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Is the New Testament Reliable?
Establishing the reliability of the New Testament is vital to Christian apologetic's. Christianity is a religion with deep historical roots. For example, if Jesus did not rise from the dead (an historical event), then the Christian Faith cannot save (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17). If He did not die on the cross for the sins of mankind (an historical event), then Christianity offers no hope (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). Proving the New Testament can be trusted will go a long way to establishing Christianity as the one true faith.
This chapter will attempt to show that the New Testament accounts were written by eyewitnesses who knew Christ, or persons who knew the eyewitnesses. Evidence will be provided to show that the accounts of Christ’s bodily resurrection and His claims to deity were not legends invented decades after Christ’s death; rather, they were eyewitness accounts. This chapter will not deal with defending the Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God; that topic will be examined in chapter ten. The purpose of this chapter is to merely show that the New Testament documents are historically reliable.
MANUSCRIPT EVIDENCE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Many historical scholars believe that one cannot know the true Jesus of history since no one no has the original writings of those who knew Him. Only copies of the originals are in existence today. Ironically, these historical scholars will often quote from Plato, as well as other ancient writers, as if they can know with certainty what Plato originally wrote. This clearly unveils a double standard. Ancient secular writings can be trusted based on late copies, but the New Testament cannot be trusted since the original manuscripts are missing.
The New Testament is by far the most reliable ancient writing in existence today. There exist today over 24,000 copies (5,000 of them in the original Greek language) of the New Testament (either in whole or in part). This should be compared with the fact that only 7 copies presently exist of Plato’s Tetralogies. Homer’s Iliad is in second place behind the New Testament among ancient writings with just 643 copies.
The earliest copy of Plato’s Tetralogies is dated about 1,200 years after Plato supposedly wrote the original. Compare this with the earliest extant copy of the New Testament: the John Ryland’s Papyri. It contains a portion of John 18. This fragment is dated at about 125AD, only 25 years after the original is thought to have been written. In fact, there is possibly an even earlier New Testament fragment that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The fragment is called 7Q5; it is dated earlier than 70AD. Though there is heated debate about this manuscript, it has been argued that it is a part of Mark 6:52-53. Again, Homer’s Iliad takes second place among ancient writings, second only to the New Testament. The earliest copy of any portion of Homer’s Iliad is dated about 500 years after the original writing.
When the contents of the extant manuscripts of the New Testament are compared, there appears to be 99.5% agreement. There is total agreement in the doctrines taught; the corruptions are mainly grammatical. Homer’s Iliad once again takes second place behind the New Testament among ancient documents. Homer’s Iliad has a 95% accuracy when its copies are compared. Since there are so few remaining copies of Plator’s writings, agreement between these copies is not considered a factor (they are probably all copies of the same copy).
THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS: ANOTHER SOURCE OF N. T. RELIABILITY
The New Testament manuscripts are not the only evidence for the reliability of the New Testament. Another source of evidence is found in the writings of the apostolic fathers. The apostolic fathers were leaders in the early church who knew the apostles and their doctrine. Most of their writings were produced between 95 and 150AD.
Liberal scholars have attempted to find the so-called true Jesus of history. It was their goal to find a non-supernatural Jesus who never claimed to be God. These scholars believe that Christ’s claim to be God and Savior, and His miraculous life (especially His bodily resurrection from the dead) are merely legends. The true Jesus of history was a great teacher; still, He was merely a man. Therefore, if it can be shown that early church leaders, who personally knew the apostles, taught that the miraculous aspects of Christ’s life actually occurred and that Jesus did in fact make the bold claims recorded in the New Testament, then the legend hypothesis fails. Historians recognize that legends take centuries to develop. A legend is a ficticious story that, through the passage of time, many people come to accept as historically accurate. A legend can begin to develop only if the eyewitnesses and those who knew the eyewitnesses are already dead. Otherwise, the eyewitnesses or those who knew them would refute the legend. Therefore, a legend has its beginning a generation or two after the event or person in question has passed. However, before a legend receives wide acceptance, several centuries are needed, for there is still a remembrance of the person or event due to information passed on orally from generation to generation. After several centuries, new generations arise without the sufficient knowledge of the person or event necessary to refute the legend. If a written record compiled by eyewitnesses is passed on to future generations, legends can be easily refuted.
One apostolic father, Clement, was the Bishop of Rome. He wrote his letter to the Corinthians in 95AD. The following is a brief quote from this letter:
Let us fear the Lord Jesus (Christ), whose blood was given for us. The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent from God. He made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstfruit, when He raised Him from the dead.
