|"The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of numerous details."
Is the text of the Bible a reliable historical document?
A Brief History of the New Testament
- Probably the most famous group of New Testament skeptics
is the “Jesus Seminar,” a loosely connected group of scholars
that meet twice a year to vote on the accuracy of the words
and deeds of Jesus as written in the New Testament. Religious
followers, they argue, composed the Gospels (the biographies
of Jesus) many years after Jesus lived, and, for the most part,
the accounts cannot be trusted as authentic.
- This group, however, is out of sync even with the majority
of liberal New Testament scholarship. The one historical
fact that all scholars agree on — that Jesus was crucified — is
impossible to explain after the Jesus Seminar excises 80 percent
of His teachings from the New Testament. The Jesus Seminar
ends up with a Jew who is stripped of his Jewishness, and the
founder of a Church whose followers rarely bothered to actually
quote him. Their portrayal of Jesus fails to account for the
strong reactions of His contemporaries. The few words they
judge authentic to Jesus reduce Him to an insipid eccentric
who would have been powerless to create the strong reactions against Him that resulted in His crucifixion. As leading Catholic
scholar John Meier puts it in his recent work on the historical
Jesus, “A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning
out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who
toyed with first-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus
who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field —
such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors
who create him threaten no one.”
- In any case, most liberal scholars themselves also tend
to be somewhat skeptical when studying the biographies of
Jesus. They believe that the burden of proof rests not on
themselves, but on any scholar who would claim authenticity
for a particular saying of Jesus. This is contrary to the
usual approach when examining ancient historians, however.
Usually, if ancient writers prove trustworthy in cases where
they can be tested, they are given the benefit of the doubt in
cases where they cannot be tested. For instance, if an
archaeological discovery verifies that at least some parts of
an ancient document are historically reliable, it would normally
be assumed that the remainder of the document is also
reliable. Since the Gospel writers have repeatedly proved
themselves in this respect, such reasoning should accordingly
place the burden of proof on the skeptic who would claim
- When examining the historical reliability of the New
Testament, certain standards of critique should be used that
would normally apply to any document of the ancient world.
What is important in such an analysis is how the New Testament
compares to other works of the ancient world whose
historicity is seldom called into question.
- The following table displays five categories of several
ancient writings: 1) the author/writing; 2) the time period in which the writings are known to have been written; 3) the
oldest copy in possession today; 4) the time gap between the original manuscript and the oldest copy in possession; and
5) the number of manuscript copies (fragments or otherwise)
in existence today.
||Oldest Copy (±)
||100 - 44 B.C.
||A.D. 61 - 113
||427 - 347 B.C.
||384 - 322 B.C.
||A.D. 40 - 100
When Were the Gospels Written?
- It can be seen that, as far as the time gap between the
original authorship of the New Testament and the earliest
manuscripts in possession today, there is no work from the
ancient world that can compare to the New Testament. But
not only does a comparison of the time gap show that the
New Testament is unparalleled in the ancient world, a comparison
of the number of manuscripts in possession today
shows the superiority of the New Testament as well. The Encyclopedia
Britannica concedes, “Compared with other ancient
manuscripts, the text of the New Testament is dependable
- The significance of having a small time gap is that the
closer a manuscript copy is to the original, the more accurate
it is regarded as being, because there has been less time for
mistakes to creep in during transmission.
- Moreover, the significance of having a larger number of
manuscripts is that the greater the number of manuscripts,
the more certain the reading of the original can be.
- To illustrate, suppose someone gave you a copy of a telegram
written to you which said, “You have won one million
#ollars!” As you read the copy you feel quite certain that what
you have won is one million dollars, and that the number
sign was merely a copyist’s error. However, suppose that you
received another copy of the telegram which read “You have
won one &illion dollars!” With this additional copy you are
more certain of your conclusion about the original telegram,
since the “d” is present in the second copy where it was missing
from the first, and the “m” is present in the first where it is
missing from the second.
- It is in this manner that literary scholars ascertain the
reading of the original writing of an ancient document. Obviously,
the more manuscripts in existence to cross-reference,
the more reliable the reading of the original can be.
- As Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British
Museum, has said, “The net result . . . is, in fact, to reduce
the gap between the earlier manuscripts and the traditional
dates of the New Testament books so far that it becomes negligible
in any discussion of their authenticity. No other ancient
book has anything like such an early and plentiful testimony
to its text. . . . No unbiased scholar would deny that
the text that has come down to us is substantially sound.” Furthermore, he says, “The general result of all these discoveries
and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the
authenticity of the Scriptures.” It can thus be firmly concluded,
in Sir Frederick Kenyon’s words, that “in substance the text of the Bible is certain: especially is this the case with
the New Testament.”
