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 You are in / Foolish Faith / Read Book Online / Chapter 6 / A Brief History of the New Testament
"The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of numerous details."
»  Chapter Introduction
»  Shaking Modern Discoveries
»  Non-biblical Sources
»  A Brief History of the New Testament

Chapter 6:
Unparalleled Historicity
Is the text of the Bible a reliable historical document?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.”[18]

  • 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 otherwise.

  • 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:[19] 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.
Author When Written Oldest Copy (±) Time Gap No. of
Copies (±)
Caesar 100 - 44 B.C. A.D. 900 1,000 years 10
Tacitus (Annals) A.D. 100 A.D. 1,100 1,000 years 20
Pliny (History) A.D. 61 - 113 A.D. 850 750 years 7
Plato (Tetralogies) 427 - 347 B.C. A.D. 900 1,200 years 7
Aristotle 384 - 322 B.C. A.D. 1,100 1,400 years 5
New Testament A.D. 40 - 100 A.D. 130 30 years 24,000
  • 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 and consistent.”[20]

  • 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.”[21] 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.”[22] 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.”[23]

  • 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 Were the Gospels Written?
  • 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 background.”[24]

  • 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.[25] 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.”[26] 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.[27]
When Was the Gospel First Preached?
  • 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.”[28] 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.”[29]

  • 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).[30]

  • 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 claims?


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