Most of Christian doctrine (teaching) is based on the Bible, primarily the New Testament. As a result, the opinion a person has about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is going to dramatically affect their opinion concerning the validity of Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prove that the New Testament is true.
Because the New Testament is primarily historical and philosophical in nature, it cannot really be proved. The historical aspect can be discredited or confirmed. If its history were to be discredited, it would amount to a proof against the New Testament. But confirming some parts of its history does not automatically prove all of it.
It is possible though, to explore the historically reliability of the New Testament. This is not so much concerned with the message of the New Testament as it is with the reliability of the texts themselves. The specific issues I want to address are (1) how close where the writers to the events they write about, (2) how faithfully have their writings been transmitted to us over the years and (3) how did we determine which writings should go into the New Testament. In other words, do we have a faithful reproduction of writings from people who were close to the events themselves, or do we have corrupted texts by later authors, cherry picked by church authorities to suit their own purpose.
Before discussing these points I would like to briefly talk about the topic of inspiration of the scriptures and formation of the New Testament. Mormons believe that their primary holy book was given to them in a completed form and only required translation into English. Muslims believe the Koran was spoken to Mohamed by the angel Gabriel and that he passed it on to friends to write down. In both cases they believe that the very words they have are exactly as God gave them. I do not believe that to be the case with the New Testament, or the Old for that matter, although there are certainly those who do. I do not believe that the authors knew that what they were writing would later be a part of the Bible. I do believe God in some way inspired them in the writing, but the words were their own. Also, unlike the Book of Mormon and the Koran, the New Testament is a collection of writings that took shape over a period of time. There were many other writings that were at one time or another, or by differing groups, thought to be equal with what was ultimately included in the New Testament. This canonization process of the New Testament is actually another topic that will be addressed later. For now it will be enough to note that it is not really correct to say that the New Testament was written at some point in time. Rather, that the collection of writings that came to be called the New Testament was produced during some period of time.
Who Wrote it and When?
So, point #1, when were the writings of the New Testament produced and by who. In general there is some disagreement as to when. The primary exception to this are some of Paul’s writings. Over half of the letters that are attributed to him are universally accepted as being written by the Apostle Paul. And since he died in the mid 60’s they must have been written by then. But of most interest to this discussion are the historical books; the four Gospels and the book of Acts. None of these books directly identify the author. The gospel of John comes closest to identifying its author with the claim to being written by the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. This is generally believed to refer to the Apostle John. John is believed to have lived until near the end of the 1st century and his writings seem to deal, at least to some extent, with an emerging threat from Gnosticism coming at the end of the 1st century and into the 2nd. So it is quite possible that the gospel of John could have been written toward the end of the 1st century and by the apostle John, although it was likely written even earlier.
One common event mentioned in the gospels that is used to date the gospels concerns the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus words forecasting the destruction of Jerusalem. Many use this as evidence that these three gospels were written prior to the event, because they give no indication of a fulfillment, and the predictions can’t be made to fit completely with the destruction that occurred in 70. But many others claim these predictions prove a dating after 70, primarily because they believe predicting the future is impossible. Because of the lack of any internal indication that the prediction was fulfilled, and the incomplete fulfillment, it seems best to me to date these three gospels prior to 70. After all, if I were including a prophecy about some event after the occurrence of the event, I would do my best to ensure that the prophecy correctly covered the event.
John also indirectly provides a reference to this same event in John 5:2 where he comments that there is in Jerusalem a pool called Bethesda. This pool was destroyed in 70, but John’s writing assumes it is still there. This is at least a good indicator that when the Gospel of John was written, Jerusalem was still standing.
