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Can the New Testament Really be Trusted?

July 8, 2013

This is a very crucial question for Christians to ask and confidently answer.  It is also a crucial question for skeptics to be able to answer as well.  Many skeptics I have come across will emphatically assert that the New Testament is inaccurate or simply fabricated without having any concrete evidence to base such an assumption on.  It is also true that many Christians will confidently assert it is true with little personal investigation, as well.  Both sides of this issue should take the testimony offered in the New Testament seriously and treat it for what it is . . . testimony.  If it is untrue, why is it untrue?  What evidence would call you to doubt the testimony?  This is usually most of the battle: getting people to treat the eyewitness testimony as valid testimony.

But, how can we know if it is true or not?  A good way to evaluate the truth of ancient accounts is to approach it the same way historians do.  There are several tests that historians use when determining if an ancient document describes true events or is fabricated.  These three tests are the Bibliographical test, the internal test and the external test.  Let’s apply each of these tests to the New Testament.

The Bibliographical Test asks the question “Has the text been changed over time?”  This is one where the New Testament shines.  There are greater than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of New Testament!  This is far more than any other ancient document. For comparison, consider the number of copies of the following documents that are universally considered legitimate:

  • Homer’s Iliad: 643
  • Caesar’s Gallic wars: 10
  • Plato’s Tetralogies: 7
  • Pliny the Younger’s History: 7
  • Sophocles: 193
  • Shakespeare: 0 original

Another important thing to consider when evaluating the bibliographical evidence is how much time passed between the events they describe and when they were written.  Less time passed between events in New Testament and their writings than any other ancient document (15-150 years). Consider the time gap between the following ancient documents and when they were written:

  • Homer’s Iliad: 500 years
  • Caesar’s Gallic wars: 1000 years
  • Plato’s Tetralogies: 1200 years
  • Pliny the Younger’s History: 750 years

Due to vast early source material, textual critics are able to determine that the New Testament text is within 99% accuracy of original documents.  Additionally, no doctrine (core belief) of Christianity is dependent on any textual variant.

The Internal Test asks “Were the writers of the New Testament telling the truth?”  In evaluating this, it is important to realize that the fact that the bible is written by numerous authors strengthens its position here.  We have the eyewitness testimony of 9 separate New Testament authors.  Additionally, there are 20 early Christian writers outside of New Testament writings that further backup the testimony of the 9.  You cannot dismiss testimony without valid reason to do so.  This is not allowed in a court of law and historians cannot do so either.  Which this much agreement on events and no clear refutation of them, there is little reason to disregard the eyewitness testimony.

Another thing that historians look for when evaluating the Internal Test is what they call “embarrassing testimony”.  They look for details to be recorded about themselves their friends, sayings of Jesus, etc. that reflect negatively on them.  This is a good test that if the people are actually recording what really happened or if they are making it up.  Historians find many convincing examples of “embarrassing testimony” in the New Testament.  Here are just a few of the numerous examples:

  • Women discover empty tomb.  They were considered by their Jewish society as unreliable and could not even testify in court at the time.
  • Peter’s denial of Jesus.
  • The Disciples’ frequent blunders, selfishness, doubt, stupidity and their abandonment of Jesus
  • Thomas doubting the resurrection
  • Many difficult, unpopular and embarrassing statements of Jesus, such as his claim to be the only way to God, his call to hate your mother and brother if you are to follow him, or his call to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Historians also look at what they call “Disinterested testimony”.   This is where a writer casually mentions a person when not making a point.  One example of this is Paul casually referring to “James the brother of Jesus” (so his audience will know who he is talking about).  He does this merely as a means of identifying which James he is talking about to his audience who would know by this description.  This is very compelling evidence to a historian looking at ancient documents.

You can also look at the environment where claims were made.  The accounts depicted in the New Testament and the claims about what Jesus did were made in Jerusalem, the location where the very events took place.  It is hard to imagine how claims this wild could be so wildly circulated and accepted within the same city where the major events took place if the local population did not witness them (but instead were witnesses that they did not occur).  The would simply be too easy to refute.

Lastly, historians are intrigued by the willingness of these eyewitnesses to suffer and die for what they claimed they saw.  There is no motive for a person to lie to the point of death if they were simply making it up.  A person is only willing to die for what they honestly believe is true.  It is certainly possible to be honestly wrong and be willing to die for it, but the disciples claimed to be eyewitnesses to these events (including the resurrection of Jesus from the grave).  They cannot be mistaken about this.  They were either lying or telling the truth. . . and they were all willing to die for it.  History records (external to the bible) that they did suffer and were killed for their refusal to retract their testimony.  That leads to the next test . . .

The External Test asks “What sources are there, apart from the literature under analysis that substantiates its accuracy, reliability, and authenticity?” Here we are looking for places, people and things which can be used to test the claims made in the document. The New Testament describes many people, places and things that can be cross checked and verified. There are actually many Non-Christian accounts that confirm the life of Jesus.  There are as many non-Christian sources who mention Jesus (within 150 years of his life) as there are sources who talk about roman emperor at the time (Tiberius Caesar)!  Here is a list:

  • Josephus (Jewish historian)
  • Tacitus (considered the most accurate Roman historian)
  • Pliny the Younger (Roman Politician)
  • Phlegon (freed slave)
  • Lucian (Greek satirist)
  • Celsus (Roman philosopher)
  • Mara bar Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution)
  • Seutonius
  • Thallus

Another valid historical External Test point is to consider the testimony of the enemies to early Christianity.  Looking at what those who opposed the disciples wrote in order to try to refute their claims can shed light on what the undisputed facts were at the time and which assertions were in question.  What is interesting is that none of the enemies to Christianity at the time had the same objections as modern critics.  Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, depending on your perspective) they did not question Jesus’ existence or his working of miracles.  The Roman critics knew he really did perform the miracles but attributed it to “magic”.  The Jews said he did them by the power of Satan.  No one doubted he did them, because that much was irrefutable.

Similarly, No one doubted that Jesus’ tomb was really empty. Even the enemies of Christianity acknowledged this fact.  This can be seen in the early writings of Justin Martyr (Dialog with Trypho), and Tertullian.

If you would like to go deeper into these three historical tests you can find more information here.

Bibliographical test:

Internal test:

External Test:

http://www.knowwhatyoubelieve.com/believe/evidence/external_evidence_test.htm

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