The collection of ancient books and letters known as the New Testament or Apostolic Scriptures presents the amazing story of the birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, proclaiming Him the long-awaited Messiah or Christ foretold in Old Testament prophecies.
Note this bold claim from one of its writers: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16, emphasis added throughout).
But can we trust this statement and the rest of the Apostolic Scriptures? Bible critics have long rejected the New Testament, along with the rest of the Bible, arguing that there’s no way its accounts and teachings as we have them today accurately reflect what was originally written, and even that these weren’t accurate to start with or written by whom they were claimed to be. But is there substance to such criticisms? Is there a way to really know?
The short answer is that no, the criticism does not prove substantive, and yes, there are many valid reasons to accept that the New Testament we have today has been faithfully preserved and passed on to us from Jesus’ early followers. This is very important to establish if we are to believe what the Apostolic Scriptures actually say about Jesus, His life and His resurrection.
We will briefly go through just four reasons to support the position that we do have an accurate copy of the New Testament along with some other factors to consider. (You could easily research this yourself and come up with more than four.)
Many early manuscripts of the Bible
To quote from biblical scholars Norman Geisler and Frank Turek in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: “At last count, there are nearly 5,700 hand-written Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In addition, there are more than 9,000 manuscripts in other languages, (e.g., Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Arabic). Some of the nearly 15,000 manuscripts are complete Bibles, others are books or pages, and a few are just fragments . . .
“There is nothing in the ancient world that even comes close in terms of manuscript support. The next closest work is the Iliad by Homer, with 643 manuscripts. Most other ancient works survive on fewer than a dozen manuscripts, yet few historians question the historicity of the events those works describe” (2004, p. 225).
So we see that there are numerous manuscripts of the New Testament—thousands more than any other writings from the ancient world. For example, people believe that Alexander the Great existed, even though the historical record is relatively sparse. Why shouldn’t we believe that Jesus existed and that we have a reliable record of His life, considering there is so much more evidence for Him than for anyone else in ancient history?
Very early manuscripts
As Drs. Geisler and Turek further state: “Not only does the New Testament enjoy abundant manuscript support, but it also has manuscripts that were written soon after the originals. The earliest undisputed manuscript is a segment from John 18 . . . Scholars date it between A.D. 117-138, but some say it is even earlier” (p. 226).
Some even earlier fragments have been dated to as early as A.D. 50 to 70, although some dispute these claims. Even the most conservative estimates on early New Testament copies of the Bible are dated within 100 years of the original books being penned by the authors.
Geisler and Turek point out: “The time gap between the original and the first surviving copy [of the New Testament] is still vastly shorter than anything else from the ancient world. The Iliad has the next shortest gap at about 500 years, most other works are 1,000 years or more from the original. The New Testament gap is about 25 years and may be less” (p. 227).
Thus, the earliest known New Testament manuscripts are copies made of the original apostolic manuscripts very soon after they were first written—just a couple of decades or so. For other ancient works the earliest copies we have are usually from 1,000 years or more after the original.
And so we begin to ask, why would skeptics question the veracity of the story of Jesus Christ and the New Testament teachings, when so many early manuscripts can verify the accuracy of what was written? And yet skeptics don’t question Plato, Herodotus or Caesar, or even Homer to the same extent—when the earliest copies of their works are upwards of 1,400 years from the originals, and only a handful of manuscripts have been found. Scholars have only found seven copies of Plato’s work and only 10 of Caesar’s—yet they are considered authoritative and accurate. Remember, there are 15,000 manuscripts of New Testament writings.
Manuscripts supported by other early writers
Early in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Diocletian gave three separate edicts ordering the persecution of Christians. He called for the destruction of church meeting places and manuscripts of the New Testament and later Christian writings, as well as the murdering of Christians. He didn’t succeed in wiping out all copies or all Christians. But even if he had, there is enough written by other early authors quoting the New Testament that almost the whole collection could be reconstructed from these quotations.
Geisler and Turek explain: “Hundreds if not thousands of manuscripts were destroyed across the Roman Empire during this persecution, which lasted until A.D. 311. But even if Diocletian had succeeded in wiping every biblical manuscript off the face of the earth, he could not have destroyed our ability to reconstruct the New Testament.
“Why? Because the early church fathers—men of the second and third centuries such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and others—quoted the New Testament so much (36,289 times, to be exact) that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations . . . So we have not only thousands of manuscripts but thousands of quotations from those manuscripts. This makes reconstruction of the original text virtually certain” (p. 228).
Few significant variations, accurate reading evident
Some scholars claim that there are 200,000 errors in the New Testament manuscripts. But, first of all, these are not errors, but variant readings—the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical, like spelling differences. And, because these variations are spread throughout more than 5,000 manuscripts, a variant in spelling of just one word that appears in 2,000 manuscripts is counted as 2,000 errors of that same word. The actual differences are far fewer than the 200,000 some skeptics claim.
