You will often hear critics of the New Testament assert that the stories about Jesus in the New Testament are not historical, but myth. They make this conclusion, not because there is no evidence to define the narratives of Jesus as historical, but because this is their opinion.
Every event of history is validated by methods that help us have confidence in past events as genuine and reliable. Regardless of whether they are religious or secular, all history is validated by the same processes
- When was the source written or produced?
- Where was it produced?
- By whom was it produced?
- From what pre-existing material was it produced?
- In what original form was it produced?
- What is the evidential value of its contents?
The first four are recognized by historical experts as higher criticism; the fifth, as lower criticism; and, together, they are recognized as external criticism.
With the above six in mind, the following eight are the basic principles for determining whether any narrative is historical and Reliable:
- Human sources may be relics or narratives that consist of statements or a letter.
- Any source may be forged or corrupted. For this reason, there is a preeminent need to verify the originality of the source.
- The closer the source is to the event for which it alleges to describe, the greater the trust that is given for an accurate historical description of what actually happened.
- An eyewitness is more reliable than secondhand testimony or hearsay.
- If there are several independent sources while telling the same story, the credibility of the narrative is increased exponentially.
- The tendency of a source which has a clear bias, is motivation for the creation of false narratives. Internal evidence within the narrative that would detract from the story and make it less attractive are indications of balance and truthfulness.
- If the witnesses to a story have no personal benefit or direct interest in proving the story other than to tell the truth, the narrative is more credible.
- If the witnesses recall slightly different details of the events, even placing them in a different order, while telling the same story, this is evidence of truthful narratives.
When we apply these methods to any event of ancient history, we may be able to determine if the events are genuine events of history or contrived.
When we apply these rules for analysis to the New Testament manuscripts, we find that they meet and exceed every requirement for valid historical events.
Concerning The First Six Criteria:
1. When was the source, written or produced? Scientific examination of the oldest manuscripts for the New Testament, date these earliest surviving copies at within 150 years of the original autographs. This meets the requirements for authentic representations for actual events. This date of writing for the manuscript copies of the New Testament, is closer to the time of the events than any other event of history. If the surviving New Testament manuscript copies are written too late from the events to be considered valid historical narratives of these events, then every other event of antiquity must also be invalidated, for they are all written much later than those of the New Testament.
2. Where was it produced? From the materials we have in our possession today that were used to produce the oldest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament, we know that these products are consistent with those used in the first and second centuries to produce Codexes. A unique feature of the early New Testament manuscripts is their creation as Codexes rather than the conventionally used scroll method for writing and preserving documents. The early first century Christian church are the originators of the Codex. This book style for writing documents began in the first century, confirming the period of history they originated from.
3. By whom was it produced? From the surviving manuscript evidence, we know with certainty that these documents are written in Koine Greek, used by the writers of the first century Christian church.
4. From what pre-existing material was it produced? The surviving manuscript copies of the New Testament were written on papyrus, with ink made from charcoal, gum, and water, or Iron Gall in later writing. These are consistent with valid materials of the period the New Testament is alleged to have been written.
5. In what original form was it produced? As previously mentioned, the Codex form or writing and distributing literary materials was a large leap forward in the development and distribution of important writing. There were no other cultures or writers who used the Codex in the first century other than the Christian church. This method of writing is a significant piece of empirical evidence that the New Testament came to us from the first century.
6. What is the evidential value of its contents? Of course this is one of the most important reasons for writing so many copies of the original autographs. What the New Testament has preserved for history is an event of such magnitude that it eclipses all other events of history. God was coming to earth in the form of a man, performing supernatural works in demonstration of His assertion to be God, and dying for the sins of the world. On the third day after He was killed, this record states that Jesus of Nazareth, rose from the dead and was seen by over 500 eyewitnesses, during a period of 40 days. The value of these events are the most important in the history of the world.
The surviving manuscripts of the New Testament meet every criteria of the first six precepts, in higher criticism, lower criticism, and external criticism, as valid documents of historical events.
