Can we trust the New Testament as a reliable record of what actually happened, and do we possess what was actually written in the first century?
In the seventeenth century William Googe, preaching at Blackfriars in London, spent 32 years and 1,000 sermons on the New Testament book of Hebrews. That may appear excessive, but he did this because he and his congregation believed the New Testament to be both reliable and relevant to their day. It still is. Every week, millions of Christians in tens of thousands of congregations listen to sermons based upon the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work and teaching of His followers. Can we trust the New Testament as a reliable record of what actually happened, and do we possess what was actually written in the first century?
Two important verses in the New Testament are 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21. The first tells us where the Scriptures came from—they came from God—and the second informs us how they came to us—through men moved by God. In their immediate context, of course, these verses refer to the Old Testament, but this inspiration is also what these men claimed for themselves and for each other. Let’s quickly examine some of the evidence.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians “not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Corinthians 2:13), and similarly, Peter encouraged the young churches to recall “the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” (2 Peter 3:2). The translators handled well an unusual form of Greek in these passages; the emphasis is not that the apostles merely passed on the commands that Christ had given during His earthly ministry but that they now spoke the words of Christ Himself.
In his first letter, Peter was even more direct. He claimed that the Old Testament prophets spoke of the coming of Christ by the power of “the Spirit of Christ who was in them,” and then he turned his attention to the apostles “who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:11–12). What the Holy Spirit was to the prophets, so He was to the apostles; the authority of the prophets is equal to the authority of the apostles.
Paul challenged the Thessalonians, “You know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:2). Earlier in the same letter, Paul had reminded his readers how they first responded to his message: “
When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (2:13).
Because Paul was convinced that his teaching carried the authority of God, he claimed that his preaching was the standard of the truth and that other preachers could be tested and measured by it (Galatians 1:6–12). Paul’s gospel was not “according to man,” but was received “through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11–12; see also Ephesians 3:3). For this reason obedience to Paul’s teaching became the measure of a spiritual life: “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
A few phrases used by Paul present a problem to some. In 1 Corinthians 7:10 he claimed, “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord.” Paul meant nothing more than that on the particular subject with which he was dealing, Christ had already left instructions—see for example Matthew 19:1–9. On the other hand, when Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 7:12, “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say,” he meant that on this part of the subject Christ had nothing directly to say. We can understand verse 25 in the same way. The phrase, “I think I also have the Spirit of God,” found in verse 40, is not a statement of doubt. Paul is either making a mocking jibe at those in Corinth who claimed to be full of spiritual gifts and wisdom (1 Corinthians 14:37), or else he is making a positive statement in the same way that we might affirm the truth of a statement with the positive claim, “I think I know what I am talking about.”
The early church leaders accepted the apostles’ letters, and no others, as equal in authority to the Old Testament.
Paul did not expect his letters to be read once and then destroyed. The letter addressed to the Colossian church was to be read and passed on to the church at Laodicea; similarly, the letter he had written to Laodicea (long ago lost) was to be read at Colossae (Colossians 4:16). The apostle was so insistent that his letter to the Thessalonian church should be read by everyone that he placed them under an obligation to the Lord Himself to make sure that “all the holy brethren” had it read to them (1 Thessalonians 5:27). There is no doubt that after the death of the apostles, the early church leaders accepted the apostles’ letters, and no others, as equal in authority to the Old Testament.1
Peter gave Paul’s letters the same authority as the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16), just as Paul gave the words of Christ recorded in the Gospels equal authority with the Old Testament. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul introduced both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 by saying, “the Scripture says.” Therefore, when we use the “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 to refer to both Old and New Testaments, we are following the example of the apostles.
The words of Matthew 16:18–19 (and Matthew 18:18) have often been the cause of debate and argument, but the passage is straightforward. The promise, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” must be understood in the Jewish context. When scribes were admitted to their office, they received a symbolic key of knowledge (see Luke 11:52). The duty of the scribes was to interpret and apply the law of God to particular cases. When the scribes bound a man, they placed him under the obligation of the Law, and when they loosed him they released him from the obligation.
Similarly, the Lord had been training His disciples to be stewards of His teachings. In this promise in Matthew 16:19, He referred to their future writing and preaching as scribes of the New Testament and promised divine help to His disciples in those tasks. In John 14:26 He gave His disciples two promises: a divinely aided understanding and a divinely aided memory. “But the Helper [Counselor], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” John 16:13 adds to this a divinely aided knowledge: “He will tell you things to come.”
In order that the disciples might recall accurately all that Christ had said and done, instruct the Christian church in the way of truth, and write of things still in the future, Christ promised the help of the Holy Spirit. The apostles would be writing with no less authority than the Old Testament prophets. This is confirmed in Revelation 22:6: “The angel said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place’” (NIV).
Nowhere did Christ more plainly express His belief in the authority of Scripture than in Matthew 5:18: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Later in His ministry, Jesus applied the same authority to His own words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
It is often assumed that the records in the Gospels circulated only as oral traditions for some 40 years. One critic’s claim is typical: “It is incontrovertible that in the earliest period there was only an oral record of the narrative and sayings of Jesus.”2 Thus, it was concluded that the Gospels are not history as we know it. But consider the following:
Although the Jewish rabbis and Greek and Roman philosophers preferred oral teaching, we know that students of both kept notes of the instruction they received. Notice the “writing tablet” in Luke 1:63. It was also common for civil servants and others (like Matthew, Zacchaeus, and the man in Luke 16:6) to use a “notebook” for their work. This was an early form of book made of parchment sheets fastened together with a primitive spiral bind. The Greek language borrowed the Latin name for it, which is membranae. This is exactly the word translated “the books” in 2 Timothy 4:13. Paul used a notebook.3
The Gospels record 21 Aramaic words used by Jesus, and we may therefore assume that Jesus generally taught in Aramaic. Professor Alan Millard comments, “The simplest explanation for the presence of these foreign terms in the Greek text is accurate reporting.”4 In Galilee, where Hebrew was little used, Jesus may have taught in Greek. A leading Jewish authority on the rabbis of this time concludes, “We would naturally expect the logia [teaching] of Jesus to be originally copied in codices.”5
We are not suggesting that all the Gospels were written “on the hoof” as the disciples accompanied Jesus, but it would be natural to expect some listeners to write down His teaching and parables. This would be fully in keeping with what we know of the literacy and note-taking of first century Palestine. There is no reason the Gospel writers would not have had access to written records.