Textual scholars estimate that only 1 in 60 variations is of any significance at all, with only 50 of real significance, and that the New Testament text we have can be relied on to be 99.5 percent accurate. Researching the conclusions that historians and textual experts reach in this regard, considering actual textual examples, makes for an interesting study.
There are no new disclosures that have cast any doubt on the essential reliability of the New Testament. Only about one percent of the manuscript variants affect the meaning of the text to any degree, and not a single Christian doctrine is at stake. The variety and multitude of New Testament manuscripts actually enhance the credibility of the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus, not make us worry about errors.
Where there are differences, widespread agreement among vast numbers of manuscripts reveals the accurate reading.
In a past article, I pointed out that there are 10 known non-Christian writers who mentioned Jesus within 150 years of His lifetime—compared to just nine that mention Tiberius, the Roman emperor of Christ’s day (and if you include Christian sources, authors mentioning Jesus outnumber those mentioning Tiberius 43 to 10).
It would be worth taking a look at that article, which lists a number of specific details about Christ’s life from non-Christian authors—details that corroborate the New Testament accounts (see “Was Jesus Really Resurrected?” in the March-April 2016 issue).
Adding to that, here’s a quote from an anti-Christian author about Jesus’ crucifixion—the Roman historian Tacitus writing that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Pontius Pilate “condemned him to be crucified.” Lucian of Samosata, a Greek satirist, mentioned the crucifixion, and Mara Bar-Serapion, a pagan, confirmed Jesus was executed. Even the Jewish Talmud reports that “Yeshua was hanged” on a tree. More on this can be found in The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel (2007, p. 113). And see “Can Jesus’ Existence Be Proven From Sources Outside the Bible?” beginning on page 19 of this issue.
Admissions from atheists and liberal scholars
Looking back from modern times, even many academics who reject the claims of the New Testament recognize it as historical in large part.
The atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann is forced to admit that Jesus Christ and His disciples existed and that there was a genuine experience of Christ’s resurrection, but he claims it must have been hallucinatory. He wrote: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (What Really Happened?, p. 80, quoted by William Lane Craig, “Visions of Jesus: A Critical Assessment of Gerd Lüdemann’s Hallucination Hypothesis”).
Others have made this claim too. But a mass hallucination seems itself supernatural, so why not just take the New Testament account at face value, which is much more reasonable?
Liberal scholar Paula Fredriksen of Boston University said this about what the disciples witnessed: “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something” (quoted by Strobel, p. 119).
In fact, Fredriksen also stated that “the disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ . . . is [part of] historical bedrock, facts known past doubting” (ibid.).
Of course, if one would accept the genuineness of what the disciples reported, why not just accept that they knew what they were seeing as a group? That makes by far the most sense.
An orderly account—for certainty
The men who wrote the New Testament were deeply thoughtful concerning what they recorded. Consider the physician Luke, who traveled with the apostle Paul. He began his Gospel about Jesus’ life with these words, writing to a man named Theophilus, who appears to have been a financial supporter for Luke and possibly a legal supporter for Paul:
“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
Does this sound like some manufactured account—especially in an ancient context? Does it sound like it was written by someone who would have been duped by others involved in some mass hallucination? Luke interviewed multiple eyewitnesses to make sure that what he wrote was accurate. He was in fact a tremendous historian—as well as a writer inspired of God.
Evidence we can trust
The reality is, we can have confidence that the New Testament we have is an accurate copy of the original manuscripts penned by the apostles and their companions. And we can trust that what they tell us is the truth—including the awesome fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
As we’ve seen, there are thousands of manuscripts, including very early manuscripts, with enough quotes by other ancient writers to actually reconstruct almost the entire New Testament. The variations in the thousands of manuscripts are quite minimal and do not substantively alter what is being communicated. Nothing else from the ancient world has such manuscript verification—or comes close!
Yet faced with this, many still resort to dismissing what the manuscripts say—for example, trying to explain away the accounts of Christ being resurrected.
Strobel writes: “Have new explanations refuted Jesus’ resurrection? No, the truth is that a persuasive case for Jesus rising from the dead can be made by using five facts that are well-evidenced and which the vast majority of today’s scholars on the subject—including the skeptical ones—accept as true: Jesus’ death by crucifixion; his disciples’ belief that he rose and appeared to them; the conversion of the church persecutor, Paul; the conversion of the skeptic James, who was Jesus’ half-brother; and Jesus’ empty tomb. All the attempts by skeptics and Muslims to put Jesus back into his tomb utterly fail when subjected to serious analysis” (p. 266).
Yes, Jesus Christ did exist. He was born of a virgin. He taught His disciples. He preached to and miraculously fed the multitudes. He walked on water. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He died by crucifixion. And that wasn’t the end. He rose from the grave. He continued to instruct His disciples. He ascended to heaven. And He promised to come back. His disciples continued in His teachings, proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Yes, all of it happened—all of it—just as the New Testament presents it. You have every reason to believe it—and no genuine reason to disbelieve, whether the New Testament or the Old, to which the New attests. Trust the Word of God. For that’s what it is! Start reading it. Start believing it. Start obeying it. Nothing is more vital in life!