THE HISTORICITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The purpose of this paper is to present evidence in defence
of the historicity of the New Testament. Through this, it
addresses the question of the historicity of the resurrection of
Jesus Christ. For if the writers of the New Testament are
reliable witnesses, then the most significant event that they ever
recorded must then be given more than a glance.
The paper will defend the credibility of the New Testament
writings first by running the New Testament through the three
standard tests for literary historiography listed by C. Sanders.
These are the Bibliographical Test, the Internal Evidence Test,
and the External Evidence test (see endnote 1). These are the
same tests used on all secular writing of antiquity. The paper
will then present arguments of the credibility of the writers of
the New Testament.
The Bibliographical Test
When compared to the other writings of antiquity the New
Testament not only passes this test but surpasses other ancient
writings by far. The bibliographical test examines documents in
light of how their present form came to us. It examines attempts
to distinguish how loyal our earliest manuscripts are to the
original in light of how many manuscripts we have today, how well
they agree with one another and the time gap between the original
manuscripts and our current ones.
There are approximately 5000 greek manuscripts in our
possession today. The earliest of these have been dated within
250 to 300 years of the originals (Mark being dated c. AD 55) (see
endnote 2). This may seem like a long gap, but when one looks at
the time gaps concerning the other accepted and authoritative
writings of antiquity it is actually quite short. For instance,
Caesar’s GALLIC WAR (written between 50 and 58 BC) has only 9 or
10 good manuscripts dated 900 years later. Of the 142 books of
LIVY’S ROMAN HISTORY (written from 59 BC to AD 17) we have only
thirty five. Those we have are constructed from only 20 good
manuscripts, one of which is dated in the fourth century. We have
only four and a half of the fourteen books of the HISTORIES OF
TACTITUS (written c. AD 100). Of the sixteen books of TACITUS’
ANNALS we have ten in full and two in part. Both of Tactitus’
works are based on only two manuscripts. One of the manuscripts is
dated in the ninth century and one in the eleventh (that’s an 800
year gap for one and 1000 years for the other). Our copies of
Tacitus’ other works (DIALOGUS DE ORATORIBUS, AGRICOLA, and
GERMANIA) all are from the tenth century. THE HISTORY OF
THUCYDIDES (written 460 to 400 BC) is based on 8 manuscripts, the
earliest sporting a 1300 year gap. THE HISTORY OF HERODOTUS
(written from 488 to 428 BC) also is based on 8 manuscripts, the
earliest being 1300 years from the original (see endnote 3).
PLINY THE YOUNGER’S HISTORY is known from 7 manuscripts with a 750
year gap. The classic writings of Plato are known from 7
manuscripts with a 1200 year gap and the writings of Aristotle
which we derive from 49 manuscripts has a 1400 year gap (see
endnote 4). The list goes on and on. F. F. Bruce puts the point
No classical author would listen to an argument that the
authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt
because the earliest manuscripts of their works are over
130 years later than the originals. But how different
is the situation of the New Testament in this respect!
(see endnote 5)
With the 5000 greek manuscripts, the over 8000 manuscripts of
the Latin Vulgate, and more recently discovered papyri portions of
the New Testament dating to the end of the first century, we have
such a huge body of manuscripts for checking the integrity of the
different copies we have great assurance that we have an accurate
portrayal of the originals. As the late Sir Frederic G. Kenyon,
formerly director and primary librarian of the British Museum put
it: “The interval, then, between the dates of original composition
and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact
negligible.” (see endnote 6).
So the New Testament documents pass the first test with
flying colors. To reject the accuracy of the New Testament on
bibliographical grounds would be to, as John W. Montgomery puts it
“let all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no
documents of the ancient period are as well attested
bibliographically as the New Testament” (see endnote 7). To put
this in simpler terms, the New Testament writings are more
reliable than those used to compose the facts in our public
school’s books on Greek and Roman history.
The Internal Evidence Test
This test simply examines the documents in question to find
if there are any internal contradictions that detract from the
documents’ reliability. In this process scholars begin by giving
the documents in question the benefit of the doubt. We do not
assume that they are historically incorrect but examine if we can
catch them disagreeing with themselves. Do the four Gospel
accounts draw conflicting pictures of who Christ was or of the
events they portray? Are there contradictions in the teachings
written in Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles? Also, what is written
in the documents that lends to their credibility?
In the New Testament we find an amazingly coherent body of
writings considering its books were penned by different
individuals from different locations and during different decades.
There are no significant contradictions in historical accounts or
in doctrine. Granted, there are tensions, but these ought not to
be considered out and out contradictions. Citing Robert Horn:
“difficulties do not constitute objections. Unsolved problems do
not constitute errors. This is not to minimise the area of
difficulty; it is to see it in perspective.” (see endnote 8).
