Signpost – Historical Reliability of the New Testament pt. 1

When looking at the historical reliability of the Bible, I’ll first concentrate on the Gospels since the accounts of the life of Jesus are the linchpin of the Christian faith. Falsify that, and everything else falls apart as well. Confirm the historicity of the gospels, and you cannot avoid the truth claims of the faith.

There are many attacks against the historicity of the gospels. The most popular today include the assertions that the gospels are a bunch of stories made up to deify a man who may or may not have actually lived in order to advance some nefarious agenda, that the gospels were written in order to solidify the political power of Constantine, or that the gospels are nothing more than a retelling of other savior myths. There are many others, but the vast majority of them depend upon an easily disprovable premise: that the gospels originate hundreds of years after the time that Jesus lived.

If it can be shown that it is reasonable to conclude that the gospel narratives originate early enough that they could have been easily disproven by eyewitnesses to the events, then these ‘late date’ based arguments are falsified, and the gospels must be taken as at least as accurate as other contemporary histories.

So, if, as I intend to show, the majority of the arguments against the historical reliability of the gospels are easily discounted, why are there so many that still subscribe to these false arguments?

I think there are two reasons; the first is that they are almost universally based on the presupposition that the supernatural does not exist. With this close-minded approach, the reasoning goes something like this:

Since the supernatural doesn’t exist, and there are passages in the gospels that clearly and accurately predict future events without and contemporary indications that such events are likely (like the prediction of the destruction of the temple recorded in Matt. 24:1-2, Mark 13: 1-2 and Luke 21:5-6) then that narrative MUST have originated after the events predicted.

This is the only evidence that late-daters have for their position, and they go to great lengths to either discount or, more commonly, ignore the evidence that contradicts that view.

However, if you keep your mind open to the possibility that the supernatural is possible, the evidence for the early dating of the gospel narrative is quite convincing.

Before we examine the evidence available, we must keep a couple of facts in mind. First, Jesus was crucified no earlier than 30 A.D., so anything written between that time and 65 A.D. would have been penned well within the lifetime of witnesses who could have contested the accuracy of the accounts. Second, the majority of late-daters and more conservative scholars alike agree that the gospels were written in one of two chronological orders: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. This order of writing will be especially significant when we examine the internal evidences.

There are two lines of evidence that we can examine to determine the probable dates of the gospels. Internal evidence looks at clues contained in the New Testament writings themselves, and external evidence concerns sources outside the Bible. We’ll look at external evidence first.

The earliest manuscript that indisputably contains portions of a canonical gospel is the p52 fragment of the Gospel of John, which has been dated to as early as 98 A.D. and no later than 138 A.D. The most accepted date is about 125 A.D., and since this is not considered the original manuscript, the overwhelming majority of scholars date the original writing at about 70 A.D. Given that the other gospels are most probably written before John, then even if we grant the unlikely and unsupported assertion that this is the earliest writing of John’s gospel, that would date the gospels to less than 100 years after the events described. Using the generally accepted date of 70 A.D. for John, that would put all four gospels at within 40 years of the events depicted. This is well within the lifetime of other eyewitnesses.

This fragment alone is sufficient to date the gospels well before 100 A.D., but the other convincing external evidence for dating them before 100 A.D. is the number of times the gospels are quoted or alluded to in the writings of the early church leaders. to quote Dr. John Oakes, “There are several lines of evidence used.  One is the earliest dates these books are quoted from.  All four gospels are quoted in patristic writings (a technical term which means writings by the early church “fathers.”) before AD 100 in books such as the Epistle of Barnabus, the book of Clement of Rome and the Didache.  We can say with a great deal of confidence that all four books were in existence by about AD 90 given the distribution of the books in all the churches.”

The internal evidence for the early dating of the gospels starts with dating the book of Acts. Since Acts was written after the book of Luke, it is reasonable to assume that the Gospel of Luke (and therefore, Matthew and Mark) were writing before that.

Acts is a chronicle of the significant events pertaining to the spread of the Gospel in the years immediately following the crucifixion of the Christ, with emphasis on the life and journeys of the apostle Paul. Among the events narrated are the martyrdom of one of the minor church leaders in Jerusalem (Stephen, Acts 7) and of James ( Acts 12: 1,2), the early ministry of Peter, and the conversion and numerous imprisonments of Paul and his companions.

Significant indications for the early authorship of the book of Acts lie in the prominent events of early church history that are excluded. Many late-daters have postulated that these omissions are due to them not being relevant to the theme of the book, or that they were omitted for no other reason than to make it look more ancient than it actually was. For the former, the magnitude of the events omitted make the argument appear quite strained; for the latter no evidence is offered other than pure conjecture.

So what are these omissions?

