Is the New Testament historically reliable?

From BelieveTheSign

Does it still make sense to follow Jesus after leaving the message? Should we abandon Christianity? Is atheism the best path to follow?

This article is one in a series of studies on whether it is rational or logical to follow Christ after one has left the message. We address a number of questions which should be examined in determining whether belief in God and in the Christian God, in particular, makes sense. You are currently on the topic that is in bold:

  1. Is belief in God rational?
  2. Is the New Testament historically reliable?


Summary

1. There are no valid reasons that the New Testament should not be accepted as a reliable historical document. This would include:

a. The accounts in the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses within forty years of the events that are described therein. The accounts are credible and trustworthy.
b. The accounts in the New Testament are from numerous independent authors.
c. The historical references contained in the New Testament are in agreement with secular and Jewish historians from the first and second centuries.

2. Archeology confirms the historicity of the Bible and there is not a single archeological discovery that has disproved any biblical reference.

3. While there are real problems in the Bible, there are also real answers to those difficult passages.

Are the Gospel accounts historically accurate and trustworthy?

As a student of history and of Christianity, I do not believe there are any significant shortcomings with respect to the historicity of the Gospels.

First, the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. While many critics point to disagreements between the Gospel accounts, the apparent discrepancies are actually a positive factor in evaluating their reliability.

J. Warner Wallace, a well-known cold case detective, became a Christian after examining the Gospels as potential eyewitness accounts to the life of Jesus. He stated:

In the end, many things impact the way witnesses observe an event. A lot depends on where a witness is located in relationship to the action. We’ve also got to consider the personal experiences and interests that cause some witnesses to focus on one aspect of the event and some to focus on another. …Every case I handle is like this; witnesses seldom agree on every detail. In fact, when two people agree completely on every detail of their account, I am inclined to believe that they have either contaminated each other’s observations or are working together to pull the wool over my eyes. I expect truthful, reliable eyewitnesses to disagree along the way. …The most reasonable inference is that the gospel writers were present, corroborated, accurate, and unbiased. [1]

Second, the Gospels were written much earlier than many liberal scholars have supposed. A.T. Robinson, in his book, Redating the New Testament, presents compelling evidence that the first three Gospels were all written within approximately 30 years of the time the events occurred, which is well within the time when eyewitnesses would still be available to corroborate the accounts.[2] Archeologist William F. Albright[3] commented, “We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.”[4]

Third, the Gospels and the book of Acts (also authored by Luke) have been described as historically accurate by respected historians. Archaeologist W. F. Albright stated, “All radical schools in New Testament criticism which have existed in the past or which exist today are pre-archaeological, and are therefore, since they were built in der Luft [in the air], quite antiquated today.”[5]

Noted historian Nelson Glueck[6] stated:

As a matter of fact, however, it may be clearly stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a single biblical reference. Scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.[7]

Another historian, Colin J. Hemer provided seventeen reasons[8] to support the book of Acts being written during the lifetime of many of the participants.[9] This supports the historicity of the book of Acts and, indirectly, the Gospel of Luke. Respected historian A.N. Sherwin-White pointed out that the case for accurate reporting is much better for Jesus as represented in the Gospels than it is for Tiberius Caesar, a contemporary of Jesus.[10]

While people like Bart Ehrman, who is not a historian or an archeologist, may cast dispersions on the Bible, the archeological and historical records do not support him.

Finally, the argument that the followers of Jesus were illiterate Aramaic speakers and not capable of writing the Gospels in Greek ignores the fact that an amanuensis (scribe), who could be either a slave or a freedman, was commonly used in the Roman world as a literary assistant to write letters and other documents under the direction of the author.[11] One would think that the authors of the Gospels would have wanted to preserve their accounts in the Greek language, the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire, rather than a language that was not as readily transportable. Using someone skilled in Greek as an amanuensis would have been the easiest method for the uneducated disciples to accomplish that.

The historicity of the New Testament supports belief in the Christian faith

Which worldview, of the many that exist today, is correct? Secular humanism? Islam? Buddhism? Hinduism? Christianity? Is there evidence that supports any of these worldviews?

Many people, including some Christians, view faith in Jesus Christ as requiring “blind faith”, a faith that simply trusts without question. But the Bible supports the importance of evidential or reasonable faith, a faith that is based on evidence and logic. In John 14:11, Jesus pointed to the importance of evidence when he said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.”[12]

Luke starts out his Gospel with a clear reference to the importance of evidential proof:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.[13]

Luke reiterates the importance of evidence and proof in his opening statement in the Book of Acts, which he also authored:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. [14]

The Christian faith is a reasonable, intelligent and logical faith. Paul reasoned in the synagogue on a weekly basis with Jews and Greeks who believed in the God of the Old Testament.[15] He also debated with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens.[16]

What Paul and the Gospel authors recognized was that the one thing that changes everything is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul stated that if the resurrection did not take place then he was a false witness and the Christian faith was futile.[17]

But the Christian faith rests firmly on the eyewitness testimony of the authors of the Gospels. The hope of the Christian faith is not based on a fairy tale or a collection of myths but on the sound evidence that has stood the test of time. Christianity is not afraid of the hard questions that may be asked by the skeptic, as we have found there are solid answers to those questions.


Footnotes

  1. J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013).
  2. Dan Story, Defending Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997), 39.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_F._Albright
  4. William F. Albright, Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, 1955, p. 136, as quoted in Josh McDowell and Don Douglas Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions, Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1993.
  5. William F. Albright, “Retrospect and Prospect in New Testament Archaeology,” in The Teacher’s Yoke, E. Jerry Vardaman, ed. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 1964), 189, as cited in Norman L. Geisler, “Archaeology, New Testament,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 47.
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Glueck
  7. Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy, 1959), 136.
  8. Norman L. Geisler, “Acts, Historicity Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 5.
  9. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, ed. Conrad H. Gempf (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 365-406
  10. John Warwick Montgomery, “Could the Gospel Writers Withstand the Scrutiny of a Lawyer?” in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 1511.
  11. Harry Y. Gamble, “Amanuensis,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 172.
  12. The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), John 14:11.
  13. The New International Version, Luke 1:1–4.
  14. The New International Version, Acts 1:1–3.
  15. The New International Version, Acts 18:4.
  16. The New International Version, Acts 17:18.
  17. The New International Version, 1 Corinthians 15:12-19


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