The idea that the Gospels and epistles were not written down until two or three centuries after the death of Jesus is yesterday’s “scholarship.” Ignatius, who was martyred around the year AD 115, wrote of the apostles’ letters and the Gospels as the “New Testament.”6 This was typical of all the early church leaders who acknowledged only the four Gospels for the life and teaching of Jesus. By AD 150 the Muratorian Canon listed the books accepted by the “universal church,” and it includes the four Gospels and all thirteen letters of Paul.7
In 1972 a liberal scholar, John A. T. Robinson, published a detailed study of each of the books of the New Testament and concluded that every one must have been completed before the year AD 70.8 In addition he condemned the “sheer scholarly laziness” of those who assume a late date for the New Testament and added, “It is sobering too to discover how little basis there is for many of the dates confidently assigned by modern experts to the New Testament documents.”9
We may confidently claim that the Gospels and letters of the New Testament were written down by the traditionally accepted authors who lived in the first century.
The Gospel records bear all the hallmarks of authentic eyewitness accounts. Here are three examples.
The Gospel records bear all the hallmarks of authentic eyewitness accounts.
Philip told Nathanael about Jesus by stating, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). No one writing in the second or third century would have invented that. Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament, and the Jews never associated it with the coming Messiah. The most natural introduction would have been “Jesus of Bethlehem”— since that town had strong Messianic connections (Micah 5:2). Besides, why say, “the son of Joseph,” when well before the second century, only the heretics doubted that Jesus was really the Son of God? The only explanation for these “second century gaffes” is that the New Testament accurately records what Philip actually said.
One day, Jesus visited the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. John reported that “Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:3). Why does the author even mention the fragrance of the oil? Surely, there is no great theological truth to be learned from this statement; however, the mention of this detail testifies to the account’s authenticity. C. S. Lewis stated that “The art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art.”10 He added, “As a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear they are not the same sort of thing.”11
If later writers wanted their readers to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Lord of life, then His journey to Golgotha appeared to be a disaster. He stumbled and fell and was too weak to carry the crossbeam; and why make up that seemingly despairing cry from the Cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). So many details of Christ’s final week—the entry into Jerusalem, the beating and Crucifixion, and the claim of a resurrection—opened Christians up to ridicule. The Jews were offended, the Greeks mocked, and the Romans drew graffiti of a donkey-headed man on a cross. Why make it all up?
A witness has a right to be believed unless he is proved to be false. And if the quality of his life matches the high morality of his teaching, then we must have strong reasons before we malign the integrity of his account.
As with the Old Testament, archaeology continually confirms the accuracy of the New Testament historical record.
The account of the Roman census recorded in Luke 2 is well known. What is not so well known is that it was assumed by some that a Roman emperor would never issue an order for a census where “all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” Then, a papyrus decree was discovered in Egypt that was an order for a Roman census in Egypt at the time of Trajan in AD 104, which mirrors the order of Augustus recorded in Luke 2. The Prefect Gaius Vibius Maximus ordered all those in his area to return to their own homes for the purpose of a census.12
Believe it or not, it was at one time suggested that Pilate was not a real figure of history because the only known reference to him came from the New Testament. Then, in the late 1950s an inscription was found at Caesarea that dedicated a theater built by Pilate to the honor of Tiberias. Although half the stone tablet is destroyed, the rest is clear: “The Tiberius which Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea dedicated.” The stone had been recycled to be used as part of a stairway for the remodelled theater in the third century.13 But that is not all. The British Museum in London displays a small bronze coin minted by Pontius Pilate while he was governor of Judea; it carries the date of the 17th year of Tiberius, which would be AD 30/31—perhaps the very year of the Crucifixion of Jesus.14
At the time of Paul’s travels, each city had its own town council, known by different titles from town to town; only a contemporary and careful writer would record them accurately. An example of the accuracy of Luke (the writer of Acts) as a historian was found in 1877 when a block of marble—rescued from becoming builder’s rubble at Thessalonica—proved to be an inscription of the civic leaders in the city sometime in the second century. They are referred to as polytarchs. This is exactly the word translated as “rulers of the city” in Acts 17:6.15
Much more about the stones could be added, but let a scholar have the last word. Sir William Ramsay was a bucket-and-spade archaeologist who spent his life digging around in modern day Turkey, the land of Paul’s travels. He was a bright man with three honorary fellowships from Oxford and nine honorary doctorates from British, Continental, and American universities. He was at one time professor at Oxford and Aberdeen universities, was awarded the Victorian medal of the Royal Geographic Society in 1906, and was a founding member of the British Academy. He was knighted in 1906 for his service to archaeology.
After a lifetime of painstaking research as a historian and archaeologist, this was his conclusion: “You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.” He added, “Christianity did not originate in a lie; and we can and ought to demonstrate this as well as believe it.”16