An Introduction To Defending New Testament Trustworthiness

This article is just a brief look at some of the evidence for the basic trustworthiness of the New Testament. These points are expanded upon in greater detail in other articles on this site.

The primary sources for this article were “The Baker Encyclopaedia of Christian Apologetics” and “Unshakable Foundations”, by Norman Geisler, “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, by Josh McDowel, “The Case for Christ”, by Lee Strobel.

Introduction

Many view the New Testament to be largely legendary material, not particularly factual in nature, and certainly nothing that could be called responsible journalism. Those holding this view, for the most part, are approaching the New Testament from a decidedly evolutionistic / atheistic bias, which would necessarily find the New Testament untrustworthy since it speaks of God and acts of God regularly. However, is we believe there exists a God who can act (see the articles on creation), then we can believe in acts of God. Given this approach, the New Testament may at least be given the courtesy of being measured for trustworthiness the way other historical documents are.

1) The Bibliographical Test – Does the New Testament in our Bibles reflect what was originally written?

Though we don’t have the original New Testament documents (autographs), we do have enough extant ancient copies to establish that the New Testament has come to us essentially unchanged.

To date, there is more that 24, 970 ancient New Testament manuscripts. Here is a quick breakdown:

Greek manuscripts:

Unicals (Capitol letters) 307 mss (manuscripts)
Miniscules (Small letters) 2,860 mss
Lectionaries 2,410 mss
Papyrus 109 mss

Ancient Greek manuscripts total 5,686

Other languages:

Latin Vulgate more that 10,000 mss
Ethiopic more that 2,000 mss
Slavic 4,101 mss
Armenian 2,587 mss
Syriac Pashetta more than 350 mss
Bohairic 100 mss
Arabic 75 mss
Old Latin 50 mss
Anglo Saxon 7 mss
Gothic 6 mss
Sogdian 3 mss
Old Syriac 2 mss
Persian 2 mss
Frankish 1 mss
  • There are 88 confirmed manuscripts dated from within the first 200 years of Christianity.
  • Unconfirmed (though many consider legit) are portions of the New Testament found among the Dead Sea scrolls (cave 7). The date for these fragments can be no younger than AD 68

Comparing these documents it becomes clear that the New Testament documents have not undergone significant change but have remained essentially the same since their original composition.:

The oft-repeated dictum of Bentley is still valid that “the real text of the sacred writings is competently exact, nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost, choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings.”

-Charles Fremont Sitterly, “Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: Howard-Severance Co., 1915).

2) The Internal Evidence – What do the documents say about themselves?

Luke claims to have carefully investigated everything before giving his written accounts (Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1)

John and Peter claimed to be eyewitnesses to the events they describe (John 19:35, 20:24, 1 John 1:1-4, 1 Peter 1:16)

Obviously these claims (if trustworthy) push the date of composition of the New Testament to within a generation of the events they describe.

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – These were prominent Jewish figures being portrayed in a favorable light. If the Gospels were actually late fabrications, their presence is explicable given the strained relationship between Christians and Jewish in the second century onwards. Furthermore, it would have been impossible to have fabricated their stories and inserted them into the Gospels at an early date because their supposed prominence in the Jewish community would have guaranteed detection and exploitation of the fraud.

Other Approaches to Dating The New Testament Based on the Internal Evidence

The Book of Acts is the best place to start. If it’s a fraudulent document, it’s a very good fraud. The Baker Encyclopedia lists 43 citations from Acts which reveal the author had specific local knowledge, including:

  • Social milieus
  • Geopolitical divisions
  • Specific titles of rulers
  • Legal System
  • Nautical knowledge

“In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities and nine islands without error.”

– Norman Geisler, “The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 47

Roman historian Collin J. Hemer has given 17 reasons why the book of Acts appears to have been completed by the year AD 62. These vary on weight but are accumulative in their power. Chief among these are:

  • No mention of any relational deterioration between the Jews and the Romans
  • No mention of the fire in Rome in AD 64 or the persecution of Christians under Nero which followed
  • No mention of the Jewish uprising in AD 66
  • No mention of Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70
  • No mention of the martyrdom of James AD 62
  • Acts ends with Paul in prison awaiting execution, the traditional date being AD 62

The Significance of Acts Being Completed by AD 62:

Acts is part two of a two-part work by Luke. The date of composition of Luke’s Gospel therefore must be pushed back closer to the events it describes.

