The reliability of the New Testament
Sooner or later in a gospel presentation, an inquirer is going to ask us about the accuracy of our sources. In dealing with questions concerning the accuracy of the Bible it is always best to answer the question with reference to the New Testament rather than the Old, and especially the gospels. The reason is that the gospels point to Christ and that's just who we want our friend to meet.
1. Aren't the writers biased? (This is a question concerning the writers' reliability)
We must always admit bias. It is quite obvious that the writers were biased. They believed what they wrote. A writer biased in favour of their subject produces a better work than the so-called unbiased writer. The unbiased writer is boring, since they have no interest in what they write.
The New Testament writers do not hide their bias, they declare unashamedly to totally support the events they record. This is in their favour. Undisclosed bias is a most dangerous thing. Much of our reporting in the daily papers and the electronic media contains undisclosed bias.
The main question we must face is - "Has their bias affected the truth?" A reading of the gospels forces us to answer "no".
i] The stories are simple and straightforward.
ii] Facts that are detrimental to the Christian faith are recorded, eg. some doubted the resurrection, Matt.28. The weakness of the disciples.
iii) We know that Matthew and Luke copy the work of Mark and yet they don't puff-up the story.
2. How do we know that what was written then is the same today? (This is a question concerning the accuracy of transmission.)
We know that the gospels were written from about 50AD onward. As early as 90AD contemporary writers were quoting from the gospels. These quotes can be checked with our present Bible. They were obviously quoting from earlier manuscripts than 90AD.
At the moment there are in existence over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of whole or part of the New Testament. The earliest fragments date from 110AD, ie. about 60 years older than the originals. Compare this with another important work in Ancient History - Caesar's "Gallic War". For this work only 9 or 10 manuscripts are any good, and the oldest is 900 years after Caesar actually wrote his work.
3. Have we any information to back-up the New Testament? (This is a question of accuracy.)
i] Other historians.
a) Tacitus and Pliny, both Roman historians, tell us that Jesus Christ was executed in the reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. Pliny, in his letter to the Emperor, tells in detail about the Christians in the province of Bithynia. Tacitus gives an interesting side-light on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus in AD70. He says he hoped to stamp out Christianity as well as Judaism by this act. These writers were not sympathetic to the Christians.
b) Thallus, the Samaritan, wrote in Rome about AD52. His work is lost, but a fragment of it is preserved by the second-century writer Julius Africanus, who speaks of the darkness that fell when Jesus died on the cross, Mark 15:33. "Thallus, in book three of his history, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun - unreasonably as it seems to me." Full marks to Julius Africanus for his objection; you cannot have a total eclipse of the sun when the moon is full, as it was at Passovertide when Jesus died. But the main interest of this quotation lies in showing that the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus were well known in Rome as early as the middle of the first century, and were deemed worthy of comment by a non-Christian historian." ("Runaway World", Michael Green, p.15). "These men, Pliny (AD61-114), Tacitus (AD55-118?) and Suetonius (AD69-140?) wrote of events which took place a mere thirty years before they were born; moreover their official position gave them access to good historical information. The evidence they give is more than sufficient to establish the historicity of Jesus; the author of this new religion who suffered the supreme penalty under Pontius Pilate while the latter was administering the turbulent province of Judea from AD26-36." ("Runaway World", Michael Green, p.17)
c) Josephus, a Jewish historian born AD37. From his work the following statements about Jesus would be a fair summary: his date of birth, his reputation as a wonder-worker, his being the brother of James, his crucifixion under Pilate at the information of the Jewish leaders, his messianic claim, his being the founder of 'the tribe of Christians', and the belief in his rising from the dead.
ii] External Accuracy
Where people, places and events can be verified they are accurate. A.N. Sherwin-White, fellow of St. John's College, Oxford, writes about the book of Acts. "..... the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity in matters of detail must appear absurd." We need to remember, the author of Acts is the author of the third gospel.
There was a time when many of the details recorded in the gospels were held to be inaccurate. John's gospel especially was held up to ridicule. But slowly, as archaeology has advanced, so the gospel writers have been shown to accurately record background details, eg. John records Jesus healing a man at a pool having five porches or colonnades. "No such pool exists", said the skeptics. Some years ago a pool with foundation bases for five porches was unearthed in Jerusalem.
