New Testament
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Is the Bible Historically Accurate?

      The question of the accuracy of the Bible breaks down into three separate questions.

1) Is the Bible historically and factually accurate in its original text?

2) Is the text we have today an accurate transcription of the original text?

3) Was the original text inspired by God?

      The next few pages will provide some answers for the first question: the historical accuracy of the Bible, as it relates to the New Testament.

      It is true that there is not historical and/or archaeological evidence to back up every fact stated in the Bible. However, it is also true that, despite countless attempts to prove the Bible false in every age since the beginning of recorded history, no one has ever been able to prove that there is one historical or factual mistake in the Bible. This is in itself a very powerful argument in favor of Biblical truth. If many events in the Bible can be proved to be accurately recorded, and none can be proved to be inaccurate, then does it not stand to reason that we must give credibility to those areas for which we have no proof?

      In order to establish that credibility, we must show what proof we do have. All these issues can be explored in more depth, but a basic defense for the reliability of the New Testament follows, including support for the New Testament from writings other than the Bible (both Christian and non-Christian), support from archaeology, and a thorough look at how the integrity of the original Scriptures has been maintained through the centuries.

History and the New Testament

      Many critics argue that the New Testament documents are unreliable since they were written by Jesus' disciples and supported by other Christians. They claim that there is no confirmation of Jesus or New Testament events in non-Christian sources. This claim is false, and the objection itself is ill-founded. We will examine eyewitness accounts and also non-Christian confirmation of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Eyewitness Accounts in the New Testament

      Critics often reject the authority of the Bible because it was written by people who were close to Jesus. To reject records because they come from eyewitnesses is a false premise. Those who witness an event and know the people involved personally are considered the best sources. This applies to firsthand accounts of battles, crimes, or anything else. New Testament witnesses should not be disqualified simply because they were close to the events they related.

"Suppose there were four eyewitnesses to a murder. There was also one witness who arrived on the scene after the actual killing and saw only the victim's body. Another person heard a secondhand report of the killing. In the trial the defense attorney argues: 'Other than the four eyewitnesses, this is a weak case, and the charges should be dismissed for lack of evidence.' ... Since the New Testament witnesses were the only eyewitness and contemporary testimonies to Jesus, it is a fallacy to misdirect attention to the non-Christian secular sources."

Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics

      The New Testament authors repeatedly claim to have been eyewitnesses, and also reinforce that their listeners, too, have seen and heard these things.

"We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty."

2 Peter 1:16

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."

1 John 1:1-3

"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. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

Luke 1:1-3

"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 suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God."

Acts 1:1-3

"After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born."

I Corinthians. 15:6-8

"Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

John 20:30-31

"'We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen-by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.'" (Peter speaking)

Acts 10:39-42

"To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed."

1 Peter 5:1

"After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight."

Acts 1:9

"'Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.'" (Peter speaking)

Acts 2:22

"At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. 'You are out of your mind, Paul!' he shouted. 'Your great learning is driving you insane.'

"'I am not insane, most excellent Festus,' Paul replied. 'What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.'

"Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'"

Acts 26:24-28

      Critics would gladly have refuted these claims and exposed these errors, but they could not. The critics, too, were witnesses to these things, as the apostles often stated.

The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of ... first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and again. "We are witnesses of these things," was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.

And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early church had to reckon with. There were others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, "We are witnesses of these things," but also, "As you yourselves also know" (Acts 2:22). Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.

F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

      In other words, they could not have lied about these things, because they would have been caught.

      The eyewitness records should be considered the authoritative voice on Jesus' life and words. However, confirming evidence for Jesus can be gleaned outside the New Testament.

Supporting evidence for New Testament history

from early Christian writers outside the Bible

(taken from Josh McDowell's New Evidence that Demands a Verdict):

Eusebius - In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius preserves the writings of Papias, bishop of Heirapolis (AD 130), in which Papius records sayings of the apostle John.

Irenaeus -Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons (AD 180) and student of Polycarp. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna and was martyred in AD 156 at the age of 86. Polycarp had been a disciple of the apostle John. Irenaeus wrote,

"So firm is the ground upon which the gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own particular doctrine."

