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Historical Reliability of the New Testament





There is nothing new under the sun and no originality is claimed for the contents of this article.  The material covered in this article may be obtained in greater detail from other apologetical works by writers more adept in the subject.  One such reference is Without a Doubt by Kenneth Richard Samples, Baker Books, 2004, from which many of the arguments and proofs in this article are taken.


The questions persist:  Are the 26 books of the New Testament anchored in truth?  Are the facts they convey regarding Jesus Christ accurate?  Was Christ truly God in the flesh, the Savior of the world?  Did He actually fulfill biblical prophecy, perform miracles, suffer and die on the cross, and rise bodily from the dead?  Do the facts of history validate his claims?


The legitimacy of Christianity pivots on the historical accuracy of the character, claims, and credentials of Jesus Christ.  Since the New Testament is the primary source of information about Him, Christianity can only be true if its writings (27 books) convey factual information.  If, on the other hand, they do not then the authenticity of the Christian faith is untrustworthy.


And nothing would be more pleasing to the secular-oriented world of today, which appears to be careening ever downward into a quagmire of humanism, relativism, agnosticism, evolutionism, secularism, cultism, and every other sort of “ism” that rejects the living God who in point of fact came to earth in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ in order to pay the penalty price for humankind’s sin on the cross of Calvary.


Apologetic Arguments for the Historical Accuracy of the New Testament


New Testament documents are the best attested documents of antiquity


Contrary to all other copies of documents of antiquity, such as the ancient classical writers (Aristotle, Plato, Caesar, Tacitus, Thucydides, Herodotus, etc.), of which very few exist (best case average is approximately 20 for any given historical work), New Testament manuscripts number in the multiple-thousands.


There are 5,000 individual Greek manuscripts that contain all or part of the New Testament.  These are augmented by more than 8,000 copies of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible translated by the early-fifth-century Western church father, Jerome.  And more, further attestation comes from several thousand early New Testament manuscripts translated into Eastern languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Slavic, and Ethiopic.  In all there are approximately 24,000 copies of all or part of the New Testament available today.


Compare this with secular works, such as Homer’s Iliad (643 copies), Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (10 copies), Herodotus’ Historical Works (8 copies), Thucydides’ Historical Works (8 copies), and Pliny the Younger’s Historical Works (7 copies).  There really is no comparison.


In addition to these multiple-thousands of extant (still existing) New Testament manuscripts, virtually the entire New Testament text can be reproduced from specific scriptural citations within the writings (sermons, commentaries, etc.) of the early church fathers—apologists who served from the second through the fifth centuries.  These Patristic writers, as they are also called, include Tertullian, Athanasius, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and others.


Yet secular writings of antiquity are promptly and generously accepted by the world in spite of their minimal documentation; whereas, regardless of the overwhelming abundance of documentary evidence, New Testament extant manuscripts are at best questioned and at worst denied.  This procedure stands starkly in the face of all rational and scientific comportment.


The New Testament is the best attested document of the ancient world.  The process of textual criticism, the comparative and meticulous examination and analysis of extant manuscripts to determine the exact nature of the original text, provides assurance that today’s Bible is in fact the actual writings of its human authors relaying the truth exactly and entirely as they knew it.


Time-Interval between New Testament Manuscripts and their Autographs is Insignificant


An extant manuscript is considered more reliable the shorter the time period exists between it and its autograph (original writing).  A short time period equates to less time for the document to be corrupted through transmission or interpolation (introducing additions into the text).


For most ancient manuscripts there is an average gap of 1,000 (in some cases 1,400) years between the original work and the date of the earliest existing copy.  Even in light of these chasms of time, secular works of antiquity are essentially unquestioned and accepted by the literary and scientific communities.  Yet, the textual situation of the New Testament in regards to the time-interval is vastly superior.


Unlike the classical works, a very brief period of time exists between the New Testament autographs and their earliest copies.  A few examples follow:


  • The John Rylands’ papyrus manuscript (so named because it resides in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, England) and also known as “P52,” which was discovered in Egypt is dated between AD 117-138.  The distinguished philologist Adolf Deissmann has argued that it should be dated even earlier.


