Trusting the New Testament as History

We live in interesting times, a time in which technology has given us almost unlimited access to unlimited information, on an unlimited scale. We no longer have to turn to experts and purchase expensive books in the search for answers to our questions. We only have to “Google” a few terms and voila, we have thousands of resources to choose from; what would have been equivalent to hours of research has been accomplished in seconds. We also live in a post-modern world, where physicalism and naturalism rule the day. Where secularism is increasingly popular and the supernatural is routinely dismissed as superstition at best or worse delusional. As a result the very existence of truth has come into question.

When these philosophies are translated into studying the past the results are devastating. Doing history one must rely on evidence of events in the past, and in the case of the events pertaining to Jesus, 2000 years in the past. So before looking at the events from antiquity themselves, we first need to see if the documents we’re relying on are an accurate representation of what really happened. As opposed to what the relativist amerced in postmodernity might say we can know with a fair amount of certainty what happened in the past, even the distant past.

So let’s examine the New Testament documents and see if they can be a trusted source of history. I think it’s important here to make clear upfront that we are not assuming that the NT is the inspired Word of God, instead we will simply being treating them as every historian would, 27 individually written historical narratives.

When historians study history they use certain criteria in order to establish an event as having happened. They look for eyewitness accounts, multiple independent accounts, consistent and corroborative accounts, and accounts that are recorded close to the time of the events. We will see that the New Testament documents satisfy these criteria.

We are able to conclude that the New Testament is accurate and reliable because we can compare a multitude of manuscripts. This is a line of argument all but ignored by postmodern thinkers and skeptics. Between the first and fifteenth centuries more than 24,000 partial and complete New Testament manuscripts were reproduced.  Around 5,600 of these copies date to less than 100 years of the actual events. Compared to each other we see amazing accuracy and likeness. From a historians perspective this satisfies the criteria of multiple, independent, and consistent accounts.

Even more amazing is the time that transpired between the original writings and the first copies. We have most of the New Testament manuscripts dated within 200 years of the events. We have some books dating to within 100 years of the events. We also have one fragment that comes within a generation of the events themselves. Also, awaiting publishing is a fragment of Mark’s Gospel believed to date to the first-century. (LINK) The closeness of these sources to the events is simply amazing, giving historian’s confidence that what is recorded is accurate and true to the actual events as they happened.

Compared to any other ancient text the documents that make up the New Testament stand in a class by themselves due to the number of whole or partial manuscripts that exists. There are not only thousands more manuscripts (whole copies) and portions of manuscripts than other ancient texts but the oldest of them date far closer to the events as compared to say Tacitus’ Annals (fewer than 50 copies dating between 750-950 years after the events). This results in the ability to reconstruct the original documents with a greater degree of accuracy than any other ancient book. If one is to doubt the authenticity of the New Testament documents then one must also doubt all ancient writing. 

Dr. Clay Jones, author and professor at Biola University writes, “Since the New Testament manuscripts outstrip every other ancient manuscript in sheer number and proximity to the autographs, then the New Testament should be regarded as having been accurately transmitted.” (LINK)

This introduces us to an important topic. The process used in determining to what degree any ancient document corresponds to its original is called textual criticism.  Lower criticism deals the authenticity of the text. Textual critics try to recreate the original texts of the lost document by comparing copies of the writings, in this case the ancient New Testament documents. The results?

We can be confident that the New Testament documents have not only been preserved in the largest number of manuscripts from antiquity, but so there are fewer errors in transmission.”

In light of these evidences and the work of textual critics, historians can be certain that what we’re reading today is what was originally written. From here it would be wise to assess the events recorded and spend some time considering the implications of them on our own lives.