How reliable is our New Testament? This is not asking if its message is true or not. Instead, it is asking if what we have today is a reasonable copy of what was originally written.
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The New Testament Cannot Be Proven
All of Christian doctrine (teaching) is based on the Bible, primarily the New Testament. As a result, the opinion a person has about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is going to dramatically affect their opinion concerning the validity of Christian doctrine.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to prove that the New Testament is true. Because the New Testament is primarily historical and philosophical in nature, it is not subject to verification. We cannot go back into the past and experience anew the events of the past.
However, the historical aspects of the New Testament can be discredited or confirmed. Archeology and other sources can shed light on what the New Testament records. If its history were somehow to be discredited, it would amount to proof against the New Testament. But, on the other hand, confirming some parts of its history does not automatically prove all of it.
What is the Reliability of the New Testament?
It is possible though, to explore the historical reliability of the New Testament texts. What is being examined here is not the message of the texts themselves. Instead, we are concerned about how accurately the texts we have today reflect the original manuscripts.
The specific issues I want to address are (1) how close the writers were to the events they wrote about; (2) how faithfully have their writings been transmitted to us over the years; and (3) how was it determined which writings should go into the New Testament. In other words, do we have a faithful reproduction of writings from people who were close to the events themselves? Or do we have corrupted texts by later authors, cherry-picked by church authorities to suit their own purpose?
Before discussing these points I would like to briefly talk about the topic of inspiration of the Scriptures and the formation of the New Testament. Mormons believe that their primary holy book was given to them in a completed form and only required translation into English. Muslims believe the Koran was spoken to Mohamed by the angel Gabriel. And Mohamed then passed it on to friends to write down. In both cases, they believe that the very words they have are exactly as God gave them. And in both cases, the words were dictated to the human scribes.
I do not believe that to be the case with the New Testament, or the Old for that matter, although there are certainly those who do. I do not believe that the authors knew that what they were writing would later be a part of the Bible. But I do believe God in some way inspired them in the writing, but the words were their own.
A Collection of Writings
Also, unlike the Book of Mormon and the Koran, the New Testament is a collection of writings that took shape over a period of time. There were many other writings that were at one time or another, or by differing groups, thought to be equal with what was ultimately included in the New Testament.
This canonization process of the New Testament is actually another topic that will be addressed later. For now, it will be enough to note that it is not really correct to say that the New Testament was written at some point in time. Rather, the collection of writings that came to be called the New Testament was produced during some period of time.
Who Wrote it and When?
So, point #1, when were the writings of the New Testament produced and by who. Many of the writings are anonymous, although most have at least traditional authors. But, in general, there is some disagreement as to when. The primary exception to this is some of Paul’s writings. Over half of the letters that are attributed to him are universally accepted as being written by the Apostle Paul. And since he died in the mid 60’s they must have been written by then.
But of most interest to this discussion are the historical books; the four Gospels and the book of Acts. Unfortunately, none of these books directly identify the author. The names assigned to the gospels are based on fairly early tradition.
The Destruction of Jerusalem
One common event mentioned in the gospels that is used to date them concerns the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus’ words forecasting the destruction of Jerusalem. Many use this as evidence that these three gospels were written prior to the event, because they give no indication of fulfillment, and the predictions can’t be made to fit completely with the destruction that occurred in 70.
But many others claim these predictions prove a dating after 70, primarily because they believe predicting the future is impossible. Because of the lack of any internal indication that the prediction was fulfilled, and the incomplete fulfillment, it seems best to me to date these three gospels prior to 70. After all, if I were including a prophecy about some event after the occurrence of the event, I would do my best to ensure that the prophecy correctly covered the event.
The gospel of John comes closest to identifying its author with the claim to being written by the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. This is generally believed to refer to the Apostle John.
John is believed to have lived until near the end of the 1st century and his writings seem to deal, at least to some extent, with an emerging threat from Gnosticism coming at the end of the 1st century and into the 2nd. So it is quite possible that the gospel of John could have been written toward the end of the 1st century and by the apostle John, although it was likely written even earlier.
One indirect reference to a date occurs in John 5:2. Here John commented that there was in Jerusalem a pool called Bethesda. This pool was destroyed in 70, but John’s writing assumes it is still there. This is at least a good indicator that when the Gospel of John was written, Jerusalem was still standing.
Luke and Acts
The Luke–Acts set of books provides us with another potential dating benchmark. They seem to be written by the same person who claims, in the book of Acts, to have traveled with Paul a few times. The physician Luke is traditionally credited with writing this two-volume set. And, based on Paul’s letters, Luke was a sometimes companion of Paul and not an unreasonable choice as the author.
