December 18, 2017

The Historical Credibility of the New Testament, Part 2

David Potter

Part One ♦ This is Part Two ♦ Part Three

In my last post, I introduced, Diane, a sincere inquirer about the historical credibility of the New Testament. Diane, a fifth generation Mormon who graduated from Brigham Young University, had good cause to doubt the Book of Mormon, and she wondered if the New Testament was equally dubious. The earlier post dealt with the external evidence for the Gospels. In this post I will talk about internal indications that the Gospels are just what they seem to be: accounts of the life of Jesus written within forty years of His crucifixion and resurrection.

Internal evidence

John A. T. Robinson was an ultra-liberal theologian who nevertheless took the evidence for the dating of the New Testament seriously. Though Robinson considered himself to be part of the God Is Dead movement, he still dated all four of the Gospels before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He reasoned that such a traumatic event could not help but leave its imprint on the Gospels if they had been written after it happened.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels records the predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem, specifically that not one stone of the temple would be left standing atop another (Matthew 24:2; Luke 21:6; Mark 13:2). When the Romans burned the temple, the gold and silver leaf on the walls melted and some of it seeped into cracks between stones. To be sure that they had all of the treasure that was for the taking, the soldiers pried each of the stones apart. That being the case, why did none of the Synoptic writers mention the fact? The only reasonable answer is that the event had not happened at the time of the writing of these books.

Matthew and John each show other evidence of being written before the fall of Jerusalem. Matthew 27:8 speaks of a plot of ground called the field of blood “unto this day.” That statement would not make sense after 70 AD.

John 5:2 states that the pool of Bethesda “is” in Jerusalem. Of course that pool, along with everything else in the city, did not survive the destruction of 70 AD. Most commentators believe that John’s use of the present tense is an example of the historic or dramatic present, whereby the writer makes his narrative more vivid by pretending that the events are happening before his eyes as he writes. While the historic present is common in the Gospels, all undisputed examples are verbs of action. No undisputed example of the verb of being used in this way occurs anywhere in the New Testament. While most conservative scholars date the Gospel of John at the end of the first century, perhaps the time has come for reconsideration. From early traditions, we learn that John did indeed survive to the end of the first century, but his long life does not prove that he wrote his Gospel just before his death. (I am indebted to Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p 531, for the grammatical insight.)

A further circumstance points to an early date for the Gospel of Luke. Indisputably, Luke and Acts were written by the same person and Acts was written after Luke (see Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2). If we know the latest possible date for Acts, we also know the latest possible date for Luke. Not only does Acts fail to mention the destruction of Jerusalem which Jesus predicted in Luke 21, it does not even mention the martyrdom of Paul, which we know from historical evidence took place during the reign of Nero, who died in AD 68. The simplest explanation for the abrupt ending of Acts and the failure to mention Paul’s martyrdom is that Luke wrote Acts while Paul was still in prison in Rome.

In sum, internal evidence strongly indicates that at least three and probably all four of the Gospels were written less than forty years after the crucifixion. This fact is important because, if someone writes a false account with plenty of eyewitnesses still living, these witnesses can refute the false report. For this reason liberal scholars have gone out of their way to find grounds for late dates for the Gospels. Yet Paul in I Corinthians 15:6 invites his readers to consult the eyewitnesses when he states that “[Christ] was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present …” No one of note denies the authenticity of I Corinthians. Even the liberal critics admit that Paul actually wrote the book.

Consideration of I Corinthians 15 leads to a further observation: the Four Gospels are not the only early accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the central events of the Gospel. First Corinthians 15:3-4 says that “Christ died for our sins … was buried … and rose again …” This brief summation jibes exactly with the four Gospel accounts. What is significant here is that in saying this, Paul “delivered unto [the Corinthian Christians] first of all that which [he] also received …” Paul links the conversion of the Corinthians to his own conversion in that the death and resurrection of Christ are the historical foundation of both. This means that Paul is not just telling us that he preached the death and resurrection of Christ, but that he also believed what previous Christians believed and propagated when he himself was converted.

When was Paul converted? The best estimate for the conversion of Paul is between two and five years after the resurrection. If Christians were proclaiming falsehoods, plenty of eyewitnesses would have been able to contradict them. In fact, some have gone so far as to claim that the words of I Corinthians 15:3-4 are not Paul’s words at all, but that Paul was instead quoting the earliest Christian creed. Whether or not verses 3-4 were an early Christian creed, we cannot doubt that they reflect Christian proclamation and faith from the beginning.

My next post will address arguments against the straightforward reading of the Gospel accounts based on internal evidence.

To be continued…


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


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