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THE HISTORICITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

Written by: Unknown    Posted on: 04/25/2003

Category: Misc.

Source: CCN

               THE HISTORICITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

     The  purpose of this paper is to present evidence in  defence of  the  historicity  of the  New  Testament.   Through  this,  it addresses  the question of the historicity of the  resurrection of Jesus  Christ.   For  if  the writers of  the  New  Testament  are reliable witnesses, then the most significant event that they ever recorded must then be given more than a glance.

     The  paper will defend the credibility of the  New  Testament writings  first  by running the New Testament  through  the  three standard tests for literary historiography listed by  C.  Sanders.  These  are the Bibliographical Test,  the Internal Evidence  Test, and  the External Evidence test (see endnote 1).   These  are  the same  tests used on all secular writing of antiquity.   The  paper will  then present arguments of the credibility of the writers  of the New Testament.

                     The Bibliographical Test

     When  compared  to the other writings of  antiquity  the  New Testament  not only passes this test but surpasses  other  ancient writings by far.   The bibliographical test examines documents  in light of how their present form came to us.   It examines attempts to  distinguish  how  loyal our earliest manuscripts  are  to  the original in light of how many manuscripts we have today,  how well they agree with one another and the time gap between the  original manuscripts and our current ones.

     There  are  approximately  5000  greek  manuscripts  in   our possession  today.   The earliest of these have been dated  within 250 to 300 years of the originals (Mark being dated c. AD 55) (see endnote 2).   This may seem like a long gap, but when one looks at the  time  gaps concerning the other  accepted  and  authoritative writings of antiquity it is actually quite short.   For  instance, Caesar's  GALLIC WAR (written between 50 and 58 BC) has only 9  or 10  good manuscripts dated 900 years later.   Of the 142 books  of LIVY'S  ROMAN HISTORY (written from 59 BC to AD 17) we  have  only thirty  five.   Those  we have are constructed from only  20  good manuscripts, one of which is dated in the fourth century.  We have only  four  and a half of the fourteen books of the  HISTORIES  OF TACTITUS (written c.  AD 100).   Of the sixteen books of  TACITUS' ANNALS  we have ten in full and two in part.   Both  of  Tactitus' works are based on only two manuscripts. One of the manuscripts is dated in the ninth century and one in the eleventh (that's an  800 year  gap  for one and 1000 years for the other).   Our  copies of Tacitus'  other  works  (DIALOGUS  DE  ORATORIBUS,  AGRICOLA,  and GERMANIA)  all  are  from  the  tenth  century.   THE  HISTORY  OF THUCYDIDES (written 460 to 400 BC) is based on 8 manuscripts,  the earliest  sporting  a 1300 year gap.   THE  HISTORY  OF  HERODOTUS (written from 488 to 428 BC) also is based on 8  manuscripts,  the earliest  being  1300  years from the original  (see  endnote  3).  PLINY THE YOUNGER'S HISTORY is known from 7 manuscripts with a 750 year  gap.   The  classic  writings  of Plato  are  known  from  7 manuscripts  with  a 1200 year gap and the writings  of  Aristotle which  we  derive  from 49 manuscripts has a 1400  year  gap  (see endnote 4).   The list goes on and on.  F. F. Bruce puts the point well:

     No classical author would listen to an argument that the      authenticity  of  Herodotus or Thucydides  is  in  doubt      because the earliest manuscripts of their works are over      130 years later than the originals.   But how  different      is the situation of the New Testament in this respect!      (see endnote 5)

     With the 5000 greek manuscripts, the over 8000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, and more recently discovered papyri portions of the New Testament dating to the end of the first century,  we have such a huge body of manuscripts for checking the integrity of  the different copies we have great assurance that we have an  accurate portrayal of the originals.   As the late Sir Frederic G.  Kenyon, formerly director and primary librarian of the British Museum  put it: "The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible." (see endnote 6).

     So  the  New  Testament documents pass the  first  test  with flying  colors.   To reject the accuracy of the New  Testament  on bibliographical grounds would be to, as John W. Montgomery puts it "let  all of classical antiquity to slip into  obscurity,  for  no documents   of   the   ancient  period  are   as   well   attested bibliographically as the New Testament" (see endnote 7).   To  put this  in  simpler  terms,  the New  Testament  writings  are  more reliable  than  those  used to compose the  facts  in  our  public school's books on Greek and Roman history.