Concerning The Eight Remaining Requirements Necessary For Valid Historical Events:
1. Human sources may be relics or narratives that consist of statements or a letter.
The four Gospels are narratives that are either written by eyewitnesses or by those who interviewed eyewitnesses of the events they describe. A majority of the texts from the New Testament is in the form of personal letters that are written to persons at locations where Christian churches were established in the early first century. The existence of letters rather than stories, adds a great deal of credibility to the sincerity of what is written in these documents. It was clearly not the intent of these writers to create a story to be believed but for the purpose of instruction, encouragement, correction, and in some cases, rebuke. There are specific references to personal items that are requested to be brought to the author, and persons who are receiving intimate and personal information. These attributes cause the reader to understand that what they are reading are genuine and not contrived or disingenuous.
2. Any source may be forged or corrupted. For this reason, there is a preeminent need to verify the originality of the source.
The writers of the four Gospels are alleged to have written these anonymously due to their names not being included on later manuscript copies. The leaders of the first century Christian church had no doubts about who these authors were, many having first hand knowledge of these authors. This provides us with satisfactory proof that they were not forged.
As these New Testament documents exist as 24,593 extant copies, this is an indication that there were originals of sufficient value to merit such a great number of copies that were later made. As these New Testament documents have remained in the custody and use of the Christian church for nearly 2,000 years, this is sufficient evidence to meet the requirements for verification of the original source.
3. The closer the source is to the event for which it alleges to describe, the greater the trust that is given for an accurate historical description of what actually happened.
Although critics claim that the narratives that are written about Jesus in the New Testament were written at too great a distance from the events to be considered credible, this is not the finding of the historical record. There are surviving manuscripts of complete books of the New Testament from 175-225 A.D. Manuscript copies of nearly the entire New Testament as early as 175 A.D., demands that the original autographs were certainly written by 50 or 60 A.D. There are fragments of Matthew’s Gospel that have been validated by scientific Paleographic examination that dates these texts to 60 A.D. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, chapter 5, verse 18, he quotes from Luke’s gospel. “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” When we examine Luke’s gospel we find that Paul was referencing a quote by Luke in his letter he wrote to Timothy.
This means that Luke’s gospel must have already been written by the time that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, “for the laborer is worthy of his wages.” (Luke 10:7). Eusebius wrote that Paul was beheaded under Caesar Nero, who was assassinated in 68 A.D. After Paul’s fifth missionary journey ended in 67 A.D., Eusebius states that Paul was beheaded by the Romans under Emperor Nero.
This date was near May or June of 68 A.D., Nero forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to kill him on June 9th of the 68 A.D. Since Paul died by 68 A.D. and he wrote text that came from Luke’s Gospel, it is certain that Luke penned these words before 68 A.D. It is highly probable that Luke wrote his gospel near the same writing of Matthew’s Gospel in 60 A.D.
These facts of history are empirical evidence that Luke’s Gospel was already written while Paul was still alive. By this corroboration from the historical record, we learn that Luke’s Gospel is certified as written before 68 A.D., when Paul was killed. Confirmation of these facts are made by a letter from Eusebius.
4. An eyewitness is more reliable than secondhand testimony or hearsay.
A majority of the text for the New Testament is written by eyewitnesses. The writers are careful to tell the reader that they did not believe that Jesus was God at first, but only believed, after they saw Him alive, after His brutal crucifixion. Various writers make clear and specific statements that what they are writing is truthful and they are not lying:
2 Peter 1:16-21: “We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father (on the high mountain). 1 John 1:1-4: “We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-8: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”
The requirements for valid eyewitness testimony is met by these records and the absence of any impeaching evidence to the contrary in the historical record.
5. If there are several independent sources while telling the same story, the credibility of the narrative is increased exponentially.
There are nine separate authors who all write the same narrative about Jesus Christ in the 27 books of the New Testament: He claimed to be God, proved this by His miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead three days later.
