The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?

Papyrus_Bodmer_VIIIAbout five years ago, I was invited to give a series of lectures at universities in Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran and dialogue with Islamic scholars in Qom. The Q&A session after each presentation was a lively affair. The most frequently asked question was about the reliability of the Bible. What did I think about Mel Gibson’s film The Passion? What did I think about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code?

Over 1 billion people apparently believe the views popularized in The Da Vinci Code. They believe the message of the Bible has been corrupted and distorted, that Jesus is not the Son of God, but simply a Prophet and that he did not die on the cross or rise from the dead. They believe that there were many other accounts of the life of Christ suppressed and destroyed before and after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. They believe that the Emperor Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament we now have which portrays Jesus as a divine figure. Dozens of other “gospels” were censored.

They believe the Gospel of Barnabas is the only known surviving account written by a disciple of Jesus and accepted as authentic before Nicea. It was supposed to have been rediscovered by a monk named Fra Marino, who came across an Italian manuscript in the Pope’s private library in 1590. He smuggled it out of the library, read it and became a Muslim.

The only known manuscript is in the Austrian National Library in Vienna and dates from the 16th Century. It was translated into English in 1907 by Laura and Lonsdale Ragg. Their introduction explains why they believe it to be a Medieval forgery.

Emperor Constantine did summon the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. However, he was not “a lifelong pagan who was baptized on his deathbed, too weak to protest.” It is true he was not baptised until shortly before his death-but the deferment of baptism was common in those days. Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea primarily to end disunity caused by the Arian controversy. Arius taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was less than the Father. The nearest equivalent might be the Jehovah’s Witnesses today.

The Council was attended by around 300 bishops. The Arian Creed was soundly rejected. The Nicene Creed, with four anti-Arian anathemas attached, was accepted by all but two of the bishops – 298 in favour : 2 against. (i.e., over 99% in favour). They recognised that Jesus was the Son of God “begotten not made, of the same substance (homousios) as the Father.”

The discussion at Nicaea was therefore not about whether Jesus was the Son of God, but whether he was the same substance as the Father or a lesser god. Constantine had absolutely nothing to do with fixing the canon of Scripture. The canon was pretty well fixed by the fourth century. The Gospels and Epistles we have were recognized as authentic by those who knew the authors to be eyewitnesses and trustworthy.

No Council of the Church gave the New Testament documents the status of Scripture. On the contrary, the Scriptures gave the Church its status. Early church communities recognized the inspiration and submitted to the authority of the Scriptures.

They recognized what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The New Testament documents were in wide circulation during the 1st and 2nd Century and diligently copied and copiously quoted by the Early Church Fathers. So much so, if every New Testament manuscript in existence was destroyed, it would be possible to re-write virtually the entire New Testament from quotations drawn from them in the first three centuries. If Muslims have been taught that the Bible is unreliable, and if millions of skeptics have read Dan Brown’s books or watched the Da Vinci film, the chances are you know some of them.

How can we know that the New Testament is reliable? I recommend Josh McDowell’s book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Next to the Bible, it has been the most important book I have ever read, and I turn to it regularly. I also recommend F.F. Bruce’s book. The New Testament Documents: Are the Reliable? You can download the text of the book from here. I also commend Paul Williams and Barry Cooper’s book, If you Could ask God One Question.

Here are six questions we can try and answer.

How can we test the reliability of the New Testament?
How credible are the writers?
When was the New Testament written?
How early are the extant manuscripts?
When was the New Testament Canon agreed?
Why are speculations about the reliability of the New Testament so popular?

1. How can we test the reliability of the New Testament?

How can the reliability of the New Testament documents be determined objectively? John Montgomery in his book, History and Christianity suggests we should:

“treat them as we would any other historical materials… 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.”

Sanders was a specialist in military history so hardly biased. The three tests are elaborated here.

Our legal system uses this approach in the law courts in order to establish a verdict based on reasonable evidence. There are several factors that must be taken into account when considering a piece of ancient writing like the New Testament. This includes such factors as who wrote it, how soon after the actual events happened was the document written, how many copies were written and what is the time-span between the original work and the first copy being made? Obviously the longer the period of time between the actual events happening and the first copy being made increases the possibility of errors occurring or information being changed. Taking the New Testament documents as our example, let’s apply this method of investigation to the Gospel accounts.

2. How Credible are the Writers?

2.1 They were eyewitnesses

This is how Luke begins his account of the life of Jesus Christ.

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke wanted to investigate the claims of Jesus Christ. He relied on eye witness accounts and synthesised them in an orderly way. His gospel is noted for its historical accuracy. He and his fellow disciples were eye witnesses.

2.2 They were reliable eyewitnesses

The Apostle John wrote the following in his First Epistle.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:1-3)

John was an eyewitness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What he saw, he, like his colleagues, recorded accurately for us to read today in his gospel account. The Apostle Paul wrote,

“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, (2 Timothy 3:10)

Their lives were open to examination.

2.3 They were cross examined eyewitnesses

The first believers were not gullible. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke praises the Christians in Berea for testing Paul’s teaching.

“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11).

At his trial before Festus in Caesarea, the Apostle Paul pointed out,

“What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:25-28)

In his second letter to Timothy he wrote,

“persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:11-12)

Their writings and teachings were openly challenged. Ultimately all of the Apostles, except John who died of old age in exile on Patmos, died as martyrs, convinced by what they had witnessed, that Jesus was the Son of God the Saviour of the world. There is no greater test of credibility that witnesses prepared to die for their testimony.