380 of Mark’s 661 verses appear in Luke’s Gospel. The most common explanation is that Luke used Mark as a source. If so, then the composition of this Gospel must be pushed back still farther, roughly 20 years.

Dating the New Testament Using Paul’s Testimony

The dates of Paul’s missionary journeys are well established. (See: “The Journeys of St. Paul”, James Harpur, 1997, p. 50:

“As Proconsul of Achaea, Gallio would have governed for one year only, beginning on July 1, and most scholars are certain this occurred in AD 51-52 – a rare absolute date in the chronology of Paul’s history.”

The dates for his journeys are as follows:

  • First Journey – AD 46 – 48
  • Second Journey – AD 51 – 52 (Paul founded the Corinthian Church on this Journey)
  • Third Journey – AD 53 – 57 (Wrote to the Corinthian Church from Ephesus)

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reminds the church that the key facts of Christ’s death and resurrection were the first things he shared with them (AD 52 – less than 20 years after the events). He boldly states that most of 500 witnesses are still alive for questioning.

Obviously, Paul must have gotten this information before this time. When and where did he get it?

Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians than after his three-year sojourn in Arabia following his conversion, Paul went to Jerusalem and stayed with Peter (Galatians 1:17-18)… Some theorize that it is here that Paul received this information. This would have been within 3-5 years of the resurrection.

Also note that Paul, in his first letter to Timothy (5:18) quotes from Luke 10:7, referring to it as “Scripture.” Obviously, Luke must have already been written by the time Paul penned 1 Timothy (c AD 62).

3) The External Evidence – Attestation from non-biblical sources

Quotations from Early Church Fathers:

  • Ignatius (AD 70-110) was Bishop of Antioch and was martyred. His seven extant epistles contain quotations from: Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, James, and 1 Peter.
  • Polycarp (AD 70-156) was a disciple of the Apostle John and a Bishop Smyrna. Polycarp quoted from the New Testament until his martyrdom at the age of 86.
  • Tatian (AD 170) was a former disciple of Justin Martyr. Tatian compiled the harmony of the four Gospels known as “the diatessaron”.
  • Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-212) made nearly 2,400 quotations from the New Testament.
  • Tertullian (AD 160-220) was a presbyter of the Church in Carthage. In his writings he quotes the New Testament more than 7,000 times. Of these, 3,800 are quotations from the Gospels.
  • Hippolytus (AD 170-235) has more than 1,300 references.
  • Justin Martyr (AD 133) makes direct quotations from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with clear allusions to John.
  • Origen (AD 185-253 or 254) compiled more than 6,000 works. He lists more than 18,000 New Testament quotes.
  • Cyprian (died in AD 258) was Bishop of Carthage. His writings contain 740 Old Testament citations and 1,030 from the New Testament.

The Church fathers made more than 32,000 citations from the New Testament prior to the Nicene council in AD 325. Adding Eusebius (prior to and contemporary with the council) to the list causes the number of citations to rise to over 36,000.

Secular Attestation:

Cornelius Tacitus: Tacitus (AD 55-120) was a Roman historian who lived through the reigns of a half dozen emperors. Tacitus states that the great fire in Rome (AD 64) was being attributed to Nero. Hence, to suppress the rumor, he charged Christians with the guilt:

Lucian of Samosata: Lucian was a Greek satirist who lived in the latter part of the second century. He spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians but never argues against Christ’s existence or the fact that He had a following and was executed.

Mara Bar-Serapion: This first century Syrian philosopher wrote a letter from prison to his son which is still extant. In this letter he urges his son to pursue wisdom and then draws attention to the various men of wisdom known at that time. Among these is Jesus of Nazareth.

Josephus ben Mattathias: Born in AD 37/38, Josephus was a Pharisee at the age of 19 and commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in AD 66. This Jew, certainly not a Christian, who wrote history for people also not sympathetic to the Christian cause, affirms much of what the New Testament claims.

Conclusion:

It is clear that the New Testament passes all three tests for reliability better than any other ancient historic document. Truly, if the New Testament cannot be considered trustworthy based upon the evidence, then every endeavor to

By : John Feakes

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