  • The Bodmer Papyri collection dates to about AD 200.  This collection contains parts of the New Testament, including most of the Gospels of Luke and John.


  • The Beatty Papyri collection, which contains almost all of the New Testament, dates to approximately AD 250.


  • Codex Sinaiticus, containing the entire New Testament and parts of the Old Testament and residing in the British Museum, dates from about AD 340.


  • Codex Vaticanus (B), which includes almost the entire Bible and which resides in the Vatican Library, dates from AD 325-350.


  • Codex Alexandrinus (A), containing most of the Bible and kept in the British Museum, dates from AD 450.


  • Codex Bezae (D), including parts of the New Testament (most of the four Gospels) and written in Greek and Latin, resides in the Cambridge University Library; it dates within AD 450-550.


  • Codex Ephraemi (C), containing part of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament, which is held in the French National Library in Paris, dates from about AD 400.


These are but a few of the extant manuscripts of the New Testament that present superior time-interval gaps between themselves and their autographs—far superior than those of a classical nature, which are so easily accepted by the secular world.  Their remarkably short time spans provide potent proof of their textual purity.  By textual standards, their time spans are extremely brief for ancient writings and supplies strong reason to accept the basic authenticity of the New Testament text.


Having more surviving early manuscripts means having more cross-checks to verify accuracy.  Today’s Bible is verified to a textual accuracy of 99.5 percent, compared with 95 percent for the “best” other ancient work (The “Iliad”).  Some biblical copies are old enough to show eyewitnesses’ confirmation (made within 25 years of events).


Earliest copies (after autographs) of others:


·         Iliad    500 years
·         Herodotus    1300 years
·         Gallic Wars       1000 years
·         Thucydides      1300 years
·         Pliny the Younger     750 years


(Can You Trust the Bible, by Ralph O. Muncaster, Harvest House Publishers, 2000)


Even the few examples of ancient New Testament texts listed above, even by themselves, illustrate the immense superiority of New Testament documents to all other classical works of antiquity in terms of the time between autographs and earliest extant copies.  An analysis of this data led Sir Frederic Kenyon, an expert on ancient manuscripts, to draw this conclusion:


The interval then between the dates of 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 to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.  Both the authenticity and general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established. (The Bible and Archaeology, New York: Harper  Brothers, 1940)


Ancient non-Christian Authors Agree with the Gospel Record


The following ten historical non-Christian authors reveal information about the life of Jesus Christ that conforms to, and even corroborates, the four New Testament accounts, including the book of Acts.


  • Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120): Roman historian, Annals
  • Suetonius (ca. AD 120): Roman historian, Life of Claudius
  • Josephus (AD 37-97): Jewish historian, Antiquities
  • Pliny the Younger (AD 112): Roman governor, Epistles X
  • Jewish Talmud (commentary on Jewish law, completed AD 500)
  • Toledoth Jesu (reflects early Jewish thought, completed fifth century AD)
  • Lucian (second century AD): Greek satirist
  • Thallus (ca. AD 52): Samaritan-born historian, Histories
  • Mara Bar-Serapion (ca. AD 73): Letter
  • Phlegon (ca. AD 80): historian, chronicles (mentioned by Origen)


These ancient non-Christian writers draw the following portrait of Jesus Christ and the early Christians in their works:


  1. Jesus was a provocative teacher, a wise and virtuous man from the region of Judea.
  2. Jesus reportedly performed miracles and made prophetic claims.
  3. The Jewish leaders condemned Jesus for acts of sorcery and apostasy.
  4. Jesus was crucified by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate at the time of the Jewish Passover, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.
  5. Jesus’ followers, called Christians, reported that He had risen from the dead.
  6. The Christian faith had spread to Rome where Christians were charged with crimes and met horrific persecution.
  7. First-century Christians worshiped Jesus Christ as God and celebrated the Eucharist in their services.
  8. While at times the Romans ridiculed the followers of Christ as morally weak, these disciples were often known for their courage and virtue.


While such statements about Jesus Christ made by ancient non-Christian authors do not prove the claims of the gospel, there is nothing in their writings that conflict with what is recorded about Christ in the Gospels.  On the other hand, their extra-biblical, historical sources are consistent with and confirm the historicity of the gospel message.