The Old Testament is a second source which predicted a Messiah who would perform exactly what Jesus accomplished; miracles as proof that He is the true Messiah.
Finally a third and fourth source in the secular records of both the Romans and the Jews who record Jesus in Jerusalem at the same time that the New Testament places Him there; arrested and tried by Pontius Pilate; causing an uprising in Jerusalem and also Rome; Christians being disbursed from Jerusalem and Rome. The Jews record Jesus in their Talmud as crucified under Pilate, a false messiah, and a source of great trouble in their nation. See the chapter: “Secular Witnesses.”
6. The tendency of a source which has a clear bias is motivation for the creation of false narratives. Internal evidence within the narrative that would detract from the story and make it less attractive are indications of balance and truthfulness.
When we examine the premise of the narratives about Jesus, we find that the primary character is born into object poverty. His birth is under scandal as His mother is believed to be pregnant by a man other than Joseph, her husband. Jesus’ mother claims that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and this adds to the public disdain over Jesus in His later years.
His attempts at proclaiming Himself as the Messiah is seen as an utter failure by His arrest and crucifixion. He is so poor that He must be buried in a borrowed tomb. These are not the attributes that a writer would place into a contrived story or novel that would cause the people of that period of history to believe in Him. The reason that these unsavory events are in the record of Jesus’ life, is because they are true.
Everything that is written about Jesus in the New Testament, when it is read by an honest and reasonable person, can be understood as genuine accounts that were so extraordinary that not even those who saw them, believed what they heard and saw. All of the writers of the New Testament were killed for spreading news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Romans so vigilantly persecuted the early Christians that nearly five million were brutally executed simply because they would not confess that Jesus had not risen from the dead. There was no benefit for those who wrote, preached, and died for the Gospel of Christ, except to make Him known so the whole world would know the extraordinary events they had seen.
7. If the witnesses to a story have no personal benefit or direct interest in proving the story other than to tell the truth, the narrative is more credible.
Those who believed in Jesus in the first years after His death and resurrection, were hated, despised, evicted from homes, villages and cities. The Jews hated the early Christians so vehemently that men like Saul of Tarsus were dispatched to arrest, condemn, and execute the followers of Jesus. The early and often later followers of Jesus, lost everything for following Him.
Despite the loss of all things, and in many cases, their lives and the lives of their families, early Christians would not deny Jesus. This is one of the greatest proofs of authenticity in the historical records of the New Testament; the extraordinary cost of those who chose to believe in Jesus. These facts of the early Christians is well documented by the hundreds of early church writers who witnessed and recorded these events in the historical record, in corroboration of the New Testament narrative.
8. If the witnesses recall slightly different details of the events, even placing them in a different order, while telling the same story, this is evidence of truthful narratives.
An assertion by critics of the New Testament is that there are differences in the testimony of those who write about the same events. These differences and slight variations in events, or their order, are empirical proof that the narratives are true. In all genuine written testimony about true events, witnesses see and remember these events differently, although they saw the same things. See the chapter: “Forensic Evidence.”
In every principle and requirement for genuine historical events, the New Testament passes by greater measure, any other literary narrative for any other event of history. We know more about the person of Jesus Christ and those who wrote about Him, than any other person of antiquity. All of the vast evidence that is available to validate the narratives of the New Testament make it certain that these are truthful and reliable representations of what took place in the history of the early first century.
Objections to the New Testament because of its supernatural assertions that are attributed to Jesus, have no bearing on the historical authenticity of these events. Historians cannot disregard or cast aside a record from history simply because they happen to disagree with the events or do not believe they took place. Once reliable sources are validated, all that anyone can do, is accept that what is written is genuine testimony of events that the people who wrote them believed at that time.
It is not necessary or a prerequisite of valid historical events to believe they are true, only that they were properly recorded by reliable witnesses and were preserved and in the care of proper custodians during the time from when the events took place to the present day.
The New Testament Passes Every Literary And Historical Requirement As Valid and Reliable Historical Events.