Why We Know New Testament Writers Told the Truth

“Why would the apostles lie? If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got… was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!” —PETER KREEFT

I came to know Christ at a critical time in my life. I was just thirteen years old, in dire straits, always at odds with my father. You could say I had a difficult time with obedience, controlling my base impulses, telling the truth, and keeping my hands off other people’s property. The more my father tried to correct and redirect me, the more I rebelled. We were a church-going family. I thought the message from the pulpit made sense. I basically fell in love with Jesus. I responded to an alter call, accepting Him as Lord and Savior. I was baptized shortly after.

Unfortunately, my walk with Jesus was rather short. My family had a falling out with the church, and I strayed. By age eighteen I was smoking weed, drinking, and committing petty crimes. Before I could grasp what was happening to me, I got caught up in some serious felonies. I served three years in a state prison, followed by seven years on state parole. I had only been out of high school a year and a half before my whole world fell apart. Even after jail time, I continued to struggle with active addiction for over forty years before renewing my relationship with Jesus Christ. It was only through the power in the Name of Jesus that I was able to turn away from that life and break the chain of active addiction.

I have  completed my undergraduate degree in psychology at Colorado Christian University. In addition to classes in my major, I also took courses on worldviews, integration of Christian theology and psychology, Christian doctrine, church history, Pauline literature, and ethics. I developed a passion for apologetics and Christian doctrine. Many of my recent blog posts have focused on this topic. Although I remain focused on  my ministry counseling teens and young adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, I will always have a particular affection for Christian apologetics.

SOME RATHER POWERFUL EVIDENCE

We have seen very powerful evidence that the documents comprising the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses and their contemporaries within 15 to 40 years of the death of Jesus. Moreover, secular documents and archaeological evidence has established that the New Testament is based on historical fact. Yet many skeptics ask how we know the authors didn’t exaggerate or embellish what they say they saw?

Lee Strobel, in his seminal book The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, recounts his interview with Craig Blomberg, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus—which we know as the four gospels. Blomberg’s books include Jesus and the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, and How Wide the Divide? and a commentary on the gospel of Matthew. Blomberg told Strobel that Matthew (also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples) was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul’s “beloved physician,” wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Blomberg said there are “no known competitors for these three gospels.”

According to Papias, a Christian writer from A.D. 125, early testimony is unanimous that John the apostle—the son of Zebedee—wrote the gospel of John. Blomberg also informed Strobel that Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the authorship of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He said Irenaeus wrote the following words,

Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

THE CONSISTENCY TEST

Skeptics of the gospels like to point out that they are hopelessly contradictory with each other. They say, “Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if so, then how can we trust them?” Strobel said Blomberg acknowledges these inconsistencies, ranging from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions. He said, “My own conviction is, once you allow for the elements I’ve talked about earlier—of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission—the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.” Interestingly, Strobel admits if the gospels mirrored each other word-for-word, it would seem to hint at collusion, which would give us pause. Blomberg agreed.

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It’s important to note that each Gospel writer had a particular intention and focus. They set out to accentuate a unique aspect of the ministry of Jesus. Through their individual gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—they focused on particular elements of Christ’s ministry and message that they felt illuminated their narrative. Despite their varied focus, the gospels exhibit a remarkable and important cohesiveness. They all bear witness to Jesus and his ministry, but approach the story from an individual perspective. These four viewpoints take nothing away from our understanding of Jesus. Rather, they give us a richer, deeper, clearer look into the mystery of Christ.

There were a number of languages spoken during the 1st century when Christ walked the roads of the Holy Land spreading the Good News and calling on men to follow Him. You were likely to hear Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, which was thought to be the primary language spoken by most Jews throughout Palestine during this era. So when we consider the fact that the gospels were written in Greek, the fact that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic becomes quite significant. Most of his words had to be translated into Greek—making every quote an interpretation. Languages don’t necessarily have equivalent words or phrases to support transliteration. Each gospel writer had to interpret Jesus’ words and sayings in order to find equivalents in an entirely different language. In other words, translation is interpretation.

