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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Case for Christianity

Don Stewart :: The Historical Accuracy of the New Testament

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Chapter 5 – The Historical Accuracy of the New Testament

It Matches Up with Known Events

In our last chapter, we showed that the New Testament has been transmitted reliably to us; it says the same thing as when originally written. Therefore, we can confidently read its pages with the realization that we are reading the same words that the apostles wrote with nothing added or subtracted. This chapter is now the next logical step.

It is not enough that the text has been accurately transmitted to us, what it says must match up with known reality. In other words, the people, places and events which are mentioned in the New Testament must match up with known history if the case for Christianity is to be taken seriously.

This chapter examines this subject of the historical reliability of the New Testament. We will discover that the references contained in its pages match up with what we know about the people, places, culture, and events of that time. We will establish eleven important points concerning the historical reliability of the New Testament.

We conclude our chapter with the testimony of law. We look at what is known as the “ancient documents rule.” From this rule, we discover that a court of law would admit the New Testament into evidence as a trustworthy document. Thus, if someone says that it is not true, they must bring evidence to the contrary. Consequently the burden of proof rests with those who doubt the New Testament; not with the claims of the New Testament itself.

We emphasize that merely being historically accurate does not mean the New Testament is the Word of God. However to be God’s Word to the human race, it must be accurate in the details which it provides us. We discover that the evidence says that it is.

Now that we know the New Testament has been accurately transmitted throughout history, we come to our next issue—do the events, names, places, etc., that the New Testament records, match up with known history? Can we be confident that the historical references within the New Testament are accurate? This chapter will deal with the question of the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

The Importance of the Historical Accuracy of the Bible

The historical accuracy of the Bible is of the utmost importance because the revelation of God to humankind was accomplished through His mighty words and deeds in history. The Bible is a testimony to the mighty works of God. The evidence is as follows.

1. The Old Testament Reminded the People of God’s Mighty Deeds

The Lord constantly reminded Israel of His mighty power. The Old Testament called the people’s attention to the past deeds of God. We read the following in the Book of Exodus:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.” (Exodus 20:2 God’s Word)

The Lord is the One who brought His people out of the slavery in Egypt.

The nation was continually urged to remember what He had done for them in the past. In the Book of Second Kings, they were again are reminded of what the Lord has done for their nation. It says,

“...but you shall worship the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm; you shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice.” (2 Kings 17:36 NRSV)

We also read the prophet Micah calling to mind what the Lord has done. He wrote the following to the people in his day:

“O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5 NRSV)

Consequently, the Old Testament writers stress the acts of God in history. These events are assumed to have literally occurred and they testify to the great power of the God of the Bible.

2. God Came to Our World through Jesus Christ

The same historical importance is found in the New Testament. At a certain time in history, Jesus Christ, God the Son, came into our world. John wrote,

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NKJV)

The main message of the New Testament is that God became a human being in the Person of Jesus Christ.

We find the various writers of Scripture appealing time and time again to actual historical events to testify to both the existence and the power of God. God exists and He has acted in history.

3. The Bible Contains Many Specific Historical References

In fact, the entire biblical revelation centers on what God has done in history. For example, one chapter in Scripture, Genesis 10, has five times more specific geographical references of importance than the entire Koran, the holy book of Islam! In addition, there are over three hundred references in the Book of Acts alone to names, places, and events. With so much attention to detail, the historical reliability of the Scriptures is of vital importance. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must be able to withstand the most thorough historical investigation. These events must match up with known history.

4. We Are to Investigate the New Testament the Same Way We Investigate Other Documents

The New Testament was written in the same way as other documents in the ancient world. Consequently, it should be examined the same way as these other documents. Contrary to the claims of other religions and cults, there is no record of documents written on golden plates or discovered in some hidden cave. Neither are the writings of the New Testament brought down from heaven by angels. To the contrary, they are the straightforward accounts of the people who walked and talked with Jesus and were observers of the things that He both said and did. The men who wrote these books made them public at the time they were written. There is no idea of hiding them in caves or burying them so as to be discovered by some later generation. Every aspect of the composition of the New Testament is the same as other historical writings of that period. Therefore, we need to investigate their claims as we would any other historical record.

5. The New Testament Books: First Hand Testimony of the Events

As we investigate the New Testament text we observe that the writers of the books claimed to be either eyewitnesses to the events recorded, or those who gathered eyewitness testimony.