  • Neither the Gospels or Acts say anything about the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., other than the passages cited above which are clearly prophetic. This event was of such worldwide significance that almost every Jewish and Roman history of the first and second century at least mention it. Also, since the main purpose of the Gospels and the book of Acts is to recount events that confirm the work and deity of the Christ, the lack of including such a specific fulfillment of prophecy (the temple was indeed taken apart stone by stone) is quite odd. The only reasonable conclusion is that the foretold destruction had not yet occurred. If the Gospels had been written after 70 A.D., there would have been no credible reason to omit such a convincing validation of Christ’s supernatural nature.
  • There is no mention of the death of the Apostle Peter in any of the New Testament writings, Acts included. Since there is a rather lengthy passage devoted to recounting the death of Stephen, and the martyrdom of James is mentioned, it is reasonable to date Acts prior to 64 A.D., when Peter was executed. This would date the Gospels to even earlier.
  • The book of Acts ends with Paul being imprisoned in Rome. Like Peter, Paul was executed in 64 A.D. Since the last half of Acts is primarily an account of the life and ministry of Paul, it is more than reasonable to conclude that the book was completed before Paul’s execution.

So far, the evidence indicates that the Gospels were most probably written sometime before A.D 64, with Matthew and Mark being written no later than about A.D. 60. This brings us to within 30 years of the events depicted – well within a time period in which challenges to the accounts could be made.

But there is evidence from Paul’s letters that push that date even closer to 30 A.D. ! Paul’s letters were written between 48-63 A.D., and there are two passages especially that push the probably date of the writing of the Gospels to earlier than 55 A.D.

In the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives a summary of the Gospel, in his words, “according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:4). This is a clear and obvious reference to the Gospels, and it can be strongly inferred from this passage that by the time of the writing of the letter (55 A.D.) the Gospels had been circulated and authenticated long enough to be accepted as Scripture by the Church. Even more compelling evidence along this line is Paul’s quotation of Luke 22:19-20 in I Corinthians 23-25.

So we can see that the actual writing of the Gospels was no earlier than 60 A.D., and given the slowness of the methods of transmission of the time (hand-copied manuscripts delivered by foot, camel, horse or boat) it isn’t at all unreasonable to date the writing of the earliest of the Gospels prior to 55 A.D; in fact, an increasing number of scholars are suggesting dates closer to 50 A.D. or earlier, and some even as early as 35 A.D.

That would put a conservative dating of the original writing of the Gospels at between 40 and 54 A.D. – which is less than 25 years after the events.

So, why should we care? What’s the big deal?

Perhaps you have heard some of the following arguments against the historical reliability of the Gospels:

  • They are a bunch of stories concocted by the Church to consolidate it’s political power
  • They are a bunch of myths made up by the followers of a popular Jewish preacher in order to promote their sect.
  • The canonical Gospels were written later than the ‘true’ gospels and were promoted to further the agenda of the church established by Constantine.

These and similar objections to the historical truth of the Gospels all fall apart if the Gospels were written within the time frame I’ve shown. At that time, any false stories about Jesus presented would have easily been debunked by contemporary witnesses. The fact that there are no documents or quotations from documents dating to within 100 years of the life of Christ that deny the events written in the Gospels – especially from Jewish sources – is a very strong indication that the historicity of the Gospels was not disputed by those who were witnesses or had access to those witnesses. There simply wasn’t enough time between the events and date of the written record of those events for any mythical narrative to be formulated.

The idea that the Church or the Roman government made up the Gospels to consolidate power is also ludicrous; when the Gospels were written the Roman government officially considered the Christian faith outlaw, and actively sought out and imprisoned and executed Christians as traitors to Caesar. Consequentially, the Church had little (if any) formal organization beyond the recognition of the Apostles and local leaders, and no political or economic power at all.

As for the “true, suppressed” gospels… the Gnostic gospels (Thomas, James, et. al.) were all penned at least 100 years after the canonical gospels, and therefore do NOT predate them. Any other proposed ‘true’ gospels, including the mythical ‘Q’ manuscript are purely the conjecture of those who refuse to entertain the possibility that the historical accounts of the canonical Gospels are accurate.

This has been a very brief overview of the argument for the historical accuracy of the Gospels based upon the time of writing; the links below will give a bit more detail, and, of course, if you have questions or particular issues you would like me to address feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to do so.

As a bit of a side note, I’ve had a couple of people tell me that the way I’ve presented the links makes it a bit difficult to find them, so I’m trying a slightly new format for my links list. Let me know if it helps.

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Matt Slick at CARM has written an article that covers much of what I’ve presented here, and has a bit more detail about quotations of the Gospels by the early church fathers.

An article at Bible.org by Patrick Zukeran is well-written and lists some very good resources in the bibliography for those who would like to dig a bit deeper into the subject.

Catholic Answers has a lengthy article entitled “Are the Gospels Myth?” which presents archaeological as well as literary evidence for the historicity of the Gospels. The author draws heavily upon non-Biblical (and many anti-Christian in nature) sources of the first and second centuries.

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