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III

Clement of Rome - Clement of Rome (circa AD 95) used Scripture as a reliable and authentic source.

Ignatius - Ignatius (AD 70-110), bishop of Antioch, was martyred for his faith. He knew all the apostles and was a disciple of Polycarp. Ignatius based his faith on the accuracy of the Bible and had ample material and witnesses to support the Scriptures.

Tatian - Tatian (circa AD 170) organized the Scriptures in order to put them in the first "harmony of the Gospels," the Diatessaron.

Supporting evidence for New Testament history

from early non-Christian writers outside the Bible

(taken from Josh McDowell's New Evidence that Demands a Verdict):

Tacitus - Tacitus was a first-century Roman, and is considered one of the more accurate historians of the ancient world. He gives an account of the great fire of Rome, for which some blamed Emperor Nero. According to Tacitus, in response to this report, Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and tortured them. Tacitus goes on to describe the Christians:

"Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular."

Tacitus, The Annals and the Histories

      The "mysterious superstition" refers to the resurrection of Jesus.

Suetonius - Suetonius was chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian (reigned AD 117-138). He confirms the report in Acts 18:2 that Claudius commanded all Jews (among them Priscilla and Aquila) to leave Rome in AD 49.

Josephus - Josephus (circa AD 37-100), a Pharisee of the priestly line and a Jewish historian, worked under Roman authority. He wrote an autobiography as well as two major works, Jewish Wars (AD 77-78) and Antiquities of the Jews (AD 94). He also wrote a minor work, Against Apion. He makes many statements that verify the historical nature of both the Old and New Testaments. Josephus supports the Old Testament canon without the Apocrypha. He lists the names of the books, identical with our thirty-nine. He grouped them into twenty-two books, corresponding with the Hebrew alphabet.

"For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them, five belong to Moses, which contain his laws. ... The prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life."

Josephus, Against Apion

      Josephus also refers to Jesus as the brother of James, who was stoned to death. His reference to Jesus confirms that Jesus was a real person in the first century, that he was identified by others as the Christ, and that he had a brother named James who died a martyr's death at the hands of the high priest Albinus and his Sanhedrin.

      Josephus also confirmed the existence and martyrdom of John the Baptist.

Thallus - Thallus wrote around AD 52. Only fragments of his writings survive, preserved by other writers. Thallus recorded the darkness following the crucifixion, as well as the earthquake. Thallus explains the darkness as a solar eclipse, but also reports that the death of Jesus occurred during a full moon. A solar eclipse can not take place during a time of full moon.

Pliny the Younger - Pliny was a Roman author and administrator. In a letter to Emperor Trajan in AD 112, Pliny described the early Christian worship practices - how they would meet before light; sing hymns to Christ; take an oath not to do wicked deeds or to commit fraud, theft, or adultery and never to lie; then they would partake of food. This provides evidence that early Christians worshiped Christ as God and followed the practice of breaking bread together, as reported in Acts 2:42 and 46.

Emperor Trajan - In reply to Pliny's letter, Trajan instructed that Christians who were denounced and did not deny that they were Christians be punished. One accused could vindicate himself by adoring the Roman gods and be pardoned.

Talmud - Writings of the Sanhedrin record Jesus' crucifixion, the time (Passover), and the intent of the Jewish religious leaders to kill him.

Lucian - Lucian of Samosata was a second-century Greek writer who wrote sarcastically about Christianity. He describes, however sarcastically, Christian beliefs and practices, including their belief in eternal life and in the resurrection of a man everyone knew to be crucified. His text confirms that Jesus was worshiped, that he introduced new teachings which his followers observed, that he was crucified, and that Christians denied false Gods.

Mara Bar-Serapion - Mara Bar-Serapion was a Syrian, wrote to his son sometime between the late first and early third centuries. His letter contains reference to Jesus and his execution by the Jews. He also showed that the Jews gained nothing by it, as their kingdom was abolished shortly thereafter.

Gnostic "Gospel of Truth" - There were many non-Christian (heretical) groups flourishing after the time of Christ, among them the Gnostics. "The Gospel of Truth," written circa AD 135-160, also confirms that Jesus was a historical person.

