I’ve already shared the links for these two posts by Teri Dugan on a previous post but the information she presents is so well laid out, accurate and concise that I just had to make it readily available in a single post. It is a little lengthy but simply excellent. New Christians in particular would do well to familiarize themselves with this overview as it is fundamental information that every Christian should be aware of. Definitely information that you might want to bookmark for future reference. If you haven’t already bookmarked her website I would strongly encourage you to do so.
Case-Making 101: Does the New Testament give us historically reliable information about Jesus?
One of the most important things to understand about the Bible is that the Old and New Testaments are inseparably linked. The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. The books of the New Testament are the only ones that connect to the stories, teachings, covenants and prophecies of the Old. But, does that make them historically reliable?
In making a case for Jesus skeptics often claim that we cannot know who Jesus was, the critical question usually comes in the form of something like: “How do we know that the New Testament documents are reliable and have been transmitted accurately over time?”
We can put the reliability and truth of the Bible up against a courtroom test, like lawyers do. By weighing the evidence many unbelievers and skeptics have become Christians, and there is a lot of evidence to weigh!
There are three main categories of evidence that the Bible bears out, and within them there are five specific areas we can study. We will use the acronym MAPS-S for these five areas:
Category I: External evidence
The Bible meets and exceeds all historical and literary requirements for excellence based on scholarly academic standards.
Getting to know the big picture of the Bible is important: The Bible has 66 books by 40 authors from all walks of life living in 10 different countries written over a period of 1500 years from various places and various occupations with a cast of 2,930 characters—YET, it has a seamless story that flows through both its Old and New Testament.
The Bible is considered by scholars to be a literary masterpiece, no other book of antiquity has the following attributes:
- A multitude of copying rules and guidelines, along with a reverent fear of God in what they were doing, has allowed Scribes to reliably pass down the Word of God over the centuries up until the time of the printing press.
- There are massive numbers of early New Testament manuscripts and documents in which to compare—25,000 plus in various languages, and nearly 6,000 in the original Greek; these can be viewed in various museums and houses of academia throughout the world.
- With the massive amounts of early documents in which to compare scholars in textual criticism give the New Testament 99.5% confidence of transmission from the original text.
- The New Testament is a collection of witness documents and are considered primary, versus secondary, sources because they were written in the same century that the events occurred.
- Events, people and place in the Bible have been corroborated by outside sources and the Bible has been used by historians and archeologists to uncover artifacts and evidence from antiquity.
One of the main accusations by skeptics is that the Bible has thousands of errors in the various manuscripts.Watch J. Warner Wallace give an insightful answer that discredits those accusations in about three minutes:
What about those other so-called gospels, why are then omitted from the Bible?
Turn on the Discovery channel, National Geographic or the History Channel and you will probably find a series that tries to debunk the person of Jesus and the validity of the New Testament Gospels. Their skepticism comes mainly in the form of this statement: There are so many other gospel accounts that were written, how do we know that the ones in the New Testament are the only ones that are correct?
Short answer: Because they were the only ones accepted and used by the early Christians. The four New Testament Gospels were the only ones written in the first century and the only ones that contain eyewitness accounts. The New Testament Gospels are the only ones that give an account of a first century Palestinian Jew and not an esoteric mythical figure like the ones we find in the gnostic writings.
What are Gnostic gospels:
Gnosis = knowledge
Gnosticism = “The thought and practice of various cults in early Christianity distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis.”
- Gnostics held a belief that one could gain ‘secret knowledge’ of God.
- Gnostics held conflicting beliefs such as, Jesus wasn’t human but only spirit, and some believed that He was only human and not spirit.
- The Gnostic heretic Marcion, about 140 AD, was the first to promote Gnostic writings and tried to exclude all accounts by Jewish authors, however by doing that he actually confirmed the New Testament accounts as the ones being used by the earliest Christians.
- Gnostic writings and so-called gospels were not written until well into the second and third centuries.
- Gnostic ‘gospel’ writers took the names of many of the apostles and disciples but were not themselves eyewitnesses.
- Justin Martyr and other early Christians of the second and third centuries spoke and wrote against these heretical teachings.
Reasons for rejecting Gnostic gospels:
- Gnostic writings contain absurdities and inconsistencies with early writings of the Apostles and disciples of Jesus.
