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The Historical Reliability of the New Testament


By Jesse Jost

Many skeptics ask, “How do you know Christianity and its cornerstone, the resurrection, are true?”

Many Christians answer, “Because the Bible says so.”

But they stutter when asked how they know the Bible is true. At this point, quoting a Scripture verse defending the Bible’s inspiration won’t convince a skeptic. Even an ignoramus will quickly see the circular reasoning in that. If blind faith is required for believing a sacred text, how do we know which holy book deserves our faith? The Book of Mormon, the Koran, and the Torah all claim to be the voice of God. Blind faith alone is too risky to stake on books that give conflicting messages. How do we discern the truth? Is the New Testament worthy of our adherence – is it a book that truly speaks for God?

The New Testament (hereafter referred to as NT) claims not only to be a sacred, inspired text, but also a book of history. Before we put our faith in the NT as a sacred text, we need to evaluate it first as a historical document. Through philosophical reasoning, we know that God, as the Moral Law Giver, (a conclusion that can be reached independent of any scripture) cannot lie. If this collection of books has historical errors, contradictions, or makes assertions that are blatantly false, we can know for certain that this book is not of God. The logic is simple: God cannot err. So if a book has major, blatant errors, it cannot be of God. How does the NT fare when subjected to the tests of historical reliability? Let’s look at the facts apart from the bias of blind faith and find out.

When looking at an ancient text we need to examine the answers to three questions that will confirm the truth and accuracy of the document. 1. Do we have accurate copies of the original, or has extensive copying distorted the text? 2. Was the original writer qualified to write on the topic? In other words, was the writer an eyewitness? Did the writer have good source material? Did he write close enough to the events he describes? 3. Can the writer be trusted to be telling the truth? For example, has the author been sloppy with verifiable details? Did he contradict himself or known facts? If you can answer an emphatic yes to all three of these questions, then you have no reason to doubt the truth of document.

How does the evidence answer all three questions in regard to the NT? Remarkably well. In fact, as I will demonstrate, it stands up to scrutiny better than any other ancient text. If you doubt the veracity of the NT, then if you are going to be consistent, you must be skeptical about all of our knowledge of ancient history!

Do we have accurate copies?


Historians can determine how accurately a document has been transmitted to us through the centuries by comparing the handwritten manuscripts we have available. The older the manuscripts, and the more manuscripts we have, the more certain we can be as to what the original said. Here is an example. Your great-great-great-great grandma wrote a fabulous lemon scone recipe in the 1820s. The recipe has been hand-copied throughout the years and passed on to each generation. At each copying, slight errors have crept in. Words have been misspelled, baking times vary, and amounts have been modified. You decide to get the recipe straight. The stories you heard about all the county fair ribbons your ancient granny won have you curious to know exactly what the original tasted like. You contact as many extended family members as you can. You get 40 recipe cards back (the oldest is from 1895). You have ten different copies from the first twenty years of the 1900s. The rest are from the 1940s on. You figure out that the older copies are probably more accurate. You also notice that on 35 cards the recipe calls for salt, while only two call for brown sugar, and one calls for Splenda. You also notice that the card from 1895 and nine of the ten from the early part of the century call for salt and make no mention of brown sugar. The manuscript evidence makes it clear that original recipe had salt but not brown sugar, and because Splenda was not in use till around the turn of the millennium, you know that Splenda was not in the original.

Using the same principles employed in your recipe hunt, historians use the number and age of manuscripts (hereafter, MSS) to determine how the copies compare to the original. Before I tell you how much evidence we have for the NT, look at the amount of evidence historians usually find sufficient to verify other ancient writings. Caesar’s Gallic Wars has 9 manuscripts, and the earliest copy we have was made 1000 years after Caesar wrote it. With the writings of Aristotle, we have 49 MSS, but the earliest dates 1400 years after the original was written. After the NT, the next most attested ancient document is Homer’s Iliad; there are 643 MSS and the earliest is 500 years after the blind poet composed his masterpiece. It is easy to see why these handfuls of MSS are considered a sufficient standard; over time, many copies disappear, are burned, or lost.

The NT, however, is another story. Look at the evidence. We have over 24,000 MSS, and the earliest fragments can be dated within 10 years of the original! The NT has better attestation than all of the ancient books combined! From this massive body of evidence we can determine that less than 1 % of the NT is in dispute and none of the major doctrines rest on the questionable passages.

Therefore, we know with complete certainty that we have very accurate copies of the original. You may ask why God didn’t preserve the originals. It may be because His Word is actually better preserved this way. Now, no one can take the originals and tamper with them. Due to the enormous collection of manuscripts, the Bible is forever preserved.

So – we have accurate copies, but can we trust the original writers?

Was the original writer qualified to write on the topic?


The best scholarship available has verified that the NT was written by eyewitnesses or came from eyewitness sources and that all 27 books were written between 40 A.D. and 70 A.D. Critics have tried to attach later dates to these books, putting them in the second century, but their attempts were groundless. In fact, there is good evidence that none of the NT books were written after A.D. 70. Why? Nowhere in any of these 27 books is the destruction of Jerusalem mentioned, a fact that is significant since Jesus predicted this event 40 years before. The writers had every reason to mention but didn’t. There can only be one reason to explain this: these books were written before Jerusalem fell.

