For the reading pleasure

 The historicity of the New Testament .

Introduction: Brian Flemming wrote, directed and produced a documentary film  in 2005 titled The God Who Wasn’t There. Its purpose was to demonstrate that the "biblical Jesus" is a myth. In the wake of the movie, The Passion of The Christ (2004), and after seeing Brian’ Fleming’s 2005 documentary film,  many started asking whether the Gospels were written by Mathew, Mark, Luke and John in the first century and whether the Gospel accounts are reliable sources of information on the life, miracles, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus. Don’t they represent the teachings of the developing Church and not the events as they actually occurred? Such questioners deny everything supernatural in the Gospels including the Gospel truth of Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, and they try to explain away the miracles, healings, exorcisms, resurrection and the saving mission of Jesus.  St. Peter has inserted an explanation for such people in his second epistle: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16). St. Luke makes a similar assertion: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1: 1-4). The New Testament (NT) contains four biographies of Jesus (the Gospels), one history book of the early church (Acts), twenty-one letters (Romans to Jude), and an apocalypse (Revelation). While the letters and the apocalypse contain references to historical events, the Gospels and Acts are written as straightforward historical narratives. These are the NT books about which it makes particularly good sense to ask the question, "Are they historically reliable?"


1) The Abundance of manuscripts helps us to know what the original writers wrote: The integrity of the New Testament writings is substantiated through three key sources: The Greek manuscripts, ancient translations, and the quotations of scripture by early Christian writers. The Greek manuscripts are by far the most important among these sources. Since we do not have the original documents, we need to examine the reliability of the textual transmission from the original to the existing copies. First, one of the most powerful evidences that help establish the credibility of the New Testament documents is the sheer multitude of manuscript copies we have on hand. According to apologist Norman Geisler, "Counting Greek copies alone, the New Testament text is preserved in some 5,686 partial and complete manuscript portions that were copied by hand from the second (possibly even the first) through the fifteenth centuries." By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be reconstructed beyond reasonable doubt. We also discover that no Christian doctrine or ethic depends solely on one of the doubted texts. To add to the Greek copies, there are over 9,000 various ancient translations in Latin, Arabic, and other languages. This totals to over 14,000 New Testament surviving copies. In contrast, Homer's Iliad has only 643 surviving copies, which ranks it a distant second to the New Testament. Other ancient historical documents exist in very limited numbers of manuscript copies. It is clear that no ancient work can even come close to the New Testament documents in regard to the quantity of manuscript evidence. In addition, the early Church Fathers of the second to fourth centuries used in their works 36,289 quotations from the New Testament. If all of the copies of the manuscripts were to be lost, we could reconstruct the entire New Testament from these alone except for a mere eleven verses.


2) Short gap between the original and the manuscripts: The time gap between the dates of the original composition and the production of the manuscript copies is incredibly short. As a rule, the older the manuscript copy, the higher the credibility since it is closer to the original writing date. This assumes the likelihood of fewer errors by the copyist. As Dr. Geisler explains, "Most ancient books survive in manuscripts that were copied about 1000 years after they were composed. It is rare to have, as the Odyssey does, a copy made only 500 years after the original. With the massive number of manuscripts, to be sure, there are some slight differences." However, these are not errors but variants, and the vast majority of these variants are minor grammatical items. As Norman Geisler comments, "Assuming the basic integrity and reasonable accuracy of the writers, this would place the reliability of the New Testament documents beyond reasonable doubt."


3) The internal consistency: Another way to examine the credibility of the Bible is to examine its internal consistency. Jesus referred to Scripture (the Old Testament, the only Scripture in existence at that point), as being the Word of God which is authoritative and inerrant. He stated of the Old Testament, "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35 KJV), and He promised the same status for the New Testament, saying  the Holy Spirit "will guide you (the apostles) into all truth" (John 16:13 KJV). The Apostle Paul also proclaimed, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God."(II Tim. 3:16 KJV). Since truth is what corresponds to reality, then all Scripture must correspond with the true historical events as well as have consistency within itself. This leads to the question, "Are there any contradictions in the Bible?" At first glance, there appear to be various discrepancies in the Bible.  However, upon close examination we find that these "mistakes" are in man's interpretation, not in Scripture itself. Respected Biblical scholar Gleason Archer comments, "As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the Biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the Biblical text itself – or else by objective archaeological information." Gleason Archer concludes, "There is a good and sufficient answer in Scripture itself to refute every charge that has ever been leveled against it. But this is only to be expected from the kind of book the Bible asserts itself to be, the inscripturation of the infallible, inerrant Word of the Living God."


