Saturday, July 15, 2023

Twelve Points That Prove Christianity - Point Six: The New Testament Gospels Are Reliable


    In this series of posts we have looked at the outline for demonstrating the truth of Christianity by the late Norman Geisler. In his outline he lists twelve points that start with the truth of reality and brings the reader, step-by-step, to the conclusion that the Bible is the Word of God. So far in the series we have look at five of these steps.

1. Truth about reality is knowable.

2. Opposites cannot both be true.

3. The theistic God exists.

4. If God exists, then miracles are possible.

5. Miracles can be used to confirm a message from God.

    As we look over these first five points, the first two provide a necessary philosophical foundation about truth itself. As the church father Augustine has noted "all truth is God's truth". In establishing the truth about truth, we find that truth is rooted in the nature of God Himself.

    Then, we find that points three to five switch from philosophical considerations to theological truth claims. It is in these points we find that God has made himself known in creation. When we grant the first five points, we arrive at a general theism, that is, belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present Creator and Sustainer of the universe who is the source of Truth and the ground for objective morality. 

    As we've noted, this God who has revealed Himself is involved in the upholding and furtherance of His will through history, nature's laws, men's decisions, and the rise and fall of governments in what we call "Providence". As God works through general providence and upon specific events in "special providence", we find He occassionally performs miracles in what is called "extraordinary providences". As we view God's miraculous workings, we can see how He has confirmed His presence and revelation. A robust teaching on Divine Providence is found in Christianity. When we combine the Old Testament Judaism of the Hebrew Bible with New Testament Christianity, we have a complete Judeo-Christian worldview, with God at the center. 

    Today we consider the sixth point "The reliability of the New Testament Gospels".

The New Testament Gospels are reliable.

    As we briefly survey this sixth point, we can note five ways to show the reliability of the Gospels.

A. Archaeology has confirmed the details of the Gospel records.

    The science of archaeology proven quite servicable to the overall case for the accuracy of the New Testament text. Although archaeology alone cannot "prove the Bible", it can disprove skepticism about the details of the Bible. Archaeology functions similarly to miracles, in that it cannot compel people to saving faith. 

    Nevertheless, the findings of archaeology, like miracles, can remove obstacles and excuses given by unbelievers for not believing the truth. We must recall of course that only the Holy Spirit can work inside the human heart to convince the mind and incline the will to trust in the Gospel. So, what are some ways archaeology confirms the details of the Gospel records?

* In 1888 the "Pool of Bethesda" was uncovered. Two major pools were discovered, along with five porticoes. Skeptical scholarship questioned so much of the Gospel of John as a historical document. This discovery confirmed that John's record in John 5:1 of the Pool of Bethesda was indeed historically accurate.

* Coinage from the first century is another method of confirm the historical details of the New Testament Gospels. Jewish coins with the inscription "Herod, King of the Jews" match what we read of Herod in Matthew 2:1 in regards to "Herod, King of the Jews".

* In the 1960's a Latin inscription was found featuring the name "Pilate, Prefect of Rome". Pilate as a historical figure was already known about in the Jewish Historian Josephus.

    I could list many other examples, but the above gives a sampling that gives evidence concerning how archaeology confirms the New Testament Gospels.

B. Historical sources outside the New Testament confirm the Gospels details.

    I've already alluded to Josephus in the last point. Josephus was a Jewish historian who first served as a general in the Jewish revolts in Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D. The emperor Nero was in power at the beginning of the revolt, with his general Vespasian presiding over the siege of Jerusalem. 

    When Nero was assisinated, Vespasian was called to become Emperor of Rome, with his son Titus taking over the siege of the city. It was at this point that Josephus surrendered himself to the Romans, becoming the court historian of the siege. Josephus' work "Antiquities of the Jews, particularly Books 17 to 20, gives much biographical information on well known figures in the Gospels, including Herod the Great, John the Baptist, Caesar Augustus, and scattered statements about Jesus Himself. We find out additional details about groups such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Herodians, all involved in the plot to crucifiy Jesus.

    Certain Roman historians such a Tactitus and Jewish Sources as the Babylonian Talmud speak of Jesus as a miracle worker, a teacher in Israel, who had disciples, who was crucified, and who was believed to had been raised alive from the dead. 

    Historians treat the Gospel records as primary sources for the study of Jesus, with secondary sources like Joephus aiding in understanding the wider background. In the last forty-five years, New Testament scholarship has emphasized the need to understand Jesus' life in the setting of the so-called "Second Temple Judiasm" (meaning the period stretching from the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra's time in 450 b.c. to the days of first century). This so-called "Jewish reclamation" of the historical Jesus has provided a historical model that enables scholarship to verify how the New Testament Gospels fit with first century, Second Temple Judaism. 

    When I read the Gospels alongside secondary sources such as Josephus' "Antiquities of the Jews", I liken it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Sources such as Josephus, Tactitus, The Talmud, early church fathers like Eusebius, and other function as the edge pieces. The Gospels give us the central pieces of the overall picture.

    A prime example of this is the visit of the Magi to see the infant Christ in Matthew 2. In that account, we are told they were looking for one born "King of the Jews". Secular historical records of the time record misgivings that Rome had toward the Parthians (descendants of the Persian Empire (6th to 4th century b.c.). The arrival of the Parthian Magi no doubt would had troubled Herod, since he represented Roman interests that had placed him in his role as "King of the Jews". 

    Knowing such details helps us see why Herod was unsettled by the Magi's appearance (not to mention their wanting to find "The King of the Jews", a rival to Herod's position no doubt)! We know from Josephus' record of Herod's career and life that Herod the Great was suspicious of anyone trying to usyrup his throne. Matthew and Luke's portrayal of Herod match exactly with the high anxiety we read of Herod in Josephus.

C. Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 can confirm the closeness of the Gospel records to their original events.

    Paul records an ancient hymn to Jesus in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." 

    In surveying the Greek text of these verses, one finds a certain rhythmic quality to them that gives tell-tale evidence that they were part of some ancient Christian hymn. Historical scholarship of all stripes has assigned the origin of this hymn no later than eighteen months to five years following the events of Jesus' crucifixion and the empty tomb.

    Scholars such as Gary Habermas have written extensively on how Paul's wording in 1 Corinthians 15 lends credibility to what we read in the Gospel accounts. If we take the list of eye-witnesses mentioned by Paul, as well as the short hymn he cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, we find it lines up neatly with the overall outline of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

    The 600 or so verses that those first three Gospels share in common provide a literary core from which we can reconstruct the life of Jesus. The first three Gospels are called "Synoptic Gospels", due to their way of "seeing together" the biography Jesus. This literary core, which provides evidence of some sort of common oral preaching and teaching already ongoing by the Apostles, is the reason why scholarship further asserts the antiquity of Paul's use of this hymn in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

    As a final note, Paul's testimony of his conversion in Galatians 1:11-24 gives us the exact timeframe in which He would had received the tradition of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection that he speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. The testimony of Paul in Galatians 1:11-24, along with the three versions of his conversion in Acts 9, 22, and 26, places his conversion no later than 34/35 A.D. Jesus was crucified and resurrected in 33 A.D. 

    Therefore with these evidences at hand, we find the amazing fact that we are closer to the events of the empty tomb than any other record ever gets to any event in antiquity. The Gospel records were written within 30-40 years after the events they record. With what we see in Paul's testimony, we find only further corroboration of the reliability of the Gospel records.

D. Three reasons we can trust the Gospels of the New Testament (Geisler and Turek, ppgs 275-297).

    Scholar Dr. Frank Turek lists in his book "I don't Have Enough Faith To be an Atheist" reasons why we can trust the New Testament Gospels.

*The New Testament writers included embarrassing details about themselves. (Mark 14:50-52)

*They describe miracles like other events: with simple, unembellished details.

*The authors abandoned long-held sacred beliefs and practices, adopted new ones, and willingly died for their faith.

E. The textual reliability of the very words of the New Testament Gospels shows that we have the same words that were written in the original manuscripts.

    This final line for proving the reliability of the New Testament Gospels deals with how we can know whether or not we have the actual words used by the authors. The science of textual criticism tells us that on average, we possess a 99.9% certainty of the wording in our current translations in comparison to the 5,688 Greek manuscripts and over 20,000 manuscripts of ancient versions and translations of the New Testament. 

    No other document of antiquity comes close to possessing this amount of textual preservation between the composition of the manuscripts and their copies. Even though we do not possess the original manuscripts of the New Testament (also called "autographs"), we can reconstruct the text of the Gospels from all the thousands of manuscripts I just mentioned.

    I won't go any further, only to say that as we discover more manuscripts, we are producing better translations. The accuracy of the Hebrew Old Testament underlying our English Old Testament enjoys similar accuracy statistics, even though its translation and transmission spans twice as long as the New Testament text.


    Today we have looked at five ways we can know that the text of the New Testament Gospels is reliable. We noted archaeology, historical sources, Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 15, certain other areas like embarrasing details, and the textual history of the text itself. In our next post, we will consider points seven, eight, and nine of our twelve steps to proving the truth of Christianity -

7. In the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be God.
8. Jesus is proved to be God.
9. Therefore Jesus is God.