Though an early date is certain, can we be sure that these books written by eyewitnesses?  The writers claim to be eyewitnesses and correctly give several verifiable facts. In the book of Acts alone, Luke records 84 details about first century officials, geographical information, and local customs that have all been verified by archaeology and non-Christian historical texts. If Luke has been proven trustworthy in every area he can be tested, shouldn’t we believe him in the areas we can’t disprove?

 John’s gospel also contains the same track record of being verified at every provable point. In daily situations, we assume that someone is telling the truth unless that person disqualifies himself by lying or being inaccurate. If someone tells you their name, you don’t normally demand to see their birth certificate or driver’s license. Historians treat ancient texts in the same way; they believe them until the documents disqualify themselves. Despite vehement attacks on the NT, these gospels and epistles continue to shine and receive corroboration from each new discovery of archaeology and history. The NT writers have proved to be meticulous historians, men who were extremely careful of detail. These books are historically reliable beyond a shadow of a doubt, yet one question remains: were these writers telling the truth or were they the fabricators of the biggest fraud the world has ever known?

Can the writers be trusted to be telling the truth?


I’ll present to you five compelling reasons Christian apologists[i] offer to show that these writers weren’t lying or telling anything but the whole truth.

1. The writers record embarrassing facts about themselves.

There is an inferiority complex attached with lying. When telling a lie, there follows a need to make oneself look as good as possible to make that lie credible. If the disciples had been fabricating this story, they would have made themselves appear bold, intelligent, and faithful to the end. Instead, the gospels portray them as dim-witted cowards who abandoned and betrayed their master in His time of need. The writers included these incriminating details only because they really happened. The disciple-writers were following their Master’s high code of morality; truthfulness was very important to the One who claimed to be the Truth.

2. The writers record uncomfortable and difficult-to-understand things about Christ.

The gospels record that at times Jesus could not do miracles, that He didn’t know the time of His return, that the Father was greater than He was, and that He was baptized by a sinner. These are not details you include if you are trying to make up a character who is supposedly the God-Man. In fact, Jesus is unlike any man-made hero ever concocted. The sacrificial lamb that is willingly led to the slaughter is the complete antithesis of a man-made hero. The disciples showed great attention to accuracy and were unwilling to record anything but the truth about their leader, even if doing so led to possible confusion. 

3. The writers record demanding and challenging teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught that to look at a woman lustfully was to commit adultery, that divorce was not permitted, and that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and serve those who spitefully use us. Jesus’ teachings are among the most demanding ever taught. If the disciples were willing to play fast and loose with the truth, these demanding sayings would have been the first to go. There was no personal gain prompting the writers to accurately record these demanding teachings.

4. The writers are careful to make a distinction between Jesus’ words and their own.

Some critics claim that the church put words in Jesus’ mouth years after he died – that His claims to deity were later additions. Yet the evidence shows that the church was very careful to remain faithful to what Jesus actually said, even when it would have been easier to make up teachings of Christ to resolve controversy among His followers. For example, the first century church wrestled with the issues of tongues, women teaching in the church, and circumcision, yet nowhere in the recorded gospels did Jesus address these issues! If the critics’ accusations were true, it would have been easy to put words in Christ’s mouth that would have swiftly resolved those issues. But because they were so committed to the truth, the writers refused to do so.

5. Many of the writers died for their beliefs.

The deathbed is the place where confessions are made. At the point of death, one realizes there is no more earthly gain to be earned by a lie. Now is the time for the truth. However, the disciples faced torture and brutal deaths for their beliefs, but not one of them ever recanted. They had every thing to lose in this life by sticking to their story, and much to gain by abandoning their beliefs, yet they refused to back down from adhering to the powerful truths that Christ was God, that He rose from the dead, and that they would stand before Him on Judgment Day.

6. The critics confirmed the big details.

The enemy has no motive to prove your point, so hostile confirmation is worth a lot. The Jewish Talmud says that Jesus was a sorcerer. This confirms that Jesus was a real historical person who did miracles. It also states that Mary conceived Jesus by a Roman Soldier, which confirms that there was something unusual about his birth. The Jews said the Disciples stole the body which proves the tomb was empty.

7. The accounts differ slightly.

There is just enough variation in the account to prove that these are individual account of something that really happened. If the accounts were identical it would have looked like a conspiracy

8. They point to eye-witnesses to verify their story.

The writers are confident enough of what they record that they tell others to check their story out with others.

There is much more evidence that the writers were telling the truth. They include historical facts, point to eyewitnesses to verify their story, and include divergent secondary details that add further evidence that these are independent eyewitness accounts of an actual historic event and not merely collaborated fiction.

In conclusion, the New Testament has remarkable evidence supporting its reliability. Time and time again the critics and skeptics have assaulted this compilation of books, yet their efforts have only served to strengthen our case that this is the inspired Word of God. God’s Word shall endure forever.


[i] Norm Geisler and Frank Turek include these arguments in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004)

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