4) The external evidence test : The third test of the historicity of the New Testament deals with the examination of external sources. The purpose is to determine if outside historical sources validate or refute the internal historical claims of the New Testament. Do outside materials show the documents to be authentic, dependable, and without error? Some of the most credible sources that confirm the New Testament historicity come from ancient secular historians. 1) The first-century Roman historian, Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 56-117), gives an  in-depth account of the Fire of Rome and Nero's attempt to place the blame on the Christians. Tacitus writes in Roman Annals: 'They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.” This writing confirms Scripture, showing that Christ, whom the Christians followed, was executed under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. 2) The first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (AD 37-after AD 93), has confirmed various New Testament accounts through his writings. There are two passages in his Antiquities that give detailed verification of Scripture. The first passage, written in A.D. 93, confirms the New Testament reports that Jesus was a real person in the first century and that he was identified by others as the Christ The second passage gives added details of the life and character of Jesus, and of the miracles he performed, including his death and resurrection. 3) Another Roman Historian, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus ( born ca. AD 69), was the chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian (reigned A.D. 117-138). Suetonius refers to the Christians and the torture that was brought upon them by Nero. This verifies that the early followers of Christ were called Christians and that their beliefs were at odds with tradition. 4) Roman author and administrator, Pliny the Younger (AD 61-62-ca. AD 113), gives much detailed information regarding the beliefs and worship practices of early Christians in a letter written to Emperor Trajan around A.D. 112.  This letter provides concrete proof that the early Christians sang hymns to Christ and that they worshiped him as God. It also verifies that they met on a certain day, held strong moral ethics, and practiced the breaking of bread together as recorded in Acts 2:42 and 46. 5) In addition to these writings, there are many other non-Christian writings which confirm the historicity of the New Testament writings. including the Jewish Talmud, Lucian of Samosata, Mara Bar-Serapion, Thallus, and the Emperor Trajan.

5) Archeological evidence:  Archaeology has also confirmed the extraordinary accuracy of the New Testament and of the Old Testament as well. The archaeologist, W.F. Albright, writes, "Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history." He continues, "Archaeological discoveries of the past generation in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine have gone far to establish the uniqueness of early Christianity as an historical phenomenon." Josh McDowell points out that this archaeological evidence persuaded Sir William Ramsey to change his critical convictions about the historicity of Luke and come to the "conclusion that the Book of Acts was accurate in its description of the geography, antiquities, and the society of Asia Minor." In conclusion, classical historian, A.N. Sherwin-White, writes, "for Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…. any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd."

6) Heroic courting of martyrdom by 11 of 12 apostles.  The willingness of the Apostles to die for Christ underlines their conviction of the truth of all they preached about Christ and his teaching. Each of them believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and they also claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. If the resurrection hadn't taken place, then they would have known that the story was a lie and they would not have courted, nor endured, martyrdom.

7) Close association of the writers with Jesus and His Apostles: Second, the authors of the Gospels and Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. Matthew and John were among the twelve Apostles whom Jesus Himself chose; Mark was a close companion of Peter and Luke (who also wrote Acts), traveled extensively with Paul who had come to know Christ in a vision, and to be taught and named an Apostle by Him. Even critical scholars who doubt the traditional attributions of authorship agree that these five books were written by followers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which still puts them in a good place to tell the stories accurately.


8) Books written in the same century as Christ lived: The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were almost certainly written in the first century, within sixty to seventy years of Jesus' death, which most likely took place in AD 30. Conservatives typically date Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts to the 60s and John to the 80s or 90s. Liberals suggest slightly later dates, typically placing Mark in the 60s or 70s, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 80s, and John in the 90s. Even if one accepts the later dates, 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 can intervene between events and the books that narrated them.

9) Importance given to  memorization in the first  century: Ancient Jews and Greeks meticulously cultivated the art of memorization, committing complex oral traditions to memory. Even before the Gospels or any other written sources about Jesus were compiled, Jesus' followers were carefully passing on accounts of His teachings and mighty works by word of mouth. This kept the historical events alive until the time they were written down.