The Apostle John wrote the following:

The one who existed from the beginning is the one we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is Jesus Christ, the Word of life. This one who is life from God was shown to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and announce to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was shown to us. (1 John 1:1, 2 NLT)

John emphasized that he had seen Jesus, had heard Jesus teach, and touched Him. We are dealing with reality; not mythology.

As an eyewitness, Simon Peter testified to what he saw and heard. He wrote,

We did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18 HCSB)

Peter says that he and the other disciples did not follow after myths. They were there and they tell us what happened.

The fact that the New Testament writers claimed such objective, complete, and firsthand evidence concerning Jesus Christ is of the utmost importance. Their evidence is not hearsay or imaginary—it is direct and reliable.

6. The New Testament Was Written a Short Time after the Events

The time of the composition of the New Testament text is extremely important. If the documents were written and circulated at an early date, then the eyewitnesses would still be living. They could either verify or deny the events recorded. They could serve as a check to see if the New Testament writers were telling the truth.

The evidence shows that the four Gospels were written in a relatively short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This can first be seen by examining the internal evidence of the New Testament itself.

In fact, we find several clues in the New Testament that suggest an early date of its composition. They are as follows.

The City of Jerusalem and Temple Were Still Standing When the New Testament Was Written

The first three Gospels, and possibly also the fourth, were apparently written while the city of Jerusalem was still standing. Each of the first three Gospels contain predictions by Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), but none records the fulfillment of the predictions. We know that Titus the Roman destroyed the city and Temple in the year A.D. 70. Hence, the composition of the first three Gospels must have occurred sometime before this event, otherwise the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have been recorded so as to prove that Jesus’ predictions came true.

The Book of Acts Provides a Clue to the Date of the Gospels

The Book of Acts also provides us with a clue as to when the gospels were written. Acts records the highlights in the life and the ministry of the Apostle Paul. The book concludes with Paul at Rome awaiting trial before Caesar. The inference is that Acts was written while Paul was still alive, seeing his death is not recorded. Since there is good evidence that Paul died in the Neronian persecution about A.D. 67, the Book of Acts can be dated approximately A.D. 62.

Acts Is the Second Part of Luke’s Writings

If Acts were written about A.D. 62, then this helps us date the gospels, since the Book of Acts is the second half of a treatise written by Luke to a man named Theophilus. Because we know that the Gospel of Luke was written before the Book of Acts, we can then date the Gospel of Luke sometime around A.D. 60 or before.

The Brother Who Was Well-Known May Have Been Luke

There may be further evidence for an early date for Luke’s gospel. Paul wrote of a brother who was well-known among the churches for the gospel. He said,

With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news... (2 Corinthians 8:18 NRSV)

There is ancient testimony that this refers to Luke and his written gospel. If this is speaking of Luke and the gospel he composed, then we have it as being well-known in the mid-fifties of the first century.

Mark Was Possibly Used As A Source For Luke

There may be a reference in the writings of Luke that he used Mark as a written source. John Mark is called a “minister” by Luke in Acts 13:5 (the Greek word huparetas). In 1:2, Luke says he derived the information for his gospel from those who were “eyewitnesses” and “ministers” of the word. The term translated “minister” is the same Greek word huparetas that Luke uses to describe Mark in the Book of Acts. It is possible that this could be a reference to Mark as one of his written sources.

Mark May Have Been Written before Luke

Furthermore, modern scholarship has generally assumed that the Gospel of Mark was written before Luke. If this is the case, then this book was composed somewhere in the fifties of the first century A.D. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred approximately in the year A.D. 33, these two gospels were written during the time when eyewitnesses, both friendly and unfriendly, were still alive. These eyewitnesses could either verify or falsify the information contained in the gospels.

Matthew Was the First Gospel Written

We now go a step further by considering Matthew’s gospel. According to the unanimous testimony of the early church Matthew was the first gospel written. The church father Eusebius places the date of Matthew’s gospel in A.D 41. If this is true, then we have a third independent source about the life of Christ that was written during the eyewitness period.

John Was an Eyewitness to the Events

The Gospel of John is usually assumed to have been the last of the four gospels composed. John testified that he was an eyewitness to the events that he recorded. He wrote,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 NRSV)

He also wrote,

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24 NASB)

His testimony is true. He was there!