The only other internal clue I am aware of concerning authorship is the Luke – Acts set. They seem to be written by the same person who claims, in the book of Acts, to have traveled with Paul a few times. The physician Luke is traditionally credited with writing this two volume set. Based on Paul’s letters, Luke was a sometimes companion of Paul and not an unreasonable choice as the author. When Acts, volume 2 of the set, came to a conclusion, Paul is under house arrest in Rome. Paul is killed in Rome in the mid 60’s and no mention is made of that in Acts, the second half of which covers Paul exclusively. So it is quite likely that Luke – Acts was written prior to that event. An interesting tidbit that Luke gives us at the beginning of his gospel account is that many others had undertaken to record the events in the life of Jesus. Luke, apparently not satisfied with any he has seen, undertook to thoroughly research and write an account himself. What these other accounts are he does not specify, but Mark was likely one of them.
Matthew is a hard gospel to date and identify an author for. The apostle Matthew is typically credited with the composition but I think it unlikely. The author seems dependent on other sources that would not seem likely for a firsthand witness. The author of Matthew seems to use Mark as a source, copying nearly all of Mark as well as other sources. The author of this gospel could actually been an editor who took other sources and merged them together into a single account.
That leaves us with Mark. Tradition has it that this gospel was written by the John Mark who spent some time with Paul and whose parent’s house Jesus likely used for the last supper before his crucifixion. That tradition claims that the apostle Peter, while in Rome, told Mark the stories of his experiences with Jesus and that Mark used that as the basis for his gospel. Most scholars today believe that Mark is a source that was used by both Matthew and Luke. If that is the case then Mark would have had to be written and in circulation prior to the others, giving a fairly early date for its composition.
So, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, we have one gospel written by an eye witness (John) and three written by those will little, firsthand experience with the events that they are writing about. One of these, Mark, likely are the narrated stories told by a firsthand witness, with a second written after through research, and a third one with uncertain heritage.
Two resources will provide an example of the dating's that have been assigned to the books of the New Testament. The first of these is from the web site, Errant Skeptics (http://www.errantskeptics.org/DatingNT.htm), which provides a listing of the dates given by a variety of scholars, both liberal and conservative, for the writing of the New Testament books. The dates given below discard both the oldest and most recent estimates. The second is from the book ‘Redating the New Testament’ by John A. T. Robinson, an often quoted book, although not universally accepted source.
||Redating the New Testament
||Late summer 58
||Late spring 57
||Early 60’s – 100
||Early 60’s – 100
||Early 60’s – 100
Another scholarly source for information about the New Testament documents is a book by FF Bruce, “The New Testament Documents; Are They Reliable”. Of particular relevance to this discussion are chapter 2 – ‘The New Testament Documents: Their Date and Attestation’ and chapter 4 – ‘The Gospels’.
Before leaving the topic of dating the gospels I would like to respond to the question of why they waited so long before writing. It would seem logical that the life and teachings of Jesus would have been so significant that they would have been recorded earlier rather than later. But there are several factors that would tend toward delaying that time. Literacy was an issue, with most history still of the oral variety. Putting something into writing would only be beneficial to a limited number of people. It was also expensive, both for the materials and for the reproduction of the writings. But as the church spread across the Roman Empire, beyond the reach of those who could pass on the oral tradition, there became more of a need of written sources.
Additionally, the early church lived in expectation that Jesus would be returning within their lifetime. And with that, there was no reason for them to commit to writing the life of Jesus. What value would it have it he returned within just a few months or years? But as it became obvious to them that Jesus return was not as imminent as they expected, it became more important to have written accounts that would survive the apostles and others who had known Jesus.
Transmission of the Texts
Transmission of the New Testament deals with the path it took from the original writings to what we have today. I want to look at three topics in this discussion: copyist errors, the number of copies, and textual criticism. My goal through this discussion will be to demonstrate that the New Testament documents that we have today are substantially the same as the originals. I am much indebted to Bruce Metzer’s book “The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration”. This is, as far as I have been able to determine, a classic in the area of textual criticism of the New Testament.
Up until the invention of the printing press all books were copied by hand. This was a slow and tedious process and extremely difficult to do without any errors. Whether one person reads and many write or one person reads and then writes there were common errors that crept into the reproduction. Most generally these errors amount to simple spelling errors or replacement of similar sounding words. Occasionally a distracted scribe would forget where they were and skip a section or repeat a section already copied.