- Gnostic writings have no basis in primary evidence, cross-references to other Scripture, or confirmation from the first and second century Church, and were written well into the second century AD and on as alternatives to the Jewish writings.
- They falsely claim to be written by the apostles or their associates who were long dead.
- They contain false doctrine concerning Christianity and Jesus (Gnosticism, Ascetisicm, Docetism, Modalism, Adoptionism, etc.).
- They contain false miracle claims about Jesus’ infancy (cf. Jn. 2:11).
- They contain false or exaggerated claims about Biblical events.
- The Church Fathers (early Christian leaders) unanimously rejected them.
- The New Testament authors and Jesus himself explicitly warned of false teachers and teachings.
Note: The books of our Christian Bible today are the same ones used by the early disciples and followers of Christ, therefore any other book would not be part of Christianity anyway.
Here’s an example of how historically accurate the New Testament Gospels are:
Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, is said to be one of the greatest historians to ever write. His historical accounts have always been confirmed and the details he gives allow both Biblical and non-Biblical scholars and archeologists to uncover historical truths and artifacts based on his records. For example…
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip, tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight. –Luke 3:1-4
There are over ten people, places and events confirmed outside the Bible in just these four short verses. If Luke is right on these minor details of history then we should trust him on the rest of his accounts. In fact Luke’s accounts through both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts have never been disputed and are used by Archeologist still today.
There are over 25,000 finds in Archeology, and growing, that support Biblical accounts. No archeological find has ever disproven a Biblical account. Included in these are supporting evidence of people, places and events written about in the Bible that have helped archeologists uncover missing evidence from historical events.
“In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments—corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel’s patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus.”
-Jeffery Sheler, “Is the Bible True,” US News & World Report, October 25, 1999, 52
“The geography of Bible lands and visible remains of antiquity have been gradually recorded until today more than 25,000 sites within this region and dating to Old Testament times, in their broadest sense, have been located…”
Donald J. Wiseman, “Archaeological Confirmation of the Old Testament,” in C.F.H. Henry, Revelation and the Bible, 301-302.
“It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries.”
-Dr. Nelson Glueck, Archeologist
Note: Glueck’s pioneering work in Biblical archaeology resulted in the discovery of 1,500 ancient sites.
Examples of people or things that skeptics have said did not happen, or exist, but were later proven with the help of archeological discoveries:
- Herod the Great
- Pontius Pilate
- Pool of Bethesda
- The Pool of Siloam
- The use of crucifixion by the Romans
- Customs and practices of the first century
- The historical Jesus
- Early Christianity
Watch this twelve minutes clip of Dr. Randall Price explaining the importance of archaeology in Biblical authentication:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10-11
Case-Making 101: How were the books of the Bible decided?
Last week we looked at evidence for transmission of ancient documents and historical information, in particular the transmission of the Bible as the Word of God. Coming at this investigation as a skeptic I found that there is enough evidence to believe that transmission of God’s Word from ancient times is reasonably possible. The next question I had was “how do we know that the sixty-six books in the Bible today are the right books?” This seemed to be an impossible questions to answer, but with some careful investigation I found that the answer was easier than I thought!
Understanding that the Bible is made up of 66 separate books carrying a central theme and that they corroborate and reference each other should be enough. But, I wanted to know more so I broke my investigation down into three questions:
1) How were the books of the Old Testament decided?
2) How were the books of the New Testament decided?
3) Were there any books left out?
The Old Testament:
The books of the Christian Old Testament are the same as the Hebrew Bible, the order and combination of the books differ but not the writings. These books are the same ones used and accepted by the Jews as Scripture ongoing from the time of Moses and the Torah, through the history of the Nation of Israel, to the time of Jesus. We also find Jesus and the New Testament authors quoting from these books. The Septuagint was the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 300-200 BC) and this would have been the Scriptures Jesus read from in the first century AD.
The Old Testament in Christian Bibles today have been translated mainly from the Massoretic text family (ca. 900 AD), but that was oftened questioned by skeptics who would say that the writings had to have been changed over time since they are nearly one thousand years removed from the earliest known manuscripts . However, upon the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 now known to be dated 250 BC to 100 AD, this thousand year gap was closed, quieting the skeptics. The DSS match the Massoretic texts and contain all of the Old Testament (with the exception of Esther). This also helps confirm that prophecies in the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus were not added or altered after the time of Christ but in fact were there centuries before his birth.