                    The Internal Evidence Test

     This  test simply examines the documents in question to  find if  there  are any internal contradictions that detract  from  the documents' reliability.   In this process scholars begin by giving the  documents in question the benefit of the doubt.   We  do  not assume that they are historically incorrect but examine if we  can catch  them  disagreeing  with themselves.   Do  the  four  Gospel accounts  draw  conflicting pictures of who Christ was or  of  the events  they portray?   Are there contradictions in the  teachings written in Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles?  Also, what is written in the documents that lends to their credibility?

     In  the New Testament we find an amazingly coherent  body  of writings   considering   its  books  were  penned   by   different individuals from different locations and during different decades.  There are no significant contradictions in historical accounts  or in doctrine.   Granted, there are tensions, but these ought not to be  considered out and out contradictions.   Citing  Robert  Horn: "difficulties do not constitute objections.   Unsolved problems do not  constitute  errors.   This  is not to minimise  the  area  of difficulty; it is to see it in perspective." (see endnote 8).

     In support of the accounts of Christ's actions and  teachings are  the claims in the Gospels to be first  hand  accounts.   Both Matthew and John were witnesses to the events they recorded.   The importance of this cannot be minimized.  Very few historians today report events that they were witnesses to.  Also, Mark was a close companion  and  disciple of Peter who was also a  witness  to  the events  written in Mark's Gospel.   And Luke,  though not  an  eye witness  to the events in Christ's life is still considered to  be the  consummate historian of the group.   In the beginning of  his account  he  states that he had  himself  "carefully  investigated everything  from  the beginning" (Luke 1:3).   More will  be  said about Luke's reputation among scholars in the next section.

     The  New  Testament writings are sources all written  in  the first  century.   From  the  end(?) of Christ's  ministry  to  the writing  of  the  Gospels there is only and  approximate  30  year interval for Mark,  50 for Luke,  50 for Matthew, and 60 for John.  Again,   these  are  not  unreasonable  gaps  compared  to   other historical  works  of even modern times.   And keep in  mind  that during  the 30 to 60 year gap the disciples spent their  lives  as experts  teaching  about all that they had seen  and  been  taught during  their  three year period of spending all their  time  with Jesus.  This was not foggy material in their minds when they wrote it  down.   Rather it was material that they had  been  exercising their expertise over for many years.   Again, to put this argument in simpler terms,  the writings of the new Testament come from eye witnesses and writers with first hand accounts available to  them.  This  is better than many of the authors of our  school's  history books can claim.

                    The External Evidence Test

     In  the  external evidence test we look to  other  historical materials  to judge the reliability of the documents in  question.  Here  also the New Testament finds a wealth of support.   Much  of this support comes from extra-biblical writers.

     Papias,  the Bishop of Hierapolis (AD 130) and a man who  had personal contact with the Apostle John wrote:

     The  Elder (John) used to say this  also:  Mark,  having      been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all      that (Peter) mentioned, whether the sayings or doings of      Christ... (see endnote 9)

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (AD 180) wrote:

     so firm is the ground on which these Gospels rests, that      the very heretics themselves bear witness to them,  and,      starting   from  these  [documents]  each  one  of  them      endeavors  to  establish his  own  particular  doctrine.       (see endnote 10)

     But  not  all the ancient writers that give  support  to  the Christian writings were Christian.   In the rabbinical writings of the Talmud there is startling support to the claims in the Gospels about  Jesus.   In the Talmud there are writings about  the  false teacher Jesus of Nazareth who performed miracles!   They attest to these  sorcery  on Christ's part but the important point  is  that they did not even attempt to discount that Christ was a worker  of miracles (see endnote 11).

