Considering Historical Evidence: Is the New Testament Trustworthy?
By J. Davila Ashcraft
One of the favored tactics of the Atheistic Naturalist and other assorted Leftists is to attack the trustworthiness of the canonical Gospel accounts. Sadly, many Christians are left without adequate answers to the many misinformed objections to the veracity of Sacred Scripture. In answer to their truly empty challenges we must approach scripture like an historian.
It is a common misconception that we have to apply the Scientific Method. I have even witnessed critics of the Christian faith demand we apply it. This is fallacious, since we are dealing with an issue of history, not science, so we should apply the Historical Method.
The Scientific Method requires any proposition be proven in a controlled environment, by experimentation, and be repeatable and observable. One can hardly go back in time and prove anything historical using such criteria. The Historical Method, by contrast, relies on the following criteria:
- Written Records
- Oral Tradition
- Physical Evidence
While we admit the historical evidence for the veracity of every single event or person mentioned in the scriptures is not absolute, it is historically sufficient to prove its reliability. This does not place our quest at any deficit, since you cannot prove anything historical with one hundred percent certainty. For example, can you prove with absolute certainty that St. Patrick was in Ireland, or that Hitler died in the Berlin Bunker? No. We accept the witness of history as fact; the testimonies of those who were there.
As Blaise Pascal wrote:
“There is enough evidence to convince anyone who is not set against it, but not enough to bring anyone into the kingdom who will not come.”
We must also reject the approach that truth is relative. The statement, “That is your truth, I have mine” is a logical fallacy. Merely believing something does not make it true. Belief and Truth are not synonymous. For example, if I believe that if I jump from the tallest building in the city, I will not fall, does this make it true? Of course not! Gravity will act on me and I’ll fall like a stone. Truth is one and absolute, and Christianity claims for itself that one and absolute Truth.
We also have to reject the idea that it does not matter what we believe, as long as we have faith. Faith does not make belief true. There are many who have faith in Krishna, or in Buddha’s teachings, but that faith in no way validates the persons, nor what they taught.
What emerges from the Historical Method with regard to the New Testament demands we either accept it as a valid historical document, and thus accept the truths it proclaims since they are inextricably connected to the events written of within its pages, or we simple ignore the evidence of history and reject the New Testament out of hand. With this said, we can proceed.
Any reputable historian will start his study by going to the primary source documents. In this case, the primary source documents are the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament. The first question before us is, are the primary source documents reliable? The following are the premises we will work from:
- The New Testament is historically accurate and trustworthy.
- On the basis of this reliable and accurate historical document, we can know for a certainty who Jesus was.
- On these bases, we can conclude that Jesus was who He said He was, and did what the Gospels say He did.
Let us first look at some of the objections to our premises.
“You can’t say the Gospels are reliable and accurate! They were written at least 200 years after the life of Jesus. They’re obviously distorted over time.”
The fact of the matter is, the New Testament was written within 60 years of the life of Christ, and some within 30 years. There have been manuscripts found that date within the 1st century A.D. For example, the Rylands Papyri. As this is a copy of the original, the document itself must have been written prior to 125 A.D. We must also take into account that Church Fathers Clement and Ignatius were quoting from the New Testament canon approximately 100A.D. Logically this tells us that the books had to have been in circulation in the church for some time prior.
It is also very telling that the New Testament authors make no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. Certainly, if it had already happened they would have noted this, as Jesus prophesied of the coming destruction of the Temple and they would certainly have noted this as a fulfillment of His prophecy.
Then we have Paul, who died sometime in the mid-60s A.D. When we examine the book of Acts, written by Luke, Paul is still alive at the time of its writing. We know that Luke wrote his gospel account before he wrote Acts. Thus, the Gospel According to Luke had to have been written prior to 60 A.D. when Paul died.
From these historical evidences we can conclude that there would have been little time for mythology or egregious error to appear in the gospel accounts, and that they were written much earlier than even 100 A.D.
If we examine the gospels using the Bibliographical Criteria, we will find they are reliable as well. Bibliographical Criteria evaluates the reliability of a manuscript based on the time span between the original and the existing documents, the number of manuscripts, and the quality of the manuscripts. It examines how much variation exists between the written records of each text. This allows historians to evaluate how well a document has been preserved from error or addition. The time span between the original classical Greek documents and the earliest existing copies of the same is approximately 1,000 years.
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