When Acts, volume 2 of the set, came to a conclusion, Paul was under house arrest in Rome. But Paul was killed in Rome in the mid 60’s and no mention is made of that in Acts, the second half of which covers Paul exclusively. So it is quite likely that Luke–Acts was written prior to that event.
Another interesting tidbit that Luke gives us at the beginning of his gospel account is that many others had undertaken to record the events in the life of Jesus. Luke, apparently not satisfied with any he has seen, undertook to thoroughly research and write an account himself. What these other accounts are he does not specify, but Mark was likely one of them. And this would put the date of Luke after that of Mark.
Matthew is a hard gospel to date and identify an author for. The apostle Matthew is typically credited with the composition but I think it is unlikely. The author seems dependent on other sources and that would not seem likely for a firsthand witness. The author of Matthew seems to use Mark as a source, copying nearly all of Mark as well as other sources. So the author of this gospel could actually have been an editor who took other sources and merged them together into a single account.
That leaves us with Mark. Tradition has it that this gospel was written by the John Mark who spent some time with Paul. And one and whose parent’s house Jesus likely used for the last supper before his crucifixion. That tradition claims that the apostle Peter, while in Rome, told Mark the stories of his experiences with Jesus and that Mark used that as the basis for his gospel.
Most scholars today believe that Mark is a source that was used by both Matthew and Luke. If that is the case then Mark would have had to be written and in circulation prior to the others, giving a fairly early date for its composition.
So, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, we have one gospel written by an eyewitness (John) and three written by those with little firsthand experience with the events that they are writing about. One of these, Mark, likely contains narrated stories told by a firsthand witness, with a second written after thorough research, and a third one with uncertain heritage.
Resources for Dating the New Testament
Two resources will provide an example of the dating that has been assigned to the books of the New Testament. The first of these is from the website, Evidence for Jesus Christ, which provides a listing of the dates given by a variety of scholars, both liberal and conservative, for the writing of the New Testament books. The dates given below discard both the oldest and most recent estimates. The second is from the book ‘Redating the New Testament’ by John A. T. Robinson, an often quoted book, although not a universally accepted source.
|Evidence for Jesus||Redating the New Testament|
|1 Corinthians||54-57||Spring 55|
|2 Corinthians||55-58||Early 56|
|Ephesians||57-90||Late summer 58|
|1 Thessalonians||50-53||Early 50|
|1 Timothy||62-67||Autumn 55|
|2 Timothy||64-68||Autumn 58|
|Titus||62-67||Late spring 57|
|1 Peter||64-68||Spring 65|
|1 John||Early 60’s – 100||c. 60-65|
|2 John||Early 60’s – 100||c. 60-65|
|3 John||Early 60’s – 100||c. 60-65|
Another scholarly source for information about the New Testament documents is a book by FF Bruce, “The New Testament Documents; Are They Reliable”. Of particular relevance to this discussion is Chapter 2 – ‘The New Testament Documents: Their Date and Attestation’ and chapter 4 – ‘The Gospels’.
Why the Delay Before Writing?
Before leaving the topic of dating the gospels I would like to respond to the question of why they waited so long before writing. It would seem logical that the life and teachings of Jesus would have been so significant that they would have been recorded earlier rather than later. But there are several factors that would tend toward delaying that time.
Literacy was an issue, with most history still of the oral variety. Putting something into writing would only be beneficial to a limited number of people. It was also expensive, both for the materials and because of the labor-intensive process of making copies. But as the church spread across the Roman Empire, beyond the reach of those who could pass on the oral tradition, there became more of a need for written sources.
Additionally, the early church lived in expectation that Jesus would be returning within their lifetime. And, given that, there was little reason for them to commit to recording the life of Jesus. What value would it have if he returned within just a few months or years? But as it became obvious to them that Jesus’ return was not as imminent as they expected, it became more important to have written accounts that would survive the apostles and others who had known Jesus.
Transmission of the Texts
Transmission of the New Testament deals with the path it took from the original writings to what we have today. I want to look at three topics in this discussion: (1) copyist errors; (2) the number of available manuscripts; and (3) textual criticism. My goal through this discussion will be to demonstrate that the New Testament documents that we have today are substantially the same as the originals. I am much indebted to Bruce Metzer’s book “The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration”. This is, as far as I have been able to determine, a classic in the area of textual criticism of the New Testament.
The Copy Process
Up until the invention of the printing press, all books were copied by hand. This copying was a slow and tedious process and extremely difficult to do without any errors. Whether one person read aloud and many wrote what they heard, or one person wrote what he read, there were common errors that crept into the reproduction.
