Today’s post is by Sarah Abbey. You can read more of her work at her blog, A Penny of A Thought.
Recently I got together with some friends to watch the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. History is rewritten to portray him as a man on a mission to protect the United States from the underground vampire nation threatening humanity. According to the movie, Lincoln’s presidency, slavery, and the Civil War were all the result of the Undead and their thirst for blood.
As I’ve thought about the story, and laughed at its absurdity, I realized that many people believe there is an equally large gap between the events of Jesus’ life and today’s New Testament. While most would accept that Jesus was a real person, the idea that he’s alive today is as humorous as believing that Abraham Lincoln killed vampires.
Are the gospels a spectacular fictionalization of the past? For instance, Dan Barker, a former evangelical pastor, says,
I am now convinced that the Jesus story is just a myth…Since the New Testament contains numerous stories of events that are either outrageous (such as the resurrection of thousands of dead bodies on Good Friday) or impossible, the story must be considered more mythical than historical.
Are the biblical accounts of the life of Jesus historically reliable? There are many elements we could focus on in relation to this. For the sake of time, let’s look at three elements that point to the basic historical reliability of the New Testament regarding the life and ministry of Jesus:
- The Testimony of Scripture
- The Testimony of the Eyewitnesses, and
- The Testimony of the Manuscripts
The Testimony of Scripture
The first clue we need to understand is that the authors of the New Testament state they are recounting history and they write in a historical fashion. This is both a general impression and a point backed up by numerous specific details. As you read the gospel of Mark, the book of Acts, or Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, you get the sense that the authors were recording and proclaiming events they believed happened in time and space.
No less an authority than C.S. Lewis felt this way about the gospels:
I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.
This doesn’t prove that the New Testament is reliable – that would be circular reasoning: “The N.T. claims to be historical, therefore it is true, therefore it is historical.” Rather, this is one of many data points that, in combination with other facts, lead us to accept the essential historicity of the New Testament documents.
We need to know what the New Testament claims about its reliability, because if it doesn’t claim to be historical than you don’t need to bother reading this and I don’t need to bother writing about it. No one debates the historical accuracy of a former president killing vampires, a boy going to school at a place called Hogwarts, or four children finding another world through a wardrobe, because we know these stories are intended to be interpreted as fiction; this is how the author wanted them to be perceived.
Yet this is not the case with the New Testament. It does not leave you with the option of being interpreted as fiction or fantasy. It presents itself as historical and true; either it is what it claims to be or it is a deliberate fabrication by con men.
The Testimony of the Eyewitnesses
The New Testament is full of the testimony of men and women who claimed to have been with Jesus Christ before he died and to have seen him after his death and resurrection. For example, all four canonical gospels record that the first people to see the empty tomb and the risen Christ were women. The reason this is so astounding is because in that time and culture the testimony of women had little to no authority. If the gospel authors were con men trying to rewrite history, this was a very poor way of doing so.
Notice how Luke opens his gospel:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4, ESV).
The Apostle Peter flat-out denied his testimony about Christ was a “cleverly devised myth,” affirming that he was an eyewitness to Christ’s majesty:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18, ESV).
The Apostle John testified that the message he proclaimed was based on what he had physically seen, heard, and touched:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4).
Do you notice the consistent appeal to eyewitness testimony from the authors themselves?
But there’s more: the testimony recorded in pre-New Testament creeds. These creeds were being proclaimed and recited after Christ’s death and before any New Testament letter was written.
My favorite example is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, a creed that comes from an undisputably Pauline letter. In this passage, Paul recites what he himself had received as earlier testimony. Gary Habermas, the leading scholar on the resurrection, points out that both liberal and conservative scholars believe this creed was being proclaimed within 1-6 years after Christ’s crucifixion . Notice how clearly this creed points to the fundamental affirmations of the Christian worldview:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7, ESV).