There Is Internal Evidence for an Early Date for John’s Gospel

There is also internal evidence that John himself wrote before A.D. 70. We read the following in the Gospel of John:

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. (John 5:2 NRSV)

John describes the sheep gate as still standing at the time he wrote. The sheep gate was destroyed in the year A.D 70, along with the rest of the city of Jerusalem. This could very well be an indication that John wrote his gospel while the city of Jerusalem was still standing. Greek scholar Daniel Wallace writes the following concerning this verse:

The present tense should be used as indicating present time from the viewpoint of the speaker. The implication seems to be that this gospel was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although many may object to a pre-70 date for John’s gospel, they must, in support of their view, reckon with this text. (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1997, p. 531)

The late John A.T. Robinson, a liberal scholar, in his book Redating The New Testament, concluded there is sufficient evidence for believing that every New Testament book was composed before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

There Is an Early Date for the Entire New Testament

When all the historical and textual evidence is amassed, it becomes clear that the New Testament was composed at a very early date either by eyewitnesses or those who recorded eyewitness testimony. The eminent archaeologist William F. Albright concluded the following:

In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75). (Interview with Christianity Today, January 18, 1963)

Albright also stated,

Thanks to the Qumran discoveries, the New Testament proves to be what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between cir. 24 and cir. 80 A.D. (W.F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, p. 29)

Again, we have expert testimony of the early composition of the gospels.

Scholar John Wenham writes the following concerning the available evidence we have to date the New Testament:

  1. Luke knew Mark’s Gospel.
  2. The dates should be reckoned working back from Acts, the natural date of which is A.D. 62.
  3. Luke’s gospel was apparently well known in the mid-50’s.
  4. According to tradition, Mark’s gospel gives Peter’s teaching in Rome.
  5. Peter’s first visit to Rome was probably 42-44 and Mark’s gospel was probably written about 45.
  6. The universal tradition of the early church puts Matthew first, which means a date around 40.

(John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP, 1992, p. 243)

Legal expert, Simon Greenleaf, makes a sensible conclusion concerning the dating of the four gospels:

The earlier date, however, is argued with greater force, for the improbability that the Christians would be left for several years without a general and authentic history of our Savior’s ministry. (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, Kregel, 1995, p. 19)

This makes complete sense. We know that the early Christian leaders did indeed write authoritative letters to other believers. Acts chapter fifteen records an example of this. This being the case, we have every reason to believe that the gospels were written at an early date.

The Unwitting Testimony of Unbelievers to the New Testament

We add to this the testimony of unbelievers. Unwittingly, they have given testimony to the early composition of the New Testament. Speaking of Celsus, a man living in the second century who hated Christianity, Bishop Fallows writes the following:

This unbeliever, although he caused great annoyance to the believers in Christ living in his day, and seemed to be disturbing the foundations of the Christian faith, rendered more real service to Christianity than any father of undisputed orthodoxy in the Church. He admits all the grand facts and doctrines of the gospel, as they were preached by the Apostles, and contained in the acknowledged writings, for the sake of opposing. He makes in his attacks eighty quotations from the New Testament, and appeals to it as containing the sacred writings of Christians, universally received by them as credible and Divine.
He is, therefore, the very best witness we can summon to prove that the New Testament was not written hundreds of years after the Apostles were dust; but in less than a century and a half had been received by the Christian Church all over the world. He expressly quotes both the synoptic Gospels, as they were termed (the first three Gospels), and the Gospel of St. John. (Bishop Fallows, Mistakes of Ingersoll and His Answers, pp. 91, 92)

Therefore, we even have the testimony of unbelievers as to the identity of the gospel writers.

7. Internal Evidence from the New Testament That It Was Already Considered Scripture

There is internal evidence from the New Testament itself that parts of it were already considered to be Scripture. Peter had the following to say about Paul’s writings:

And remember, the Lord is waiting so that people have time to be saved. This is just as our beloved brother Paul wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters around to mean something quite different from what he meant, just as they do the other parts of Scripture—and the result is disaster for them. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NLT)

Peter puts Paul’s writings on the same level as the rest of the Scripture. They were considered to be authoritative writings.

Paul Quotes Luke as Scripture

In addition, Paul quotes Luke’s gospel and calls it Scripture. He wrote the following to Timothy:

...for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” (1 Timothy 5:18 NRSV)

This quotation is from Luke 10:7. When Paul wrote First Timothy, it seems Luke’s gospel had already been accepted as Scripture.

