Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?
Thy word is truth. (John 17:17)
So many today have so many different views about Jesus. Who is the contemporary Christ? Some view him as a mythical figure, a sort of modern day Robin Hood or Santa Claus, one akin to the tooth fairy. Others believe that he was a wonderful, compassionate man, a Jewish rabbi whose image has been corrupted by western Christianity. Some say, ‘He was the Son of God, just like I am a Son of God.’ Some see him vastly different than he is portrayed in the so-called synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the Gospel of John, all written in the sixties A.D. They see him as an ethereal, almost other-worldly person who taught that freedom comes from a fuller grasp of one’s inner consciousness.
In recent years other portrayals of Jesus have come to the public eye – the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary – to name only a few. Many scholars claim that these were contemporaries of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and thus have the same degree of reliability and authenticity as the more traditional Gospels. The Gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Mary give a very different view of Jesus. These portrayals mean that a basic contradiction exists between the so-called Gnostic Gospels (Thomas, Peter, Mary, etc.) and the traditional Gospels. For example, the traditional Gospels put forth a Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified and was raised from the dead, appearing to over five hundred people at one time. They portray a Christ who said that he is God in the flesh, that he alone gives eternal life to all who believe in him. The Gnostic Gospels, on the other hand, deny Jesus’ deity, resurrection, virgin birth, and claim to eternal salvation by faith and repentance in him. Both views are mutually exclusive and thus cannot both be true. Both can be wrong, but both cannot be correct.
I intend here to address several questions which many are asking today – what about recent scholarship that presents a radically different Jesus from the one in the traditional Gospels? Can the New Testament portrait of Jesus be trusted? Was Jesus an impostor who did not fulfill Messianic prophecies? Are Christianity’s beliefs about Jesus taken from pagan religions, and should people be free to choose what they wish to believe about Jesus? By no means can we exhaust the issues behind each of these questions, but we can at least begin the process.
What about recent scholarship that presents a radically different Jesus from the traditional one? Perhaps the most popular application of these new views is Dan Brown’s immensely popular novel The Da Vinci Code in which Jesus is portrayed as having fallen in love with Mary Magdalene, the result being a child born to them who became the origin of the Merovingian line of royalty in France. Brown has his characters say that the traditional Gospels were corruptions foisted upon the world by the Council of Nicea, 325 A.D., and the subsequent church fathers.
Due to limited space we will only look at one of the Gnostic Gospels, perhaps the best known one, the Gospel of Thomas. I suggest you consult Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus, pages 44-56, on the dates of other Gnostic Gospels.1 Elaine Pagels of Princeton says, conservatively speaking, that the Gospel of Thomas was written no later than 80 or 90 A.D. If Pagels is correct, then Thomas’s Gospel was a contemporary of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and if this is true, then we have a very different, and perhaps legitimate view of Jesus.
Several times, within the first five hundred years of the first millennium after Christ, various writers mention the Gospel of Thomas, but not until 1945 was it found in full form in Egypt. Is it an authentic description of Jesus and his ministry? It is interesting to note that all four traditional Gospels are directly or indirectly cited or alluded to in the Gospel of Thomas, that several of the Apostle Paul’s epistles are also cited, and that over one half of the New Testament books are mentioned. What does this tell us? It says that the Gospel of Thomas had to be written later than Paul’s epistles, the other New Testament epistles, and the four traditional Gospels. Why? How else could Thomas include them all in his writings, since these New Testament writings span at least twenty-six years, from 40 to 66 A.D.? We know that all the books of the New Testament were written no later than the late 60’s AD, with the possible exception of John’s Gospel which may have been written in the 90’s. Thus the New Testament writers could not have borrowed from Thomas. It had to be the other way around, as the following evidence further proves.
We know a man named Tatian translated a harmony of the four traditional Gospels into Syriac around 175 A.D., and he called his harmony the Diatessaron (through the four). In making his harmony Tatian used new combinations of the four Gospels that had not been used before his time. These are found in the Gospel of Thomas. Furthermore, the Diatessaron uses various words to connect the one hundred and fourteen sayings to make memorization of it much easier. A word found in saying one is also used in saying two, and one used in saying two is used in saying three, and so on. These words are very noticeable in the Syriac version of the Gospel of Thomas. Thus the Gospel of Thomas had to be written after the Diatessaron. Finally, the author of the Gospel of Thomas is not the Apostle Thomas but Judas Thomas, and he appears nowhere else except in the Syriac Church.
