A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament
One of the great benefits of the articles in found in the HCSB Study Bible is the high academic quality of the content. These articles aren't fluff. They are seminary-lecture-quality articles. Last week's hermeneutical look at the word apostello is a great example of this.
This week we take a closer look at the historical reliability of the New Testament-- a topic you will find in a New Testament or Church History class at a seminary like Gordon-Conwell, Trinity, or SEBTS.
As I'm doing all year long, I am giving away a free HCSB study Bible to a commenter. To be entered to win this week's giveaway, share with us your thoughts on the New Testament.
The New Testament (NT) contains four biographies of Jesus (the Gospels), one history book of the early church (Acts), twenty-one letters (Romans to Jude), and an apocalypse (Revelation). While the letters and the apocalypse contain references to historical events, the Gospels and Acts are written as straightforward historical narratives. These are the NT books about which it makes particularly good sense to ask the question, "Are they historically reliable?" Twelve lines of evidence converge to suggest strongly that the answer is "yes."
First, we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts representing all, or part, of the NT. By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be reconstructed beyond reasonable doubt. We also discover that no Christian doctrine or ethic depends solely on one of the doubted texts. These facts do not prove that the NT is true, but it does mean we know what the original writers wrote. Without this assurance, the question of historical reliability is pointless.
Second, the authors of the Gospels and Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. Matthew and John were among the twelve disciples Jesus Himself chose; Mark was a close companion of Peter and Luke (who also wrote Acts) and traveled extensively with Paul. Even critical scholars who doubt the traditional attributions of authorship agree that these five books were written by followers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which still puts them in a good place to tell the stories accurately.
Third, these five books were almost certainly written in the first century, within sixty to seventy years of Jesus' death (most likely in a.d. 30). Conservatives typically date Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts to the 60s and John to the 80s or 90s. Liberals suggest slightly later dates, typically placing Mark in the 60s or 70s, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 80s, and John in the 90s. Even if one accepts the later dates, the amount of time separating the historical events and the composition of the five books is very short as compared to most ancient historical and biographical accounts, where many centuries could intervene between events and the books that narrated them.
Fourth, ancient Jews and Greeks meticulously cultivated the art of memorization, committing complex oral traditions to memory. Even before the Gospels or any other written sources about Jesus were compiled, Jesus' followers were carefully passing on accounts of His teachings and mighty works by word of mouth. This kept the historical events alive until the time they were written down.
Fifth, the ancient memorization and transference of sacred tradition allowed for some freedoms in retelling the stories. Guardians of the tradition could abbreviate, paraphrase, prioritize, and provide commentary on the subject matter as long as they were true to the gist or meaning of the accounts they passed on. This goes a long way to explaining both the similarities and the differences among the four Gospels. All four authors were true to the gist of Jesus' life, yet they exercised reasonable freedom to shape the accounts in ways they saw fit.
Sixth, the fact that these writers had distinct ideological or theological emphases does not mean they distorted history, as is often alleged. Oftentimes the very cause that a historian or biographer supports requires them to write their accounts accurately, for they know that their cause will be undermined if they are charged with bias or distortion. The first Christians had the uphill battle of promoting a crucified Messiah and His bodily resurrection. Had they been known to have falsified the details of their accounts to any significant degree, their movement would have been squelched from the outset.
Seventh, Luke's prologue (Lk 1:1-4) closely parallels the form and content of other works of generally reliable historians and biographers of antiquity, most notably Josephus, Herodotus, and Thucydides. The Gospel writers clearly believed that they were writing historically accurate works, not fiction or embellished history.
Eighth, the so-called hard sayings of Jesus support their authenticity. If the Gospel writers felt free to distort what Jesus originally said in order to increase the attractiveness of Christianity, why would they preserve unmodified His difficult and easily misunderstood teachings about hating family members (Lk 14:26) or not knowing when He would return (Mk 13:32)? The fact that they let these teachings stand indicates their faithfulness to recount true history.
Ninth, the fact that the NT does not record Jesus speaking about many of the topics that arose after His earthly life, during the time of the early church, supports its historical accuracy. For instance, early Christians were divided over how or whether the laws of Moses applied to Gentile converts (Ac 15). The easiest way to settle the controversy would be to cite Jesus' teachings on the matter, but the Gospels record no such teachings. This silence suggests that the Gospel writers did not feel free to play fast and loose with history by putting on the lips of Jesus teachings that could solve early church controversies.
Tenth, the testimony of non-Christian writers supports the details of the Gospels and Acts. About a dozen ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman writers mention Jesus. Taken together, their writings attest to the basic contours of Jesus' life. Many names of people and places, as well as the exploits of first-century political and religious leaders, are attested in other writings of the day.
Eleventh, archaeology regularly confirms details about geography, topography, customs, artifacts, buildings, tombs, inscriptions, and graffiti that are mentioned in NT--the Gospels and Acts in particular.
Twelfth, the portions of the NT that were written before the completion of the Gospels and Acts confirm the historicity of these five books. For instance, Paul, James, and Peter show multiple signs of quoting or alluding to teachings and actions of Jesus in letters they wrote before the Gospels were written. Their quotes and allusions agree with what we find in the Gospels. This indicates that the Gospels are in tune with the very earliest writings about Jesus--the NT epistles. These earliest writings were in turn dependent on the authoritative oral traditions that were passed on by eyewitnesses to Jesus' life. Paul expresses this in 1Co 15:3-8, where he lists the beliefs he had "received" from these eyewitnesses when he became a Christian no more than two years after Jesus' death and resurrection. These are no late, slowly developing legends he is reporting!
Craig L. Blomberg
Ph.D. University of Aberdeen