Is the New Testament Reliable?

By Sean McDowell   •   October 2, 2007

I love talking with skeptics, people of other religions, atheists and anyone else who will listen to my reasons for believing that Jesus is the resurrected Lord. In my opinion, the historical evidence is compelling. Yet the first step in demonstrating the unique claims and deeds of Jesus is to establish that the record of His claims is reliable. Obviously, if the Scriptures have been corrupted through history then our knowledge of the historical Jesus has been deeply undercut.

Before offering a brief defense of the New Testament, let me offer four suggestions. First, when we begin to talk with someone about the Word of God, we don’t need to argue for its inerrancy right away. The first step is simply to show that the authors intended to write reliable history. Put as few stumbling blocks in front of non-believers as possible.

Second, the reason I am focusing on the New Testament and primarily on the Gospels is that if they accurately record the words of Jesus, then the Old Testament follows naturally. Here’s why: Jesus believed the Old Testament was trustworthy (Matthew 26:54), without error (Luke 16:17) and unbreakable (John 10:35). If Jesus is truly God and the New Testament records His words accurately, then His claims about the Old Testament Scriptures are true.

Third, in discussions with non-believers about the reliability of the New Testament, it is helpful to begin by asking questions. Don’t think that you need to have all the answers. Many people today believe that spurious gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Mary are more reliable than the four Gospels. When I have asked skeptics why they prefer these “gospels,” I have yet to hear a solid reason for rejecting the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

Fourth, the point of demonstrating the reliability of the Bible is not to win an argument but to lead people into a loving relationship with their Creator. From beginning to end, the Bible reveals the loving heart of a God who wants to be in relationship with us. The Bible does reveal guidelines for how we should live; but most important, it reveals the person of God.

Manuscript Authority
The first question to ask is, “Can we faithfully reconstruct the original text of the New Testament?” Having multiple, early copies gives textual scholars the best chance of success in this endeavor.

The New Testament dwarfs other books of ancient history in this criterion. Most ancient books have fewer than 10 existing manuscripts. But for the New Testament there are over 5,000 partial or whole Greek manuscripts. If other languages are included, the number jumps beyond 25,000!

Some recent critics, such as Bart Ehrman, author of “Misquoting Jesus,” have claimed that there are too many variants across these manuscripts to reconstruct the original with confidence. But this conclusion is too hasty–80 percent of the variations are simply spelling errors that are easily accounted for. While there are a handful of minor texts upon which New Testament scholars disagree, there is no textual variation that threatens a central Christian doctrine.

Regarding the date between original composition and extant copies, most ancient works have a gap of more than 700 years, with some works, such as Plato and Aristotle, having twice that. In contrast, there are fragments of the Gospel of John dating within 40 years of composition (John Rylands Papyrus) and a near complete copy of the New Testament within 100-150 years of its original composition (Chester Beatty Papyri). From a textual point of view, the New Testament documents are exceptional, accurate and reliable documents. And even if all the manuscripts were destroyed, we could reconstruct the entire New Testament (except for 11 verses) through the quotes of the Early Church Fathers.

Early Dating
A promising means of dating the Gospels early comes from the work of noted Roman historian, Colin Hemer. He reasons backwards from the Book of Acts to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The Book of Acts is about the origin of the Church, with special focus on the ministries of Peter and Paul. The book includes the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) and James (Acts 12:1-2), but it says nothing of the deaths of Peter and Paul (between A.D. 63-66). Acts also fails to include the accounts of the Jewish war with the Romans (A.D. 66) and the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Acts abruptly ends with Paul’s arrest in Rome, without any resolution to the situation.

These are significant events that radically altered the relationship between the Romans and Jews. Not including them would be like writing a history of the U.S. and not including Sept. 11. If we found such a book, we would rightly conclude that it was most likely written prior to September 2001. Similarly, since Luke, the writer of Acts left out such important events as listed above, it is reasonable to conclude that he wrote Acts before these events took place, around A.D. 62. Because Luke was written before Acts, and Matthew and Mark likely before Luke, then the three Synoptic Gospels were written at least before the mid-60s A.D. This span is far shorter than the 400 years that elapsed between Alexander the Great’s death and his first biography.

Since the New Testament documents were written within 30 years of the events they record, they are unlikely to be legend. Eyewitnesses would still be around to correct errors, exaggerations or outright mistakes.

Embarrassing Accounts
One criterion historians use to judge the accuracy of a historical record is whether the writers include disparaging and embarrassing material. Given the human tendency to leave out information that makes one look bad, embarrassing material is likely true.

The New Testament fares well by this criterion. Consider a few examples recorded by the Gospel writers. Jesus calling Peter “Satan” (Mark 8:33); the disciples not understanding the parables of Jesus (Mark 4:10); the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40); and Jesus criticizing His disciples for having little faith (Matthew 8:25-26). The Gospel writers record such material because they were concerned with truth.

Eyewitness Testimony
Eyewitness testimony is often considered the best evidence. The ability for a witness to tell the truth rests in part upon the witness’ chronological and geographical nearness to the events. The apostles constantly stressed that they passed both tests:

“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16, NASB).

John wrote, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life … These things we write” (1 John 1:1, 4 NASB).

Luke reports, “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32, NASB).

Not only do the apostles claim to be eyewitnesses, archaeological evidence also supports their chronological and geographical nearness to the events. In painstaking detail, Colin Hemer combed through each verse of Acts to determine just how careful Luke was as a historian. In the final 16 chapters alone, Hemer identified 84 facts that have recently been substantiated through archaeological and historical research.

There are many other lines of evidence that weigh in favor of the reliability of the New Testament, such as fulfilled prophecy and the testimony of secular sources. But even the minimal evidence presented in this article is sufficient to demonstrate that the Bible can be trusted. Remember, our task is not merely to defend the Bible to others, but to absorb its truth so our own lives become the greatest witness to Christ.

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