This in and of itself demonstrates that whatever the truth may be about Jesus Christ, the writers and contemporaries of the New Testament believed their testimony was based on historical fact.
But, you may ask, how do we know the eyewitness testimony is reliable? What if they made it up? What if they lied? Tim Keller has helpfully summarized this question:
The canonical gospels were written at the very most forty to sixty years after Jesus’ death. Paul’s letters, written just fifteen to twenty-five years after the death of Jesus, provide an outline of all the events of Jesus’ life found in the gospels… This means that the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life were circulating within the lifetimes of hundreds who had been present at the events of his ministry. (The Reason for God, p. 104)
There were plenty of people around to confirm or deny what the documents in the New Testament said. It isn’t until around 140A.D., or a hundred years after Jesus’ life, that a legendary document is written: The Gospel of Thomas. Likewise, the stories about Abraham Lincoln don’t develop “vampire hunting” elements until about 150 years after the fact.
At this point it’s important to point out that the writers of the New Testament are not the only sources we have that historically confirm people believed that Jesus Christ had died, risen again, and gone back to heaven from the very beginning. For example, the first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote:
At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.
Josephus was not the only early historian to refer to Jesus Christ and his followers. For more, see Reasons for God’s resource page on “Did Jesus Exist?” and Amy Orr-Ewing’s book Why Trust the Bible? (see especially p. 53-54).
From the writers themselves, to the creeds embedded in their documents, to sources outside the Christian community, we must reckon with the testimony of the eyewitnesses.
The Testimony of the Manuscripts
As we’ve seen, the New Testament documents contain clues that they are historically reliable. But we have to wonder: are our copies of these documents the same as the original documents? Or have the manuscripts been changed and tampered with over time?
This is where the “testimony of the manuscripts” becomes important. Just how reliable are the manuscripts we have of the New Testament?
The earlier the manuscripts and more copies we find of an ancient text, the more confidence we can have in our ability to know what the original copy said. For example, Homer’s Illiad was written 900 BCE. The earliest copy we have dates to around 400 BCE, which puts a 500 year gap between the original and the first copy. We have about 643 manuscripts of Homer. Except for one other ancient text, this is the strongest manuscript evidence for an ancient book that we have.
Let’s compare the preservation of the Illiad to the New Testament, which was written between 40-100 CE. Currently, the earliest manuscript copy we have dates to 125 CE, which puts a minimum of a 25 year gap between the originals and first copies. Even better, we have at least 24,000 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament!
This is astounding, both in terms of a small gap between when the documents were written and the manuscript copies we have, and in terms of the huge amount of ancient manuscripts that we have. These facts led John Warwick Montgomery, a noted Christian apologist with 11 earned degrees in multiple disciplines, and the author of more than fifty books in eight languages, to say:
To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.
And F.F. Bruce, a famous Biblical scholar, commented:
There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.
The wealth of manuscript evidence we have testifies that the New Testament message we read today is the same message the original writers were proclaiming.
The testimony of Scripture, eyewitnesses, and manuscripts all point to the historical reliability of the New Testament’s proclamation of Jesus Christ.
While we can rightfully laugh at the rewriting of history that shows Abraham Lincoln battling the Undead, the story of Jesus is in a different category. It’s a story that claims to be based in reality, to be a historical accounting of what really happened.
This means the question moves from “did it happen?” to “how do I respond?”
If Jesus really said and did all the New Testament claims, then his story has the greatest implication for our lives. How will you respond to the facts – and to Jesus?
Did you enjoy this post? You can read more of Sarah’s writing at her blog, A Penny of A Thought.
 Gary Habermas, “Evidence for the Resurrection,” Evangelical Philosophical Society Apologetics Conference; November 17, 2012.
 Josephus: The Essential Writings, translated by Paul L Maier, p. 264-265
 Amy Orr-Ewing, “The Trustworthiness of the Christian Scriptures,” Foundations in Apologetics DVD, vol. 5.