
Papias, a student of the Apostle John and Bishop of Hierapolis around 150 A.D., observed that the Apostle John himself noted that the Apostle Mark in writing his Gospel “wrote down accurately... whatsoever he [Peter] remembered of the things said or done by Christ. Mark committed no error... for he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things he [Peter] had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” Further, fragments of Papias’ Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, ca. 140 A.D. (III, XIX, XX) assert that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John are all based on reliable eyewitness testimony (his portion on Luke is missing).
The relevant bibliographic, internal and external evidence for the New Testament force us to conclude the historical accuracy and reliability of the Gospel accounts. They pass persuasive tests which determine their integrity. Even two hundred years of scholarly rationalistic biblical criticism have proven nothing except that the writers were careful and honest reporters of the events recorded, and that these methods attempting to discredit them were flawed and biased from the start.
In conclusion, it is not only a demonstrable historical fact that Jesus lived and taught what the New Testament says He lived and taught, it is also a fact that the Bible is the best-documented and most accurately preserved book of ancient history. That means we can trust what the authors say as true. When we examine the evidence for something like the resurrection of Jesus as reported in the new Testament, there is no logical, historical, or other basis upon which to doubt what is written.
The existence of both Jewish and secular accounts, to a significant degree, confirm the picture of Christ we have in the New Testament. For example, scholarly research such as that by Dr. Gary R. Habermas in Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, and other texts, indicates that “a broad outline of the life of Jesus” and His death by crucifixion can be reasonably and directly inferred from entirely non-Christian sources. Even the resurrection of Christ can be indirectly inferred.
There also exists detailed archaeological confirmation for the New Testament documents. Dr. Clifford Wilson, author of New Light on the New Testament Letters, New Light on the Gospels, Rock, Relics and Biblical Reliability and a 17- volume set on the archeological confirmation of the Bible writes concerning Luke:
This is only a minuscule portion of the data underlying his conclusion that “Those who know the facts now recognize that the New Testament must be accepted as a remarkably accurate source book.”
The complete inability of the numerous enemies of Jesus and the early Church to discredit Christian claims (when they had both the motive and ability to do so) also argues strongly for their veracity, especially in light of the dramatic nature of those claims (e.g., concerning Christ’s messiahship and resurrection) and the relative ease of disproof (documenting Jesus’ failure to fulfill specific prophecies; producing Jesus’ body).
The presence of numerous eyewitnesses to the events recorded in the New Testament would surely have prohibited any alteration or distortion of the facts, just as today any false reporting as to the events of the Vietnam War or World War II would be immediately corrected on the basis of living eyewitnesses and historic records.
Some argue that the Gospel writers’ reporting of miracles can’t be trusted because they were only giving their religiously excited “subjective experience” of Jesus, not objectively reporting real miraculous events. They thought Jesus did miracles, but were mistaken. What is ignored by critics is what the text plainly states and the fact that the gospel writers could not have gotten away with this in their own day unless they had been telling the truth. They claimed that these things were done openly, not in a corner (Acts 26:26), that they were literally eyewitnesses of the nature and deeds of Jesus (Luke 1:2; Acts 2:32; 2 Peter 1:16), and that their testimony should be believed because it was true (John 20:30-31).
Indeed, the apostles wrote that Jesus Himself presented His miracles in support of His claims to be both the prophesied Messiah and God incarnate. In Mark 2:8-11, when He healed the paralytic, He did it so “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—a clear claim to being God. In John 10:33, when the Jews accused Jesus of blaspheming because as supposedly only a man He was yet claiming to be God, what was Christ’s response? “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:37-38).
When John the Baptist was in jail and apparently had doubts as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah—after all, if Jesus was the Messiah, John probably reasoned, he shouldn’t be in jail—what did Jesus do? He told John’s disciples to go and report about the miracles that He did, which were in fulfillment of specific messianic prophecy (Matthew 11:2-5). Christ’s miracles prove His claim to be God.
The teachings and miracles of Jesus, as any independent reading of the Gospels will prove, are so inexorably bound together that if one removes the miracles, one must discard the teachings. It is logically impossible to have any other Jesus than the biblical one. It is precisely the biblical Jesus—His deeds and teachings—which has such abundant eyewitness testimony, as any reading of the Gospels and Acts proves.
The fact that both conservatives (F. F. Bruce, John Wenham) and liberals (Bishop John A. T. Robinson) have penned defenses of early dating for the New Testament is a witness to the strength of the data for an early date. For example, in Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, noted conservative British scholar John Wenham presents a convincing argument that the synoptic Gospels are to be dated before 55 A.D. He dates Matthew at 40 A.D. (some tradition says the early 30s); Mark at 45 A.D. and Luke no later than 51-55 A.D.
German papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede has argued that the Magdalen papyrus, containing snippets of three passages from Matthew 26, currently housed at Oxford University, are actually the oldest extant fragments of the New Testament, dating from about 70 A.D. Thiede’s book, Eyewitness to Jesus (Doubleday, 1995), points out that the Magdalen papyrus is written in Uncial style, which began to die out in the middle of the first century. In addition, the fragments are from a codex, containing writing on both sides of the papyri, which may have been widely used by Christians in the first century since they were easier to handle than scrolls. Further, at three places on the papyri the name of Jesus is written as KS, which is an abbreviation of the Greek word kyrios or Lord. Thiede argues that this shorthand is proof that early Christians considered Jesus a sacred name just as the devout Jews shortened the name of God to YHWH. This would indicate a very early belief for the deity of Christ.
