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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: What Are the Main Issues We Face in Determining the Reliability of the New Testament Account of Jesus?

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What Are the Main Issues We Face in Determining the Reliability of the New Testament Account of Jesus?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 1

There is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth existed as an historical character. The evidence from the New Testament, as well as other secondary sources, all testify to that fact. No ancient source, even from those who did not believe in Him, denied that He existed. This being the case, we need to know about the reliability of the records that we do have about Him. Can they be trusted?

Five Questions Which Need Answering

As we begin to look at the reliability of the New Testament account about Jesus, there are five basic questions that need to be addressed. We need to have a positive answer to each of these questions if we are to have confidence in the New Testament record.

First, we need to know if the text reads the same way as the New Testament writers originally wrote it. Are we reading what they actually said, or have their words been changed? The text needs to read the same for us to have any confidence in the message.

Second, if we do have a correct representation of what they originally wrote, then we ask the question about the desire of the writers to accurately record information about Jesus. In other words, did they attempt to give us an accurate portrayal of Jesus? Did they want us to know the truth about Jesus?

Our third question concerns their ability to do this. Even if they desired to give an accurate account of the words and deeds of Jesus, were they in a position to do so? Could they accomplish the task of giving a reliable portrayal of Christ?

Fourthly, we look at the evidence that we now possess. Does the New Testament, as we now have, demonstrate that the disciples did indeed accurately record the life and ministry of Jesus? Is it an accurate and trustworthy account of what He said and did?

Our fifth question concern other works. Are there any other writings about Jesus and His ministry that are more accurate and trustworthy than the four gospels? If so, do they tell the same story or do they tell a radically different story?

We will look at each of these questions individually.

1. Was the Text Transmitted Accurately?

The first issue concerns the text of the four gospels. Have they been transmitted to us in a reliable manner or have they been changed so much that we cannot really tell what they originally wrote. The evidence is clear: we can be assured that what we read today is the same thing as the New Testament writers originally wrote. The science of textual criticism demonstrates beyond all doubt that the text we read today has not been changed, or altered in any way, throughout the history of its transmission.

We have gone into this issue in much detail in other books we have written. For example, in our book titled “Ten Reasons to Trust the Bible” we detail the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament text. We do the same thing in our book “The Case For Christianity.”

We have also devoted an entire book examining the issues regarding the reliability and transmission of the text of Scripture: “The Words Of The Bible: How We Know They Were Accurately Transmitted.” We refer to these books for the documentation of the trustworthiness of the biblical text.

2. Were the Writers Interested in Recording Reliable Information about Jesus

Once we have determined that the text has been reliably transmitted we need to know if the writers of the four gospels wanted to truthfully inform us about Jesus’ life and ministry. Is there evidence that the writers of the New Testament wished to convey information about Jesus that was accurate and true? The answer is an unqualified yes. For example, Luke tells us that his goal was to tell the exact truth about Jesus:

Having carefully investigated all of these accounts from the beginning, I have decided to write a careful summary for you, to reassure you of the truth of all you were taught. (Luke 1:3-4 NLT)

Luke wanted to reassure his readers of the truth of the things they had been taught about Jesus. Indeed, they had not believed in myths or fables.

The Apostle John wrote his gospel so that people would believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah. He stated his purpose in this manner:

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31 NASB)

John tells us the exact purpose of writing of his gospel. It is to create belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

This brings up an important point. The gospel writers were not disinterested academic historians who were merely recording a number of ancient historical events for the benefit of future generations. They wrote to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. They are telling us that He the only One who could save people from the sins. The message of Jesus is the hope for all humanity. Therefore, the writers had an awesome responsibility to present the story correctly.

Because of their desire to tell the truth about Jesus, and the importance of whom He was and what He said and did, we have every reason to believe that the writers of the gospels desired to give us a correct understanding of Him and His ministry.

3. Were the Writers in a Position to Record Reliable Information about Jesus?

The evidence is that the New Testament writers intended to give the world a reliable portrait of Jesus. This being the case, do we find that they were in a position to accomplish their goal? Could they give us a true picture of what Jesus said and did?