In support of the accounts of Christ’s actions and teachings
are the claims in the Gospels to be first hand accounts. Both
Matthew and John were witnesses to the events they recorded. The
importance of this cannot be minimized. Very few historians today
report events that they were witnesses to. Also, Mark was a close
companion and disciple of Peter who was also a witness to the
events written in Mark’s Gospel. And Luke, though not an eye
witness to the events in Christ’s life is still considered to be
the consummate historian of the group. In the beginning of his
account he states that he had himself “carefully investigated
everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). More will be said
about Luke’s reputation among scholars in the next section.
The New Testament writings are sources all written in the
first century. From the end(?) of Christ’s ministry to the
writing of the Gospels there is only and approximate 30 year
interval for Mark, 50 for Luke, 50 for Matthew, and 60 for John.
Again, these are not unreasonable gaps compared to other
historical works of even modern times. And keep in mind that
during the 30 to 60 year gap the disciples spent their lives as
experts teaching about all that they had seen and been taught
during their three year period of spending all their time with
Jesus. This was not foggy material in their minds when they wrote
it down. Rather it was material that they had been exercising
their expertise over for many years. Again, to put this argument
in simpler terms, the writings of the new Testament come from eye
witnesses and writers with first hand accounts available to them.
This is better than many of the authors of our school’s history
books can claim.
The External Evidence Test
In the external evidence test we look to other historical
materials to judge the reliability of the documents in question.
Here also the New Testament finds a wealth of support. Much of
this support comes from extra-biblical writers.
Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis (AD 130) and a man who had
personal contact with the Apostle John wrote:
The Elder (John) used to say this also: Mark, having
been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all
that (Peter) mentioned, whether the sayings or doings of
Christ… (see endnote 9)
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (AD 180) wrote:
so firm is the ground on which these Gospels rests, that
the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and,
starting from these [documents] each one of them
endeavors to establish his own particular doctrine.
(see endnote 10)
But not all the ancient writers that give support to the
Christian writings were Christian. In the rabbinical writings of
the Talmud there is startling support to the claims in the Gospels
about Jesus. In the Talmud there are writings about the false
teacher Jesus of Nazareth who performed miracles! They attest to
these sorcery on Christ’s part but the important point is that
they did not even attempt to discount that Christ was a worker of
miracles (see endnote 11).
The Jewish historian Josephus of the first century writes of
And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, if
indeed we should call him a man; for he was a doer of
marvelous deeds, a teacher of men who received the truth
with pleasure. He lead away many Jews, and also many
Greeks. This man was said to be the Christ. And when
Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment
by the chief men among us, those who loved him at first
did not cease; for he appeared to them on the third day
alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these and
thousands of wonderful things about him: and even now
the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet
died out. (see endnote 12)
Archeology also has yielded much evidence supporting the New
Testament accounts. One discovery of special importance is the
“Nazareth Inscription”. This is a slab of white marble found in
Nazareth and dated to the first century. No other inscription
like it is found in any other Roman province. The content of the
inscription says it all:
Ordinance of Caesar. It is my pleasure that graves and
tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity for those who
have made them for the cult of their ancestors… If,
however any man lay information that another has either
demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the
buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other
places… against such a one I order that a trial be
instituted… In the case of contravention I desire that
the offender be sentenced to capital punishment on
charge of violation or sepulture. (see endnote 13)
It would appear that there was some unique difficulty of
disappearing bodies (at least one) in Nazareth in the first
century. It was significant enough for the Romans to issue this
edict to prevent it from happening again. This does not prove
that Jesus rose from the dead but it may well be an indicator of
the mayhem produced by the unaccountability of his body three days
Other strong testimony to the historicity of the New
Testament comes from Sir William Ramsay, regarded to be one of the
greatest archaeologists to ever have lived. Ramsay originally
sought to discount the writings of Luke in the Gospel and Acts as
products of the second century. He was attacking the authorship
and first century credibility of these writings. But the more
Ramsay searched the more he found inescapable evidence that Luke’s
writings were indeed accurate and authentic. Luke writes of
places that had been lost to history and re-found. He time and
time again refers to Roman magistrates by their correct name,
title and time. As a direct result of what he found, Ramsay
became a Christian. He enthusiastically states:
Luke is an historian of the first rank; not merely are
his statements of fact and trustworthy; he is possessed
of the true historic sense… In short, this author
should be placed along with the very greatest
historians. (see endnote 14)
It is important not to underestimate the weight of a the testimony
of a critic of such high standing in his field who not only failed
to refute the credibility of the New Testament, but became a
Christian as a result of what he found when he critically
And so the New Testament passes the third and final test.
There is plentiful evidence from outside sources that supports the
historical reliability of the New Testament.
