How can we trace our New Testaments today back to the originals? How do we know that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels? How do we know that Paul and Peter wrote the letters that have their names attached?
Skeptics say we can’t know. In fact, they say the New Testament books weren’t written by eyewitnesses at all. They cite 19th century German critics, who argued that unknown authors wrote the New Testament 100-200 years after Christ.
For example, Ferdinand Christian Baur contended that John’s Gospel was not written until about AD 160. This, if true, would not only undermine John’s Gospel, it would cast suspicion on the entire New Testament as well.
However, early manuscript copies of John and Mark, discovered by archaeologists, indicate they were written much earlier, perhaps during the apostles’ lifetimes.
A tiny papyrus fragment discovered in Egypt (P52) proved to be an early copy of John’s Gospel. Scholars believe it was written around AD 117, or about 25 years after John wrote the original. Princeton scholar, Bruce Metzger explained the significance of this find.
Just as Robinson Crusoe, seeing but a single footprint in the sand, concluded that another human being, with two feet, was present on the island with him, so P52 [the label of the fragment] proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor).¹
Since this copy of John’s Gospel was found in an Egyptian town, hundreds of miles from where John resided, Metzger concludes the original would have been written much earlier.
A fragment of Mark’s Gospel–that some scholars date to the first century–was discovered on an Egyptian mummy mask. Craig Evans, an expert on ancient text says, “the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, of studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel. These considerations led the researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before the year 90. Evans said that he can’t say much more about the text’s date until the papyrus is published.”²
If this copy of Mark’s Gospel is verified to have been written in the first century, it would be the earliest copy of the New Testament yet discovered.
Archeologists have unearthed over 25,000 New Testament manuscripts, some dated to within 150 years of when the originals were first composed.³
Most copies of other ancient documents have time gaps from the original composition of 400 to 1,400 years. For example, Aristotle’s Poetics was written about 343 BC, yet the earliest copy is dated AD 1100, with only five copies in existence. And yet no historian challenges these writings.
Regarding the New Testament, critical scholar John A. T. Robinson admits,
The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.4
Baur’s argument that the New Testament was written 100-200 years after Christ has been refuted by the evidence. Furthermore, if the New Testament records were made and circulated so closely to the actual events, their portrayal of Jesus is most likely accurate.
Skeptics have also argued the lack of evidence for important New Testament characters and places proves they never existed. And, they say, if the Bible is untrue with such details, its story of Jesus’ redemption is also untrue.
For example, until 2009, there was no tangible evidence that Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth existed in his lifetime. In The Myth of Nazareth, René Salm celebrates this lack of evidence as the deathblow to Christianity.
What must matter to all Christians is the inescapable fact that the evangelists invented this basic element in the story of cosmic redemption. The proof is now at hand that “Jesus of Nazareth,” a long-standing icon of Western civilization, is bogus. Celebrate, freethinkers. Christianity as we know it may be finally coming to an end!5
Salm celebrated too soon. On December 21st, 2009, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of relics confirming the existence of 1st century Nazareth. Archaeologist Stephen Pfann, president of the University of The Holy Land, reveals, “It…shows us what the walls and floors were like inside Nazareth in the first century.”6
Also, prior to the 20th century, no tangible evidence existed for the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priest Joseph Caiaphas. Both men were central figures in the trial leading to the crucifixion of Christ.
However, in 1961, archaeologists discovered a block of limestone inscribed with the name of “Pontius Pilate prefect of Judea.” And in 1990, archaeologists discovered an ossuary (bone box) with the inscription of Caiaphas. It has been verified as authentic “beyond a reasonable doubt.”7 Archaeologists continue to discover numerous places and relics that confirm the New Testament accounts of Jesus.
Many other New Testament details have been proved true by independent verification. Classical historian Colin Hemer, for example, “identifies 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by Archaeological research.”8
Skeptical scholars challenged both Luke’s authorship of Acts and its dating, asserting that it was written in the second century by an unknown author. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsey was convinced they were right, and he began to investigate. After extensive research, the noted archaeologist reversed his opinion. Ramsey conceded,
Luke is a historian of the first rank. … This author should be placed along with the very greatest historians. … Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.9
Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist who considered Jesus a myth until he saw such evidence during a BBC television assignment to Israel. After reporting on the very places written about in the New Testament account of Jesus, Muggeridge wrote,
A certainty seized me about Jesus’ birth, ministry and Crucifixion…I became aware that there really had been a man, Jesus.10
The New Testament book of Acts chronicles Paul’s missionary voyages, listing places he visited, people he saw, messages he delivered, and persecution he suffered. Could all these details have been faked? Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White wrote,
For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. … Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”11
From the Gospel accounts to Paul’s letters, the New Testament authors openly described details, even citing the names of individuals who were alive at the time. Historians have verified at least thirty of these names.12
Paul Johnson notes how these manuscript discoveries have once again affirmed the early writing of the New Testament.
What is clear beyond doubt is that whereas in the nineteenth century the tendency was to cast doubt of the veracity of Judeo-Christian records…in the twentieth century it has moved in quite the opposite direction, and there is no sign of the process coming to an end. It is the skeptics, who have reason to fear the course of discovery.13
In addition to the New Testament manuscripts, over 36,000 letters and documents outside of the Bible refer to virtually all its words.14 If all New Testament documents were destroyed, practically all of them could be reproduced from the quotations cited in these extrabiblical manuscripts.
Skeptics argue that there are inconsistencies in the Bible. For example, they point to the different genealogies for Jesus in Luke and Matthew. However, biblical scholars realize that rather than being an inconsistency, Luke and Matthew are simply tracing Jesus’ lineage from differing perspectives.15
Yet skeptics also state that the Bible was altered by early Christians to make it “fit” their theological views. But if they did alter it, wouldn’t they make sure all such “contradictions” were eliminated? Wouldn’t they edit Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s words so they were in full agreement on all details?
In fact, one of the evidences for the reliability of the New Testament is the fact that its eyewitness accounts were written honestly from each writer’s own perspective—without collusion.
Clark Pinnock, professor of interpretations at McMaster Divinity College, summarizes the case for the reliability of the New Testament.
There exists no document from the ancient world witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical testimonies. … An honest [person] cannot dismiss a source of this kind. Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational basis.16
To read more on the reliability of the New Testament see http://y-jesus.com/wwrj/4-are-gospels-true/.
¹ Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 39.
³ Ibid. 36-41.
4 John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 36.
5 René Salm, American Atheist.org, “The Myth of Nazareth, Does it Really Matter?” December 22, 2009.
6 Associated Press: First Jesus-era house discovered in Nazareth, December 22, 2009.
7 Jennifer Walsh, “Ancient bone box might point to biblical home of Caiaphas,” MSNBC.com, August 31, 2011, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44347890/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/ancient-bone-box-might-point-biblical-home-caiaphas/.
8 Cited in Norman L. Geisler & Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256.
9 Cited in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 61.
10 Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered (Bungay, Suffolk, UK: Fontana, 1969), 8.
11 McDowell, 61.
12 Ibid. 64.
13 Johnson, Ibid.
16 Quoted in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 135.