Most generally these errors amounted to simple spelling errors or replacements by similar-sounding words. Occasionally a distracted scribe would forget where they were and skip a section or repeat a section already copied. Frequently these errors would be caught either by the copyist or a reviewer, but not always.
With the rise of the monastic movement in the 4th to 6th centuries, copying biblical texts became a function of the monasteries. Along with this came a more rigorous approach to verifying copies. But, prior to this, copies often were made by untrained people who just wanted a copy of a precious text. Or copies might have been produced by a secular scribe for a fee. In neither of these was there any assurance of an exact copy.
As mentioned above, unintentional errors were occasionally made in the text being copied. These were generally just spelling or word replacement errors. But, at other times it appears that the copyist made intentional changes. This would likely be because they thought they were correcting an error that had been introduced earlier. Some of these changes would be corrections of spelling errors or word replacements described earlier.
At other times the changes had more significance. The scribe, or monastery they worked in, may have felt that Jesus, Paul, or another author could not have possibly said something as recorded in the manuscript. In that case, they might feel the need to change the words to better reflect what they believed he would have said.
Over the years these generally minor, although occasionally major, changes accumulated. As the originals disappeared, followed by the original copies, and the copies of the copies, etc, we end up with several families of manuscripts from different locations. There is some variation within the manuscript family. And there is sometimes great variance between families.
A Possible Example of Scribal Addition
In the 3rd and 4th centuries, there was controversy within the church concerning the nature of God and the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This was formally resolved during the 4th-century councils of Ephesus and Constantinople.
Part of the issue was that the doctrine of the Trinity is not as explicitly defined in the Scripture as one might hope. Yet there is a passage in 1 John 5:7 that would seem to provide ample evidence for the Trinity. “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.“
Yet, in looking at the oldest manuscripts we have found, that verse is missing. Why is that? It is possible, if not likely, that it was added by a scribe in order to provide support for the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Number of Manuscripts
I am sure you have heard some pretty large numbers connected with New Testament manuscripts. There are between 5 and 6 thousand Greek manuscripts and twice that number in other ancient languages. In addition, there are thousands of manuscripts that include quotes from the New Testament.
But these numbers, while real enough, seem a little deceptive to me. Most of them are from the 8th century and on. And most are considered of little value for determining just what the original writings said. So far there are no first-century manuscripts and only a handful from the second. There are quite a few from the 3rd through 5th centuries, including some complete copies of the New Testament from the 4th and 5th. In addition, the translations into other languages, while not useful for determining specific words, are good for verifying the basic content and order of events and speeches.
A third source useful for reconstructing the originals is early Christian writings that include quotes from the New Testament documents. Metzger comments that there are enough of these quotes from antiquity that the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from them. These are also subject to scribal copy errors as well as incomplete or inaccurate quotes so care must be taken with these. All in all, there are several dozen good Greek manuscripts as well as other sources from the first 5 centuries that are useful in textual criticism.
I had wanted to give a brief description of textual criticism but find that I am unable to distill this very complex process into a short paragraph. Instead, if you are interested, you can review http://www.skypoint.com/members/waltzmn/intro.html for a brief (10 pages or so) description of this topic.
In a sentence, textual criticism is the process of comparing manuscripts to determine, as closely as possible, what the original text said. The end result of this process is a Greek New Testament that is a close approximation of the original. Also included with this Greek NT is a list of alternate readings along with the manuscript(s) the alternates come from. And these ‘close to original’ Greek New Testaments then become the basis for the modern translations that we use today.
The process of textual criticism is used, not just on the Bible, but all ancient manuscripts. It has become a very structured process and, as best as I can tell, there are few scholars familiar with the process who question the ability, given enough material to work with, to reconstruct a reasonable facsimile of an original.
Number of Translations
I frequently hear the charge that the New Testament has been translated so many times that there is no way to tell what the original was. The assumption here is that each new translation is a translation from the previous one. But that is a false assumption. The truth is that our modern translations have only been translated once, from the reconstructed Greek to English (or some other language). We do not copy from one English version to another as some seem to believe.
The New Testament has many more ancient copies than any other work from antiquity and copies from closer to the original. While I believe numbers like 99.5% complete reconstruction are not likely, I do believe that what we have today is a pretty close copy of the original autographs and that it is safe to believe that what I read today is, to all intents and purposes, the same as what was originally written.
By no means does this essay prove that the New Testament is true. It only attempts to demonstrate that it was written close to the events that the Gospels and Acts describe. And that what we have today is a faithful reproduction of what was originally written. Ascertaining the truth of what was written, or more properly that the authors believed what they wrote to be true, is another topic.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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