8. The Completed New Testament Was Recognized Early

The completed New Testament was recognized early in the history of the church. Tertullian, writing in the first two decades of the third century, was the first known person to call the Christian Scriptures the “New Testament.”

Consequently, when all the evidence is in, it shows that not only the New Testament documents were written soon after the events they recorded; they were also recognized at an early date to be authoritative by those who read them.

9. The Authors of the Four Gospels Can Be Identified

The life of Christ has been recorded for us by four separate works known as gospels. The traditional authorship is credited to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There are three basic reasons why we believe the four gospels were written by the men bearing their names. They are as follows.

There Is Unanimous Tradition as to Authorship

The four gospels are unanimously attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—there are no other candidates. Scholar Craig Keener convincingly makes the point that the authorship of these works would not have been forgotten. He writes,

Authorship would be the last thing forgotten. That this Gospel [Matthew] originally circulated without oral reports of authorship is unlikely; as an anonymous work it would not have quickly commanded the wide acceptance it received, and authors of biographies of this length normally were named. (Craig Keener, Matthew, Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP, 1997, p. 32)

Thus, we have every reason to believe this unanimous testimony to the authorship of the four gospels.

Three of the Four Are Unlikely Authors

The authors of our four gospels would not have been the obvious choices to write the accounts of the life of Christ. Only one of these four men (John) was a prominent character in the New Testament. Why attribute a book to the others if they were not the authors? The unanimous attestation of these unlikely authors is another strong reason for accepting the traditional view that they penned their respective gospels. There is no other reason to attribute to these men the authorship of the gospels had they not written them.

The Identification of the Document Was Made on Its Outside

The early preservation of the name of the author is another consideration. It was a common literary practice during the time of Christ to preserve the name of the author of a written record. Scrolls with written text on both sides had tags glued to them (called a sittybos in Greek) which insured the preservation of the author’s name. They were attached in such a way that a person could see who authored the scroll without unrolling it. This is similar to the function of the spine on our modern books—one does not have to open the book to find out who wrote it.

With four different written gospels circulating, there needed to be a way to distinguish them from each other. The term “gospel” would not be enough, seeing that there was more than one gospel circulating. Therefore the church had to preserve the name of each gospel writer at an early date. The tag on the outside of the scroll would accomplish that purpose. It would read in Greek, “Gospel of Matthew” or “Gospel of Mark.”

There Are No Variations in the Titles

The fact that this happened is clear in that there are no variations in the titles of the gospels. Every source is unanimous that Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke penned his gospel, and John wrote his.

These three reasons—the unanimous testimony of the church, the unlikely authorship of these men, and the early identification of the document, all present a strong case for the traditional authorship of the gospels.

The Gospel Writers Have Excellent Credentials

The four gospel writers also had excellent credentials to be in a position to know the facts about Jesus’ ministry and to record them correctly. The evidence is as follows.

Matthew

The writer of the first gospel originally bore the name Levi but was also named, or possibly renamed, Matthew (“gift of God”). We know that he was the son of Alphaeus. The Bible says,

As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. (Mark 2:14 NRSV)

His job was that of a tax collector or a customs official. This position would have made him an ideal candidate for writing this gospel for the following reasons:

  1. A tax collector would be fluent in Greek.
  2. He would also be literate.
  3. He would be used to keeping records.
  4. He most likely would be able to write in short-hand. Therefore he could have been a note-taker at Jesus teachings.
  5. If Levi was a tribal name, he would have known about scribal traditions and be familiar with temple practices.
  6. He would have been a well-educated scribe in the secular sense.

There is something else about the tax collector position that would make Matthew a particularly good candidate to be a writer of one of the accounts of the life of Jesus. Simon Greenleaf makes this brilliant observation:

And if the men of that day were, as in truth they appear to have been, as much disposed as those of the present time, to evade the payment of public taxes and duties, and to elude, by all possible means, the vigilance of the revenue officers, Matthew must have been familiar with a great variety of forms of fraud, imposture, cunning, and deception, and must have become habitually distrustful, scrutinizing, and cautious; and, of course, much less likely to have been deceived in regard to many of the facts in our Lord’s ministry, extraordinary as they were, which fell under his observation. This circumstance shows both the sincerity and the wisdom of Jesus in selecting him for an eye-witness of his conduct, and adds great weigh to the value of the testimony of this evangelist. (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony Of The Evangelists, Kregel, 1995, p. 21)