The Acts of Pontius Pilate - Though the document itself does not survive, it is referred to by Justin Martyr in about AD 150 and by Tertullian about AD 200. Both claim the Acts of Pontious Pilate mentions Jesus' hands and feet being pierced by the nails of the cross. It also mentions lots being cast over his garments. Justin Martyr also claims that the miracles of Jesus can be confirmed in this document.

      Norman Geisler summarizes:

The primary sources for the life of Christ are the four Gospels. However there are considerable reports from non-Christian sources that supplement and confirm the Gospel accounts. These come largely from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Samaritan sources of the first century. In brief they inform us that:

1) Jesus was from Nazareth;

2) he lived a wise and virtuous life;

3) he was crucified in Palestine under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish King;

4) he was believed by his disciples to have been raised from the dead three days later;

5) his enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats they called 'sorcery';

6) his small band of disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading even as far as Rome;

7) his disciples denied polytheism, lived moral lives, and worshiped Christ as Divine.

This picture confirms the view of Christ presented in the New Testament Gospels.

Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics

The New Testament Canon

      The first Christians gathered together for meetings and read the Old Testament, as Jesus had done. Those who knew Jesus would talk about him and share his teachings. Paul's letters were copied and circulated and read during gatherings. As the eyewitnesses began to die, Christians realized they must write down the facts about Jesus' life and work so they would not be lost or altered. The gospels were set down. By the second century, four were agreed upon as genuinely inspired.

      The church did not decide what would be called Scripture, it merely recognized Scripture.

"A book is not the Word of God because it is accepted by the people of God. Rather, it was accepted by the people of God because it is the Word of God."

Norman Geisler, A General Introduction to the Bible

      Five principles guided the recognition and collection of divinely inspired books:

1) Was the book written by a prophet of God?

2) Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? (Miracles, fulfilled prophesy, etc.)

3) Did the message tell the truth about God? If there was any doubt, they threw it out.

4) Did the message of the book come with the power of God/transforming power?

5) Was the book accepted by the people of God?

6) For the New Testament Canon, the primary test was apostolicity. Was it written by an apostle or was it approved by an apostle?

      The rise of heretical groups and persecution combined to require Christians to establish which books were divinely inspired once and for all.

      Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, who wrote in the mid to late second century (AD 160-180) referred to the four gospels as a clearly established and accepted fact.

"For as there are four quarters of the world in which we live, and four universal winds, and as the Church is dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and base of the Church and the breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars, breathing immortality from every quarter and kindling the life of men anew. Whence it is manifest that the Word, the architect of all things, who sits upon the cherubim and holds all things together, having been manifested to men, has given us the gospel in fourfold form, but held together by one Spirit.

Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews (i.e. Jews) in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure (i.e., their death, which strong tradition places at the time of the Neronian persecution in 64), Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord ..., himself produced his Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia."

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III

      The list of New Testament books we have now was agreed upon and in use long before the councils of Laodicea (AD 363) and Carthage (AD 397) formally accepted them.

      The word "canon" came from word meaning "standard." Origen in the third century called the scriptures "the rule of faith, the standard by which we are to measure and evaluate." Thus the collected Scriptures came to be called the "canon."

      In AD 367, Athanasius gave the earliest list of New Testament. books that is exactly what we have today. Jerome and Augustine followed suit, and the New Testament was defined. There has been no serious questioning of the New Testament since.

New Testament Documentation

      The original New Testament documents were written in AD 50 -AD 90. The earliest surviving fragments date to AD 120, and there are some 50 other fragments dating within 100 years of that time.

      Approximately 5,686 Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament still exist.

      In addition to the Greek manuscripts, more than 19,000 manuscripts exist in other languages. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. Homer's Iliad is second, with 643 manuscripts surviving.

      We believe we have accurate text for Sophocles' plays, but the earliest substantial manuscript upon which that assumption is based was written more than 1,400 years after the poet's death. Though no original manuscripts written by Paul or the other apostles have survived, the earliest complete manuscripts date to 250 to 300 years after their writing. Partial manuscripts date even closer to the composition date. Though there are minor differences in many of the manuscripts, "not one fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading."