This is the basis for scholarly claims that we have the authentic voice (ipsissima vox) of Jesus but not necessarily his exact words. We can trust the essential meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels even though we never know precisely how He said what He said. The writers of the four gospels, as interpreters of Christ’s message, meant that their translation—paraphrase, if you will—would focus on the theology of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), but Matthew records him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now it could be Jesus said both of these things at different times, but it’s likely that Matthew felt it was extremely important to clearly communicate the spiritual significance of Jesus’ words.

RELIABILITY OF NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

It is paramount that we consider the historical reliability of the New Testament separate from its inspirational properties. Such reliability should be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate all historical documents. Because the Christian faith is intimately connected to very specific historical events, those who are determined to prove or disprove Christianity outside the realm of faith find the historical soundness of its documents is an appropriate starting point.

Stetzer (2012) writes in an article for Christianity Today titled “A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” that “…we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts representing all, or part, of the N[ew] T[estament]. By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be constructed beyond reasonable doubt.” Stetzer also remarks that the authors of the gospels and the Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. It is also important to note that these five books were written in the first century, within sixty or seventy years of Jesus’ death—most likely A.D. 30. The amount of time separating the historical events and the composition of the five books is very short as compared to most ancient historical and biographical accounts, where many centuries could intervene between events and the books that narrated them.

Other tests for historicity have been used to test the accuracy of the New Testament. For example, a document written as a personal letter has a high probability of reliability; it is also likely accurate if it is intended for small audiences, written in unpolished style, or contains trivia and lists of details. The absence of such features does not necessarily mean the document is unreliable; however, their presence makes the prima facie acceptance of the document stronger. Much of the New Testament, especially the apostolic letters and some of the sources behind the Gospels, is made up of personal letters originally intended for individuals and small groups. In addition, much of the New Testament is in unpolished style, containing examples of inconsequential detail in the Gospels. These considerations show when general tests for historicity are applied to the New Testament documents, they pass them quite well.

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

Strobel interviewed John McRay, author of Archaeology and the New Testament. McRay consulted on the National Geographic Network TV special Mysteries of the Bible. McRay studied at Hebrew University, Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He has been a professor of New Testament archaeology  at Wheaton for more than fifteen years. McRay told Strobel, “Archaeology has made some important contributions, but it certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God. If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we’d find them, that shows that it’s history and geography are accurate. However, it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archeological discoveries.”

It’s Strobel’s contention that if an ancient historian’s incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked. Strobel asked McRay, “Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament when it checks out the details in those accounts?” McRay quickly responded: “Oh, there’s no question that the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced, just as the credibility of any ancient document is enhanced when you excavate and find that the author was accurate in talking about a particular place or event.” As an example, McRay recounted his own digs in Caesarea on the coast of Israel, where he and others excavated the harbor of Herod the Great.

There is an obvious allure to archaeology. It’s a discipline I’d considered as I neared the end of high school. I can see no better useful tool for uncovering and proving aspects of ancient civilizations, their origins, and their religions. Ancient tombs, cryptic inscriptions etched in stone or scribbled onto papyrus, pieces of broken pottery, old coins—these are clues for persistent scholars and investigators. Perhaps on of the most tantalizing clues of the biblical past are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947 in an obscure cave west of the Dead Sea, Bedouin shepherds discovered some scrolls carefully placed in ten tall jars. They did not know what they had come upon, but they sold the scrolls to a nearby dealer. This was the opening chapter to an astonishing archeological find; eventually some 800 different manuscripts would be found in eleven caves near the valley called Wadi Qumran. In all, some 60,000 fragments, portions, or complete scrolls of these 800 manuscripts were retrieved, covering many subjects.

Many of the documents contained biblical texts. Either fragments or complete copies were found of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. They had been placed in these caves around the middle of the first century A.D., and the amazing fact is that they had lain there undisturbed for 1900 years! But why are these Dead Sea Scrolls so important for us? The reason is that before this discovery the earliest manuscripts of biblical texts dated from the ninth century after Christ. They were copies of earlier copies which were long lost. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew, with some fragments written in the ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet thought to have fallen out of use in the fifth century B.C. But others are in Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews—including, most likely, Jesus—between the sixth century B.C. and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In addition, several texts feature translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the scrolls’ creation.

