Truth of the Gospel: The Reliability of the New Testament

In comparison with the remaining manuscripts of any other ancient Greek or Latin literature, the NT suffers from an embarrassment of riches. Editorial Staff
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The Truth of the Gospel: How Do We Know it is True?

The following is a transcribed Video Q&A, so the text may not read as an edited article would. Scroll down to view this video in its entirety. 

“How do we know that the New Testament is reliable? How do we know that we can trust the words that we have there? Well, there's a number of ways to answer that question, but one of the most helpful things we can do is look at it through the lens of textual criticism, and looking at the manuscripts that we have, and we can see how these foster a sense of the confidence that we can have in Scripture.

Let me explain what I mean by that. In terms of the number of ancient witnesses we have to the New Testament, we have a remarkable number of copies of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. In fact, we have over 5,500 Greek manuscripts alone that are a Greek manuscript that is part, or all, of the Greek New Testament. That's an amazing number, an astoundingly high number for a document of such antiquity as the New Testament.

If we compare that for example, to the ancient historian, Tacitus, I think we only have about three manuscripts of his works. I don't think any of those are complete. Josephus is an ancient historian, and we have many more witnesses to his work, but only about 50. In contrast to those ancient documents, for the New Testament we have over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, not counting Latin, or Syriac, or Coptic, or other witnesses in other languages to the New Testament text, and that also doesn't count quotations from the Greek New Testament from the early church fathers.

In fact, if we did not have any manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, we could get very far with reconstructing the New Testament text simply based on the quotations and allusions to the New Testament and the Greek fathers. We have a complete Greek New Testament from the middle of the 300s AD, and that's less than 300 years after all the documents were written, and that's an amazingly small gap for a document of that antiquity.

The number of Greek manuscripts we have is an amazing number, and the early date of the manuscripts that we have shows us that there was not a lot of time for errors to creep in that we could not detect. As we compare these documents with one another we can have a very, very good understanding of what the actual words are because we have so many different witnesses to the early texts of the New Testament, so where one manuscript might be wrong, we have thousands of other to compare with that manuscript to help us arrive at what the original wording probably was.

In terms of, how do we know we have the right book? This is a question that many people are discussing today, and many people have good questions about it, and it's a very good question. What is not always understood is that the books in our New Testament set themselves apart from a very early stage in Christian history. Some people might mention other books that could have been rivals to our New Testament books, but for the core of our New Testament, there never were any rivals. You may hear of a number of other gospels that people might suggest are equally as valid as the Four Gospels we have, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

For example, some might look to the Gospel of Thomas, but the historical and the physical evidence we have simply does not support such a claim. We know of a four-fold gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, from the earliest times, and we have physical evidence, in manuscripts, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John being read together, being circulated as a unit, or being mentioned in the same breath, but we don't have any evidence for a fifth gospel that is bound with them in a codex form, in a book form. We don't have any evidence that the gospel of Thomas from the earliest period in the first century, and from the beginning of the second century, was treated or received as being as authoritative as the four gospels we have.

In fact, if we look at all of our 27 books, and we have 27 books in the New Testament, and we're looking historically at the debates that might have been surrounding them, there was never really any debate about probably 22 of the 27 books. That's about 86% of our New Testament. There were a few questions about some of the books, but time-and-time again we find that the books that God had inspired rose to the top, and asserted themselves as the books that the church recognized as authoritative.

It's surprising, as well, the way this happened, because there was never a decision for the Church to dictate which 27 books we should read, nor was there a great diversity in the opinion that was completely different from one place to another. What we find is a core group of New Testament documents that emerged almost automatically, and we would say through the work of God's Spirit, but they arose almost automatically in the life of the church. There are only a few books that there was ever really any discussion on and that discussion was not so great that any books were disallowed, but what we find was after a little bit of discussion, and the dust had settled, that 27 books asserted themselves as the books that we have today.”

Two Reasons Why Some Reject the Truth of the Gospels

During an interview on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, I responded to the objections of two atheists who rejected the reliability of the Gospel accounts on the basis of apparent contradictions with Josephus’ record and concern about corroborative evidence. I’ve learned to employ a four-pronged template when assessing the reliability of a witness, and I took this approach when I first examined the Gospels as a skeptic (I was 35 years old before I became interested in the Gospel accounts). As I evaluated the Biblical text with these principles in mind, I became convinced they were a reliable record of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I understand, however, when others come to a different conclusion, and I think there are two reasons why someone might disagree about the most reasonable inference from the evidence. Before I address these two reasons, however, I want to ask you to imagine the existence of a historical account related to an ancient teacher. Imagine investigating this ancient record and discovering the following:

There are multiple accounts related to the life of this teacher. Several of these accounts date back to within the lifetimes of those who knew the teacher personally. These early records were accepted immediately as the true account of the life and teaching of this ancient “master”. Even those who are skeptical of the contents of these texts admit they are the earliest written record related to the ancient sage.