10) True to the essential and freedom in details: The ancient memorization and transference of sacred tradition allowed for some freedom in retelling the stories. Guardians of the tradition could abbreviate, paraphrase, prioritize, and provide commentary on the subject matter as long as they were true to the gist or meaning of the accounts they passed on. This goes a long way toward explaining both the similarities and the differences among the four Gospels. All four authors, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, were true to the gist of Jesus' life, and also exercised reasonable freedom in shaping the accounts to meet the needs of their communities. 

11) Scrupulous attachment to truth:  The fact that these writers had distinct ideological or theological emphases does not mean they distorted history, as is often alleged. Oftentimes the very cause that a historian or biographer supports requires him/her to write an accurate account, lest the cause be undermined by bias or distortion in the written material. The first Christians had the uphill battle of promoting a crucified Messiah and His bodily resurrection. Had they been known to have falsified the details of their accounts to any significant degree, their movement would have been squelched from the outset.

12) Inclusion of "hard sayings":  The so-called "hard sayings" of Jesus support their authenticity. If the Gospel writers felt free to distort what Jesus originally said in order to increase the attractiveness of Christianity, why would they preserve unmodified His difficult and easily misunderstood teachings about hating family members (Lk 14:26), divorce (Matthew 5: 31-32), the Eucharist (John 6: 49-60), or not knowing when He would return (Mk 13:32)? The fact that they insisted upon including these teachings indicates their faithfulness to reporting the truth in the whole of their histories.

13) Details of Jesus’ teaching restricted to his lifetime:  The fact that the NT does not record Jesus speaking about many of the topics that arose after His earthly life, during the time of the early Church, supports its historical accuracy. For instance, early Christians were divided over how or whether the laws of Moses applied to Gentile converts (Ac 15). The easiest way to settle the controversy would be to cite Jesus' teachings on the matter, but the Gospels record no such teachings. This silence suggests that the Gospel writers did not feel free to play fast and loose with history by putting on the lips of Jesus teachings that could solve early Church controversies.

14) The harmony in the books: The portions of the NT that were written before the completion of the Gospels and Acts confirm the historicity of these five books. For instance, Paul, James, and Peter show multiple signs of quoting or alluding to teachings and actions of Jesus in letters they wrote before the Gospels were written. Their quotations and allusions agree with what we find in the Gospels. This indicates that the Gospels are in tune with the very earliest writings about Jesus -- the NT epistles. These earliest writings were in turn dependent on the authoritative oral traditions that were passed on by eyewitnesses to Jesus' life. Paul expresses this in 1Co 15:3-8, where he lists the beliefs he had "received" from these eyewitnesses when he became a Christian no more than two years after Jesus' death and resurrection. These are no late, slowly developing legends he is reporting!

Concluding remarks. By applying basic historical testing measures to the New Testament, we find that these documents prove themselves to be historically authentic and reliable. The Bibliographical Test determines 1) that we have extant copies which equate to over 100 percent of the original text; 2) that the time gap between these copies and dates of the original composition is so small that it is insignificant, and 3) that the accuracy of our copies is over 99 percent, that is, they are more accurate than any other book we have from the ancient world. The original writings are also shown to have an early dating and were circulating during the lifetime of most of the eyewitnesses. The Internal Evidence Test establishes that the documents are internally consistent as evidenced by the examination of linguistics, science, archaeology, and the eyewitness testimonies. Lastly, the External Evidence Test gives overwhelming verification of the New Testament historicity through numerous secular sources. These include writings from ancient historians and government officials, archaeological discoveries, science, and, vividly, the transformed lives and subsequent deaths of Jesus' Apostles and disciples. The final and undeniable mark of authenticity the New Testament is the missing body of the resurrected Christ. (L)

Sources & resources:                                                                                                         

1)                                                                                                                                                                                                    2)                3)                                                                                                                                     4)         (Official teachings of the church through encyclicals and Pontifical Bible Commission)                     

5) (Refutation of Fr. Raymond Brown’s controversial assumptions in The Birth of the Messiah)                                        6)                                                                                                                                                 7)                                                                         8)                                                                     9)                                                         10)                 11)

 Thanks to Fr. Anthony Kadavil