It has been said that it would be foolish to hold on to the illusion that the gospels are merely fictional stories like the legends of Hercules and Asclepius. The theologies in the New Testament are grounded on interpretation of real historical events, especially the crucifixion of Jesus, as a particular time and place. Beyond the manuscript evidence, archaeological evidence helps to authenticate the gospel narratives. Frankly, if the New Testament gospels were nothing more than fictions and fables about a man who never lived, one must wonder how it is they possess so much verisimilitude and why they talk so much about people we know lived and about so many things we know happened. After all, the gospels say Jesus was condemned to the cross by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Not only is this man mentioned by historical sources outside the New Testament but there is an inscribed stone on which his name appears. Indeed, it appears archaeologists have found the name of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus, inscribed on a bone box. It seems these people were real.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Both Christian and secular scholars from a large cross section of theological schools have concluded that the evidence uncovered over the centuries provides an adequate basis to affirm with confidence that Jesus truly existed. It seems every single author who mentions Jesus—pagans, Christians, or Jewish—was fully convinced that He at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, His non-existence is never one of them… Jesus certainly existed. And most historical scholars (Christian or not) find the attempt to explain away all apparent references to Jesus in Roman writings, much less New Testament espistles, to be an unconvincing tour de force that lapses into special pleading.

From the historical evidence, we can reject the critics charge that the gospels are mere legends about the life of Jesus Christ. There is an abundance of internal and external evidence that support an early date of the gospel writings. There are numerous archaeological and historical records corroborating the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, the manuscript evidence assures us that we have a copy accurate to the originals. Having established the historical and archaeological soundness of the gospels, we are now free to examine the theology of the Gospel.

Is the New Testament Authentic?

The following is based upon information taken directly from David Limbaugh’s “The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels,” chapter two, “New Testament Basics Building Blocks of the Revelation.” I recently added this book to my personal library and highly recommend it, along with Limbaugh’s “Jesus on Trial.” Both are available at Amazon.com through this link: David Limbaugh

The authenticity of the New Testament documents is shown by dating the original documents – none of which still exist – and determining how much time passed between those writings and the events they record, assessing how many copies we have of those writings, and examining them for accuracy, measuring the time gap between the original writings and the oldest copies we have, and then comparing our findings with those of manuscripts of ancient secular history.

Most scholars – liberal and conservative – agree that Christ died between 30 and 33 A.D., and that all the gospel accounts were written in the first century between twenty-five and fifty years after those dates. This is a short period considering this was an oral culture in which people would have memorized these accounts before reducing them to writing. Many scholars believe the gospel writers may have referred to earlier written accounts for some of their material. As noted, Christians agreed on and shared much creedal information about Jesus well before the New Testament writings, and many references to this “Jesus tradition” appear in Paul’s epistles, some of which predate the writing of the gospels. You might be thinking that such an oral tradition, combined with scribes writing down information over hundreds of years in various geographic locations, would lead to errors in the text. You’re correct. But, as we’ll see later, these were minor spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors that had no impact whatsoever on the doctrine itself.

The original twenty-seven New Testament manuscripts probably perished within decades of their composition because the writers didn’t write on bricks, rocks, or wooden tablets, but on paper – Egyptian papyrus (see John’s reference to his writing tools in 2 John 1:12; 3 John 1:13). What remains are handwritten copies called manuscripts. Inevitably, mistakes occurred in the copying process, no matter how meticulous and skilled the scribes were. To evaluate the accuracy of manuscript copies for the New Testament writings – or any other ancient books for that matter – textual critics study the differences in wording to determine the precise composition of the original manuscript. New Testament manuscripts are so plentiful that, according to Professor Craig Blomberg, textual criticism enables us to reconstruct what the New Testament authors wrote with a high degree of accuracy.

There are more than 25,000 New Testament manuscripts in existence, some 5,800 of which are in the original Greek (kione – common Greek vernacular spoken on the streets during the time of Jesus), which range from the early second century to the sixteenth century. Though we don’t have a complete manuscript dated before the third century, many fragments exist that include a substantial amount of the New Testament. There are also a million-plus New Testament quotations in the writings of the early church fathers. The number of surviving New Testament manuscripts dwarfs those of ancient secular writings. There are one thousand times as many existing manuscripts of the New Testament than of the average classical author’s works (between ten and twenty copies). Homer’s Iliad is the exception, but even those copies are limited to about 1,800, which is less than ten percent of the total amount of New Testament copies.