3. When was the New Testament written?

P52When it comes to dating the New Testament books, there are differences between conservative and liberal scholars but only in terms of decades, not centuries. For example, the conservative dating for the Gospel of Mark is between A.D. 50-60, with more liberal scholars placing it around A.D. 70. This is remarkable, when you consider that Jesus died somewhere around the year A.D. 30; these are authentic eyewitness accounts. Generally speaking, Paul’s letters were written between A.D. 50-66, the gospels between A.D. 50-70. The earliest extant manuscript is a fragment of John’s gospel (The John Ryland’s papyri is dated 120 AD) which had already been translated from Greek into Coptic.

The epistles of Paul invariably conclude with a list of individuals known to the recipients, some of whom were companions of Paul or were his messengers. He ends his epistle to the Colossians, presumably sent with Tychicus, with the instruction that they share his correspondence with the church in Laodicea.

“Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts… After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” (Colossians 4:7-8, 16)

There is therefore every reason to believe that his letters were copied and widely disseminated by those who knew him personally.

In the Peter’s second letter he refers to the writings of Paul as scripture.

“… dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)

The significant date in dating the New Testament is 70 AD. Jerusalem had been occupied by Jewish zealots since 66 AD. The siege ended in 70 AD with the total destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army led by Titus, who eventually became Emperor. The sacking of the city, the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the surviving Jewish remnant was truly apocalyptic in proportions. Josephus the Jewish historian claims over a million Jews were killed and 97,000 deported. Titus apparently refused to accept the wreath of victory because he said he was merely an instrument of God’s wrath.

Matthew’s gospel records an earlier conversation between Jesus and the disciples who are impressed by the fine buildings in Jerusalem. Jesus replied, “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2). If any of the New Testament documents had been written after 70 AD one would have expected them to refer to the destruction to vindicate the predictions of Jesus. Similarly, the writer to Hebrews contrasts the sacrifices offered in the Jewish Temple with the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus:

“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)

Had the Temple been destroyed, the author would not have referred to the Temple sacrifices in the present tense and would surely have referred to the cessation of sacrifices as vindication of the atoning work of Christ.

4. How early are the extant manuscripts?

To discover the accuracy of copying for the New Testament material and see whether or not it has been “changed,” we have to consider two factors: First, the number of manuscripts existing today; and second, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts still in existence today. The more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the originals, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.

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For example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, is known about today because of seven manuscripts. The earliest copy was written 750 years after the original text. The most frequently copied work after the New Testament from ancient history is the Iliad written by Homer. There are 643 copies in existence. The earliest was written 400 years after the original. By comparison, there are well over 25,000 extant manuscripts of portions of the New Testament. In addition, a fragment of the New Testament (NT) has been dated to within 50 years of the original, whole books to within 100 years, and the whole NT to within 225-250 years.

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The extant manuscripts can also be compared with one another to determine their place within the ‘family tree’, based on variations, language and dating.

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Sir Frederic Kenyon, the former Director of the British Museum, has concluded,

“The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence [i.e. our oldest manuscripts] becomes so small as to be 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.”

5. When was the New Testament Canon agreed?


The recognition of what became the definitive New Testament began 200 years before the Council of Nicea. It was only due to the challenge of missions, fraud and heresy that the church leadership felt the need to clearly articulate the list. We know that many of the books of the New Testament were in circulation and already regarded as scripture before the end of the 1st Century. The criteria for inclusion within the canon of the New Testament was based on common recognition among the churches that a text was apostolic. 
If a text was considered non-apostolic it was either deemed useful for devotional or liturgical use, or excluded as apocryphal. The approach was ‘if in doubt, leave it out’.

Timeline Canon Agreed.001

The early church father Iraneus was a student of Polycarp and Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John. In the writings of Iraneus, A.D. 180, he attests the canonical recognition of the fourfold Gospel and Acts, of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, of 1 Peter and 1 John and of the Revelation. There is considerable evidence that by A.D. 150 at the latest, the church recognized a New Testament close to the one we have today. The reason some of the shorter epistles such as 2 Peter and Jude took longer to be included was due to the fact that they had not been in wide circulation.

Objective scholarship upholds the integrity of the New Testament.

The scholar Dr. William F. Albright, writes: “The excessive scepticism shown toward the Bible [by certain schools of thought] has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of numerous details.”

So if the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is so strong, why the popularity of books like The Da Vinci Code? Why does Islam rely on late apocryphal writings and continue to perpetuate the myth that the New Testament has been corrupted?

6. Why are speculations about the Reliability of the New Testament still so popular? 


The main reason people dismiss the Bible is because of its moral and ethical demands. The Apostle Paul anticipated this and warned Timothy:

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

But simply dismissing the Bible as unreliable does not change its message or teaching.Two thousand years later, the number who testify to the same living encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, continues to grow. If you are in any doubt as to your eternal destiny, then engage with the truth of Jesus. For He invites us to undertake an experiential test to determine the authenticity of his teaching.

“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own… If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 7:17; 8:31-32).

As Paul Williams concludes: “In other words, if you want to know – subjectively, in your own experience – that the Bible really is God’s word, you can. Because when you put its teaching into practice, the miraculous results in your life are such that you will know the words could only come from God.

A presentation given in Maadi, Cairo, 26 January 2016.

For further reading see John Warwick Montgomery: Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?

Bibliography

J.P. Moreland: The Historicity of the New Testament
John Ankerberg: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament Text
F.F. Bruce: The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?
Michael Green: You Must be Joking
Nicky Gumbel: Searching Issues
Paul Maier: The Real Jesus of Nazareth: New Evidence from History and Archaeology About Jesus and the Early Christians
Josh McDowell: Evidence that Demands a Verdict
John Montgomery:  Christianity and History
Paul Williams & Barry Cooper: If You Could ask God One Question

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