Since the traditional Gospels were written in the 60’s AD and the Gospel of Thomas was written over one hundred years later, the traditional Gospels must be the one’s giving the correct understanding of Jesus. Why? Many eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were still alive when the traditional Gospels were written. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were writing error, then someone somewhere would have challenged their reports. Eyewitness accounts are always far more reliable than those writing hundreds of years after the fact who fail to cite those who saw the events as they transpired.
A second question worthy of our attention is this – can the New Testament portrait of Jesus be trusted? Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a graduate of Wheaton College, a bastion of evangelicalism, has written a book entitled Misquoting Jesus, that has shocked many people. In it Ehrman claims that between two hundred thousand and four hundred thousand variants or differences exist in the various manuscripts of the early New Testament writings. From this he says it is quite impossible to find the actual words Jesus spoke. How does it help, asks Ehrman, to say that we have an inerrant Bible when we don’t know the exact words of Jesus, when we don’t even have the original documents of the New Testament? Furthermore, he says that he is quite sceptical of the New Testament as we now have it when we realize that some scribes intentionally altered the text for theological reasons.
In addressing this issue we must be clear on three vital definitions concerning the Bible. Theologians speak of the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. By inspiration we mean that God breathed into the writings of Scripture the very words of God. We do not mean that God used the biblical writers as stenographers for his verbal dictation. In other words, the writers of both the Old and New Testaments, writing in their own styles, using their own limited or very developed vocabularies2, using basic or well developed grammar,3 wrote the very words of God, being led or ‘carried along’ by the Holy Spirit. Theologians call this the testimonium spiritu sancti internum (the internal witness of the Holy Spirit). Admittedly, this is a spiritual answer to a complex question. The apostolic fathers repeatedly cite the Holy Spirit as the one who reveals truth to true believers.4 Many of the writers may not have known they were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers do not refer to their writings as Scripture. Peter and Paul do, however. Inspiration is the very foundation of our understanding of how God gave us his authoritative Word.
Next, theologians speak of infallibility and this refers to Scripture being without error in all that it teaches. That is, the Bible is true in all it teaches. It is the Christian’s only rule of faith and practice. So if the Bible teaches that Jesus is God, that he was born of the Virgin Mary, that he died, was buried, and was raised again from the dead, and ascended into heaven, then that is infallibly true, that is what happened. If Scripture teaches that a husband is to love his wife sacrificially, putting her needs before his own, then that is infallibly true. If Scripture teaches that there is a heaven and hell and that faith in Jesus grants us forgiveness of our sins and heaven, then that is infallibly true. Infallibility is built on the doctrine of biblical inspiration, and it means there is no disputing the truth statements in Scripture. I will have more to say on this in Part II below. For now, however, remember two things – the traditional Gospels are authoritative and the Gnostic Gospels are not; and the Bible in its original autographs is inspired and infallible.
So faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:17)
In Part I I was citing Bart Ehrman and his book Misquoting Jesus and the trouble it has caused many Christians. When theologians speak of inerrancy this is where Ehrman stumbles. By inerrancy we mean the Bible is true in all that it touches, that it is without error in all that it reports in its original autographs, that since the original autographs were inspired by the Holy Spirit it naturally follows that these original autographs were also inerrant and infallible.5 Some well meaning Christians want to say that the written Bibles we now use cannot possibly have any errors in them whatsoever. This is going too far. I agree that the original Old and New Testament Scriptures had no errors, but we still are working, through textual criticism, (as I will show in a moment) to get back as close as we can to the original documents. We are not there yet. We do not have the original autographs of Scripture. There are discrepancies, for example, in the early texts of Homer, Tacitus, and Suetonius but critical scholars do not doubt the message of these ancient writers. The rules of textual criticism applied to the books of antiquity ought to be applied to the Bible as well. The science of textual criticism is an ever growing field with thousands of early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. We are able to piece these together and reconstruct the original documents of the New Testament. We have only a few hundred early manuscripts, for example, of Homer’s Iliad and the earliest ones we have were written eight hundred years after the original was written. In contrast we have fifty-eight hundred full copies of the Greek New Testament, all within three hundred years of the originals, many within one hundred years of them. The more manuscripts and the earlier they are make it more likely to piece together what the original documents said.