What about the “errors” in the New Testament? Aren’t they terribly problematic for those who maintain the Bible is inerrant? In a word, no. Inerrancy  only pertains to the oral or written proclamation of the originally inspired prophets and apostles. As such, it does not exist. Not only was their communication of the Word of God efficacious in teaching the truth of revelation (there is literally power and life in the Word), but their transmission of that Word was error-free. David Limbaugh relates that he was skeptical about the issue of errors, especially as it might relate to doctrine. His research led him to the discovery that nearly every error was relative to spelling, style, and other grammatical trivialities, and that only about one percent of the variants – differences in wording – bear on the meaning of the text, with none affecting any major Christian doctrine. (Limbaugh notes this refers to one percent of the errors, not one percent of the entire text!) Richard Bentley, a classical English biblical critic, confirms that these minor errors do not pervert or set aside “one article of faith or moral precept.”

Even Bart Ehrman, the most famous manuscript scholar who has been skeptical of orthodox Christianity, affirms that “the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by actual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” Evangelical scholars Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace observe, “Any uncertainty over the wording of the original New Testament does not have an impact on major teachings of the New Testament. They certainly do not affect the deity of Christ. There is simply no room for uncertainty about what the New Testament originally taught.” What matters, says Carl Henry, is whether these variants corrupt the substantive content of the original and whether they “convey the truth of revelation in reliable verbal form, and infallibly lead the penitent reader to salvation.”

As an aside to David Limbaugh’s work, I want to note that it is not uncommon for Muslims to claim that the Bible is corrupted, and therefore not trustworthy. It is their contention that the angel Gabriel came to Mohammad and dictated to him – and only him over a period of twenty-three years in a cave – and that the Qur’an is the corrected truth. We should ask when this supposed corruption occurred? The Qur’an actually states that the Bible is the Word of God (Surah 5:43, 44, 46, 68; Surah 4:136; Surah 10:91; Surah 15:9; Surah 6:34; Surah 10:64). If the Bible was corrupted, was it before the time of Mohammad? Why then would God (Allah) tell Mohammad to look to the Scriptures for guidance and light? If the corruption occurred after the time of Mohammad, then why don’t Muslims accept the Bible as authoritative as our current translations are based upon manuscripts that predate Mohammad by hundreds of years? The earliest textual evidence we have for the Bible (the Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of partial and complete Greek New Testament manuscripts dating back to within the first three centuries A.D.) simply does not allow for the claim of widespread corruption of the Bible.

The gap between the earliest New Testament manuscript fragment – the John Rylands Fragment (117-138 A.D.), which contains five verses from John 18 – and the original is less than fifty years. Another New Testament fragment, the Bodmer Papyri, which contains most of John’s books and Luke, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, is dated circa 200 A.D., so there is a gap of between 100 and 140 years between the manuscript and the original. Even more impressive is the Chester Beatty Papyri (circa 250 A.D.) – a gap of 150-plus years from the completion of the originals – which contains most of the New Testament. The Codex Vaticanus (325-350 A.D.) contains the great majority of the New Testament and the Greek Old Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus (340 A.D.) – found on the Sinai Peninsula – is the oldest existing manuscript of the entire New Testament, and contains much of the Old Testament. These date some 250 years from the originals. Again, compared to existing manuscripts for ancient secular texts, the gap between the original and the copies is much smaller for the New Testament. The time gap between the original Iliad and the oldest existing manuscript of the work is between 350 and 400 years, but for most other secular works the gap exceed a thousand years.

The New Testament documents are copied accurately, and there are more copies, with many earlier copies, than any other book from the ancient world. As British paleographer and biblical and classical scholar Sir Fredric Kenyon states, “The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

I never had any doubt.

REFERENCES

Carlson, J. (Mar. 19, 2014). Responding to the Muslim Claims That the Bible is Corrupt. [Msg. 1] Message posted to: https://www.chess.com/clubs/forum/view/responding-to-the-muslim-claims-that-the-bible-is-corrupt

Limbaugh, D. (2017). The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing