Scholars studying ancient literature have devised the science of textual criticism to examine documents such as The Odyssey, comparing them with other ancient documents to determine their accuracy. More recently, military historian Charles Sanders augmented textual criticism by devising a three-part test that looks at not only the faithfulness of the copy but also the credibility of the authors. His tests are these:
The bibliographical test
The internal evidence test
The external evidence test¹
Let’s see what happens when we apply the internal evidence test to the early New Testament manuscripts.
Several aspects of the New Testament help us determine its reliability based on its own content and qualities.
Phony documents either leave out eyewitness reports or are inconsistent. So outright contradiction among the Gospels would prove that they contain errors. But at the same time, if each Gospel said exactly the same thing, it would raise suspicions of collusion. It would be like co-conspirators trying to agree on every detail of their scheme. Too much consistency is as doubtful as too little.
Eyewitnesses to a crime or an accident generally get the big events right but see it from different perspectives. Likewise, the four Gospels describe the events of Jesus’ life from different perspectives. Yet, regardless of these perspectives, Bible scholars are amazed at the consistency of their accounts and the clear picture of Jesus and his teaching they put together with their complementary reports.
Historians love details in a document because they make it easy to verify reliability. Paul’s letters are filled with details. And the Gospels abound with them. For example, both Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts were written to a nobleman named Theophilus, who was undoubtedly a well-known individual at the time.
If these writings had been mere inventions of the apostles, phony names, places, and events would have quickly been spotted by their enemies, the Jewish and Roman leaders. This would have become the Watergate of the first century. Yet many of the New Testament details have been proven 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.”²
In the previous few centuries, skeptical Bible scholars attacked both Luke’s authorship 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 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.”³
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.”4
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.5
Letters To Small Groups
Most forged texts are from documents both general and public in nature, like this blog article (no doubt countless forgeries are already circulating on the black market). Historical expert Louis Gottschalk notes that personal letters intended for small audiences have a high probability of being reliable.6 Which category do the New Testament documents fall into?
Well, some of them were clearly intended to be circulated widely. Yet large portions of the New Testament consist of personal letters written to small groups and individuals. These documents, at least, would not be considered prime candidates for falsification.
Most writers don’t want to publicly embarrass themselves. Historians have therefore observed that documents containing embarrassing revelations about the authors are generally to be trusted. What did the New Testament authors say about themselves?
Surprisingly, the authors of the New Testament presented themselves as all too frequently dimwitted, cowardly, and faithless. For example, consider Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus or the disciples’ arguments over which of them was the greatest—both stories recorded in the Gospels. As respect for the apostles was crucial in the early church, inclusion of this kind of material doesn’t make sense unless the apostles were reporting truthfully.7
In The Story of Civilization, Will Durant wrote about the apostles, “These men were hardly of the type that one would have chosen to remold the world. The Gospels realistically differentiate their characters, and honestly expose their faults.”8
Counterproductive Or Irrelevant Material
The Gospels tell us that the empty tomb of Jesus was discovered by a woman, even though in Israel the testimony of women was considered to be virtually worthless and was not even admissible in court. Jesus’ mother and family are recorded as stating their belief that he had lost his mind. Some of Jesus’ final words on the cross are said to have been “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And so goes the list of incidents recorded in the New Testament that are counterproductive if the intent of the author were anything but the accurate transmission of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Lack of Relevant Material
It is ironic (or perhaps logical) that few of the major issues facing the first-century church—the Gentile mission, spiritual gifts, baptism, leadership—were addressed directly in the recorded words of Jesus. If his followers were simply generating the material to encourage the growing church, it is inexplicable why they would not have made up instructions from Jesus on these issues. In one case, the apostle Paul flatly stated about a certain subject, “On this we have no teaching from the Lord.”
For more information on how the New Testament stands up under the two other tests mentioned above, read “Are the Gospels True?”
¹ Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 33-68.
² J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 134-157.
³ John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, quoted in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256.
4 Quoted in McDowell, 61.
5 Quoted in McDowell, 64.
6 Geisler and Turek, 269.
7 J. P. Moreland, 136-137.
8 Geisler and Turek, 276.