Professor Daniel Wallace plays a game that he calls ‘The Gospel According to Snoopy’6 where he asks six scribes to write down a fifty word section of some ancient text. These scribes make intentional and unintentional errors in copying the texts “” things like misspelled words, omitting a comma, substituting one word for another, using different pronouns, etc. Then the rest of the class gets to work, using the six variant texts, comparing them with one another, to determine what the original text said. Wallace says that in the three hundred times he has played the game, each class has been no further than three words from the original writing and this happened only three times. In several cases, the class was able to reconstruct the original text with one hundred per cent accuracy. What’s the moral of this story? If amateur textual critics can get that close to the original document, then how much more is it true that trained textual critics, using the over twenty-five thousand early manuscripts in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and other languages can produce the original New Testament as it was written? The simple fact is this – textual critics have been saying for over three hundred years now that though minor discrepancies still exist, nothing of the meaning or veracity of the original documents has been lost. So when one picks up any good translation of the Bible (one based on the science of textual criticism) then one can be assured that he is reading an almost exact representation of the original words of Scripture.
There are still a few minor problems with the texts as we now have them, but continual research is getting us closer and closer to the originals. We must remember, for example, that Matthew reports events differently from Mark, that we have only synopses of Jesus’ sermons, or those of any Old Testament prophets. One can read the Sermon on the Mount, for example, in fifteen minutes, but Jesus, no doubt, preached much longer than that. Furthermore, there are numerous apparent inconsistencies in regard to how numbers are used in the Old Testament. And in Mark 2:26 we are told that Moses took the showbread in the days of Abiathar the High Priest while 1 Samuel 21:1 says it was in the days of his father Ahimelech. In Mark 1:41 most early manuscripts say that Jesus was filled with compassion at healing the man with the withered hand, while some others say that he was angry. Some have wondered how Jesus, who is purported to be the sinless Son of God, can be angry. In Romans 5:1 some early manuscripts say ‘We have peace’ while others say, ‘Let us have peace.’ It is pretty clear that John 7:53-8:11 was not written by John, and the end of Mark’s Gospel is not authentic either.
How do we explain these discrepancies? Concerning the one with Abiathar or Ahimelech – many explanations have been given but honestly we don’t know why Mark reports a different high priest from Samuel. I suspect, however, that the longer textual critics engage in research, the longer they pore over the ancient documents, comparing them with one another, that one day we will have a consensus that proves there was no error in the original documents. But surely you will agree that the meaning of the story is not changed in any fashion. To Ehrman this means the Bible cannot be trusted. But again, using the common rules of textual criticism for any ancient document, an error in such a minor issue in no way alters the veracity of the Gospel of Mark. And even though we have only synopses of Jesus’ sermons and not his exact words, this in no way takes away from their truthfulness. That’s because these synopses, as all the New Testament writings, were written under the influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament writers wrote using their own style and own vocabulary, emphasizing certain aspects of their Gospel accounts, summarizing the words of Jesus, while other Gospel writers wrote or reported things differently, but all did so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I challenge anyone to say that these dissimilarities in any way alter the life and ministry of Jesus. The same is true concerning the discrepancy in Romans 5:1. Really now, does it make any difference if it is, ‘We have peace,’ or ‘Let us have peace?’ Some are shocked that most conservative scholars agree that John 7:53-8:11 was not written by John and should not be included in the Gospel of John. The style is more like Luke’s writing. How did it get included in John’s Gospel? We don’t really know, but perhaps it is because the story was true and a later writer thought it ought to be included. Again, just because this section may not have been written by John in no way alters the inspiration or infallibility of the Scriptures. And the same can be said about the ending of Mark’s Gospel where there is mention of being able to take up snakes and not being bitten by them. Probably the end of Mark’s Gospel (on a papyrus roll) was lost and one added this section about poisonous snakes, not wanting to end with the women being afraid, adding this due to what we read at the end of Acts where Paul was bitten but did not die.