What a great choice Matthew was! This customs official would certainly be skeptical of the things he saw and heard. Thus, his background adds greater credibility to his written account of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Mark

Mark was also in a unique position to write about Jesus. His gospel contained the preaching of Simon Peter—one of the Jesus’ twelve disciples. Therefore we have Mark relating to us the things Simon Peter said about the life and ministry of Jesus. There is hardly any incident related in Mark’s gospel where Simon Peter was not present and the recording of minute detail shows that we have the testimony of an eyewitness.

Luke

Luke, the writer of the third gospel, stated the purpose of his account in the preface. He wrote,

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4 RSV)

This statement of Luke tells us, at least, the following:

  1. Luke may not have been an eyewitness to the events he recorded.
  2. But he, like those before him, made careful use of the eyewitness accounts.
  3. Luke had access to other narratives, possibly written documents like his own.
  4. Luke felt the need for a further account.
  5. His account is orderly.
  6. He had full knowledge of the events he recorded.
  7. His ultimate aim is truth.

Simon Greenleaf, the legal expert, declared that Luke’s use of firsthand sources would make them admissible in a court of law. He wrote,

It would possess every legal attribute of an inquisition [deposition], and, as such, would be legally admissible in evidence, in a court of justice. (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of The Evangelists, Kregel, 1995, p. 25)

Luke deposed the witnesses. Their authentic testimony is contained in his account.

John

The author of the fourth gospel, John, was one of the twelve—an eyewitness to the events in the life of Christ. At the end of the Gospel of John we find these words:

This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24 NKJV)

As an eyewitness he would certainly be in a position to correctly state the facts about the life and ministry of Jesus.

Conclusion: The Writers of the Four Gospels Were Qualified

The evidence shows that each of the four gospel writers were in an excellent position to write an accurate account of the life of Christ. Two of the writers (Matthew and John) were among Jesus’ inner circle while another (Mark) recorded the teachings of Peter—the most prominent disciple. Luke put his account together through the eyewitness testimony of those who were with Jesus.

The Writers Could Be Cross-Examined

Another important point to consider is that the disciples were able to be cross-examined by their contemporaries. For example, they preached the message that Jesus had risen in the very city in which He was crucified and buried. If their testimony were not true, the unbelieving enemies of Christ could easily have refuted their contention. It is crucial to appreciate the fact that the disciples of Jesus did not immediately go off to Athens or Rome to proclaim the truth of the gospel, but rather preached it in the city of Jerusalem—where the events transpired.

The Book of Acts Records Miracles of the Apostles

The Book of Acts records some of the major events in the early church—including miracles performed by the apostles. These events took place in Jerusalem, in front of the same people who put Jesus to death. We note what was said about one of the miracles they were confronted with. Scriptures says,

But when they had ordered them to go outside the council, they began to confer with one another, saying, “What should we do with these men? For it is plain to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable miraculous sign has come about through them, and we cannot deny it.” (Acts 4:15, 16 NET)

The fact of this miracle was of such a nature that even the enemies of Christ could not deny it. They had to admit that this miracle actually took place.

The Testimony of Paul to Christ

Though the gospels were written a relatively short time after the death and resurrection of Christ what about the letters of the Apostle Paul? When were they composed? How do they help with the reliability of the New Testament?

Some of Paul’s Letters Were Possibly Written Earlier Than The Gospels

Some of the letters of the Apostle Paul may actually have been written earlier than the gospels. For example, First Thessalonians was written approximately A.D. 51, while the first letter to the Corinthians was penned about A.D. 56. Obviously, all of his letters were written before A.D. 67, when he died.

Paul Confirmed Some Of The Material In The Gospels

The testimony of the Apostle Paul confirms the evidence presented in the gospel accounts concerning Jesus Christ. We will state a few examples.

Jesus Was the Creator of the Universe

John tells us that Jesus was the Creator of the universe. He wrote,

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being... (John 1:3 NRSV)

Paul also testified that Jesus was the Creator of the universe. He said the following to the Colossians:

Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16 NLT)

Jesus is the One who created all things. He is the active agent of creation.

