When we turn to the New Testament and consider the question of its reliability there are two issues that face us.
The first is the text of the New Testament itself: Is what we have in our hands, or rather the text from which it was translated, an accurate representation of what was originally written? The second relates to its content, particularly when we consider the Gospels and the book of the Acts, Is it historically reliable? Does it ring true with what we know of the period and place that it relates to? The first question is beyond the scope of this present article, for this the reader is directed for a start to F. F. Bruce’s little book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
However, the second is in a sense much more far-reaching in its consequences, for if the New Testament scriptures are not accurate in relation to historical events, people and places then how can we have confidence in what they say regarding the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus?
The problem that is posed in approaching an article like this is not whether there is enough evidence to provide a convincing argument for the integrity and accuracy of the New Testament but rather that there is far too much. F. F. Bruce’s excellent book cited above is well worth perusing for any who are interested in further reading on the subject. In this article I would like to do two things, therefore: first, to give a distillation of some of the material contained in it; and second, to look at some fascinating evidence that has come to light since his book was written. The result, I trust, will be to reinforce our confidence in the trustworthiness of the scriptures that we hold in our hands.
I would like to concentrate first of all on Luke’s writings, for several reasons. Luke, because he also wrote Acts, covers a greater timespan and a wider geographical area than any other of the Gospel writers. He is also the writer who makes the most explicit claims to base his work on the testimony of eyewitnesses with the view that Theophilus might ‘know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed’, Luke 1. 4. He also, by reference to people and events, firmly sets his writing within its wider historical and chronological context. In addition, because a fair proportion of his Gospel is also to be found in Matthew and Mark, their reliability is bound up in his: if it can be shown that he writes with care and accuracy then this to a large extent validates their testimony. If on the other hand he falls then they fall with him. Yet, he does not fall. Time and again his detailed accuracy can be verified and new discoveries only serve to reinforce this fact. He shows a detailed acquaintance with cities, their administrative structure and character throughout the empire. He also shows an intimate knowledge of officials and their titles, mentioning three Roman emperors by name and in the correct order (Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius), and a host of officials, all to whom he accords their correct titles. This is no mean feat. He had no recourse to reference books, still less to Wikipedia! Moreover, in some instances titles varied over time depending upon the exact form of imperial administration in force. An example of this would be the case of Gallio the proconsul of Achaia, Acts 18. 12 - KJV has ‘deputy’. The technical term is ‘proconsul’. Achaia was governed by proconsuls from BC27 to AD15, and again from AD44 onwards. An inscription from Delphi in Greece, which mentions Gallio by name fixes the beginning of his proconsulship to AD51. Luke gives him his correct official title, ‘proconsul of Achaia’, whereas on other occasions he refers to Achaia simply as ‘Greece’, e.g., Acts 20. 2.
Another interesting case relates to the time of the riots in Ephesus in Acts chapter 19. When the town clerk quietens the crowd part of what he says is that ‘there are deputies, proconsuls – Acts 19. 38. The use of the plural is somewhat disturbing given that there was only one proconsul at a time. However, an examination of the chronological data available reveals that the proconsul of Asia had been assassinated a few months before the riot (in AD54) and that his successor had not yet arrived. The use of the generalizing plural then either refers to this limbo situation or else to his two murderers, who were the imperial representatives in Asia and may have been discharging consular duties at this time. Either way the specific, pin-point accuracy of Luke’s account can be seen. In this chapter Luke’s use of such terms as ‘town clerk’, v. 35, ‘Asiarchs’ (AV ‘chief of Asia’).v. 31, or in reference to the city itself as ‘Warden of the Temple of Artemis’, v. 35 (KJV ‘worshipper of the great goddess Diana’) are all corroborated by external evidence. Before we leave this particular chapter mention is made of Erastus in verse 22. He is described by Paul as the ‘chamberlain of the city, i.e., Corinth - Rom. 16. 23, that is, ‘city treasurer’ or ‘director of public affairs’, i.e., a high position. An inscription on a pavement from Corinth from the first century states that the pavement was laid by an Erastus, in all probability the same one.
Examples could be multiplied, not only in the Acts but also in Luke’s Gospel. In chapter 3 verses 1 and 2 at the beginning of John’s ministry there are a series of synchronisms that place the Gospel firmly in its historical context. Of these the only one that there is any doubt over is Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, and the only reason for that is lack of external evidence. (Even here there is an inscription mentioning ‘Lysanias the tetrarch’ which Bruce says can only date to between AD 14 and AD 29 [ p. 88], which would attest a Lysanias in the right position at around the right time.) Indeed Luke’s habitual accuracy can be seen in relation to the way in which he refers to Herod (Antipas) throughout his Gospel. Whilst Herod the Great and the Herod of the Acts (Agrippa I) are accorded the title ‘king’, Luke 1. 5; Acts 12. 1, Herod (Antipas) is always called ‘the tetrarch’ because he was never elevated to kingship and ‘tetrarch’ was his official title.
