Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 8

Internal Evidence Test

Like good detectives, historians verify reliability by looking at internal clues. Such clues reveal motives of the authors and their willingness to disclose details and other features that could be verified. The key internal clues these scholars use to test for reliability are the following:

  • consistency of eyewitness reports
  • details of names, places, and events
  • letters to individuals or small groups
  • features embarrassing to the authors
  • the presence of irrelevant or counterproductive material
  • lack of relevant material14

Let’s take as an example the movie Friday Night Lights. It purports to be based on historical events, but like so many movies loosely based on actual events, it leaves you constantly questioning, “Did things really happen that way?” So, how would you determine its historical reliability?

One clue would be the presence of irrelevant material. Let’s say that in the middle of the film the coach, for no apparent reason, gets a phone call informing him that his mother has brain cancer. The event has nothing to do with the plot and is never mentioned again. The only explanation for the presence of this irrelevant fact would be that it actually happened and that the director had a desire to be historically accurate.

Another example, same movie. Following the flow of the drama, we want the Permian Panthers to win the state championship. But they don’t. This feels counterproductive to the drama, and immediately we know it’s there because in real life Permian lost the game. The presence of counterproductive material is also a clue to historical accuracy.

Finally, the use of actual towns and familiar landmarks such as the Houston Astrodome leads us to take as history those elements of the story, because they’re too easy to corroborate or falsify.

These are but a few examples of how internal evidence leads either toward or away from the conclusion that a document is historically reliable. We’ll look briefly at the internal evidence for the historicity of the New Testament.

Read part 9 of Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 9

Several aspects of the New Testament help us determine its reliability based on its own content and qualities.

Consistency

Phony documents either leave out eyewitness reports or are inconsistent. So outright contradiction among the Gospels would prove that they contain errors. But at the same time, if each Gospel said exactly the same thing, it would raise suspicions of collusion. It would be like co-conspirators trying to agree on every detail of their scheme. Too much consistency is as doubtful as too little.

Eyewitnesses to a crime or an accident generally get the big events right but see it from different perspectives. Likewise, the four Gospels describe the events of Jesus’ life from different perspectives. Yet, regardless of these perspectives, Bible scholars are amazed at the consistency of their accounts and the clear picture of Jesus and his teaching they put together with their complementary reports.

Details

Historians love details in a document because they make it easy to verify reliability. Paul’s letters are filled with details. And the Gospels abound with them. For example, both Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts were written to a nobleman named Theophilus, who was undoubtedly a well-known individual at the time.

If these writings had been mere inventions of the apostles, phony names, places, and events would have quickly been spotted by their enemies, the Jewish and Roman leaders. This would have become the Watergate of the first century. Yet many of the New Testament details have been proved true by independent verification. Classical historian Colin Hemer, for example, “identifies 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by Archaeological research.”15

In the previous few centuries, skeptical Bible scholars attacked both Luke’s authorship and its dating, asserting that it was written in the second century by an unknown author. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsey was convinced they were right, and he began to investigate. After extensive research, the archaeologist reversed his opinion. Ramsey conceded, “Luke is a historian of the first rank. … This author should be placed along with the very greatest historians. … Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.”16

Acts chronicles Paul’s missionary voyages, listing places he visited, people he saw, messages he delivered, and persecution he suffered. Could all these details have been faked? Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White wrote, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. … Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”17

From the Gospel accounts to Paul’s letters, the New Testament authors openly described details, even citing the names of individuals who were alive at the time. Historians have verified at least thirty of these names.18

Letters To Small Groups

Most forged texts are from documents both general and public in nature, like this magazine article (no doubt countless forgeries are already circulating on the black market). Historical expert Louis Gottschalk notes that personal letters intended for small audiences have a high probability of being reliable.19 Which category do the New Testament documents fall into?

Well, some of them were clearly intended to be circulated widely. Yet large portions of the New Testament consist of personal letters written to small groups and individuals. These documents, at least, would not be considered prime candidates for falsification.

Embarrassing Features

Most writers don’t want to publicly embarrass themselves. Historians have therefore observed that documents containing embarrassing revelations about the authors are generally to be trusted. What did the New Testament authors say about themselves?

