Are the New Testament Accounts of Jesus Reliable?

How do we know that the words we read about Jesus in the New Testament are reliable?  Can we actually trace the manuscript evidence back through the centuries and determine what the original writings said?

The answer from the science of textual criticism is, “Yes,” but only if there are enough ancient manuscripts dating to within a few generations of when the originals were composed.  The Scholars studying ancient literature have devised a three-part test that looks at not only the faithfulness of the copy but also the credibility of the authors.  The tests are these:[1]

1. The bibliographical test

2. The internal evidence test

3. The external evidence test

Let’s see what happens when we apply the first of these tests to the early copies of New Testament manuscripts.

Bibliographical Test

This test compares a document with other ancient history from the same period.  It asks the following:

•  How many copies of the original document are in existence?

•  How large of a time gap is there between the original writings and the earliest copies?

•  How well does a document compare with other ancient history?

So, how well does the New Testament compare with other ancient writings with regard to both the number of copies and the time gap from the originals?

Table A below reveals the New Testament has far more copies in its original language (Greek) than any ancient secular history, and the time gap between the original writings and known copies is significantly less.

 

TABLE A[2]
AUTHOR BOOK DATE WRITTEN EARLIEST COPIES TIME GAP COPIES
Homer Iliad 800 B.C. c. 400 B.C. c. 400 yrs. 643
Herodotus History 480-425 B.C. c. A.D. 900 c. 1,350 yrs. 8
Thucydides History 460-400 B.C. c. A.D. 900 c. 1,300 yrs. 8
Plato Tetralogies 427-347 B.C. c. A.D.  900 c. 1,200 yrs. 7
Desmothenes 300 B.C. c. A.D. 1100 c. 1,400 yrs. 200
Caesar Gallic Wars 100-44 B.C. c. A.D.  900 c. 1,000 yrs. 10
Livy History of Rome 59 B.C.-A.D. 17 4th century (partial) c.   400 yrs. 1
mostly 10th century c. 1,000 yrs. 19
Tacitus Annals A.D. 100 c. A.D. 1100 c. 1,000 yrs. 20
NEW TESTAMENT A.D. 50-100 c. A.D. 114 (fragment) +50yrs. 5366
c. 200 (books) c. 100 yrs.
c. 250 (most of N.T.) c. 150 yrs.
c. 350 (complete N.T.) c. 225 yrs.

 

When counting translations into other languages, the number is a staggering twenty-four thousand—dating from the second to the fifteenth centuries.

New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger remarked, “In contrast with these figures [of other ancient manuscripts], the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.”[3]

Time Gap

Of all secular ancient historical documents outlined in Table A, the shortest time span between the actual writings and the surviving copies is 750 years.   The earliest copies of Caesar and Plato were written 900 years after their histories were written.   Yet, their words are accepted as authentic, and most scholars would laugh at the suggestion that they were invalid.

Even critical scholar John A. T. Robinson has admitted, “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]  The point is this:  If the New Testament records were made and circulated so closely to the actual events, their portrayal of Jesus is most likely accurate.

When it comes to the other two tests (Internal Evidence Test & External Evidence Test), the New Testament also passes them with flying colors. To read more on the New Testament reliability, see http://y-jesus.com/wwrj/4-are-gospels-true

Perhaps the most important question of all history is, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” Eyewitnesses claim they saw him alive after his death on the cross.  One skeptic who thought their claim was a mere legend investigated the evidence for himself.  What did he discover?  To find out, see: http://y-jesus.com/wwrj/6-jesus-rise-dead

If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then he must know what is on the other side.  What did Jesus say about the meaning of life and our future?  Are there many ways to God or did Jesus claim to be the only way?  Read the startling answers at http://y-jesus.com/wwrj/7-jesus-relevant-today

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[1]  Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 33–68.

[2]  Ibid. 38.

[3]  Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 34.

[4]  John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 36.