Authors of the Gospels were Eyewitnesses or Associated with Eyewitnesses of Christ


The apostles claimed to be direct eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Jesus’ life (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, and this appeal to firsthand information appears throughout the New Testament (Acts 17:30, 31; 1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Hebrews 2:3, 4; 2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3).


The Gospel writers also claimed either to have been with Jesus themselves (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24-25) or to have relied closely upon the words of those who walked and talked with Him (Luke 1:2).


Apostles’ Credibility is Confirmed by their Apparent and Tested Motivation


One’s actions are frequently motivated by the anticipation of potential gain or loss.  The apostles had little to gain and virtually everything to lose by proclaiming Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, that He was Savior of the world, and that He had risen bodily from the dead.  Prior to experiencing Christ, they were staunch monotheists, committed to worshipping the one, true and living God of Israel (Yahweh).  By holding aberrant theological views, they were assured of costly personal consequences—extreme persecution to horrific death.  Creating and supporting a hoax about Christ would only have brought the apostles meaningless hardship, persecution, and even martyrdom, not to mention the possible damnation of their souls for blasphemy and apostasy.


Many have died for a religious cause that they have sincerely believed in; but if the apostles were purporting a hoax, this would not have been the case with them.  It is extremely unlikely that the apostles had, in fact, created a resurrection hoax; since, they would have been unwilling to die for something that they knew was false.  And even if the apostles had created a resurrection deception, their conspiracy would have undoubtedly come apart under extreme pressure.  There were plenty of adversaries quite willing to expose any possible deceit; and, more than willing, to disprove the stories about Jesus Christ.


And if the apostles were deceivers, they would have been violating everything Jesus Christ taught and stood for, as in truth and honesty.  Nowhere in the Gospels do the apostles appear as charlatans or mythmakers; rather, they are portrayed as simple, honest, and truthworthy men.


No, the apostles had no discernible motive to lie or deceive.  They were always straightforward with the truth, speaking from an eyewitness position.  And their only earthly rewards were displays of hatred and scorn toward them, their excommunication, often imprisonment, persistent torture and eventually, in all but one case, horrific deaths.


The only rational position is that they truly believed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and they knew without a doubt that He had risen from the grave.


Summation & Afterword


Because of the above most compelling reasons, it is entirely reasonable for anyone to be assured of the historical reliability of the New Testament.  But this belief alone gains no one any credit from or approval by God.  It is in an appropriate response to the gospel (good news) message contained within the New Testament where one may in certainty enter into a favorable relationship with his Creator.  The ingredients of this message, along with an explanation of the “appropriate response” follow:


  • Everyone has sinned (Romans 3:23).


  • Because of sin everyone faces eternal death (spiritual separation from God) (Romans 6:23).


  • No one through any self-effort or self-merit can save himself from eternal death (Ephesians 2:8, 9).


  • Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, paid the penalty-price for all sin, in the place of all humankind, while on the cross of Calvary (2 Corinthians 5:21).


  • The only way a person may be saved is by faith alone in Christ alone (John 3:16-18; Acts 16:30, 31).  To be definitive, if a person will turn to and place his complete and genuine (heartfelt) faith (trust, confidence) in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross instead of any other confidence such as “good works” or “religious acts” for his personal salvation (the turning to Christ from anything else is biblical repentance), he will be instantly saved.  It is simply a truthful (genuine) decision of one’s will, and its focus and dependence is solely upon Jesus Christ.


Of course once a person is saved, it is only the beginning of the Christian life.  As a newborn babe in Christ, one needs spiritual food, which comes from the study of Bible doctrine and attendance and fellowship with other Christians at a Bible-believing local church.  And there are other activities that a new Christian should consider, but these may be learned in a local church environment.  But the new Christian may be confident that his newly acquired relationship with God through Jesus Christ is of a permanent nature and that Christ is able to supply the power and internal incentive for the Christian to live a productive and joy-filled Christian life.  More regarding these truths may be acquired through various topical studies accessed at and within a Bible study program at a local Bible-believing church.