     The Jewish historian Josephus of the first century writes  of Jesus:

     And there arose about this time Jesus,  a wise  man,  if      indeed  we should call him a man;  for he was a doer  of      marvelous deeds, a teacher of men who received the truth      with pleasure.   He lead away many Jews,  and also  many      Greeks.   This man was said to be the Christ.   And when      Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment      by the chief men among us,  those who loved him at first      did not cease;  for he appeared to them on the third day      alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and      thousands  of wonderful things about him:  and even  now      the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet      died out. (see endnote 12)

     Archeology also has yielded much evidence supporting the  New Testament  accounts.   One discovery of special importance is  the "Nazareth Inscription".   This is a slab of white marble found  in Nazareth  and dated to the first century.   No  other  inscription like it is found in any other Roman province.   The content of the inscription says it all:

     Ordinance of Caesar.   It is my pleasure that graves and      tombs  remain  undisturbed in perpetuity for  those  who      have  made them for the cult of their  ancestors...  If,      however any man lay information that another has  either      demolished them,  or has in any other way extracted  the      buried,  or  has maliciously transferred them  to  other      places...  against  such a one I order that a  trial  be      instituted... In the case of contravention I desire that      the  offender  be  sentenced to  capital  punishment  on      charge of violation or sepulture.  (see endnote 13)

It  would  appear  that  there  was  some  unique  difficulty   of disappearing  bodies  (at  least one) in  Nazareth  in  the  first century.   It was significant enough for the Romans to issue  this edict  to prevent it from happening again.   This does  not  prove that  Jesus rose from the dead but it may well be an indicator  of the mayhem produced by the unaccountability of his body three days after burial.

     Other  strong  testimony  to  the  historicity  of  the   New Testament comes from Sir William Ramsay, regarded to be one of the greatest  archaeologists to ever have  lived.   Ramsay  originally sought to discount the writings of Luke in the Gospel and Acts  as products of the second century.   He was attacking the  authorship and  first century credibility of  these writings.   But the  more Ramsay searched the more he found inescapable evidence that Luke's writings  were  indeed accurate and  authentic.   Luke  writes  of places  that had been lost to history and re-found.   He time  and time  again  refers to Roman magistrates by  their  correct  name, title  and  time.   As a direct result of what  he  found,  Ramsay became a Christian.  He enthusiastically states:

     Luke is an historian of the first rank;  not merely  are      his statements of fact and trustworthy;  he is possessed      of  the true historic sense...  In  short,  this  author      should   be   placed  along  with  the   very   greatest      historians.  (see endnote 14)

It is important not to underestimate the weight of a the testimony of a critic of such high standing in his field who not only failed to  refute  the credibility of the New  Testament,  but  became  a Christian  as  a  result  of what  he  found  when  he  critically searched.

     And  so  the New Testament passes the third and  final  test.  There is plentiful evidence from outside sources that supports the historical reliability of the New Testament.

             Credibility of the New Testament Writers

     In spite of the above evidence for the historicity of the New Testament,   there  are   those  who  would  attack  the   writers themselves to undermine the New Testament's credibility.  They are accused of delivering an unhistorical portrait of Jesus.  They are accused of making up their accounts and putting their own words in Jesus' mouth.   This section will list several reasons why this is incredibly unlikely not to mention totally unfounded. 

     As eye witnesses,  the Apostles must be given the benefit  of the  doubt.   No  man can come along with no evidence at  all  and accuse  them  of fraud.   Their authority is higher than  any  man living today that would question them.   They were there.  We were not.

     The  testimonies  of  the  Apostles  are  written  in  blood.  Charlatans would never suffer the cruel and dreadful deaths of the Apostles for a lie.  Their testimony must be regarded as testimony that literally stood up under torture.   They were stoned, run out of cities,  imprisoned, and eventually killed for the message they proclaimed.   They could have ended their persecution at any  time by  fessing  up  to  their lie.   They had  nothing  to  lose  and everything to gain.

     If  the Apostles were going to falsely construct  a  messiah, surely  they  would  not have constructed one  like  the  biblical Jesus.  He fit none of the Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would  be.   Surely they would have tried to give the people  what they expected and hence a more believable deception.  Also, if the writers  were putting words into Jesus' mouth,  then why did  they not have him make definitive statements that would have cleared up some  of the internal struggles that the Church was going  through at  the time of writing (ie,  circumcision for  Gentile  converts, works verses faith, etc.)?

