By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
It is standard fair within apologetics for skeptics to attack the reliability of the Bible, more specifically the New Testament. This makes sense given that the New Testament records the central facts of the Christian faith (i.e. the Resurrection of Jesus). This means that within apologetics, the Christian must be able to defend the integrity of the Bible as God’s Word, as well as be able to demonstrate to the unbeliever’s irrational skepticism that the New Testament is indeed a reliable and accurate record of the events it records. Of course, the Christian is not obligated to bow down to the unbeliever’s unreasonable standards of what is considered to them, “appropriate evidence” for the supernatural origins of the Bible, nevertheless, we should be able to demonstrate the reasonableness in holding to the position we hold with regards to the trustworthy nature of the Bible, and in doing so demonstrating the inherent bias against the Bible as a collection of books that record supernatural events.
If we are going to ask the central question of the New Testament’s historical reliability, the very question itself presupposes a standard whereby one can judge something historical as “reliable” or “unreliable.” Furthermore, when one chooses said standard, one can push the question back further and ask, “why trust that standard” over some other standard? However, if we are going to engage this issue we will need to start somewhere. On the one hand, since Christians believe that the Bible is indeed God’s infallible Word, whose authority is not validated by some higher authority whereby the Bible is judged to be “reliable”, we can still evaluate the historical reliability of the Bible (New Testament more specifically), without utilizing the standard as something more authoritative than the Bible itself. Indeed, it is the very biblical worldview itself that provides the necessary preconditions for the utilization of historical standards, and for that reason, good investigative methods are servants and tools of a broader coherent worldview framework whereby something like history, investigation, analysis, and rationalization makes sense. On that note, let us dive into some evidences that point to the reliability of the New Testament.
Christian apologist Frank Turek does a fine job listing 7 lines of evidence for the New Testament’s historical reliability. He lists them as the 7 “E’s” which provide an easily memoizable way of going through this evidence with someone in common conversation. While Dr. Frank Turek is a Christian, the lines of evidence he uses generally follows the historiographical method employed by historians today minus the unwarranted bias against the reality of the supernatural. Here are the 7 lines of evidence he rightly points out:
- Early Testimony
- Eye-Witness Testimony
- Elaborate Testimony
- Embarrassing Testimony
- Excruciating Testimony
- Expected Testimony
- Extrabiblical Testimony
Taken independently, each line of evidence does not bring one to a decisive conclusion with regards to the historical reliability of a text but taken together in a cumulative sense, a strong case for the reliability of the New Testament can be made.
There is strong indication that the entirety of the New Testament was written more broadly before the close of the first century, and more narrowly before the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70AD. The Jewish Temple was the center of religious life and worship and as such, was the most sacred spot within the first century Jewish context. Ironically, if the New Testament documents were written after its destruction it is quite a mystery as to how the New Testament would not have recorded such a culturally and religiously significant event as the destruction of the most sacred aspect of Jewish life and practice. Furthermore, Jesus himself predicted the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13. Mentioning its destruction would have bolstered Jesus’ prophetic credibility in that it would have vindicated his prediction, however, the fact that the New Testament does not record its destruction, and indeed, gives strong indication of the assumption of the Temple still standing, this provides evidence for an early date well within the timeframe of the 1 century.
There are many other indicators of an early date, one of which includes the book of Acts closing with the Apostle Paul’s house arrest in Rome. The abrupt ending of the book of Acts gives further indication that the book most likely ended while the apostle Paul was still alive. Some give the book an AD 62 date, which of course is within the 1 century time frame. Many more indicators of “early testimony” could be given, but I think this should be minimally sufficient for our purposes here.
Interestingly, the New Testament writers claimed to be eyewitnesses of the events they record. The historian Colin Hemer verifies through archeology and other historical sources that Luke records eighty-four historical and eyewitness details between Acts 13 to the end of Acts 28. These details include information that only an eyewitness would be familiar with. Details include things like the names of small politicians, local figures of speech, topographical descriptions, weather patterns and much more. It is clear that the authors are familiar with the details. With regards to the historical credibility of the Gospel of Luke for instance, Sir William Ramsay wrote, “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.”
Throughout the New Testament various prominent people are mentioned (government and religious people) of which more than 30 have been verified historically in sources outside of the New Testament. There are multiple indicators of eye-witness testimony in the New Testament that are simply too numerous to survey in this brief article.