What is so exciting is that we can see many of these ancient scrolls in museums around the world. Josh McDowell has purchased artifacts that include an ancient scroll of Scripture. Watch this short video clip from one of his latest books called, God-Breathed, The Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture:
The New Testament:
Let’s start with the evidence that most agree on:
- The New Testament documents are considered primary eyewitness accounts, and not secondary, because they were written in the first century during the time people involved were alive to confirm or dispute the events.
- The writings of the New Testament were immediately and widely dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and beyond thus eliminating time for changes, forgeries or embellishments.
- Literary and historical standards tell us that the earlier an ancient account was written, closer to the events, and the more copies of the account we have then the higher the reliability will be, and the New Testament falls into this category.
- We have over 25,000 early New Testament manuscripts and fragments from five different document families found in ancient Christian communities dating as early as the second century that can be viewed in various libraries and museums around the world.
- Scholars find a 99.5% agreement within these early manuscripts with variations stemming mainly from differences in spelling, grammar, word order and minor deletions or additions (noted in modern Bibles in the footnotes), none of which effect any doctrine of the Christian faith.
New Testament Manuscript Families:
1. The Western Text: (2nd to 13th century)
- Includes two early second century manuscripts from the Old Latin and Syriac translations.
- Used mainly in North Africa, and then early on in the west.
- Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian used this text.
2. The Alexandrian Text: (3rd to 12th century)
- Originated in Alexandria, Egypt and was used by the early Alexandrian Church fathers.
3. The Caesarean Text: (3rd to 13th century)
- Thought to be a compilation of the Western and Alexandrian texts.
- Origen and Eusebius are associated with this group of texts.
Most of our modern English Bibles today are taken from one of these last two families.The difference between them is about 200 variants or the equivalent a few words.
4. The Proto-Alexandrian Texts/Critical Text: (2nd to 4th Century)
- Best known as the “Critical Text” because it has some of the oldest copies available including: Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Papyrus 66 and the Bodmer Papyrus 75.
- The New American Standard Version (NAS[V]B), English Standard Version (ESV), and New International Version (NIV) reflect this family of texts.
5. The Byzantine Text/Majority Text: (5th to 10th Century)
- Best known as the “Majority Text” because there are more available copies.
- Adopted in Constantinople and used as the common text in the Byzantine world.
- Martin Luther translated his German Bible from this family.
- The King James Version (KJV, NKJV) reflects this family of texts.
How were the books of the New Testament decided?
- Before AD 100 as the books were written they were in use (Col. 4:16; 2 Peter 3:15-16; 1 Tim. 5:18).
- In the first and second centuries the churches in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Rome still possessed the autographs and many of the manuscripts from the apostolic authors.
- By the second and third centuries these manuscripts were widely dispersed and used in churches, and even if we did not have any of the manuscripts we could reconstruct the New Testament from the lectionaries and quotations of the early Church leaders.
- Marcion, a Gnostic heretic in the second century, actually helped begin the canonization process because he promoted Gnostic teachings and rejected many of the books of the New Testament simply because they were written by Jews.
“It was specially important to determine which books might be used for the establishment of Christian doctrine, and which might most confidently be appealed to in disputes with heretics. In particular, when Marcion drew up his canon about AD 140, it was necessary for the orthodox churches to know exactly what the true canon was, and this helped to speed up a process which had already begun. It is wrong, however, to talk or write as if the Church first began to draw up a canon after Marcion had published his.” F.F. Bruce, “The Canon of the New Testament”
- The first “canon” was the Muratorian Canon, which was compiled in AD 170 and it included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John.
- In AD 325 the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as a legal religion, thus putting an end to persecution, and the council of Nicaea was convened around this time to combat Gnosticism by confirming the Deity of Jesus.
- In AD 363 the Council of Laodicea stated that the Old Testament (along with one book of the Apocrypha) and 26 books of the New Testament (everything but Revelation) were canonical and to be read in the churches.