Frequently these errors would be caught either by the copyist or a reviewer, but not always.
At other times it appears that the copyist made intentional changes; likely because they thought they were correcting an error that had been introduced earlier. Some of these changes would be corrections of spelling errors or word replacement described earlier. Other times the change had more significance. If the scribe or monastery they worked in felt that Jesus or Paul or another author could not have possibly said something as recorded in the manuscript they might feel the need to change the words to better reflect what they believed he would have said. Over the years these generally minor, although occasionally major, changes accumulated. As the originals disappear followed by the original copies and the copies of the copies, etc, we end up with several families of manuscripts from different locations none of which completely agree within the manuscript family and sometimes have great variance between families.
I am sure you have heard some pretty large numbers connected with New Testament manuscripts. There are between 5 and 6 thousand Greek manuscripts, and twice that number in other ancient languages. In addition, there are thousands of manuscripts that include quotes from the New Testament. But these numbers, while real enough, seem a little deceptive to me. Most of them are from the 8th century and on and most are considered of little value for determining just what the original writings said. So far there are no first century manuscripts and only a handful from the second. There are quite a few from the 3rd through 5th centuries, including some complete copies of the New Testament from the 4th and 5th. In addition the translations into other languages, while not useful for determining specific words, are good for verifying the basic content and ordering of events and speeches. A third source useful for reconstructing the originals are early Christian writings that include quotes from the New Testament documents. Metzger comments that there are enough of these quotes from antiquity that the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from them. These are also subject to scribal copy errors as well as incomplete or inaccurate quotes so care must be taken with these. All in all there are several dozen good Greek manuscripts as well as other sources from the first 5 centuries that are useful in textual criticism.
I had wanted to give a brief description of textual criticism but find that I am unable to distill this very complex process into a short paragraph. Instead, if you are interested, you can review http://www.skypoint.com/members/waltzmn/intro.html for a brief (10 pages or so) description of this topic. In a sentence, textual criticism is the process of comparing manuscripts to determine, as closely as possible, what the original text said. The end result of this process is a Greek New Testament that is a close approximation of the original. Included with this Greek NT is a list of all of the alternate readings along with the manuscript(s) the alternates come from. These ‘close to original’ Greek New Testaments become the basis for the modern translations that we use today.
I frequently hear the charge that the New Testament has been translated so many times that there is no way to tell what the original was. The truth is that our modern translations have only been translated once, from the reconstructed Greek to English (or some other language). We do not copy from one English version to another as some seem to believe.
Another charge is that the text has been altered so much that it does not resemble the original. While this cannot be completely refuted, it is highly unlikely. For this to occur it would have had to happen prior to more than a handful of copies of a document being made. As copies are made they were dispersed around the Roman Empire. Alterations made to one copy would be reflected in subsequent copies of that copy, but would seldom make it into other ‘families’ of manuscripts. And with the seeming inability of the early church to completely eliminate Gnostic versions of the gospels and other writings it would seem far-fetched to think they could have eliminated all copies of some orthodox manuscript that they wanted to alter.
The process of textual criticism is used, not just on the Bible, but all ancient manuscripts. It has become a very structured process and as best as I can tell there are few scholars familiar with the process who question the ability, given enough material to work with, to reconstruct a reasonable facsimile of an original.
The New Testament has many more ancient copies than any other work from antiquity and copies from closer to the original. While I believe numbers like 99.5% complete reconstruction are not likely, I do believe that what we have today is a pretty close copy of the original autographs and that it is safe to believe that what I read today is, to all intents and purposes, the same as what was originally written.
By no means does this essay prove that the New Testament is true; only that it was written close to the events that the Gospels and Acts describe and that what we have today is a faithful reproduction of what was originally written. Ascertaining the truth of what was written, or more properly that the authors believed what they wrote to be true, is another topic.
Labels: authors, copying, dates, inspiration, textual criticism