Confirming the reliability of the New Testament.
Christianity is a truth claim about reality. A Christian believes that the Bible is the Word of God, that it rightly records the origin of the universe and all that exists in it. The Bible also reveals God’s divine interventions into the affairs of people. Of particular interest is the record of God’s accomplishment of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Orthodox Christianity not only asserts the Bible as revelation from God but also states that anything opposed to its teachings is false. The absolute nature of truth requires the exclusion of any claim that opposes what is found to be true. By claiming the Christian worldview is true, we are simultaneously claiming that every opposing worldview is false.
In evangelism, it is extremely difficult to convince a person to accept the Bible as true if they have no apparent grounds for accepting the historical reliability of its surviving manuscripts. Therefore, our duty as Christians is to defend the reliability of Scripture if we are to convince unbelievers to accept as true what is conveyed through it.
Defending the Christian worldview has biblical basis. First Peter 3:15 says, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” The word defense in this passage is translated from the Greek apologia, which basically means “to give a rational defense of an opinion or belief” — that is, to provide reasons for how one thinks or believes. Christian apologetics, then, is the rational defense of Christianity as an accurate truth claim. Several other scriptures corroborate the biblical mandate to defend Christianity (Acts 17:2; Philippians 1:17; Titus 1:9; Jude 3).
Christianity’s legitimacy depends on the integrity of the Bible — specifically, the New Testament, the record of Jesus Christ’s miraculous birth, life, death, and resurrection. The New Testament assumes the reliability of the Old by referencing it often. In fact, Jesus quoted the Old Testament verbatim. If the New Testament is not historically reliable, our religion — contained in both Testaments — crumbles because Jesus Christ is the central figure of our faith. Therefore, one of the best ways to defend the Christian faith is to defend the reliability of the New Testament.
The primary lines of evidence supporting the trustworthiness of the New Testament are the accuracy of its surviving manuscripts and the reliability of it authors.
To support this evidence, we must assert two facts: 1) The New Testament has earlier, more numerous, and more reliable surviving manuscripts than any other book from antiquity; 2) The people recording the events and teachings in these manuscripts were reliable. This claim is validated by the number of concurring writers1; the historical and archaeological confirmation of the people, culture, and places listed in the New Testament; and the critical examination of legal experts regarding its acceptability and credibility.
I mention the latter because when we say the New Testament is historically reliable, we are not claiming to prove the events recorded in it but that the New Testament record is true beyond a reasonable doubt, based on the reliability of the text. We must assert this distinction and remind those with whom we dialogue that empirical “proof” is impossible with regard to any historical document. As Christians, we trust that the New Testament tells the truth — that what was recorded really happened.
Manuscript quantity, dating
The number of New Testament manuscripts is overwhelming compared with other books from antiquity, which typically range from ten to twenty copies. By contrast, the New Testament has approximately 5,800 surviving Greek manuscripts. The most for any other ancient book is Homer’s Iliad, with 643, according to Norman L. Geisler in Christian Apologetics 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 2013).
In addition, the lapse of time between the composition and the earliest copy of a book from the ancient world is roughly a thousand years. Contrast this with the earliest manuscript of a writing from the New Testament, the John Ryland Papyri (ad 117-138). This manuscript survived within a generation of the time scholars believe it was written (c. ad 95). Entire books (the Bodmer Papyri) are available from ad 200, only a little over a century after the New Testament was completed. The entire New Testament is actually available in the Codex Vaticanus, which dates from ad 325 to ad 350. Geisler says it was completed within 250 years of the original writing, still much less of a time lapse than any other book from antiquity.
No other book from the ancient world has as small a time gap between composition and earliest manuscript copies as the New Testament.
Historicity of Acts
The date and authenticity of the book of Acts is necessary to establish when discussing the credibility of the New Testament’s record of early Christianity. If Acts was written before ad 70, while the eyewitnesses were still alive, then it has great historical value and accurately informs us of the earliest Christian beliefs. Furthermore, if Acts was written by Luke, who was the companion of the apostle Paul, the writing came forth from the apostolic circle of Jesus’ earliest disciples.
Furthermore, the author of Acts conveys his detailed knowledge of the historical names, places, persons, and events of the times in which he wrote the book, such as the correct title of the emperor (25:21, 25), general facts of navigation, and points of Judean topography or Semitic names (1:12, 19, etc.). He gives specifics on the organization of a military guard (12:4) and mentions the part played by Troas in the system of communication (16:8). In Acts 17:1, Amphipolis and Apollonia are known as stations on the Egnatian Way, from Philippi to Thessalonica.
This is not an exhaustive list exhibiting Luke’s accuracy in recording people, places, and customs of the first century Roman Empire. It does, however, demonstrate Luke’s knowledge of the Greco-Roman world during this era.
Luke also records historical events and peoples who have been verified by general historians and archaeologists. He says Jesus began His ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee [ad 29], his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests . . .” (Luke 3:1, 2). It is noteworthy that Luke gives both an exact date (ad 29) and names of eight people, all known from general history to have lived during this era.
Geisler states that altogether, the Gospels mention over 30 verifiable historic figures who existed in the time and place the New Testament locates them.
Geisler also says that in addition to the overwhelming historical support for the people and events of this period, references in the Gospels are also supported by archaeological finds, such as the Siloam pool, the pool of Bethesda, the synagogue in Capernaum, the foundation of Herod’s temple, Pilate’s praetorium, the vicinity of Golgotha, and the garden tomb. Even the bones of a first century crucifixion victim, Yohanan, support the Gospels’ presentation of Christ’s death.
Legal experts are trained to determine the credibility of testimony in the courtroom. That testimony, if accepted, has life and death implications. One of the most respected legal experts in American history was Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), professor of law at Harvard University. This man composed much of the text of A Treatise on the Law of Evidence (1853), still used today to train attorneys. When asked to apply the rules listed in the Treatise to the New Testament witness, he composed The Testimony of the Evangelists (Kregal Publications, 1995). Greenleaf concluded that in a court of law the evangelists’ testimony would be accepted in their entirety as credible, ancient documents. His verdict called on readers to be honest and objective in their assessments of the Gospels, which, based on his legal expertise and objectivity, demands that the evangelists’ accounts be regarded as legitimate historical documents.
Greenleaf isn’t the only one to endorse the New Testament as trustworthy. Attorney Lee Strobel, in The Case for Christ, and Supreme Court attorney Irwin Linton, in A Lawyer Examines the Bible, came to the same conclusion in their critiques of the New Testament. We can conclude, then, that the New Testament witness would have withstood the cross-examination of the opposition to its testimony. Therefore, beyond a reasonable doubt, the testimony recorded in the New Testament is reliable and ought to be believed as fact.
A Christian must know the reliability of the text our worldview comes from. Without any anchor in history, our faith is blind, which means as rational people we must suspend a judgment call regarding the validity of the biblical record.
But we have an anchor, so “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks.”
- Most of the documents from antiquity have one writer, which allows for subjectivity in their writings. The number of writers matters most in terms of accountability.