Credibility of the New Testament Writers
In spite of the above evidence for the historicity of the New
Testament, there are those who would attack the writers
themselves to undermine the New Testament’s credibility. They are
accused of delivering an unhistorical portrait of Jesus. They are
accused of making up their accounts and putting their own words in
Jesus’ mouth. This section will list several reasons why this is
incredibly unlikely not to mention totally unfounded.
As eye witnesses, the Apostles must be given the benefit of
the doubt. No man can come along with no evidence at all and
accuse them of fraud. Their authority is higher than any man
living today that would question them. They were there. We were
The testimonies of the Apostles are written in blood.
Charlatans would never suffer the cruel and dreadful deaths of the
Apostles for a lie. Their testimony must be regarded as testimony
that literally stood up under torture. They were stoned, run out
of cities, imprisoned, and eventually killed for the message they
proclaimed. They could have ended their persecution at any time
by fessing up to their lie. They had nothing to lose and
everything to gain.
If the Apostles were going to falsely construct a messiah,
surely they would not have constructed one like the biblical
Jesus. He fit none of the Jewish expectations of what the Messiah
would be. Surely they would have tried to give the people what
they expected and hence a more believable deception. Also, if the
writers were putting words into Jesus’ mouth, then why did they
not have him make definitive statements that would have cleared up
some of the internal struggles that the Church was going through
at the time of writing (ie, circumcision for Gentile converts,
works verses faith, etc.)?
The disciples could not have gotten away with making up
miracles and teachings of Christ since all that he did he did
publicly. Surely there were many who could have refuted any false
claims about Jesus. But the accounts of the Gospels are of things
that occurred among large gatherings. How would they have gotten
away with it?
There are those who accuse the Gospel writers of collusion in
their writings. That way they could have gotten together and laid
a solid and cohesive foundation of lies about who Jesus was. But
examination of the four different accounts shows that this is not
at all supported. On the contrary there is strong support against
this. For the four Gospels are not identical enough to be works
of intentional collusion. For there are accounts that are told
from different perspectives that lay out slightly different
emphasis and detail. There is enough agreement among the Gospel
accounts to determine that they are accurately portraying the same
events. But there is enough minute and subtle difference in the
way things are recorded that they are clearly not the product of
four writers getting together to make sure they tell the same
story. An illustration of this principal: When police take down
the accounts from different witnesses of a crime, they look for
enough similarity to prove accuracy. But they also look for
enough similarity in how the accounts are told to tell if they are
operating in collusion. The Gospel accounts are similar enough
by far to testify to their accuracy and have enough variety of
focus and detail to testify to being free of collusion.
The bottom line is that the New Testament writers were moral
men who went to great lengths to insure the accuracy of what they
wrote. They had only one reason to endure the persecution that
they endured. They had only one reason to write the words that
they wrote: the words were true.
But what is one to do with such evidence as the New Testament
documents? Clearly, to accept their historicity can well raise a
crisis in one’s life. The implications are unnerving. Just as
C.S. Lewis was rattled by a conversation he overheard between a
couple of fellow atheist Cambridge professors when one said to the
other: “Funny thing about this resurrection thing: it actually
appears to have really happened!” The one who discovers these
facts is confronted with a Jesus that he can not ignore. He must
make up his mind as how to respond to this Jesus of Nazareth. He
can no longer regard him as just another great moral teacher. I
can offer no better conclusion to this paper than a quote of C.S.
Lewis from his book MERE CHRISTIANITY where the response that he
made to these facts is made clear:
I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the
really foolish thing that people often say about Him:
‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but
I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ This is one thing
that we must not say. A man who was merely a man and
said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great
moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a
level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or
else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your
choice. Either this man was, and is the Son of God; or
else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up
for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon;
or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.
But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about
his being a great human teacher. He has not left that
open to us. He did not intend to.
1. C. Sanders, INTRODUCTION TO RESEARCH IN ENGLISH LITERARY
HISTORY (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 143ff (cited from Josh
McDowell’s EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 43).
2. John Warwick Montgomery, HISTORY AND CHRISTIANITY
(Minnesota: Bethany House, 1965), p. 27.
3. F. F. Bruce, THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS: ARE THEY
RELIABLE? (Illinois: Inter Varsity, 1983), pp 16,17.
4. Josh McDowell, EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT (Campus
Crusade for Christ, 1972), pp. 47,48.
5. Bruce, p. 17.
6. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, THE BIBLE AND ARCHEOLOGY (New York
and London: Harper, 1940), pp. 288,289.
7. Montgomery, p. 29.
8. McDowell, p. 64.
9. Ibid., p.66.
11. Bruce, pp. 100,101.
12. Ibid., p. 108.
13. E. M. Blaiklock, THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
(Michigan: Zondervan, 1970), p. 76.
14. Clifford A. Wilson, ROCKS, RELICS, AND BIBLICAL
RELIABILITY (Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), p.114.
15. C. S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY (New York: Macmillan,