How Reliable Are the Biblical Documents?
Question: I was taught in seminary and have read the same charge in a number of scholarly books that the New Testament is not reliable because it was written centuries after the time of Christ by men who weren’t even alive in Christ’s day. The “Jesus Seminar,” a group of scholars with impressive credentials, makes this claim today. Is there any evidence to the contrary?
Response: That accusation is disproved not only by the manuscripts themselves but by the quotations that we have of the entire New Testament in other writings from the late first to early second century. There is proof even from the writings of Christianity’s enemies. For example, Celsus, a bitter opponent of Christianity who was born early in the second century, referred to the four gospels as part of the sacred books of Christians and already well-known in his day. Just that one piece of evidence disproves the claim that the New Testament wasn’t written until centuries later! In addition, there is more than sufficient proof from within the New Testament itself that it was, as its writers claim, written by contemporaries of Jesus.
The authors of the epistles of Peter and John testify to having known Christ personally and to having been eyewitnesses of all He said and did during His ministry. Peter writes: “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter:1:16). Speaking for himself and the other apostles, John testifies to an intimate relationship with Christ: “That which . . . we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . .” (1 John:1:1).
If the New Testament, which includes such sworn testimonies, was not written by the apostles themselves but was concocted centuries (or even only decades) later by other parties, the whole thing is a fraud! Whoever wrote such tales was lying and was doing so with the deliberate intent of deceiving untold multitudes throughout the coming centuries. And tragically, if this is the case, the deceit has been swallowed by hundreds of millions ever since. That very scenario, however, contains numerous insurmountable problems.
Irrefutable Internal Evidence
First of all, there is an internal consistency within the Bible’s 66 books, even though they were written over a period of about 1,500 years by more than 40 persons, most of whom had never met one another. Living in different historical eras and widely differing regions and cultures, the only thing these writers of Scripture had in common was the claim that what they wrote was inspired by the one true God. The intricate pattern of truth woven without contradiction throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation bears powerful witness to the validity of that claim, which can be explained in no other manner. As for seeming contradictions, we will deal with them.
This continuity and agreement throughout the Bible is one of the most powerful arguments that it is the Word of God. To show how remarkable this argument is, Josh McDowell tells this true story:
A representative of the Great Books of the Western World came to my house recruiting salesmen for their series. . . . I challenged him to take just 10 of the authors, all from one walk of life, one generation, one place, one time, one mood, one continent, one language and just one controversial subject (the Bible speaks on hundreds with harmony and agreement).
Then I asked him: “Would they (the authors) agree?”
He paused and then replied, “No.”
Obviously, any fraudulent writer (for example, of the life and works of Christ) would have to know the entire Bible intimately and be able to maintain its supernatural internal consistency. It is highly unlikely that any deliberate liar would have either the motivation or the ability to do so.
There is a further problem. Careful study of the New Testament reveals a sincerity and truthfulness that would be virtually impossible to fake. Moreover, the Bible has demonstrated a supernatural power to rescue human beings from sin and degradation and to bring liberty, joy, love, and a transformation of life to all who believe its message. That a deliberate fraud could effect so much good is preposterous. It would require more faith to believe that scenario than to accept the Bible’s claim to divine inspiration!
Additional proof abounds of a different nature. We know from archaeological discoveries of quotations in other writings that the New Testament in its entirety was in circulation at least by the end of the first century. Many people were still alive at that time who had known the apostles and to whom their writings rang true to fact. There would have been an enraged outcry had the epistles not told the truth—yet we have no such evidence. The Jewish rabbis unquestionably would have jumped on the slightest lie or exaggeration and used it to discredit this “new religion,” as they considered it, which was undermining their leadership and resulting in conversions by the thousands from Judaism. There is no record of any attack on those grounds from that quarter.
Furthermore, there is abundant and indisputable evidence within the New Testament itself that it was written by eyewitnesses. Luke, for example, referred to the other gospel writers as having been eyewitnesses “from the beginning” and affirmed that what they had recorded was “most surely believed among us.” He was not some gullible idiot who was willing to believe any tale that came along but claimed himself to have had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke:1:1–3). He declared that he had undertaken to write down the story of Jesus for his friend Theophilus so that he could “know the certainty of those things” (Luke:1:4).
Modern archaeological discoveries have confirmed the veracity of Luke’s testimony and the fact that he was indeed a contemporary of the apostles and thus in a position to know and report the facts. In chapter 2, Luke refers to “a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” and asserts that this occurred “when Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (verses 1–2). Some critics continue to dogmatically state that Cyrenius (known also as Quirinius) didn’t become governor over Syria until AD 6, too late a date for the birth of Christ. They ignore more recent findings that show that Quirinius was governor over Syria twice, the first time from perhaps as early as 7 BC to about AD 1. Luke was obviously referring to his first governorship, not the second.
Watertight Historical Verification
In chapter 3, Luke provides a whole list of detailed information of names, places, offices, and dates that surely would not have been known by someone writing even decades (much less centuries) later:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests. . . . (Luke:3:1–2)
Note that Luke’s reference is not to just any Caesar but to Tiberias. Even the time of the decree is given: in the “fifteenth year” of his reign. These facts have been verified by modern historians and could not have been known by someone writing centuries later, as the skeptics claim was the case. The technical titles of the offices held by the other parties named—governor, tetrarch, high priest—are given, together with the locations of each. Each fact presented has been verified in recent years after laborious digging and research. It would have been impossible to have made such precise statements even 50 years after the fact. We therefore have every reason to believe that Luke, as he claims, was present when these reported events occurred.
Yes, but what about Pilate, whom Luke says was governor of Judea at this time? The skeptics denied his very existence for many years because no trace of him could be found. Josephus mentioned Pilate in his Antiquities of the Jews, but that was suspected to be a later addition by someone tampering with the text. And then one day proof positive was uncovered in an archaeological dig: a large quarried stone about five inches thick in the jumbled ruins of an ancient Roman theater in Caesarea.
It turned out that Caesar, having been offended by Pilate, decreed that all evidence of his existence be obliterated. This particular stone, however, because of its precise size, had been saved and used as a seat in a theater. Of course, the side containing the inscription regarding Pilate had been turned downward so it couldn’t be seen—until its discovery in the ruins. The stone stands today in Caesarea in modern Israel as one more testimony (among many others) to the reliability of the biblical record.
Today the accumulated evidence authenticating the Bible in every respect is overwhelming. Any critic who continues to parrot the specious charges formerly leveled against the Bible is doing so in spite of and not because of the facts. Even Bishop Robinson of “God Is Dead” fame, a foremost proponent a few years ago of a centuries-later date for the biblical writings, [later acknowledged] the historicity of the New Testament documents and that they were written early in the first century by eyewitnesses.
—An excerptfrom In Defense of the Faith (pp. 66-71) by Dave Hunt