- In the end, when it comes to checking and cross-checking
the readings of the New Testament, it stands as the most
historically attested work of the ancient world. If a person
discards the Bible as unreliable in this sense, then he or she
must discard almost all the literature of the ancient world.
When Was the Gospel First Preached?
- Most scholars place the autographs of the Gospels sometime
before A.D. 100. The Encyclopedia Britannica, from a liberal
viewpoint, conveys, “Matthew, the first of the four New
Testament Gospels, was composed in Greek, probably sometime
after A.D. 70, with evident dependence on the earlier
Gospel according to Mark. There has, however, been extended
discussion about the possibility of an even earlier version in
Aramaic. Numerous textual indications point to an author
who was a Jewish Christian writing for Christians of similar
- While liberal scholars generally date the autographs of
the Gospels between A.D. 70 and 100, there is significant internal
evidence which, according to conservative scholars,
strongly indicates an earlier date. Take, for instance, the biblical
Book of Acts. A great portion of the Book of Acts centers
on Jerusalem, the temple, Paul’s conversion, and Paul’s missionary
activities. Interestingly, the author does not mention
the deaths of three central figures of the book: James, the
brother of Jesus (A.D. 62), Peter (A.D. 65–68), and Paul (A.D.
67–68), but does mention the deaths of two minor figures:
Stephen and James, the brother of John. The author furthermore
fails to mention some major historical events, such as
the burning of Rome and the persecution of Christians there
(A.D. 64), as well as the destruction of the temple (A.D. 70).
The author then ends abruptly with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (A.D. 63). Why would the author choose to omit such
vital information had he been writing after these events had
already taken place? Conservative scholars believe the only
reasonable explanation (based on this and other historical
data) is that the biblical Book of Acts was written no later
than A.D. 63.
- The Book of Acts is a continuation of the preceding gospel
of Luke, which scholars widely agree was the last of the
synoptic Gospels to be written. If Acts is given an authorship
date of A.D. 63, as suggested above, then all three preceding
synoptic Gospels must have been in circulation previous to
that date. In other words, all three synoptic gospels, which tell
the story of the life of Jesus, would have been written before
A.D. 63, within about 30 years of Jesus’ death in A.D. 30.
- William Albright, one of the greatest archaeologists of
the 20th century, declared, “We can already say emphatically
that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of
the New Testament after about A.D. 80.” He also states, “Every
book of the New Testament [excluding Luke who was
possibly not Jewish] was written by a baptized Jew between
the forties and eighties of the first century A.D.” Finally, he
asserts, “Only modern scholars who lack both historical
method and perspective” could come to a conclusion of much
later authorship of the New Testament.
- Regardless of when the Gospel books were actually written,
it is certain, as a fact of history, that the central message of
the Gospel (that Jesus had risen from the dead) was being
preached almost immediately following Jesus’ death in A.D. 30.
There are several reasons for this certainty, one of which is the
date of Paul’s conversion to Christianity.
- After first being a bitter enemy of the Christian faith,
Paul later became one of the most important figures in its history. When Paul first appeared on the scene of history, he
was among the first to participate in serious Christian persecutions.
Shortly after, however, he had an experience which
convinced him that the Christian message was correct, and
that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead. As the Encyclopedia
Britannica notes, “Converted only a few years after the death
of Jesus [Paul’s conversion experience] convinced him that
Jesus was risen from the dead and exalted as Lord in heaven,
as the Christians claimed.” During the following years, Paul’s
life was completely turned around. He went on several large
missionary journeys and played a leading role in extending
Christianity into a worldwide faith.
- Paul’s conversion experience as a historical fact is untested
by even the most liberal of scholars. The Encyclopedia
Britannica notes, “Once the basis of Paul’s thought in the context
of Jewish concepts of his time is understood in the light
of modern scholarship . . . Paul stands out more clearly as a
Christian Jew, whose conversion experience convinced him
that Christ was the universal Lord under God, the agent and
leader of God’s kingdom.”
- Historically then, the Christian converts whom Paul first
persecuted, before his own conversion to Christianity, are proof
that the message of the resurrection of Jesus was already being
preached (probably for several years) before Paul’s conversion,
which most scholars date as early as A.D. 35 (just five years
after Jesus’ death).
- To summarize, Paul was at first a bitter enemy of Christianity,
and he zealously persecuted any Christian converts he
could find. But, scholars agree, about five years following the
death of Jesus Christ, Paul himself became converted to Christianity
(i.e., he became convinced, somehow, as had the Christians
before him, that Jesus had actually risen from the dead).
Thus, it is historically certain today that the central message
of Christianity, that Jesus had risen from the dead, was being preached at least as early as A.D. 35, the acknowledged time of
Paul’s conversion, within five years of Jesus’ death.
- Indeed, most scholars agree, the Apostles were at least
preaching Jesus’ resurrection within less than five years of His
death. But could there have been any truth to such first-century