We find that the writers of the four gospels were certainly in a position to accomplish their desired purpose. They were either eyewitnesses to the events they recorded, or they recorded eyewitness testimony. John would later write,

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3 NRSV)

They wrote about what they heard, what they saw, and what they touched. In other words, they were there!

4. Did the Writers Record Reliable Information about Jesus?

The writers of the New Testament claim to give us reliable information about Jesus. Furthermore, they were in a position to do so. Next, we look at how the information written in the New Testament matches up with the facts as we know them.

Again we emphasize that the people were there at the scene. John, the writer of the fourth gospel, emphasized that he was an eyewitness to the events. For example, he was there the moment Jesus died on the cross. He writes,

When they came to Jesus, they did not break His legs since they saw that He was already dead. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth. (John 19:33-35 HCSB)

This testimony of John demonstrates that he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death. He saw the blood and water come out separately when the spear was thrust into Jesus’ side. This is a perfect explanation, in simple terms, of what happens after a person dies. We find that the blood escapes into the pericardium; the sac around the heart. After standing there for a short time, the blood then separates into serum (water) and clots (the red corpuscles, or blood). Therefore, if a dead person was thrust through with a spear, and the spear entered the pericardium, “blood and water” would flow out separately just as John stated.

Therefore, we have an example that the New Testament writers were not only accurate; they were minutely accurate in their descriptions.

The evidence leads us to conclude that the New Testament writers did indeed leave the world with a truthful account of Jesus. All the evidence indicates that the writers correctly recorded the events of Jesus’ life and ministry.

5. Are There any Other Reliable First-Hand Sources?

Finally, we consider the possibility of older, better sources to reconstruct the life of Jesus. Do they exist? If so, should we use them instead of the four gospels to discover who Jesus is and what He said?

There are indeed other sources about the life and ministry of Jesus that do tell a different story about Him. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that they should be given priority over the New Testament. There are two reasons why this is so.

First, they were written much later than the New Testament. They are not a firsthand account of who Jesus claimed to be or the deeds which He did. These works were not composed by people who were there. Consequently, they cannot give us any reliable information about Jesus.

Second, they have all the earmarks of legends. Indeed, when one reads these accounts it becomes apparent that we are in the realm of legend, not fact. In other words, their accounts are really not believable.

In sum, we can confidently go to the four gospels and them alone, for trustworthy information about Jesus. Indeed, we have every reason to believe that these four documents give us reliable information about His life and ministry.

Summary – Question 1
What Are the Main Issues We Face in Determining the Reliability of the New Testament Account of Jesus?

There is no doubt that Jesus Christ existed. This being the case we need to know where can go to derive reliable information about His life and ministry.

We know that the only firsthand testimony for Jesus is found in the New Testament. Thus, it is important that we know the reliability of the information which is contained within its pages. Five questions need to be answered.

First, we need to be assured that the written text has been transmitted to us accurately. We find this is what happened. Indeed, the evidence leads us to believe that it says the same thing today as what was originally written. Consequently, we can work with the text which we now have because we know it accurately reflects the original words of the New Testament writers.

Second, we need to know that the New Testament writers were attempting to write an accurate portrayal of the life and ministry of Jesus. From their writings we can determine that this was their goal. Indeed, it was their stated goal to tell us exactly what happened in the life of Jesus. In other words, they tell us that they were not making up stories.

Third, it is important that they were in a position to accomplish their purpose. We find this to be true also. The writers were either eyewitnesses of the events in Jesus’ life or recorded eyewitness testimony. Therefore, their words carry the authority of someone who was there.

Fourthly, we need to know if what they said matches up with reality. Again, the evidence available to us is that the New Testament writers did indeed write an accurate account of what Jesus said and did. From all the evidence we possess, we find that their accounts match up to known history and known facts.

Finally, we must be assured that the New Testament is the best and most reliable source of the life and ministry of Jesus. From a look at all the facts, we discover that the New Testament is the only source of reliable information about Jesus. All other sources are later and do not contain firsthand information.

Therefore, we conclude that it is to the New Testament that we must go to find out who Jesus was and what He did. It is the only firsthand reliable source which we have.

Are the Four Gospels Reliable? (Introduction) ← Prior Section
Who Wrote the Four Gospels? Next Section →
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