Can the New Testament Be Trusted?
The 27 books and letters of the New Testament are our best historical sources regarding the life and death of Jesus and the rise of early Christianity. But can the New Testament be trusted to accurately portray the events they describe?
Answering this question requires determining whether the documents contained within the New Testament were written too late, such that their reports became too embellished with legendary elements. It also requires determining whether they were written by people who were in a position to know what happened concerning Jesus. Other factors are relevant as well, like whether the text shows signs of being an honest account (as opposed to a biased one), and the kind of manuscript evidence we have that the New Testament of today is the same as the original version.
Evidence for the Historical Reliability of the New Testament
Below are some points of evidence in favor of the historical credibility of the New Testament documents. This serves to answer the above questions in a way that can give us confidence that the New Testament is a trustworthy source of the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ live and death, along with the origin of the religion created in light of him.
The majority of this evidence is summarized and expounded upon in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. Those interested in more information about this topic are strongly encouraged to check out these books.
Now consider the following six categories of evidence:
First, the New Testament is based on early accounts. The Gospels were written within 30-50 years of the events they describe. Paul’s letters were written within 15-20 years. Mark’s passion narrative (his narrative of the last week of Jesus’ life) was written about 7 years later than the events (according to a German expert on Mark, Rudolf Pesch).
Finally, certain creeds contained in the New Testament documents are traceable to an even earlier time. These creeds were basic accepted teachings in early Christianity. One such creed, 1 Corin. 15:1-11, is widely agreed upon by scholars to have been written within 2-5 years of the life of Jesus, given that it was received either at Paul’s conversion (roughly 2 years after Jesus’ death) or from his visit with Peter and James in Jerusalem (roughly 5 years years after Jesus’ death).
Historians only find it likely that legendary elements develop in documents when the documents are recorded many generations after the events they describe. Thus, the earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written roughly 400 years after his life, but are still considered generally reliable. By contrast, the New Testament documents were written early enough that the eyewitnesses to the events were still alive to verify the facts.
Second, the New Testament texts were written on the basis of eyewitness testimony.
- Acts 26:26 says that the works of Jesus were “not done in a corner”, implying that they were public and had plenty of eyewitnesses.
- Luke appeals to eyewitnesses in his gospel account.
- Paul mentions eyewitnesses to back up his claims as well, adding that most were still alive at the time of his writing (1 Cor. 15:6).
- Mark 15 mentions Alexander and Rufus in a way that assumes that those people were well-known and around to be questioned about what they saw.
Third, when checked, the authors of the New Testament documents are found to be good historians. The consensus of scholars agree that Luke has been checked and found to be a reliable historian (Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History). Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay agrees: “Luke is a historian of the first rank… This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians” (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament). Such sentiments exist for other New Testament authors as well.
Fourth, the gospels contain embarrassing facts that are unlikely to have been made up. Some examples:
- Jesus sought way a out from dying on the cross.
- Women discovered empty tomb. This occurs despite the fact that the testimony of women was considered unreliable in that society, which serves to weaken the case of the authors of the gospel.
- The apostles were often depicted as fools and cowards.
Embarrassing facts tend to show that the authors were not writing their accounts for their own best interest, but rather were seeking the truth whether or not it made them look good. Likewise, facts that weaken the case of the gospel-authors show that the authors were simply seeking to record the truth, rather than attempting to present their idea in a way that would be the most convincing to their readers.
Fifth, the New Testament has a great deal of manuscript evidence, much more than other ancient documents. It has roughly 24,000 total ancient manuscripts: 5,664 Greek, 8,000-10,000 Latin Vulgate, 8,000 Ethiopic, Slavic, or Armenian. These all originated from the 2nd century CE and later. Compare this to the document with the next best array of manuscript evidence, Homer’s Iliad (7th century BCE). The Iliad has less than 650 manuscripts (Greek), from 2nd and 3rd century CE and later.
On the basis of the the New Testament’s manuscript evidence, contemporary scholars conclude that the New Testament text is about 99% pure. In other words, scholars are confident that roughly 99% of today’s text is the same as the original text.
Sixth, Jesus was mentioned in a plethora of historical documents (including non-biblical sources), as much as or more than other important figures of his time. Within 150 years of his death, 42 authors mention Jesus: the 9 New Testament authors, 20 other Christian authors, 4 heretical or anti-Christian authors, and 9 secular/non-Christian authors. The non-Christian authors include Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Phlegon, Lucian, Celsus, Suetonius, Thallus, and Mara Bar-Serapion.
As a comparison: Julius Caesar only had 5 total authors mention him within 150 years of his death. Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus, had just 10 total authors mention him (including Luke) in the time that 42 authors mentioned Jesus. The New Testament’s account of Jesus is thus well-supported by other documents as well.
Conclusion: the New Testament can be trusted as a reliable source of historical facts.
Which piece of evidence do you find most convincing? Are there any pieces of evidence that you would question? Be sure to leave any thoughts or questions you have in the comments section below!