- Athanasius, in AD 367 defending against Arianism, laid down the twenty-seven books of our New Testament (already in use) as canonical alone; shortly afterwards Jerome and Augustine followed his example in the West.
- At Hippo Regius in 393, and at Carthage in 397, the Christian communities finally codify what was already the general practice and we had the final canon of the 27 New Testament books.
What standards were used to canonize the Bible?
1. Does it speak with God’s authority?
- Is it consistent with God’s teachings throughout history?
- Is there evidence of God’s Words and promises from Scripture?
- Does it contain the Prophetic principle? —“Thus says the LORD”
2. Does it have the authentic stamp of God?
- Do the teachings relate to truth and the truths of the Old Testament?
- Are the teachings consistent with the teachings of the Jesus, the Prophets and the Apostles?
- Does it follow the past truth principle of previous revelation found in Scripture?
3. Does it impact us with the power of God?
- Were miracles evidenced based on these teachings?
- Was there evidence for changed lives in the life of the believers?
4. Was it accepted by the people of God?
- The Patristic principle: Was it accepted by the early Church fathers?
- Did the believers in the early church lived by it?
- Was the Scripture found in the early believers’ personal item such as quotations, inscriptions, testimonies, etc.?
5. Was it supported by the other authors of Scripture?
- Petrine principle: Did Peter support it?
- Pauline principle: Did Paul support it?
Were there any books left out?
The Apocrypha: (means hidden or doubtful) These books do contain some valuable historical information useful in understanding the intertestimental period (c. 250-60 BC), but have never been considered inspired writings. They were included in the Latin Vulgate in part to defend some of the teachings of the Catholic Church (such as purgatory). The Catholic Bible today contains eleven of them in their deuterocanonical section.
Why Protestants Say “No”
- Does not claim to be inspired by God
- Was not written by prophets of God (1 Mac. 9:27)
- Was not confirmed by supernatural acts of God (Heb. 2:3-4)
- Was not accepted by the people of God (Judaism) and they were never included in the Hebrew Old Testament
- Does not always tell the truth of God: On praying for the dead (2 Mac. 12:46); On working for salvation (Tobit 12:9)
- Was not accepted by Jesus the Son of God (Lk. 24:27)
- Was not accepted by the Apostles (who never quoted it)
- Was not accepted by the early Church and was never included in the Protestant New Testament
- Was rejected by the great Catholic translator Jerome
- Was not written during period of the prophets of God
- They contain some absurdities and inconsistencies with the rest of the Biblical Canon
Gnostic gospels: (Gnosis means knowledge) Gnosticism came out of Greek philosophy and had a belief that one could gain “secret knowledge” of God through certain practices. There was an attempt to assimilate it with early Christianity. It fostered the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation (being set free) comes through special knowledge.
Reasons for rejecting Non-Canonical New Testament Books:
In addition to the same reasons listed above for the apocrypha, Christians reject these books because…
- Gnostic gospels and writings were written well into the second through forth centuries by authors who were not primary eyewitnesses and who falsely took the names of many of the apostles and disciples such as the gospel of Thomas, James, and Phillip (there are over 300 of these writings).
- The Gnostic heretic Marcion, about AD 140, was the first to promote these Gnostic writings in the Christian community but the early Church leaders unanimously rejected them.
- Gnostic literature contain absurdities and inconsistencies with the early beliefs of the apostles and disciples, and do not reflect a first century Palestinian Jesus.
- Gnostic writings have no basis in primary evidence, cross-references to other Scripture, or confirmation from the first and second century Churches, and the dating of the book is the key for recognizing legitmate literature.
- These documents contain false doctrines and heresies (Gnosticism, Ascetisicm, Docetism, Modalism, etc.) that are inconsistent with the doctrinal essentials of classical Christianity.
- The books of the Christian Bible today are the same ones used by the early disciples and followers of Christ and therefore any other books out there would not be part of the classic Christian faith anyway.
Watch this 22 minute video from one of the top New Testament Scholars, Dr. Craig Evans called Fabricating Jesus from the Gnostic gospels:
Check out this short article by J. Warner Wallace: Do the Non-Canonical Gospels Challenge the Historicity of the New Testament?
For a more in-depth study get Bruce Metzger’s work: The Bible in Translation.
“Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’ Isaiah 46:9-10
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12