The Reliability of the New Testament - Episode 2
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
In this episode, Jon corrects the misinformation and assumptions that inform the views many people have towards the trustworthiness of the bible.
00:50 Responding to the statement – The NT isn’t reliable
3:45 Misinformation 1: The copies are not reliable
6:40 Misinformation 2: Translations from dead languages
8:10 Misinformation 3: The books were approved by the authorities
9:20 Misinformation 4: Oral stories that were eventually written down
10:50 Summary and next episodes
Hello, I’m Jon Topping and you’re listening to the Ultimate Questions podcast. Last time I said we would begin this podcast by looking into some of the historical aspects of Christianity. I thought it would be a fitting place to start by asking a common question Christians get asked, “why bother putting your faith in some two thousand year old book written by a bunch of fishermen?” Now first off, the New Testament wasn’t written by just fishermen. The authors include those working for the government, Jesus’ brothers, and even a doctor, but I know that’s not really the point. The point being made by this sort of question, or, challenge, is that the New Testament isn’t reliable. There’s a popular meme that floats around social media, by David Cross, a comedian famous for his role on Arrested Development.
Cross says, Back when the Bible was written, then edited, then rewritten, then rewritten, then re-edited, then translated from dead languages, then re-translated, then edited, then rewritten, then given to kings for them to take their favourite parts, then rewritten, then re-rewritten, then translated again, then given to the pope for him to approve, then rewritten, then edited again, the re-re-re-re-rewritten again...all based on stories that were told orally 30 to 90 years AFTER they happened... to people who didn’t know how to write... so... Now this is comedy, right, like he’s trying to make a joke, and I get that. But at the heart of things like this lies real challenges and thoughts. He’s not “merely” making a joke. As far as the actual argument goes, I think he’s making a few points.
Firstly, he’s making the point that copying documents results in the document not being trustworthy anymore. Like the game of telephone, where the further down the line of transmission the message get, the more distorted it becomes. Secondly, he’s saying that the Bible has been translated from dead languages. Often times, when people say something like this, they’re trying to say that we don’t have the original languages anymore. We only have translations of translations, which obviously makes the document even less reliable.
Thirdly, he’s claiming that the books we currently have in the Bible were approved by kings who took their favourite parts. Basically, that the text is incredibly biased, because the people in power got to choose which books made the cut. Lastly, he’s making the point that the content in the biblical documents come from oral traditions, and that they were only stories for the first few decades, which gives the content a lot of time to become distorted.
Sadly, I think this sort of attitude towards the reliability of the Bible is not just common, I think it’s become the standard. I’ve heard this sort of thing so many times, that it really feels like this is the background assumption of our culture, and everyone has been fed this sort of argument against the Bible.
I was in an interfaith dialogue recently, and the atheist/agnostic representative actually said that we don’t have the original languages of the Bible, and that we just have a few Latin copies, but that it’s mostly all English. That’s just factually wrong. He also said that the council of Nicea not only chose the New Testament books, but the Old Testament as well, which, again, is just so horribly mistaken. And this was someone at the front of the room, representing atheism/agnosticism in an academic situation! So this kind of misinformation has become quite deep seated in our culture.
So to start off with the first one, has the New Testament been copied so much that it’s become untrustworthy? If you’ve spent any time in Christian apologetics, you’ve probably been shown this chart that shows a bunch of incredibly popular ancient documents, like Homer’s Iliad, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Tacitus’ Annals, and things like this. This is a podcast, so I can’t exactly show you the chart, but basically it shows the date the works were written, then the date of the earliest manuscripts, or copies we have, which then shows the gap of time in-between when it was written, and the earliest copies we have available. For most of the ancient documents, we get gaps of time like 400 to a thousand years in-between when it was written, and the earliest copies we have. However, for the New Testament, the gap is only about 40 years. In other words, other documents that we consider to be highly reliable have ten times the time gap between when they were written, and the copies we have available, compared to the New Testament. So the New Testament, by this standard, is not only better than literally every other historical document, but it’s multiple times better! The copies we have of the New Testament are so incredibly soon after the documents were written, that it actually becomes possible that some of the manuscripts we have could have actually been copied from the original documents, also referred to as the autographs. That absolutely blew my mind when I first thought of it. No ancient document still has the autograph; the odds of the single document that was originally written actually surviving thousands of years is just far too improbable. However, we might actually have copies that were copied from those originals, which, by historical standards, is incredibly impressive.