It is important to note that Clement of Rome referred to Jesus as “the Lord.” This is an obvious reference to Christ’s deity, for he uses the Greek word “Kurios” with the definite article (Christ was the Lord, not a Lord). Clement also spoke of Christ’s blood as being shed for us, indicating a belief in Christ’s saving work. He declared that the apostles received the Gospel directly from Jesus. Clement also spoke of God raising Jesus from the dead. If any of these statements were opposed to the doctrines of the apostles, the Apostle John, who was still alive at the time, would have openly confronted this first century bishop. However, he did not. Therefore, the writings of Clement of Rome provide strong confirmation of the original message of the Apostles. Contrary to the wishful thinking of skeptics, the teachings of the first century church are exactly what one finds in the New Testament.
The apostolic father, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote his letters between 110 and 115AD. During that time, he was travelling from Antioch to Rome to be martyred. Ignatius openly wrote about the deity of Christ. He referred to Jesus as “Jesus Christ our God,” “God in man,” and “Jesus Christ the God.” Ignatius stated that “there is one God who manifested Himself through Jesus Christ His Son.” Besides ascribing deity to Christ, Ignatius also wrote of salvation in Christ and expressed belief in Christ’s virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection:
Christ Jesus our Savior . . .
Jesus Christ, who dies for us, that believing on His death ye might escape death.
He is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin.
Be ye deaf therefore, when any man speaketh to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was born of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him . . .
The writings of Ignatius show that only fifteen years after the death of the Apostle John, the central doctrines of the New Testament were already being taught. It is highly unlikely that the New Testament manuscripts, referenced by Ignatius, could have been corrupted in such a short amount of time. It is also important to remember that Clement of Rome taught the same doctrines while the Apostle John was still alive.
Another apostolic father Polycarp (70-156AD) was the Bishop of Smyrna. He was a personal pupil of the Apostle John. Had any of the other apostolic fathers perverted the teachings of the apostles, Polycarp would have set the record straight. However, Polycarp’s teachings are essentially the same as that of Clement of Rome and Ignatius. Of all the apostolic fathers, Polycarp knew better than any the content of the original apostles’ message. Liberal scholars display tremendous arrogance when thay assume that they have more insight into the original apostolic message than Polycarp. Polycarp studied under the Apostle John (85-95AD?); contemporary scholars live nearly 2,000 years later. In his letter to the Philippians, Polycarp wrote:
. . . Jesus Christ who took our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, but for our sakes He endured all things, that we might live in Him.
For they loved not the present world, but Him that died for our sakes and was raised by God for us.
. . . who shall believe on our Lord and God Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised Him from the dead.
Another student of the Apostle John was Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis. Papias was born between 60 and 70AD and died between 130 and 140AD. Papias wrote that he did not accept the words of any self-proclaimed teacher. Instead, he would talk to others who, like himself, had known at least one of the original apostles. In this way, Papias could discover the teachings of Christ from the sources closest to Christ Himself, rather than rely on hearsay testimony.
Papias wrote of his discussions with persons who spoke with with apostles such as Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, or Matthew. Papias stated that Mark received the information for his Gospel from the Apostle Peter himself. Papias also related that Matthew originally recorded his gospel in Hebrew, but that it was later translated into Greek to reach a wider audience.
The testimony of the first century and early second century church should be considered extremely reliable. Many of these early Christians were martyred for their beliefs. Since people will only die for what they truly believe, it is reasonable to conclude that the early church sincerely believed thay were protecting the true apostolic faith from possible perversions. If they had tampered with the teachings of the apostles, they certainly would not have died for their counterfeit views.
The following conclusions can now be drawn: First, the apostolic fathers form an unbroken chain from the apostles to their day. Second, people who personally knew the apostles accepted the leadership of the apostolic fathers. Third, the apostolic fathers taught essentially the same thing as the New Testament. Fourth, the apostolic fathers and their followers were willing to die for the teachings passed down to them from the apostles themselves. Therefore, our New Testament accurately represents the teachings of the apostles. This includes such key doctrines as the deity of Christ, His substitutionary death, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and salvation through Him alone.
ANCIENT CREEDS FOUND IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The writings of both the apostolic fathers and ancient non-Christian authors declare that the earliest Christians did in fact teach that Jesus is God and that He rose from the dead. The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is stronger than that of any other ancient writing. Another piece of evidence for the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is the ancient creeds found in the New Testament itself.