4. How do we know which of the translations state the truth, there are so many? (This question suggests that the various translations are at odds with each other.)
Three factors have caused the production of various translations of the Bible.
a) The changing mode of speech from age to age. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible translated in the 1940's was felt by some not to speak to us today, so the New English Bible was translated in the 60's. Many felt that the language of the New English Bible was too "flowery" so other translations have been produced, notably - "The New International Version 1978". All seek to bring the original Greek and Hebrew texts "alive" for us today. They do not seek to alter the truths as originally written.
b) The discovery of further ancient texts of the Bible. The most popular version of the Bible was the King James Version, published in 1662. Yet since its publication many more ancient texts of the Bible have been found - discovered in the sands of Egypt or dug up in caves in Palestine. With the greater number of original texts to compare, scholars discovered inaccuracies in the 1662 Bible. So the Revised Version was published in 1884 along similar lines to the King James Version, but with the mistakes corrected. This process has gone on up till today so that the Bibles we now use are very close to what was originally written.
c) The wish to reach special cultural groups with an easily understood version. The "hippies" New Testament was probably the most outstanding of this type of translation. "The Good News Bible" (Today's English version), was for many years a very popular translation. This was translated for people for whom English was a second language. It therefore used sixth-class vocabulary. Since it was so easy to read it has become a popular version for private use. The truths of the Bible are still the same, all that is different is the language.
It must be recognized that each translation is based upon the same available ancient manuscripts, and that scholars faithfully translate the original languages into our own language and publishers faithfully print out an exact text. In every translation the most accurate original texts are used. The team of translators continually cross-check each other, verse by verse and the final publishing produces an error-free Bible. Only in a small number of verses, where the original language is unclear, do we find a difference in meaning between the translations. This though serves as an aid to our better understanding of the Bible, since we can compare the different versions.
5. How do we know that those who were writing in 50AD+ knew the facts? (This question implies that the events took place too far into the past for the writers to properly understand them.)
i] The memory system used in the ancient world meant that people remembered what they were taught. Rote learning was the fashion.
ii] Jesus taught in rote form. This was normal for a teacher in the first century. So when he wanted his disciples to remember something, he taught it to them in poetical form, ie. Metrical Teaching. In this way it was easily remembered. Since Jesus taught in Aramaic and his teachings were recorded in Greek and finally translated into English for us, there is little of the metrical form left, but we do get glimpses of it, eg. Matt.5:1-10, The Sermon on the Mount.
iii] Jesus did memorable things. As the stories were told and retold they became stylized and a set part of Christian tradition. (cf. notice how we can retell nursery stories with all the essential facts intact, eg. Little Red Riding Hood).
iv] The best time to write down the events would be after 20 or 30 years. The writer would then have the perspective of time and would be able to give a better overview of the events. All the best histories of the 1st and 2nd World Wars were written many years later.
v] Given the complete record of the teachings and life of Jesus being preserved as oral tradition in the churches of Palestine, Asia etc., it was easy for the gospel writers to tap an accurate source of information.
6. How do we know that the writers didn't fabricate the whole thing? (This question implies the Bible is a fairy story.)
Taking the gospels for instance, it would be impossible to write a fairy story life of Jesus. There were too many people around who knew the events first hand. Mark's gospel was written, at the most, 30 years after the events. Most of the disciples would be still alive and able to verify the accuracy of Mark's account. In actual fact many fictitious stories of the life of Jesus were written toward the end of the 1st century. They were never accepted because they simply didn't line up with the truth. There were too many people who knew what really happened. It's interesting to compare these fictitious accounts of the life of Jesus with the Bible.
The writings of pagan historians etc. and external accuracy, archaeology etc. further support the authenticity of the gospel accounts. The last thing we can say of them is that they are fairy stories.
A gospel punch-line
In concluding an answer to a tricky question it is best to return again to the gospel. The following is an example:
"In the Bible Jesus claims to be God, the giver of life, the source of our very being. In his resurrection he demonstrated this to be true. If the Bible record is accurate, what are you going to do about it?
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