December 18, 2017

The Historical Credibility of the New Testament, Part 1

David Potter

This is Part One Part Two Part Three

I never expected to teach a Mormon when I signed on to teach at San Francisco Baptist Seminary, yet, here I was standing before a class that included Diane, a fifth generation Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University. Diane had asked us to allow her to take my New Testament Introduction class, clinching her argument by saying that from our perspective, this was a chance to give her the Gospel. Seminary classes are not the place to give unsaved people the Gospel, but, since Diane seemed to be a sincere inquirer, we said yes.

Diane had become skeptical of the New Testament because she had come to believe that the Book of Mormon was full of lies and that many Mormon leaders knew this. They only remained in the Latter Day Saints church for social and economic reasons. Since the LDS church had taught her the New Testament alongside the Book of Mormon, she strongly suspected that the New Testament was equally false, but she was not ready to give up without studying the matter for herself.

Diane is not the only one who questions the historical credibility of the New Testament nowadays. We see attacks from the neo-atheists, textual critics (like Bart Ehrman) and the Jesus Seminar, which claims to be able to detect the difference between genuine sayings of Jesus in the Gospels and those that come from other sources. No wonder many people are confused. Yet the attacks on the New Testament have had the positive effect of spurring conservative scholarly research which has made the case for the New Testament even stronger.

Here is a summary of what I told Diane, concentrating on the evidence for Jesus and including a few things I would add if I were teaching the class today:

External evidence

When scholars talk about external evidence, they mean evidence that does not derive from clues or statements in the books themselves.

We have direct physical evidence for the antiquity of the Gospels in the form of actual manuscripts. When you hear someone claim that the oldest copies of the New Testament date from the fourth century, the statement is true but misleading. The claim refers to the oldest complete or nearly complete copies. A lot of evidence substantiates the early dates assigned to the Gospels. For example we have copies of the Gospels, which range in size from a few verses to many chapters to whole books, which go back much closer to the time of Christ. The situation with the early manuscripts is not at all surprising since the scribes wrote on perishable materials (papyrus, parchment and paper), copies were very expensive to make and the pagan Roman government several times systematically searched for and destroyed all the copies they could find.

Unless the scribe stated the date when he made his copy, experts date manuscripts mostly by judging from the style of the script the copyist used. This method is more accurate than it may seem at first due to its subjective nature. Styles of handwriting changed relatively rapidly in the ancient world, making it possible for scholars, called paleographers, to narrow down the possible dates of a manuscript within a narrow range.

Manuscripts containing at least part of particular Gospels go back as far as the first quarter of the second century, AD, with one fragment of the Gospel of Mark possibly as early as the first century. Each of the Gospels appears in at least one manuscript that was copied in about the year 200 AD or earlier.

But we have much more evidence than just manuscripts of the Gospels themselves. Early Christian writers both refer to the existence of the Gospels and quote from them. Knowing the dates when these writers lived puts the latest possible dates of composition for the Gospels even earlier.

Papias, who flourished from around 95 to 110, was very likely a personal disciple of the Apostle John. He probably referred to the Gospel of Matthew, at least indirectly. He also mentions Mark and Luke.

Only fragments of what Justin Martyr (died 165) wrote are left to us. He quotes from Mark 3:7 and attributes it to the memoirs of Peter. This statement is consistent with the tradition that Mark based his Gospel on the teaching of Peter. He also quotes from Luke.

Irenaeus, who lived around 185, knew the traditions of both eastern and western churches, having grown up on Asia Minor and having ministered in Gaul. He mentions all four Gospels.

Tatian composed the Diatesseron, a weaving of the four Gospels into a single narrative. He flourished between 160 and 185. The Gospels had to exist before the Diatesseron in order to serve as sources. The Diatessaron was never really popular, and only fragments of it survive, indicating that the four Gospels were so well established among Christians by that time that they felt no need to have the Gospel in a single narrative.

The Muratorian Canon, a fragmentary list of the books of the New Testament, may have been composed as early as 170, though some date it later. This earliest list of the New Testament books asserts that there are four Gospels. The Canon fragment begins in the middle of a description of Mark and goes on to explain the origins of Luke and John, but it undoubtedly also mentioned Matthew in the missing first part.

Conclusion

The fact that so much early evidence exists for the Gospels despite systematic attempts by the pagan Romans to destroy not only the New Testament, but all Christian writings, is remarkable. If the New Testament were any other ancient classic, the external evidence would be more than sufficient to establish its authenticity.

Why then do critics not accept the external evidence? The answer is that they refuse to accept the miraculous element in the Gospels. This miraculous element has sent them looking for reasons within the Gospels to deny that they are what they present themselves to be. I will consider the internal evidence in a future post.

To be continued…


David Potter serves as a missionary in Hungary with Baptist World Mission.


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