Most scholars, whether liberal or conservative, date Paul’s epistles before the Gospels were put into written form. Just as the teachings of the Jewish Rabbis had originally been passed on orally, it appears that the Gospel was first spread in the form of oral creeds and hymns. J. P. Moreland states that Paul’s epistles contain many of these pre-Pauline creeds and hymns, that they were originally spoken in the Aramaic tongue (the Hebrew language of Christ’s day), and that most scholars date these creeds and hymns between 33AD and 48AD. Since Paul’s writings are dated in the 50’s AD or 60’s AD by most scholars, the creeds he recorded in his letters point to an oral tradition which predates his writings. Most scholars will at least admit that these ancient creeds originated before 50AD.
Excerpts from some of these ancient creeds found in the letters of Paul are as follows:
. . . that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved (Romans 10:9).
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
And He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).
These ancient creeds clearly prove that the first generation Christians believed that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead, that He is God, and that salvation comes through Him. The followers of Buddha attributed deity to the founder of their religion centuries after his death. However, the earliest followers of Christ, those who knew Him personally, considered Him to be God. It is almost universally recognized that these creeds were formulated before 50AD. Therefore, they represent the Gospel in its original form.
The belief in Christ’s deity and resurrection is not based on later corruptions of the New Testament text as liberal scholars believe. The doctrines of Christ’s deity and resurrection are not legends that took centuries to develop. These doctrines were held by the first generation church, those who knew Jesus personally. The gospel message found in the New Testament is the same message proclaimed by the apostles themselves.
Less than twenty years after Christ’s death, hymns were already being sung in Christian churches attributing deity to Christ. The apostles were still alive and had the authority to supress the doctrine of Christ’s deity if it was a heresy, but, they did not. All the available evidence indicates that they not only condoned it, but that it was their own teaching. Therefore, liberal scholars such as John Hick have no justification for their claims that the deity of Christ was a legend that developed near the end of the first century AD. The historical evidence indicates that the Christian church always believed in Christ’s deity. Therefore, to deny that Christ claimed to be God is to call the apostles liars.
Nearly 2,000 years after the death of Christ a forum of liberal scholars called the “Jesus Seminar” has been meeting since 1985. These scholars vote to decide which biblical passages they believe Jesus actually said. This is ironic since the evidence shows that Christianity proclaimed Christ’s deity and resurrection from its inception. The early church accepted the deity of Christ. The early church was willing to suffer horrible persecution for this belief. Sincere eyewitness testimony should not be ignored.
THE OPINIONS OF THE EXPERTS
The testimonies of some of the world’s leading experts can be called upon to further verify the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Dr. John A. T. Robinson, one of England’s leading New Testament critics, came to the conclusion that the entire New Testament was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.
Sir William Ramsey was one of the world’s greatest archaeologists. His thorough investigation into Luke’s Book of Acts led him to the conclusion that Acts was a mid-first century document that was historically reliable.
William F. Albright is one of the world’s foremost biblical archaeologists. He states that there is no evidential basis for dating any New Testament book after 80AD.
Sir Frederic Kenyon was one of the world’s leading experts on ancient manuscripts. His research led him to conclude that the New Testament is essentially the same as when it was originally written.
Miller Burrows, the great archaeologist from Yale, stated that there is no doubt that archaeological research has strengthened confidence in the historical reliability of the Bible. Burrows also stated that the skepticism of liberal scholars is based on their prejudice against the supernatural, rather than on the evidence itself.
F. F. Bruce, New Testament scholar from Manchester University in England, stated that if the New Testament writings had been secular works, no scholar would question their authenticity. Bruce believes that the evidence for the New Testament outweighs the evidence for many classical works which have never been doubted.
Bruce Metzger is a famous textual critic from Princeton. He has stated that the New Testament has more evidence in its favor than any other writings from ancient Greek or Latin literature.
It is clear that the evidence favors the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament. Scholars who do not allow their bias against the supernatural to influence their conclusions have recognized this fact. Scholars who reject the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts do so because they chose to go against the overwhelming evidence. However, such a rejection is not true scholarship; it is an a priori assumption.
Evidence from the existing New Testament manuscripts, from the writings of the apostolic fathers, from the works of ancient secular authors, from the ancient creeds and hymns found in the New Testament, and from the opinions of the world’s leading experts have been examined. All this evidence leads to the conclusion that the existing New Testament manuscripts are reliable and authentic testimony of what the apostles wrote. A person is free to deny this conclusion, but to do so is to go against all the available evidence.
"The key point is that the original apostles taught that Jesus rose from the dead, and that He claimed to be God incarnate and the Savior of the world."