Ehrman is in error because he takes the doctrine of inerrancy (again referring to the Bible we now have in our hands) and makes it the foundation of his argument. For some evangelicals who believe inerrancy in the Bibles we now have is as important as inspiration or infallibility, then hearing about possible errors in textual transmission causes them to dismiss textual criticism altogether. This is ill-advised. The longer, however, that textual criticism grinds on and the more old manuscripts are found and studied, then the more sure we are of the original documents. Again it is vital to remember that the few discrepancies we still have in no way alter the message of the New Testament, and that the original Old and New Testament Scriptures were inspired, infallible, and therefore inerrant.
Ehrman also questions how authoritative the Bible can be when we do not even have the original documents. First, given how many in church history have worshipped relics (supposedly the robe in which Jesus was buried, hair plucked from his beard, splinters from the cross) should we be surprised that God has not left us the original New Testament documents? We no doubt would worship them rather than the Christ. And second, perhaps Ehrman is a bit arrogant in mandating that God ‘do it his way’, saying that the absence of the original documents casts doubt on their authenticity.
When Ehrman states that early manuscript writers purposely altered the texts for theological reasons he fails to understand that over twenty-two hundred of the early Greek manuscripts in our possession were lectionaries (consecutive readings of Scripture, much like the One Year Bible that allows people to read chronologically through the Bible in one year). In some cases a pronoun would be changed (from he to Jesus, for example) to give the reader a clearer context of who was saying what.
In other cases a word would be altered to make a clearer theological statement. For example, the King James Version (KJV) in 1 John 5:8 reads, ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.’ Textual criticism has proven that this is an inauthentic statement. It appears in only four manuscripts, all from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and came from an eighth century homily in Latin, and was not added to Greek texts until 1520. It found its way into the KJV, produced in 1611, through the so-called Textus Receptus (TR), the text on which the KJV was written. There are many other problems with the TR, as textual critics have found over the years, including the Book of Revelation being translated from Latin instead of Greek. This hardly makes for a reliable translation. Textual critics today, while rejecting the TR and KJV for accuracy, still are able to ‘sign off’ on other English translations that have been scrupulously researched through meticulous scholarship. Thus we are still able to say that, in none of these cases, has the theological meaning of the texts been altered.
One last issue for our consideration is Ehrman’s claim that as many as four hundred thousand variations or discrepancies exist in the early texts of the New Testament. This statement shocks many people. However textual critics have long noted this and are not bothered by it. First of all, a discrepancy occurs when one manuscript spells John in the Greek text with one n while another text uses two nn’s. The Greek also places a nu (the Greek letter for our n) at the end of one word when the next word begins with a vowel, and some texts do not make this change. That is considered a variation or discrepancy. All but about one percent of the variations are of this kind. And the ones that remain are like those I mention above from Mark 1 and 2, John 8, Romans 5, and Mark 16. The only variation that even approaches a possible change in orthopraxy (none of them alter orthodoxy) is the one in Mark 9:29 where some texts say, ‘these kind come out only through prayer,’ while other texts say, ‘these kind come out only through prayer and fasting.’ Obviously nothing of doctrine is altered by this variation.
So the bottom line in all of this is that today’s English Bible translations are exceedingly accurate to the original texts written by the New Testament writers. Textual criticism, using the thousands of early Greek manuscripts that have been remarkably preserved, has given us a very reliable and accurate Bible.
And the Gnostic Gospels are unquestionably second century AD documents that paint a very different portrait of Jesus than the traditional four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Since the latter were either eyewitnesses or gained their information from eyewitnesses, many of whom were still living at the time the Gospels were written, and thus able to refute any possible errors being put forth, the later Gnostic Gospels must be rejected as aberrant and untrustworthy.
This all means that the New Testament documents can be trusted, that what they teach about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is accurate and trustworthy and ought to be obeyed and believed.
- I am indebted to Strobel for much of what appears in this devotional.
- Isaiah was a scholar writing beautiful, well developed Hebrew with a vast vocabulary, while Amos was a simple farmer with a limited Hebrew vocabulary.
- Mark’s Greek grammar is poor, while Paul’s is intricate.
- 1 John 1:4, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 2:20-21, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 John 2:27.
- Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, page 90.
- See The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel, pp 81ff. ‘The Gospel According to Snoopy’ is a two-day inductive seminar – see also the ‘Friends of CSNTM’ (Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts) website.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
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