The New Testament contains “elaborate testimony.” This type of testimony reveals an elaborate series of inter-related puzzle pieces that entail independent eyewitness material of historical events. Indeed, information in one account “fill in” the details of another utilizing information that does not seem to be contrived or made up, but rather, evince subtleties of an accurate and supplementary, independent eyewitness accounts. Cambridge Professor J.J. Blunt identifies over 60 of these subtilties otherwise known as “un-designed coincidences” which firm up the case for independent eyewitness testimony. The information with regards to these “un-designed coincidences” are many and intricate and will require more space to delve into; however, J.J. Blunt’s book in which he records many of these examples can be downloaded for free at historicalapologetics.org.
The New Testament also contains “embarrassing testimony” in which the authors record information that would have otherwise been embarrassing and unflattering to the main characters in the story or account. Individuals and situations recorded in the New Testament are not sugar coated, but rather, the flaws of prominent individuals are on full display. According to what is sometimes called the criteria of embarrassment, information that is embarrassing and unflattering that is included in the account are most likely historical and not likely made up. The New Testament contains many embarrassing details that fulfill this historical criteria for reliability. For instance, the disciples are often depicted as failing to understand what Jesus was teaching, and someone as prominent as Peter himself is recorded as having been rebuked by Jesus, in which Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan” in response to Peter’s objecting to Christ having to be captured and crucified by the hands of sinful men. The disciples of Jesus are also recorded not only to have fallen asleep while Jesus prayed in agony anticipating his arrest and execution, but they are recorded as having abandoned him when he needed them the most. Again, these embarrassing details are not what someone would have included had they wished to embellish a story so as to gain credibility. These embarrassing details give added credence to the notion that we are receiving historically accurate information with regards to the events they are recording.
This form of testimony is very powerful since it emphasizes the fact that the early followers of Jesus were willing to die for what they believed to be true, especially with regards to the resurrection of Jesus. The knee jerk response by the skeptic is often something to the effect of: “Many people have died for what they believe to be true, but that doesn’t mean that what they believed was in fact true.” These statements are true enough, however, the claim of the early disciples were unique in comparison to people who are willing to die for their beliefs. The disciples were not simply willing to die for what they “believed” to be true, indeed, the claim was that they in fact witnessed the risen Jesus. They were willing to go to their deaths for the truth of what they claimed to have actually seen first-hand. Hence, it must be accounted for as to why the disciples and early followers of Jesus went from scared and timid, to bold and courageous even to the point of death.
The story of Jesus did not take place in a vacuum. It was not the case that Jesus was simply an interesting person who had interesting things to say; rather, Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of what was predicted and taught throughout Israel’s history, namely, that a messiah would come and redeem the people of God. It was foretold that the messiah would come from the seed of a woman (Gen 3:15), that he would be from the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:7), that he would be from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), from the line of David (Jeremiah 23:5-6), he would be both God and man (Isaiah 9:6-7), and that he would be born in Bethlehem (Micha 5:2). It was also foretold that he would be preceded by a messenger and that he will visit the Temple (Malachi 3:1) and be raised from the dead (Isaiah 53:11). Jesus easily fits the bill with regards to these biblical points which clearly predated the birth of Jesus. There was an expectation of the Messiah who would fit the descriptions laid out throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus did so thus providing strong evidence that he was in fact the messiah that the scriptures had described and foretold.
We will often hear the skeptic suggest that the believer cannot use the bible to defend the bible. Of course, this line of reasoning is fallacious. Furthermore, when we are exploring the reliability of a historical source and the historicity of a particular event or events, we definitely want early sources. The New Testament documents are the earliest and most reliable sources we possess concerning the historical Jesus, so it would be academically insane to suggest that we cannot use those earliest and best sources. Nevertheless, if we were to utilize sources outside of the New Testament what we find is that we have 10 ancient non-Christian sources within 150 years of Jesus that confirm the basic story of the New Testament accounts. For instance, based on those sources we learn that 1) Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius 2) He was a virtuous man 3) He performed “miracles” 4) He had a brother named James 5) He acclaimed to be the Messiah 6) He was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and many more facts which corroborate the New Testament storyline. So even by appealing to these later, extra-biblical sources, we are still on firm ground to establish the general reliability of the New Testament storyline.
Surveying the 7 “E” demonstrating the reliability of the New Testament, I think the Christian is well grounded in his or her conviction that the New Testament is a reliable source of history. In apologetics however, we will often have to deal with not only the particulars of history, but the presuppositional bias against the notion that God has acted miraculously in history. So further argumentation will be needed to supplement what has been surveyed here, but enough has been presented so as to provide a foundation for discussing the important topic of the Bible’s historical Reliability.