(David Dockery, Foundations for Biblical Interpretation)

"The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning ... And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt."

F.F. Bruce

"To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament."

John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity.

"[The New Testament] is the most remarkably preserved book in the ancient world. Not only do we have a great number of manuscripts but they are very close in time to the originals they represent."

Edward Glenny

      Even if there were no manuscripts available, the New Testament could be reconstructed almost in its entirety from the writings of the early church fathers. They quoted from it so prolifically that nearly every verse is accounted for. This also helps establish which New Testament books were considered scripture by the earliest Christians.

(Geisler, Greenlee)

      The New Testament documents, in their original text, are historically accurate. But how do we know the Bible we have today is what was written thousands of years ago? In order to prove that this is true, we must first establish the accuracy of our earliest documents, then the accuracy of translations.

      Jesus himself claims that the Law will not be lost or changed:

"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth shall pass away, not one jot, not one tittle, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."

Matthew 5:18

(Jot (Hebrew "y" or "yodh") is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

A tittle is the tiny mark which makes the Hebrew letters "r" and "d" different.)

      But how can we know that the New Testament we read is essentially the same one penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and others, and inspired by God?

      For one thing, both Old and New Testament documents were copied with excruciating attention to detail. When an entire scroll had been copied by hand, one letter at a time, if one mistake was made, the scroll was destroyed. In addition, the Jewish copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures adhered to detailed requirements in copying (taken from Don't Check Your Brains at the Door, Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler):

1) Each copy had to be made on a brand new writing surface and had to be prepared in a specific way;

2) Each copy had to be written in a certain number of columns of thirty-letters width, with a certain number of lines to each column;

3) Each copy had to be written in a certain color and quality of ink;

4) Not even the tiniest letter could be written from memory, as one would glance at the word "to" and write the letters "t" and "o" before glancing back at the original, but every letter was copied singly from the original;

5) No letter could connect with or overlap another letter. The distance between each letter was measured by a single hair or thread;

6) Every letter of every page and book was counted and compared against the original. The number of times each letter of the alphabet occurred in a book was counted and compared against the original. The middle letter of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the middle letter of the entire Hebrew Bible were computed and indicated in the text. If one of these calculations was incorrect, the copy was discarded.

"Do instructors dismiss the writings of the Greek historian Thucydides of the philosopher Aristotle or the tragedians Sophocles and Euripides as being unworthy of serious consideration because of textual problems and variant readings?

"Probably not. Yet many people think the Bible is a faulty document, when in fact none of those other works can approach the reliability of the New Testament text."

      Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler,

Don't Check Your Brains at the Door

      Two factors are most important in determining the reliability of a historical document: the number of manuscript copies in existence, and the time between when it was first written and the oldest existing copy. Consider the New Testament in comparison with other ancient writer's works:

Author                               Written        Earliest Copies     Time Span   # of Copies

Caesar (Gallic Wars)         100-44 BC    c. AD 900                 c. 1,000 years              10

Plato (Tetralogies)           427-347 BC   c. AD 900                 c. 1,300 years              7

Thucydides (History)       460-400 BC   c. AD 900                 c. 1,300 years              8

Sophocles                             496-406 BC   c. AD 1,000                c. 1,400 years              100

Catullus                              54 BC             c. AD 1,550                c. 1,600 years              3

Euripides                             480-406 BC   c. AD 1,100                c. 1,500 years              9

Aristotle                               384-322 BC   c. AD 1,100                c. 1,400 years              5

Homer (Iliad)                    800 BC           c. 400 BC                  c. 400 years              643

Herodotus (History)        480-425 BC   c. AD 900                 c. 1,350 years              8

Demosthenes                        300 BC      c. AD 1100                c. 1,400 years              200

Livy (History of Rome)      59 BC       c. 350 (partial)          c. 400 years              1 partial

                                                 to AD 17     c. 10th century        c. 1,000 years              19

Pliny Secundus

(Natural History)                 AD 61-113   c. AD 850                 c. 750 years              7

New Testament                AD 40-100    AD 125                25 years              24,000+

  (from Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, Don't Check Your Brains at the Door, and Josh McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict)

 

 

 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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