There are many internal and external pieces of evidence that corroborate the claims of these early records. They contain accurate “unintentional eyewitness support” between authors, accurate descriptions of ancient regional proper names, governmental functions, and little-known geographic locations, and they use the forms of an ancient language we would expect. In addition to this, external evidential support for the claims of these texts is available in the archaeological record and in the testimony of ancient hostile writers. These early critics confirm the description of the teacher, even though they opposed his students and teaching.

The transmission record of the early accounts is robust and thorough. They were handled like few other ancient documents; they were copied, preserved, and cherished by generations of disciples, resulting in over 24,000 fragments and complete manuscripts from antiquity. There are also ample ancient descriptions of these early accounts from disciples who were students of the first eyewitnesses. The writings of these students confirm the narrative described in the original texts. As a result, we can have certainty about the original content of the documents.

The original accounts were attested by people who cherished their testimony and were willing to die for the veracity of their claims. None of these eyewitnesses gained anything financially, relationally, or sexually. None of them became powerful as a result of their claims. Instead, they often had to “scratch and claw” for respect, even within the context of their own communities. They were sometimes rejected by the people within this community, even as they were vigorously persecuted by those outside the group. They were beaten, starved, and eventually killed for their testimony, yet none of them ever recanted.

If you were examining this ancient record fairly, I think you would find it to be reliable given the evidence related to early dating, evidential corroboration, accurate transmission, and the lack of bias. There are very few ancient accounts that pass a test this rigorous, but the New Testament Gospels do. In fact, the second section of Cold Case Christianity provides a glimpse of how the evidence confirms the reliability of the gospel narratives. They pass the test, yet many still doubt their reliability. Why? I think there are two reasons:

Miraculous Details of the Gospel

First, the accounts include supernatural events. The ancient teacher, Jesus, performed miracles and was resurrected after his crucifixion and death. For many in the post-enlightenment era, the presence of miracles automatically disqualifies any ancient record as history and relegates it to the ranks of mythology. But stop and think about this for a minute. The writers of the Gospels were testifying about something they knew to be unusual: They were testifying about a man who was more than a teacher, He was a miracle worker who claimed to be God and rose from the dead to prove His claim. The witnesses knew their claims would be controversial and resisted. As we examine their testimony to determine whether or not we can trust them, we cannot begin by rejecting the very nature of their claim. Yes, we can be skeptical, but we cannot begin by rejecting supernaturalism before the witnesses even make a case for the supernatural.  We cannot start our investigation with our conclusions predetermined. We would never want to do that in a criminal investigation, and we should be similarly hesitant, to begin with our conclusions when examining the gospels. Instead, let’s evaluate them for reliability and suspend our presuppositions until we hear what the witnesses have to say.

Moral Directives in the Gospel

The gospel accounts, for better or worse, are not merely descriptive, they are prescriptive as well. Jesus didn’t come to teach algebra or grammar; He came to teach us about our true condition as humans, our need for a Savior, and the way back Home. He illuminated the dark nature of our souls and the truth about God and Himself. He called it like it was (and still is), and He didn’t pull many punches. He offended many who listened to his teaching in the 1st Century and He continues to offend listeners today. Sometimes the ugly truth is… ugly. The right way is seldom the easy way, and truth, by its very nature, is exclusive. The message of Jesus has been difficult to hear (and accept) for over two thousand years. Many who hear it today quickly equate the claims of Christianity with moral directives they seek to reject at any cost. Don’t be surprised, then, when people reject the prescriptive Gospels as unreliable, even though they accept other ancient descriptive accounts far less attested or corroborated.

Not every claim is gets rejected solely on the basis of a rational, evidential examination. There are times when our presuppositions and desires have a greater impact on our decision making than we might care to admit. If the Gospels did not include supernatural elements and a moral prescription, I doubt anyone would find them historically unreliable.

Excerpt by J. Warner Wallace

Originally published June 29, 2020.