Is the New Testament Reliable?
When it comes to the New Testament, German critics argued that all New Testament books were written in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, much too late to have been eyewitness accounts. Their skeptical view convinced some scholars that the Gospels weren’t written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
However, ancient New Testament manuscripts discovered in the 20th century prove that its books were written much earlier than skeptical scholars believed. Let’s look at two of these manuscript discoveries.
- A fragment of a copy of John’s Gospel (labeled p52) discovered in Egypt is dated to about 25 years after John wrote the original.(35)
- A first century fragment of Mark’s Gospel was discovered on an Egyptian mummy mask. According to New Testament scholar Craig Evans, it has been carbon-14 dated prior to a.d. 90.(36)
Based on these dates, it’s probable that numerous copies of Mark and John were in circulation within a few decades of Jesus’ death and resurrection—while many eyewitnesses were alive. The discovery of p52 proves that John’s Gospel was written much earlier than skeptics thought. Princeton scholar Bruce Metzger explains the significance of this partial manuscript.
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 proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century…far removed from its traditional place of composition.(37)
These two early fragments were copied from the originals Mark and John had written 20-45 years earlier. Most other ancient historical manuscripts of nonbiblical have time gaps from 400 to 1,400 years. Aristotle’s Poetics was written about 343 b.c., yet the earliest copy is dated a.d. 1100, with only five copies in existence. That’s a time gap of 1,443 years between the original and the existing copy—and yet no historian challenges Aristotle’s writings.(38)
So how many New Testament copies are in existence today? Textual scholars have recovered nearly 24,000 in all languages, over 5,600 in the original Greek.(39) This greatly exceeds the number of manuscripts for all other ancient historical writings.
It’s understandable why critical scholar John A. T. Robinson made the following statement about the New Testament.
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.(40)
Robinson concluded that all New Testament books were originally penned between a.d. 40 and 65.(41) Archaeologist William Albright assigned a slightly later date, “probably between about 50 A.D. and 75 A.D.”(42)
Given these early dates, Mark and John could have vividly recalled Jesus’ warmth and compassion, his miraculous healings, the dead he brought back to life, his profound words, his death on the cross, and their jubilation when he appeared to them alive three days later.
But the Gospels weren’t the first written accounts of Jesus. Paul’s letters, written 10-22 years after Christ, relate the traditional accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection passed on to him by Peter and the other apostles.
The early manuscript evidence led biblical critics to redirect their attack on the New Testament from its dating to denying the existence of key people and places, including Jesus himself.
If Jesus didn’t exist, then Christianity would be founded upon a myth. However, evidence for the existence of Jesus is overwhelming—far greater than for many ancient historical figures such as Alexander the Great.(43) (For evidence of Jesus’ existence see http://y-jesus.com/wwrj/1-jesus-real-person/.)
Skeptics have also argued that Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth didn’t exist during his lifetime. Their point is that if Nazareth is bogus, then Jesus must also be bogus. In The Myth of Nazareth Rene Salm writes,
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!(44)
But in 2009 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced an archaeological find proving that Nazareth did exist in the first century. Archaeologist Stephen Pfann provided some details: “It…shows us what the walls and floors were like inside Nazareth in the first century.”(45)