Jesus Obeyed the Jewish Law

Jesus was always obedient to the law of God. He asked if anyone had ever seen Him sin. John records Jesus saying the following:

“Can any of you convict me of committing a sin? If I’m telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?” (John 8:46 God’s Word)

No one could give an example—because He did not sin. In the same way, Paul emphasized that Jesus was obedient to the Old Testament law. He wrote the following to the Galatians:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law... (Galatians 4:4 NRSV)

Jesus was obedient to God’s law as revealed in the Old Testament.

Jesus Was Betrayed

All four gospels record the fact that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. The Apostle Paul also spoke of Jesus having been betrayed. He wrote,

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread... (1 Corinthians 11:23 NRSV)

Paul confirmed the report that was given in all four gospels; Jesus had been betrayed.

Jesus Was Crucified

All four gospels are consistent that Jesus died by means of crucifixion. Paul mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion as the cornerstone of his message. He wrote the following to the Corinthians:

But we preach Christ crucified... (1 Corinthians 1:23a KJV)

This was central to his message. Jesus Christ died on a cross for the sins of the world in the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus Rose from the Dead

Again, all four gospels testify that Jesus rose from the dead. Paul also confirmed that Christ rose from the dead. He wrote to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4 NKJV)

Jesus died according to the Scriptures and then rose again according to the Scriptures.

There Are Important Points about Paul’s Testimony

Three points must be emphasized concerning the testimony of the Apostle Paul. They are as follows.

He Was a Contemporary of the Disciples

The Apostle Paul, though not an eyewitness to the events of the life of Christ, was living at the same time as the disciples who were eyewitnesses. Therefore, he was their contemporary.

He Wrote within Thirty Years of the Events

All of Paul’s letters were composed within thirty years of the events of the life and ministry of Jesus. This is far too short of a time for him to have radically changed the message of Jesus without receiving criticism from both believing and non-believing eyewitnesses of the events.

For example, First Thessalonians is probably the earliest letter that Paul wrote. It can be dated around the year A.D. 51—less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

He Challenged His Readers to Investigate the Evidence

Paul challenged his readers to investigate for themselves the evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He wrote to the Corinthians:

After that, he was seen by more than five hundred of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now. (1 Corinthians 15:6 NLT)

Many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were still alive when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Anyone doubting the fact of the resurrection could check out their testimony.

Conclusion to Paul’s Testimony

We conclude that the testimony of the Apostle Paul adds further evidence to the trustworthiness of the gospel’s picture of Jesus.

The New Testament Books Were Read Aloud In The Churches And Circulated

We know that many of the New Testament books were read aloud in the churches. We have examples from the gospels, Paul’s letters, and the Book of Revelation. In Paul’s earliest letter, he wrote the following:

I command you in the name of the Lord to read this letter to all the brothers and sisters. (1 Thessalonians 5:27 NLT)

The Gospel of Matthew also assumes that someone will be reading it aloud. It says,

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)...” (Matthew 24:15 ESV)

When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he ordered his letter to be read publicly. We read,

And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 NRSV)

The people of this church were to read and circulate Paul’s letter.

The Public Reading of the Scripture Was Commanded by Paul

A very important passage is found in First Timothy. Here Paul commanded the public reading of the Scriptures. He said,

Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13 NRSV)

The Scripture would include all of the New Testament that had been written until that time. Since First Timothy was one of the last New Testament books to have been written, this command probably referred to most of the twenty-seven documents that now make up the New Testament.

There Was a Special Blessing for Those Who Read and Obeyed the Message

Finally, John promised a special blessing to the person who read the book out loud as well as those who heard it being read. They would receive a blessing if they obeyed the things written in the book. He wrote,

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3 NRSV)

Therefore the message of Jesus went out publicly, before both believers and unbelievers. It was there for all to freely investigate.

The Events Do Match Up with Known History

The evidence shows that New Testament was written at an early date by eyewitnesses, or by those who recorded eyewitness testimony, and these writers were in a position to accurately record the life and ministry of Jesus. This brings us to the real issue; do their writings actually reflect known history? Put another way, does secular history confirm the references to people, places, and events which are found in the New Testament? The answer is a resounding, “Yes.” We will cite only a few examples.

The People Actually Existed

The people that the four gospels mention were historical figures. For example, Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, and Tiberius Caesar are known to have existed. Consequently we are dealing with real people.

