|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002|
|How does the evidence for the New Testament documents stack up against evidence for other ancient writings? Is there consistency of message within the New Testament documents? If so, what does that show? The authors explain this month.|
Last month we began to look at the issue of the reliability of the New Testament. We mentioned that there are ten facts that lend support to the reliability of the material we find in our New Testament. We begin to look at those this month
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 Such tests are utilized in literary criticism and the study of historical documents in general.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 also discussed by Sanders.) They involve 1) bibliographical, 2) internal and 3) external examinations of the text and other evidence.
The bibliographical test seeks to determine whether we can reconstruct the original manuscript from the extant copies at hand. For the New Testament we have 5,300 Greek manuscripts and manuscript portions, 10,000 Latin Vulgate, 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. What does this mean?
Few scholars question the general reliability even of ancient classical literature on the basis of the manuscripts we possess. Yet this amount is vastly inferior to that of the New Testament manuscripts. For example, of sixteen well-known classical authors, such as Plutarch, Tacitus, Seutonius, Polybius, Thucydides and Xenophon, 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, which includes 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 given the overwhelming additional abundance of manuscript attestation, any doubt as to the integrity or authenticity of the New Testament text has been removed—no matter what the “higher” critics claim. Indeed, this kind of evidence supplied by the New Testament (both amount and quality) 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.”
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 99 percent plus. Thus no other document of the ancient period is as accurately preserved as the New Testament:
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! So how can the New Testament logically be rejected by anyone when its documentation is 100 times that of other ancient literature? If 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. The New Testament, then, passes the bibliographical test and must, by far, be graded with the highest mark of any ancient literature.
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? 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 New Testament. 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).
The kinds of things the Gospel writers include in their narratives offer strong evidence for their integrity. They record their own sins and failures, even serious ones (Matthew 26:56, 69-75; Mark 10:35-45). They do not hesitate to record even the most difficult and consequential statements of Jesus, such as 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 a blasphemer and a liar, insane and demonized (Matthew 26:65; John 7:20,47; 8:48, 52; 10:20).
To encounter such honesty from those who loved the Person they were reporting about gives one assurance that the Gospel writers placed a very high premium on truthfulness.