Even liberal bishop John A. T. Robinson argued in his Redating the New Testament that the entire New Testament was written and in circulation between 40 and 65 A.D. And liberal Peter Stuhlmacher of Tubingen, trained in Bultmann’s critical methodology of form criticism, says, “As a Western scripture scholar, I am inclined to doubt these [Gospel] stories, but as historian, I am obligated to take them as reliable.... The biblical texts as they stand are the best hypothesis we have until now to explain what really happened.”
Indeed, it is becoming an increasingly persuasive argument that all the New Testament books were written before 70 A.D.—within a single generation of the death of Christ.
Given Jesus’ miracles, claims and controversy, which began early in His ministry, it is inconceivable that His disciples would not have recorded Jesus’ words as He spoke them or immediately after. Even before He began His public ministry there had to be stories circulating about Him, such as about the unique circumstances surrounding His birth, the visit by the shepherds, His presentation in the temple, the visit by the Magi, His escape to Egypt, the return to Nazareth, the event in the temple as a boy and so on. At His baptism the Holy Spirit descended on Him as a dove and He went to the desert to be tempted by Satan. His first miracle in Cana, the changing of water to wine, His cleansing of the temple, the healing of a nobleman’s son and so on were all done in the first six months or so of His public ministry. Even the people of His hometown tried to kill Him at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). It is likely the Gospels would have been constructed from these accounts as soon as necessary, which could have been as early as 40 A.D. or even earlier.
The implications of this are not small. A New Testament written between 40-70 A.D. virtually destroys the edifice on which higher critical premises regarding the New Testament are based. If true, insufficient time elapsed for the early Church to have embellished the records with their own particularist views. What the New Testament reports, it reports accurately.
Even critical methods indirectly support New Testament reliability. Although higher critical theories in general reject biblical reliability a priori, nevertheless, when such theories “are subjected to the same analytical scrutiny as they apply to the New Testament documents, they will be found to make their own contribution to validating the historicity of those records.” If 200 years of higher criticism of the biblical text reveals anything, it is that the higher critical methods are untrustworthy, not the Bible.
Certainly we must also concede the historicity of the New Testament when we consider the fact that many great minds of legal history have, on the grounds of strict legal evidence, accepted the New Testament as reliable history—not to mention also the fact that many brilliant skeptical intellects, of both history and today, have converted to Christianity on the basis of the historical evidence (Athanagoras, Augustine, George Lyttleton and Gilbert West, C. S. Lewis, Frank Morison, Sir William Ramsay, John Warwick Montgomery, to name a few).
Lawyers, of course, are expertly trained in the matter of evaluating evidence, and they are perhaps the most qualified in the task of weighing data critically. Is it coincidence that so many of them throughout history have concluded in favor of the truth of the Christian religion?
What of the “father of international law,” Hugo Grotius, who wrote The Truth of the Christian Religion (1627)? Or the greatest authority in English and American common-law evidence in the nineteenth century, Harvard Law School professor Simon Greenleaf, who wrote Testimony of the Evangelists, in which he powerfully demonstrated the reliability of the Gospels? What of Edmund H. Bennett (1824-1898), for over 20 years the dean of Boston University Law School, who penned The Four Gospels From a Lawyer’s Standpoint (1899)? What of Irwin Linton, who in his time had represented cases before the Supreme Court, and who wrote A Lawyer Examines the Bible (1943, 1977), in which he stated:
What of hundreds of contemporary lawyers who, also on the grounds of strict legal evidence, accept the New Testament as historically accurate? The eminent Lord Chancellor Hailsham has twice held the highest office possible for a lawyer in England, that of Lord Chancellor. He wrote The Door Wherein I Went, in which he upholds the singular truth of the Christian religion. What of Jacques Ellul and of Sir NORMAN Anderson, one of the greatest authorities on Islamic law, who is also a Christian convinced of New Testament authority and reliability?
Certainly, such men were well acquainted with legal reasoning and have just as certainly concluded that the evidence for the historical truthfulness of the Scriptures is beyond reasonable doubt. As apologist, theologian and lawyer John Warwick Montgomery observes in The Law Above the Law: considering the “ancient documents” rule (that ancient documents constitute competent evidence if there is no evidence of tampering and they have been accurately transmitted); the “parol evidence” rule (Scripture must interpret itself without foreign intervention); the “hearsay rule” (the demand for primary-source evidence); and the “cross-examination” principle (the inability of the enemies of Christianity to disprove its central claim that Christ resurrected bodily from the dead in spite of the motive and opportunity to do so) all coalesce directly or indirectly to support the preponderance of evidence for Christianity. The legal burden for disproving it rests with the critic, who, in 2,000 years, has yet to prove his case.
We must, then, speak of the fact that to reject the New Testament accounts as true history is by definition to reject the canons of all legitimate historical study. To reject the Gospels or the New Testament is to reject primary historical documentation in general. If this cannot be done, the New Testament must be retained as careful historical reporting. The Scripture has thus proven itself reliable in the crucible of history. It is the critic of Scripture who has been unable to prove his case.
Legal scholar J. N. D. Anderson observes in Christianity: The Witness of History:
In other words, even if we personally choose to disbelieve what the New Testament teaches, our disbelief changes nothing. Jesus Christ is who the New Testament says he is. One day He will either become our Lord and Savior or He will become our Divine Judge.