Pontius Pilate Was Prefect of Judea

For many years there were questions about the existence and the actual title of Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus. In later Roman writers, as well as in almost all Bible reference works, Pilate is referred to as the “procurator” of Judea. According to the New Testament, he is called a “governor;” not a procurator.

In 1961, on the coast of Israel in the town of Caesarea, the discovery was made of a two by three foot stone that had a Latin inscription written upon it. The translation of the inscription reads as follows:

Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberieum to the Caesareans.

This is the first archaeological evidence for the existence of Pilate. What is interesting about the inscription is the title that he is given—Prefect of Judea. We now know that the title “Procurator” was not used at the time for the Roman governors. This title only came into usage at a later time. During the reign of the emperor Claudius, A.D. 41-54 the title of the Roman governors shifted from Prefect to Procurator. Although the later Roman writers gave Pilate the incorrect title, the New Testament did not. It calls him a governor—not a Procurator.

The Two Herods Were Historical Characters

The gospels mention two people by the name of Herod; Herod the Great and Herod the Tetrarch.

Herod the Great was the ruler of Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. Matthew writes

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We have seen his star as it arose, and we have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1, 2 NLT)

From a number of sources, we know that Herod the Great existed. First century writer Flavius Josephus tells us much of Herod’s history. Also coins have been discovered that have the inscription “Herod the King.” At the site of Masada, where hundreds of Jews went to their deaths in defiance of the Roman army, a potsherd has been found that says Herod, King of the Jews. Consequently, his existence is unquestionably confirmed.

During Jesus’ public ministry, some thirty years later, another Herod is mentioned—Herod the tetrarch. We read about this in Matthew. It says,

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus. (Matthew 14:1 HCSB)

Again, we are dealing with genuine history. We know that Herod the Tetrarch existed because of the writings of first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, as well as coins that were minted that have inscribed “Herod the tetrarch.”

The Burial Box of the High Priest Caiaphas Has Been Found

A stunning example of extra-biblical confirmation of the existence of a New Testament character is found in the seeming discovery of the bones of the High Priest Caiaphas. The New Testament says that Caiaphas is the one who presided over one of the trials of Jesus. Matthew writes,

And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. (Matthew 26:57 NKJV)

In 1990, the bones of Caiaphas were seemingly discovered in a limestone ossuary, or burial box that was found in the old city of Jerusalem. The inscription on the ornate burial box read, “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” If the identity of this finding holds up, then we have the first physical remains that have been discovered of a person mentioned in Scripture.

These are a few of the many examples that could be given of extra biblical confirmation of New Testament characters.

The Cities Existed Where the Gospels Say They Did

The gospels also record various places where the ministry of the Lord Jesus took place. We find that the cities that are mentioned in the four gospels are known to have existed in the first century. The exact location of almost all of them has now been firmly established. This includes such cities as Nazareth, Cana, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Tiberius. In other words, we are dealing with real places.

The Houses and Structures Mentioned Actually Existed

There were certain physical structures that are mentioned in the gospels that are now known to exist. For example, we have a number of references to synagogues where Jesus taught.

However, for a long time there were no physical remains of any first century synagogue that was discovered. This led critics to deny that Jesus actually taught in synagogues. Yet this is no longer the case. A number of first century synagogues have now been discovered.

In the city of Capernaum ruins have been found that may have been the actual house of Simon Peter. A fifth century church was built over the remains of a first century house. If these are the ruins of Simon Peter’s house, then this is the exact place where Jesus stayed while in the city of Capernaum.

The Writers Knew the Local Customs of the Times

The customs that were practiced in the first-century are consistent with that which is recorded in the four gospels. In fact, we find that the customs are related in a way that is minutely accurate. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we read the following account:

Soon afterward Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the town gate, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother (who was a widow), and a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and those who carried it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” So the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. (Luke 7:11-15 NET)

At the time of Christ, there were different customs with respect to women walking in a funeral procession. In Judea, the area around Jerusalem, the custom was for the women to walk behind the funeral procession. However, in the Galilee region, the custom was reversed. The women walked in front of the funeral procession. The description given by Luke demonstrates the minute accuracy of his account. Jesus began to talk to the mother of the dead child, and then touched the coffin of the dead man. At that time the funeral procession stopped—because it was following behind her and the coffin. This would have only been true in the Galilee region. If this story would have been placed in Judea, then it would not have happened this way—the women would have followed the procession. The fact that Luke incidentally notes that the procession stopped when Jesus touched the coffin shows the minute accuracy of his account.

