For Christians, the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is sacred. I do not believe, however, that enough Christians are aware of the current debate among New Testament scholars concerning the historical reliability of the New Testament. It is an important and consequential discussion as it concerns the credibility of a main sacred text around which millions organize their lives and anchor their hopes.
My examination of the historical reliability of the New Testament will begin with a definition of the New Testament and what, reasonably, is meant by historical reliability. I will then summarize the arguments against the historical reliability of the New Testament and respond briefly to these views, followed by the best arguments for its historical reliability. I will conclude by making some deductions.
The New Testament is that collection of early Christian literature, which together with the Old Testament, forms the Holy Scriptures of the Christian churches. In its present form the New Testament comprises twenty-seven books: four Gospels which tell of the life and teachings of Jesus; The Book of Acts, a historical narrative of the early church; the Pauline and General Epistles which give advice, exhortation, instruction and admonition and the apocalyptic work The Revelation of John, a dramatic account of the last day events. The books of the NT were written in Greek, and they date from c.50-150 A.D.
What does ‘Historical Reliability’ Mean?
I am drawn to the reasonableness of the description of historical reliability outlined by Licona (2019) in his paper ‘Are the Gospels “Historically Reliable”? A Focused Comparison of Suetonius’s Life of Augustus and the Gospel of Mark.’ Quoting Blomberg 2014) he says that ‘we must think of historical reliability in view of the literary conventions that were in play at the time of writing. Ruling out the need for a historical work, ‘To have accuracy with the precision of a legal transcript, or that it be free of error or embellishment’, he outlines that “Historically reliable” means that, at the very minimum, the account provides an accurate gist or an essentially faithful representation of what occurred- that it is true enough; that numerous items reported can be verified; that the author chooses sources judiciously and that the author used his sources reliably.
I believe that these minimum standards make sense, especially as we make a distinction between historiography as practiced in ancient times and cultures versus the expectations of post-modern societies. It is important that we do not impose the expectations of modern scholarship unto the ancient cultures which gave rise to the literary texts. The writing of history in the modern era is expected to be based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of details from the authoritative sources and the synthesizing of such details that can stand the test of critical examination, stern peer-review processes, scrupulous attention to details and exactitude in the documentation of sources and source material. One must also be considerate of the genre of literature that these are and the expectations of this type or writing in the times in which they were written. Having said that, these minimum standards together can serve as a way of deciding on credibility and reliability.
Arguments Against the Historical Reliability of the New Testament
Bearing these in mind, I will not summarize some of the main arguments given against the historical reliability of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman, one of the most influential contemporary writers on the New Testament, while declaring his love for the New Testament and noting that the four Gospel are ‘the most beautiful, powerful, moving and inspirational books ever written’, ‘the most important books in our civilization, and for my own life ( Ehrman 2020) , in his recent statement on the historical reliability of the New Testament ( Ehrman, 2020), he outlines his objections to accepting these works as legitimate history.
Explaining that he was expressing the views of virtually ‘Every professor of Biblical studies at every major liberal arts college or research university in the US (Erhman 2020), he asserts that while the New Testament, the Gospels especially, contain valuable historical material about Jesus’s death and life, it also has non-historical material.
Ehrman says that there are too many inconsistencies in the gospels for them to be regarded as historically reliable. Several of his books, identify these consistencies, especially his Misquoting Jesus. Examples include his view that John changed the plot of the story to suit his theology of Jesus as the Lamb of God. He says that even the very authorship of the Gospels is in great doubt as followers of Jesus were ‘uneducated, lower class, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee, while the Gospels were written by highly educated and well-trained, Greek-speaking, elite Christians in other locations (Erhman 2020).
The authors, he continues, gathered their stories though the oral tradition of the time given that the Gospels were written between 70- 95 CE, that is 40-65 years after the events they narrate. The oral tradition, however, is not to be trusted as it bends and adjusts its narratives under the weight of time, not to mention the gifts and embellishments of the storyteller. It is not true, he believes, that oral cultures recall things better. He presents as evidence for this, abundant discrepancies that he has diagnosed in the gospels easily detected with a horizontal reading of these works, instead of the usual vertical readings.
In the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter, in one account she is sick, in another, she is dead. In John’s Gospel, Christ cleanses the temple at the very beginning of his ministry, while in Mark, he does this at the very end where it becomes one of the reasons for the Jewish establishment desiring to have him killed. In John, Jesus preaches about his own identity, repeatedly claiming to be God on earth, ‘before Abraham was, I am,’ etcetera, but he does not make these claims in Mark, Q, M, and L, the latter in reference to the popular four source hypothesis, which supposedly explains the sources of the information used in writing the Synoptic Gospels and thus the relationship between them. ‘The six earlier authors, did not have the historical Jesus claiming he was God on earth, yet this would have been the most profound thing to repeat.’ (Ehrman, 2020). It is more likely, Erhman, concludes, that Jesus did not actually say such things, but that John placed these words in his mouth. In Luke’s version of the death of Christ, Mary and Joseph are from Nazareth, but Christ is born in the village of Bethlehem, which is not feasible and explains why Luke invents the story of the census, a necessity to fulfil the Old Testament prophecy. Luke and Matthew give different accounts. While going on his way to be crucified, in one version he is as quiet as lamb to the slaughter, in another, he is constantly speaking, giving advice to those who were crying for him, and so on.
We continue this fascinating exploration in subsequent articles.