History is often defined as knowledge of the past based on testimony. Questions about a person’s character or an event in history cannot be subject to scientific, laboratory proof. They must be proven by the historical—legal method where a verdict is reached based on the weight of the evidence (oral and/or written testimony).(1) Because Christianity’s pivotal events take place in history, it is put to a harder test than any other religion. Either it is historically true, or it is not true at all.
Many of the higher critics in biblical study have a skeptical view of history in general. They assume it is always relative and influenced by the subjective prejudices of individual historians. Geisler and Howe, in When Sceptics Ask, point out that although history is not absolute, it is objective and (not subjective. Why would historians constantly rewrite and revise if they weren’t trying to attain the goal of truth?
NT Wright defends the gospels against the charge that their value as history has been fatally compromised because they present the evangelists views. All history involves interpretation and a perceptual point of view.
A common misconception is that the text of the Bible has not come down to us the way in which it was originally written. Accusations that the biblical text was changed throughout Church history would do grave damage to the credibility of the story. F. F. Bruce gives Bruce gives three different types of evidence that are to be used in evaluating the New Testament text. These are the Greek manuscripts, the various versions in which the New Testament is translated, and the writings of the Church fathers. He contends that if New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.
The New Testament was originally composed in the Greek language. There are approximately 5,500 copies in existence that contain all or part of the New Testament. Although we do not possess the originals, copies exist from a very early date. The texts were written from about A.D. 50 to A.D. 90. The earliest fragment (p. 52) dates about A.D. 120, with about fifty other fragments dating within 150–200 years from the time of composition.
Two major manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325) and Codex Sinaiticus (A.D. 350), a complete copy, date within 250 years of the time of composition. This may seem like a long time span, but it is minimal compared to most ancient works.
The earliest copy of Caesar’s The Gallic Wars dates 1,000 years after it was written, and the first complete copy of the Odyssey by Homer dates 2,200 years after it was written. When the interval between the writing of the New Testament and earliest copies is compared to other ancient works, the New Testament proves to be much closer to the time of the original. Josh McDowell, again citing Bruce, writes that the 5,500 copies are far and away the most we have of any ancient work. Many ancient writings have been transmitted to us by only a handful of manuscripts (Catullus—three copies; the earliest one is 1,600 years after he wrote; Herodotus—eight copies and 1,300 years).
Not only do the New Testament documents have more manuscript evidence and close time interval between the writing and earliest copy, but they were also translated into several other languages at an early date. Translation of a document into another language was rare in the ancient world, so this is an added plus for the New Testament. The number of copies of the versions is in excess of 18,000, with possibly as many as 25,000. This is further evidence that helps us establish the New Testament text. Even if we did not possess the 5,500 Greek manuscripts or the 18,000 copies of the versions, the text of the New Testament could still be reproduced within 250 years from its composition. How? By the writings of the early Christians. In commentaries, letters, etc., these ancient writers quote the biblical text, thus giving us another witness to the text of the New Testament.
McDowell cites John Burgon who has catalogued more than 86,000 citations by the early church fathers who cite different parts of the New Testament. Thus we observe that there is so much more evidence for the reliability of the New Testament text than any other comparable writings in the ancient world. Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, was one of the foremost experts on ancient manuscripts and their authority. Shortly before his death, he wrote this concerning the New Testament:
The interval between the dates of original composition (of the New Testament) and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established”.
In the 18th century, Richard Whately wrote Historical Doubts Concerning The Existence of Napoleon Bonaparte to satirize this skeptical view of history. No one doubts the reliability of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars although the earliest dated document found is over 1,000 years older than the original. The New Testament has far better textual support than do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, or Tacitus.
Outside the Bible, Jesus is mentioned by his near contemporaries. Extra-Biblical and secular writers (many hostile) point to Jesus’ existence, including the Roman writings of Tacitus, Seutonius, Thallus and Pliny, and the Jewish writings of Josephus and the Talmud. Gary Habermas has cited a total of 39 ancient extra-Biblical sources, including 17 non-Christian, that witness from outside the New Testament to over 100 details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
McDowell also cites historian Will Durant, who was trained in the discipline of historical investigation, spent his entire life analyzing works of antiquity. He states that despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed.. He writes, “That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the gospels.”
McDowell cites another scholar, Sir William Ramsay, is regarded as one of the greatest archeologists to have ever lived. During the 19th century, he set out to disprove the historicity of the New Testament, but came away instead a confirmed believer in its authenticity. Because Luke never made a mistake in citing many countries, cities, islands and rulers, we have every reason to accept his account of Jesus’ life and death.
The recent recovery of a Roman census similar to the one in Luke underscores the care Luke took in writing his Gospel. By extension, the other two synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Mark, painting essentially similar portraits are also trustworthy accounts of Jesus’ life.
Archaeologists uncovering ruins and examining artifacts, have been increasingly successful in confirming the accuracy of the Biblical texts. The findings have in fact reversed the opinions of a number of former skeptics. Among them is the scholar Dr. William F. Albright, who writes: “In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and eighties of the first century AD.”
Recent archaeological discoveries including the Pool of Bethesda, the Pavement, and Jacob’s well have proved the existence of sites that were doubted just a few decades ago. Such findings have caused many scholars to reverse earlier skeptical opinions on the historicity of the Fourth Gospel. Such detail would not have been accessible to a writer of a later generation, since Jerusalem was demolished under Titus’ Roman army in 70 AD.
Wright concludes that the gospels must have been written by 90 AD at the very latest. They were written when most of Jesus’ early followers, as well as opponents were still alive. They were based on sources, oral and written that went back much earlier without being substantially changed. They present a portrait of Jesus of Nazareth that is firmly grounded in history. Though not everything in them can necessarily be validated, they have overall credibility.
Finally, there are the claims of Jesus himself as to the reliability and inspiration of scripture. With the New Testament validating Jesus, and Jesus validating the New Testament, something external had to break the circular reasoning. The historicity of the resurrection was to provide the evidence I needed.