The chart also shows the amount of copies we have of the ancient manuscripts for each of these historical documents. For the other books, we have a hundred or two for each of them, with the rare and exceptional case of Homer’s Iliad, where we have nearly two thousand, which is quite odd to have that many. However, with the New Testament, we have over five thousand manuscripts. It’s five times the amount of manuscripts as other documents that are considered reliable, and even when compared to the second most reliable document, the New Testament still stands head and shoulders above it. In other words, when it comes to the manuscripts of the New Testament, they are not only incredibly reliable; they are actually multiple times more reliable than even the best ancient documents. If someone like David Cross wants to say that the copying process the New Testament went through makes it unreliable, then they have to throw out the entirety of human history, because nothing would be reliable. It’s far more reasonable to admit that the New Testament we hold in our hands today is an accurate depiction of what was first written back in the first century.
The second point made by David Cross is that, because the New Testament has been translated from dead languages, it can’t possibly be a reliable translation for us to read today. The background assumption in claims like this is that we “only” have the English translation, which is a translation of a translation. The major problem here is that, we actually do have the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, in their original languages! The Greek copies of the New Testament we have are not translations of translations. They are Greek copies or a Greek document. So if the point is that we just don’t have the New Testament in its original language, then that’s just blatantly false, if you look at the actual data available. An analogy that I use regarding this point about translation is to look at the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This book has been translated more than most books, having been translated into over 76 languages. Does that fact that it’s been translated so much diminish the accuracy of the text to the original? Does having many different translations of it mean that we don’t really know what JK Rowling originally wrote? Of course not! Why? Because we still have the book in the original language it was written in. We didn’t somehow lose the English version as we translated it into more and more languages. The same thing goes for the New Testament. Just because it’s been translated many times doesn’t change the fact that we have it in the original Greek.
Cross’s third point was that the books the Bible were approved by those in authority. A common point made by atheists on the internet is that the books of the New Testament were decided by the Council of Nicea. Now, we’ll be diving into this a bit more in the future when I have my friend Wesley Huff join us, but basically, that’s a ridiculous lie. Anyone who is actually aware of the facts of history can tell you that the Council of Nicea had nothing to do with picking which books would be considered Scripture. The point of the Council of Nicea was to deal with the Arian controversy, which is basically how we understand the divinity of Jesus, and then the side issue of when to celebrate Easter. Furthermore, the “king” involved, which I imagine Cross was attempting to refer to Emperor Constantine, didn’t have any input into the topics being decided at the council. Again, we’ll look more at this in future episodes of the podcast, but the books of the New Testament were quite firmly established by this time, and further, they weren’t “picked” by a group of authorities, but rather, the Christians just recognized which books were written by prominent figures ad which weren’t. The books of the New Testament were more assumed, quite early on, rather than chosen later by authority figures.
Lastly, Cross made the point that the New Testament is built off of orally transmitted stories, that were eventually written down. Now if we try and compare the New Testament to other historical documents that are considered reliable, again, the New Testament is head and shoulders above them. We have historical documents regarding Alexander the Great, who is obviously an incredibly important historical figure. An example of such a text Arrian’s work on the Campaigns of Alexander the Great. This work was written about four centuries after the events it describes, and yet, it’s considered by many historians to be the most reliable work on Alexander’s campaigns. Compare this to the New Testament, which, depending on your view of the dates of the books, in some cases has only 20-40 years between the events they describe, and when the books were written. Historically speaking, that’s quite remarkable. In fact, it’s so incredibly early, that the documents could very well have been written by the eyewitnesses that bear their names. Historically, it was just taken for granted that Matthew was actually written by Matthew, and Luke was written by Luke. And if we consider the dating of when the books were written, that’s actually quite feasible, which again, is quite remarkable that we seem to actually have eyewitness testimonies, dating very soon after the events. So hopefully these points help you to see the matter a bit more objectively, and hopefully leave behind the silliness of quotes from comedians regarding matters they know nothing about.
Now, all I’ve really done is show that the New Testament, as a historical document, is textually reliable. Meaning, I’ve only shown that the document we have is what was originally written by the authors. That does not say anything about the actual content of the documents themselves. The question of, are the stories in the New Testament actually true? Is a completely different matter. So next time on the Ultimate Questions podcast, we’re going to be looking at some reasons to think the content of the New Testament might actually be true.
So I hope you’ll join me next time as we start diving into these topics, with me, Jon Topping, on the Ultimate Questions podcast, from Power to Change Students.