Surprisingly, the authors of the New Testament presented themselves as all too frequently dimwitted, cowardly, and faithless. For example, consider Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus or the disciples’ arguments over which of them was the greatest—both stories recorded in the Gospels. As respect for the apostles was crucial in the early church, inclusion of this kind of material doesn’t make sense unless the apostles were reporting truthfully.20

In The Story of Civilization, Will Durant wrote about the apostles, “These men were hardly of the type that one would have chosen to remold the world. The Gospels realistically differentiate their characters, and honestly expose their faults.”21

Counterproductive Or Irrelevant Material

The Gospels tell us that the empty tomb of Jesus was discovered by a woman, even though in Israel the testimony of women was considered to be virtually worthless and was not even admissible in court. Jesus’ mother and family are recorded as stating their belief that he had lost his mind. Some of Jesus’ final words on the cross are said to have been “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And so goes the list of incidents recorded in the New Testament that are counterproductive if the intent of the author were anything but the accurate transmission of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Lack Of Relevant Material

It is ironic (or perhaps logical) that few of the major issues facing the first-century church—the Gentile mission, spiritual gifts, baptism, leadership—were addressed directly in the recorded words of Jesus. If his followers were simply generating the material to encourage the growing church, it is inexplicable why they would not have made up instructions from Jesus on these issues. In one case, the apostle Paul flatly stated about a certain subject, “On this we have no teaching from the Lord.”

Read Part 10 – Is the New Testament Reliable?

Is the New Testament Reliable? – Part 10

External Evidence Test

The third and final measure of a document’s reliability is the external evidence test, which asks, “Do historical records outside the New Testament confirm its reliability?” So, what did non-Christian historians say about Jesus Christ?

“Overall, at least seventeen non-Christian writings record more than fifty details concerning the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, plus details concerning the early church.”22 This is astounding, considering the lack of other history we possess from this time period. Jesus is mentioned by more sources than the conquests of Caesar during this same period. It is even more astounding since these confirmations of New Testament details date from 20 to 150 years after Christ, “quite early by the standards of ancient historiography.”23

The reliability of the New Testament is further substantiated by over 36,000 extrabiblical Christian documents (quotes from church leaders of the first three centuries) dating as early as ten years after the last writing of the New Testament24). If all the copies of the New Testament were lost, you could reproduce it from these other letters and documents with the exception of a few verses.25

Boston University professor emeritus Howard Clark Kee concludes, “The result of the examination of the sources outside the New Testament that bear … on our knowledge of Jesus is to confirm his historical existence, his unusual powers, the devotion of his followers, the continued existence of the movement after his death … and the penetration of Christianity … in Rome itself by the later first century.”26

The external evidence test thus builds on the evidence provided by other tests. In spite of the conjecture of a few radical skeptics, the New Testament portrait of the real Jesus Christ is virtually smudgeproof. Although there are a few dissenters such as the Jesus Seminar, the consensus of experts, regardless of their religious beliefs, confirms that the New Testament we read today faithfully represents both the words and events of Jesus’ life.

Clark Pinnock, professor of interpretations at McMaster Divinity College, summed it up well when he said, “There exists no document from the ancient world witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical testimonies. … An honest [person] cannot dismiss a source of this kind. Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational basis.”27

Reprinted with Permission from Y-Jesus.Com

Endnotes

  1. According to jesusseminar.org, “The Jesus Seminar was organized under the auspices of the Westar Institute to renew the quest of the historical Jesus. At the close of debate on each agenda item, Fellows of the Seminar vote, using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words or deeds.”
  2. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 555.
  3. Josh McDowall, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 38.
  4. William F. Albright, Recent Discoveries in Biblical Lands (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1955), 136.
  5. William F. Albright, “Toward a More Conservative View,” Christianity Today, January 18, 1993, 3.
  6. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, quoted in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 243.
  7. McDowell, 33-68.
  8. McDowell, 34.
    Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 34.
  9. McDowell, 38.
  10. Metzger, 39.
  11. Metzger, 36-41.
  12. John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 36.
  13. Quoted in McDowell, 36.
  14. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 134-157.
  15. Quoted in Geisler and Turek, 256.
  16. Quoted in McDowell, 61.
  17. Quoted in McDowell, 64.
  18. Geisler and Turek, 269.
  19. J. P. Moreland, 136-137.
  20. Geisler and Turek, 276.
  21. Durant, 563.
  22. Gary R. Habermas, “Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable,” Why I am a Christian, eds Norman L. Geisler & Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 150.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Metzger, 86.
  26. Quoted in McDowell, 135.
  27. Quoted in Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1981), 9.

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