In the Gospels, Jesus is the Prophet to His people. In Acts and the Epistles, Jesus is the Priest for His people. In the Book of Revelation—Jesus is the King over His people.
These truths are a great comfort for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Yet these claims, so central to our faith, are not man’s invention. They are rooted in the very words of God expressed through nine human authors moved along by the Holy Spirit to write the 27 books of the New Testament.
A handful of popular authors in recent years have made profitable careers out of bending logic and twisting the evidence surrounding the New Testament to fit fanciful ideas of who Jesus was and how the Bible came to be.
Despite their best efforts, the New Testament stands unmoved. The New Testament, as with the entire Bible, continues to transform the hearts of men and women across languages and cultures who are convicted and convinced by its divine truth.
The New Testament is God’s Word—trustworthy, true and reliably preserved through the ages.
But how can we know this? Where is the evidence for the New Testament’s divine authorship?
THE MANUSCRIPTS SPEAK
The New Testament you read is translated from manuscripts, or ancient copies, that were tediously reproduced in the language of the Biblical writers. The test of authenticity for ancient books is weighed by such things as the proximity in time of the earliest copies to the actual events, the internal consistency of those manuscripts and the number of manuscripts that survive.
In every facet, the New Testament towers above any other literature in antiquity. As the noted textual expert F.F. Bruce wrote, the New Testament documents offer us “an embarrassment of riches.”
For example, nearly 6,000 Greek language New Testament manuscripts exist, with the earliest dating to within some 50 years of the original copy, or autograph.
Compare that with Homer’s Iliad from Greek literature: Around 1,800 ancient Iliadcopies exist, but the earliest one dates to 400 years after Homer lived. For Plato, 210 manuscripts survive, the earliest being 1,300 years after Plato lived.
And we can be confident that our New Testament has been accurately transmitted across 2,000 years of church history. Only around 1 percent of the content of the total manuscripts contain variations—and those are trivial differences in spelling, punctuation or an omitted word or character. No doctrine or historical fact is in question.
In short, the New Testament has more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts and more accurately copied manuscripts than any other book in the ancient world.
Beyond the manuscripts, the people, places and events of the New Testament are attested to by noted ancient historians such as Tacitus, Josephus and Pliny the Younger.
Tacitus, considered the greatest historian of his day, wrote in his late first-century Annals about the burning of Rome in A.D. 64 and the presence of the early Christians in the city. In the same pages, he mentions the crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate—it is the earliest known non-Christian source that cites Christ’s crucifixion.
Also, of seven early fathers—Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Eusebius—their combined writings contain 36,289 New Testament citations. It has been stated that if the New Testament manuscripts were lost, most of the New Testament could be reconstructed from the writings of the early church fathers.
While many have doubted the accuracy of the Bible, time and continued research have consistently demonstrated that the Word of God is better informed than its critics. In fact, while thousands of finds from the ancient world support in broad outline and often in detail the Biblical picture, not one incontrovertible find has ever contradicted the Bible.
In the New Testament alone, archaeology has confirmed the existence of 30 New Testament characters, more than 60 historical details in John’s Gospel and more than 80 historical details in the Book of Acts. Archaeology continues to add credence to the Biblical record.
What’s more, even a liberal such as “death of God” theologian John Robinson has changed his view of when the Gospels were recorded. Robinson dates Matthew, Mark and John as early as the 40s A.D. and no later than the 60s A.D., with Luke written between 57-60 A.D. If correct, that would potentially place the earliest Gospel to within seven years of the crucifixion and no later than a decade or two.
For skeptics who strive to argue that Christianity grew up around a mythology about Christ’s deity, that is far too short a span for any myth to overtake historical events. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that for such a phenomenon to occur, at least two generations, or 80 years, were needed. The New Testament books were written years before mythology could have taken root.
As Simon Greenleaf, the 19th-century Harvard law professor who was once a skeptic, and whose rules of evidence are still studied today, said of the evidence surrounding the New Testament documents: “The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability and truth.”
Thus, the New Testament stands up to the tests of historical accuracy and reliability. That means that when the New Testament says that Jesus said it, then Jesus really said it. When it says that Jesus did it, then Jesus really did it.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a good story—it actually happened! ©2017 Norman Geisler
NORMAN GEISLER is an author, professor, apologist and theologian. he co-founded Southern Evangelical Seminary with the Late Ross Rhoads.