“Is the New Testament trustworthy as historical document on Jesus and other things? Many sceptics do not think so.”
Is the New Testament (NT) generally trustworthy? My answer would be yes but we need to first clarify some things.
Trustworthy I take to mean that I can place my trust in X, and in this case our NT is in question. In other words, can I trust that the NT does record Jesus’ movements, activities, and words etc.?
Yes, I do. However, I don’t wish to extend my confidence beyond what I can when I approach Jesus through a historical lens. For example, historical criteria (known as the criteria of authenticity) establishes certain NT events as historically plausible; which means that the described events have a high degree of historical probability. Some events rate so high on this scale that no historian doubts that the event actually occurred. For example, Jesus’ Roman crucifixion, post-mortem appearances, and baptism pass this criterion with flying colours. However, that being said there are details that we cannot be as confident on, for example, I see Jesus’ flight into Egypt as an infant in this way. This event is only relayed to us in a single source. The same would apply for the guard at Jesus’ tomb in Matthew, and many words/events documented in John’s gospel. I cannot place as much trust in them as I can with some other details that enjoy more corroboration. Does this mean that these events are unhistorical? Not necessarily as much of what we know in ancient history comes down to us in a single document. An event recorded in a single source may well be authentic.
With that being said I think that there are undeniably historical events, people, places etc. recorded in our NT. But why have I come to this conclusion? I conclude this because our NT passes the standard test expected of other ancient documents that have been deemed to be generally reliable. In other words, I hold to the general reliability of our NT historical sources. Let’s briefly touch on four aspects.
1. Manuscript Attestation – The manuscript attestation for our NT is abundant (the NT boasts the most manuscript copies; more than any other ancient work from antiquity), and this is a good thing. In New Testament class this semester many of my fellow students were only becoming familiar with what manuscript attestation is. I was quite fortunate since I’ve looked into these issues for some time now. So my lecturer gave me a chance to explain to the class what was meant by there being some 400 000 variances in our 26 000 manuscript copies of the NT, what a variant actually is, and how the line of scribal transmission worked. In short, what this means is that we can reconstruct the original documents of the NT with great confidence. This doesn’t suggest that what is actually recorded within the NT is historical (that must be decided on other grounds), but this remains a first step in the process for determining historical reliability.
2. Archaeology – Historians always look for archaeological confirmation of locations and structures described in ancient documents. Why? Simply because it demonstrates that the author is intending to write accounts that are actually grounded within history. We have numerous finds confirming many NT details. Distinguished Professor of New Testament Craig Evans explains that “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts—these are the basic narrative books of the New Testament. They talk about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that” (1).
So when our NT authors mention a time, city, or village those places actually exist. When they mention people we happen to have found archaeological confirmation affirming the existence of the mentioned people. Thus, in many places where we are able to test our NT authors, at least via the science of archaeology, we find that they intended to record history. Scholar Paul Johnson explains that “Historians note that mounting evidence from archaeology confirms rather than contradicts the accounts of Jesus” (5).
3. Extra-Biblical Confirmation – We won’t go into detail here as I have done so elsewhere. But the point here being is that external sources to our NT documents affirm what the NT authors recorded. We have many of these sources. Josephus & Tacitus are our most significant one with both corroborating events and people mentioned in the NT. The same applies to several other sources from Suetonius, Mara Serapion, Pliny the Younger, and our early church fathers. There are also other later, less significant sources that assist historians trying to piece together earliest Christianity. However, when we combine these sources they make for an undeniably powerful argument that our NT is recording real history. Exegete Gary Habermas explains that “When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity. Few ancient historical figures can boast the same amount of material” (2).
4. Early Attestation – Another important factor is the earliness of the historical evidence that we have for Jesus. Firstly, our NT itself is early if we are to compare it to other works of antiquity. For example, our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written 30 years after Jesus’ death (he died in 30 AD). 1 Thessalonians, a Pauline epistle, was penned around 52 AD which makes it our earliest NT document. We also have traditions and hypothetical sources that lie behind our NT documents which take us even earlier than most of the NT. For example, we have creeds, hymns, and several hypothetical sources (Q, L, M, pre-Markan Passion Narrative & John’s Signs Gospel). All of this provides a rich reservoir of early & independent attestation for the historian to use to make sense of the historical Jesus. In this way we are lucky to have so much data from the earliest times after Jesus died. These creeds and hypothetical sources “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50” (3).
I think that these four areas have given me good grounds to conclude that our NT is trustworthy for understanding and learning about the Jesus of history. Does this mean that there is no debate or discussion regarding these factors? Certainly not. But the fact of the matter is that no expert in the field believes that our NT cannot be trusted as generally reliable sources, although how much so would differ according to the historian in question. Don’t only take my word for it, but consider what the agnostic historian Bart Ehrman (no friend of Christianity, trust me!) has to say:
“If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons—for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (4).
1. Evans, C. Interview: Is the Bible Reliable? Available.
2. Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 219.
3. Habermas, G. 1996. Ibid. p. 143.
4. Ehrman, B. 2008. The New Testament. p. 229.
5. Johnson, P. 1986. A Historian Looks at Jesus (Speech).