     The  disciples  could  not have gotten away  with  making  up miracles  and  teachings of Christ since all that he  did  he  did publicly.  Surely there were many who could have refuted any false claims about Jesus.  But the accounts of the Gospels are of things that occurred among large gatherings.   How would they have gotten away with it?

     There are those who accuse the Gospel writers of collusion in their writings.  That way they could have gotten together and laid a solid and cohesive foundation of lies about who Jesus was.   But examination of the four different accounts shows that this is  not at all supported.  On the contrary there is strong support against this.   For the four Gospels are not identical enough to be  works of  intentional collusion.   For there are accounts that are  told from  different  perspectives  that  lay  out  slightly  different emphasis and detail.   There is enough agreement among the  Gospel accounts to determine that they are accurately portraying the same events.   But there is enough minute and subtle difference in  the way  things are recorded that they are clearly not the product  of four  writers  getting together to  make sure they tell  the  same story.   An illustration of this principal:  When police take down the  accounts from different witnesses of a crime,  they look  for enough  similarity  to prove accuracy.   But they  also  look  for enough similarity in how the accounts are told to tell if they are operating in collusion.   The Gospel  accounts are similar  enough by  far  to testify to their accuracy and have enough  variety  of focus and detail to testify to being free of collusion.

     The bottom line is that the New Testament writers were  moral men who went to great lengths to insure the accuracy of what  they wrote.   They  had only one reason to endure the persecution  that they  endured.   They had only one reason to write the words  that they wrote:  the words were true.

                         Conclusion    

     But what is one to do with such evidence as the New Testament documents?   Clearly, to accept their historicity can well raise a crisis in one's life.   The implications are unnerving.   Just  as C.S.  Lewis  was rattled by a conversation he overheard between  a couple of fellow atheist Cambridge professors when one said to the other:  "Funny  thing about this resurrection thing:  it  actually appears  to  have really happened!"  The one who  discovers  these facts is confronted with a Jesus that he can not ignore.   He must make up his mind as how to respond to this Jesus of Nazareth.   He can no longer regard him as just another great moral  teacher.   I can offer no better conclusion to this paper than a quote of  C.S. Lewis  from his book MERE CHRISTIANITY where the response that  he made to these facts is made clear:

     I  am  trying  here to prevent anyone  from  saying  the      really  foolish thing that people often say  about  Him:      'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but      I don't accept his claim to be God.'  This is one  thing      that  we must not say.   A man who was merely a man  and      said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a  great      moral  teacher.   He  would either be a lunatic -  on  a      level  with the man who says he is a poached egg  -   or      else he would be the devil of hell.   You must make your      choice.   Either this man was, and is the Son of God; or      else a madman or something worse.   You can shut him  up      for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon;      or  you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and  God.       But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense  about      his being a great human teacher.   He has not left  that      open to us.  He did not intend to.     

                            ENDNOTES:

     1.  C.  Sanders, INTRODUCTION TO RESEARCH IN ENGLISH LITERARY HISTORY (New York:  Macmillan,  1952),  pp. 143ff (cited from Josh McDowell's EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 43).

     2.   John  Warwick  Montgomery,   HISTORY  AND   CHRISTIANITY (Minnesota: Bethany House, 1965), p. 27.

     3.  F.  F.  Bruce,  THE  NEW TESTAMENT  DOCUMENTS:  ARE  THEY RELIABLE? (Illinois: Inter Varsity, 1983), pp 16,17.

     4.  Josh  McDowell,  EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT  (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972), pp. 47,48.

     5. Bruce, p. 17.

     6. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, THE BIBLE AND ARCHEOLOGY (New York and London: Harper, 1940), pp. 288,289.

     7. Montgomery, p. 29.

     8. McDowell, p. 64.

     9. Ibid., p.66.

     10. Ibid.

     11. Bruce, pp. 100,101.

     12. Ibid., p. 108.

     13.  E.  M.  Blaiklock,  THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (Michigan: Zondervan, 1970), p. 76.

     14.   Clifford  A.   Wilson,   ROCKS,  RELICS,  AND  BIBLICAL RELIABILITY (Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), p.114.

     15.  C.  S.  Lewis,  MERE CHRISTIANITY (New York:  Macmillan,

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