In two previous posts, I outlined two aspects of the Christian worldview that I find very compelling (God is the best explanation for the Universe, and God is the best explanation for objective morality).
While broadly, my arguments heretofore have pointed towards a theistic God, there is also strong evidence for the reliability of the New Testament. If the NT is shown to be historical reliable, this moves us from a theistic God to the God of classical Christianity. And, if God is real and the New Testament is historically reliable, this demonstrates Christianity is, at minimum, worth strongly considering. Personally, I think shows it is true beyond a reasonable doubt, but at minimum the skeptic should at least consider a deeper investigation of the claims of Christianity.
So what are the reasons we can show that the New Testament is historically reliable? Below are a couple of lines of argument I want to explore. This is a very short summary of the vast array of historical evidence that makes up the body of scholarly works on this topic. Volumes have been written on this topic.
The Six “E’s”
The NT contains some interesting aspects that support its reliability. In examining the gospel accounts, they fall broadly into six distinct areas, which Dr. Frank Turek terms the “Six E’s”:
- Early Testimony
- Eyewitness Testimony
- Embarrassing Testimony
- Excruciating Testimony
- Expected Testimony
- Extra-Biblical Testimony
Early Testimony: There is strong evidence that the NT was written before AD 70. Romans, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians (written by Paul) have been dated to about AD 65. In Acts, Luke describes several of the events found in these other books, thus Acts was likely written about AD 60. Act’s is Luke’s second historical account (cf: Acts 1:1-2a: I wrote the former account…”); thus the Gospel of Luke predates Acts. Luke relies on Mark as one of his sources, which places Mark’s gospel around AD 50. Another thought supporting the pre-AD 70 assertion: Jesus actually predicted the destruction of the temple (Matt 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6). It’s odd that none of the NT writers even mentioned this. Being able to write that Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and having it actually happened would be a great boon to the NT writers. The absence of this is strong evidence that most, if not all, of the NT was written prior to AD 70.
Eyewitness Testimony: Several aspects of the NT are written as historical accounts. Luke 3:1-2 in particular says, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” This passage contains a specific date (AD 29, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Ceasar), and cites eight different people, all who are actual historical characters who were known (via extra-Biblical sources) to live during this exact time in history. Broadly, the NT cites more than 30 individuals who have been confirmed by secular sources or by archaeology.
Embarrassing Testimony: The writers of the NT include details about themselves that are quite embarrassing. If you were making up a story, would you not likely include these details:
- They are dim-witted and fail to understand Jesus’ parables on many occasions
- They are uncaring (fall asleep on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion.)
- They are rebuked (Jesus calls Peter “Satan” [Mk 8:33], and Paul rebukes Peter [Gal 2:11].)
- They are cowards. Peter denies Christ three times; they run and hide after Christ’s death
- Jesus himself is thought to be crazy by his family, he is deserted, doubted, called a drunkard, and thought to be a deceiver
Excruciating Testimony: The disciples were practicing Jews, who believed in the OT law, temple sacrifices, the Sabbath, and expected a political Messiah who would throw off the chains of the Roman occupiers and restore the Davidic Kingdom. Instead, they got (with Jesus) a sacrificial Messiah who upset the Jewish leaders (who wanted to kill him for blasphemy claiming to be God) and established a Trinitarian view of God, Sunday worship, baptism and communion, and did away with the OT sacrificial system. What possible gain did NT writers have by making up a new religion? When the early Christians, who had every reason to know whether or not the message was true, were confronted with the “stop preaching or die” threat, they chose death. People often die for something they believe to be true, but no rational person dies for what they know to be a lie.
Expected Testimony: The OT has multiple passages that prophesy the coming Messiah. Isaiah 53 is perhaps the best known. The Book of Isaiah is traditionally thought to have been written from about 760 to 700 B.C.; however, some scholars date it to the period after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Regardless the correct dating, these very clear passages point to Jesus of Nazareth some 500+ years before he was born.
Extra-Biblical Testimony: There are actually several ancient non-Christian sources that include historical references to Jesus and the early Christian church, including historians like Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon; government officials such as Pliny the Younger, Emperor Trajan, and Emperor Hadrian; and other sources including The Jewish Talmud and Greek writer Lucian. Their writings corroborate aspects of the NT, which further buttress its historical accuracy.
More Early Information
What I find fascinating about the NT is the various interlocking “clues” we find in studying it. There are some very interesting aspects of the NT that point to early dating.
Christ’s crucifixion was likely in 33 AD. Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth has been dated to about 55 AD (22 years from the cross). In Chapter 15, Paul writes about the “gospel that [he] preached” that he “passed on…as of first importance.” (vv 1-2). He continues with a formulation of the gospel that is in the form of an early creed.
that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5, NET).
This information is something Paul likely received when he spent 15 days with Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18). Paul’s conversion was as early as 3 years or as late as 8 years after the cross (AD 36-41). But what is interesting is the 1 Corinthians 15 creed wasn’t simply something Paul was taught; it was already put into this creedal form likely within months of the crucifixion.
Just The Facts
The 1970’s TV show Dragnet featured Detective Joe Friday and one of his famous lines, “Just the facts, ma'am.” Because Christianity is based on evidence, we should expect that there would be historical facts that provide evidence that Christianity is true. Dr. Gary Habermas has written extensively on what he terms “the ‘Minimal Facts’ [of] a critical study of the resurrection of Jesus.” These represent the “significant body of data that scholars of almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical.”.
What are these facts? My summary is as follows:
Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried in a tomb. His death resulted in his disciples losing hope and hiding in fear of the Jewish leaders. Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty. The disciples had experiences in which they believed they encountered the literal risen Jesus. Because of these experiences the disciples were transformed from a group of lost doubters to a group of bold proclaimers. Jesus’ resurrection was central to the disciples’ earliest testimony and preaching in Jerusalem. From this, the early Christian Church was born and grew rapidly throughout the region. The first Christians were orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship, up-ending hundreds of years of faithful Jewish religious practice. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was converted to the faith when he saw who he believed was the resurrected Jesus. Saul of Tarsus (Paul) was converted to the faith; prior to his conversion, Saul/Paul was a devout Jew who persecuted and killed Christians.
These historical facts demand an answer. One has to ask, what is the most reasonable explanation for these facts? Were the disciples and early Christians mistaken or did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead? (More on this in another post).
There is ample historical evidence that the gospel accounts and the majority of the epistles and letters were written very early in history, likely before AD 70. The “Six E’s” show that the NT writers were writing actual historical accounts. What is also interesting is that the early church fathers, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, (who all lived at the end of the first century into the second century) all quoted extensively from the letters that eventually were canonized as the New Testament. We really do have strong evidence to show that the NT is historical reliable.
This is another reason that I am a Christian.