Conclusion: The Gospels Fit the Historical Evidence

Therefore, when all the evidence is considered, we find that the gospels match up with the known history of that time. The people were real people, the cities existed, the customs were exactly as stated, and the events, actually occurred.

The nature of much of the evidence supports the biblical claim that the New Testament writers wrote during the first century and were either eyewitnesses of the events they described, or had carefully checked the facts and evidence with eyewitnesses. As far as we are able to tell, the New Testament writers were historically accurate.

The Testimony of Law – The Ancient Documents Rule

Given the above evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament, we now look to the testimony of law on this matter.

The 19th century legal authority, Simon Greenleaf, explains what is known as the, “ancient documents” rule. He wrote,

Every document, apparently ancient, coming from the proper repository or custody, and bearing on its face no evident marks of forgery, the law presumes to be genuine, and devolves on the opposing party the burden proving it to be otherwise. (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of The Evangelists, Kregel, 1995, p. 16)

Therefore, the “ancient documents rule” states the following:

  1. If an document is discovered that claims to be ancient
  2. and it comes from where we would expect to find it
  3. and there is no evidence of forgery
  4. and the text shows no sign that it has been changed
  5. and it does not contain obvious contradictions or demonstrable errors; then we are to assume it to be true until evidence can be brought forward to the contrary.

Since the New Testament meets all these criteria, it should be given a fair hearing.

The Benefit of the Doubt Is to Be Given to the New Testament

Furthermore, any benefit of the doubt, therefore, is to be given to the document, not to the critic. Consequently, the burden of proof is on those who deny what the work says. Applied to the New Testament, any criticism of its contents must be based in reality, not in supposition or theory. Since the New Testament has proven itself, over and over again, to be a trustworthy guide to past events, it should be given the benefit of the doubt when covering things that have no independent corroboration. Therefore the Christian should not feel obligated to have every minute detail verified before they can believe what the New Testament says.

There Is Sufficient Evidence to Trust the Gospels

After examining what leading lawyers had to say about the evidence for the trustworthiness of the four Gospels, Australian lawyer/theologian Ross Clifford, made the following conclusion:

We have seen how lawyers affirm that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are trustworthy historical documents. They reach their findings applying general legal principles that obtain to documents and the testimony of witnesses. These show that the gospels are a solid foundation on which to build one’s faith. We could rest our case here. (Ross Clifford, The Case For The Empty Tomb, Albatross Books, Sutherland, New South Wales, Australia, 1991, p. 136)

Indeed, we could rest our case here. However, we will look at further evidence.

Summary and Conclusion

After looking at the question of the New Testament’s historical accuracy we can arrive at the following conclusions:

  1. The question of the Bible’s historical accuracy is of utmost importance because God has revealed Himself by means of historical events. This is especially true in the New Testament when God became a human.
  2. Those who wrote about Jesus were either eyewitnesses to the events in His life or recorded eyewitness testimony. They were there.
  3. The New Testament was written soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There was not enough time for the message to be altered.
  4. The traditional view of the authorship of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) is supported by the facts.
  5. Each of the authors was in an excellent position to give us credible evidence as to the life and ministry of Jesus.
  6. The disciples were able to be cross-examined by their contemporaries about the events they proclaimed. They preached their message in the very city where many of the events took place.
  7. Paul’s letters were written during the eyewitness period. They confirmed many of the main facts of the gospel.
  8. We know that many of the New Testament books were read aloud in the churches. The message was open for all to hear and evaluate.
  9. The evidence concerning the events, places, and names mentioned in the New Testament conclusively affirms the basic historical reliability of the text. We know that the people actually existed, the events occurred, and the places were real. As far as we are able to determine, the historical evidence contained in the New Testament matches up with that of secular history.
  10. Therefore, the testimony of law comes into play. Since the document has come down to us where we would expect to find it, without any tampering and that it contains no obvious errors or contradictions, it should be given the benefit of the doubt in matters where there is no independent evidence to confirm or deny its teachings. Therefore, we should rightly assume that the New Testament is a reliable historical document.

We now move to the content of the New Testament. Who is the main character of the story? What is the book trying to tell us? These and other related questions will be addressed in our next chapter.

The Reliability of the New Testament Text ← Prior Section
The Main Character of the New Testament Next Section →
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