The point about ‘habitual accuracy’ is important for, as Bruce again says, ‘Accuracy is a habit of mind, and we know from happy (or unhappy) experience that some people are habitually accurate just as others can be depended upon to be inaccurate. Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy’ (p. 91). He makes the point that if Luke can be trusted to be accurate in matters that we can test by external means then it is much more likely that he can be relied upon for those that we cannot. The implication of this part of the investigation, therefore, is that Luke, and by extension the other Gospel writers, who complement his testimony, can be trusted in what they say about the Lord Jesus as well.
Not only in terms of historical events and people do the Gospel writers show themselves to be accurate but also in terms of general knowledge of the land of Israel, its people and its customs. They show an intimate awareness of the different Jewish feasts, social classes, tensions between Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians or between Jews and Samaritans, knowledge of the geography of Palestine and of Jerusalem in particular, knowledge of the Sea of Galilee and the way in which storms can suddenly blow up, and so on. The differences between the atmosphere in Galilee and Jerusalem are also perfectly captured in the Gospels. On the part of Luke, a Gentile in particular, this would have been virtually impossible were he not presenting to us the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events (as he claims he is doing in the introduction to his Gospel). In some cases differences in detail and perspective can seem like contradictions as, for example, in the accounts of the resurrection. Mark says that the women came to the sepulchre ‘at the rising of the sun’, 16. 2, whereas John says that it was ‘when it was yet dark’, 20. 1. In fact, both are correct because although the sun had risen on the other side of the Mount of Olives over by Jericho, the fact that the mountain lay between would have meant that it was still dark in Jerusalem. Another incident that appears strange and is often picked up on by critics is the account of the cursing of the fig tree. In Mark’s account the Lord Jesus, seeing the fig tree with leaves on comes ‘if haply he might find anything thereon’, but it is also stated explicitly that ‘the time of figs was not yet’, Mark 11. 13. If it was not the fig season, why then did the Lord come looking? Apparently figs produce two (some species three) crops, an early crop called ‘breba’ (What Bruce refers to as ‘taqsh’, p. 73) and a main crop. The breba crop ripens in spring or early summer (in Mallorca these appear in June-July) but note that modern harvest times are not reliable indications of what happened 2000 years ago. We have to rely on textual evidence where we have it and it is presumably for this breba that the Lord is looking. What is even more striking as far as the spiritual significance of this passage is concerned is that the breba appears on the previous year’s growth – no fruit was found from Israel in her existing spiritual condition nor ever would be.
However, perhaps the most fascinating evidence for the reliability of the Gospel narratives that has come to light in recent years relates to the personal names of the individuals mentioned. It is well known that patterns of naming change over time – some names in fashion twenty or thirty years ago, for example, are not in vogue today – and by geographical area – the most popular names in Britain, for example will be different from those in the USA, even though both are English-speaking countries. The same can be said for names held by Jewish people in the first century AD.
Now, there are a large number of Jewish names from this period preserved for us, not only in the Bible but also in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus or in other texts like burial inscriptions or legal texts. In some of these we know very little about the people mentioned other than their names but from them we can compile a list and discover which names were most popular at the time. It emerges that the top two most popular male names in Palestine in the first century were Simon and Joseph, whilst the two most popular female names were Mary and Salome. When we turn to the Gospels and Acts what do we find? The two most frequent male names are Simon and Joseph and Mary is the only female name to be borne by more than one individual (6 in fact). This is no coincidence, especially when we consider that in Egypt at the same time the top three names were Eleazar, Sabbataius and Joseph with Simon being nowhere in sight. Indeed, the correspondence is even more striking when we look at percentages. From the total figures we find that 15.6% of men bore the name Simon or Joseph, whilst 41.5% bore one of the nine most popular male names. In the New Testament 18.2% of men have the name Simon or Joseph, whilst 40.3% have one of the nine most popular names (pp. 71-72). Without access to the lists that we now have it would be impossible to create such a close correspondence by chance. Rather it points to the conclusion that real people are involved.
On another level we can see a difference between the Gospel writer as narrator and as reporter of what people said. The writers may refer, for example, to ‘John’ or ‘Jesus’ , but when reporting direct speech they are ‘John the Baptist,’ cf., the alternations in Matt. 14. 1-12, and ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, or some other qualifying term, cf., Matt. 26. 59-74. Indeed, whilst Philip is often criticized for being inaccurate in describing the Lord Jesus as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’ in John chapter 1 verse 45 (and of course technically he is) he is actually being as specific as he can be, based on what he knows. Since ‘Jesus’ is the sixth most popular name of the time he first qualifies the name with the place from which He comes – ‘of Nazareth’. However, there would have been a number of men bearing that name in Nazareth. He therefore narrows it down further by giving the father’s name (as he supposed) – ‘the son of Joseph’. In doing so he unwittingly gives us further evidence of the first-century, Palestinian, eyewitness origin of the New Testament Gospel writings. It is therefore in the details as much as in the bigger picture that the New Testament demonstrates its reliability and trustworthiness.
The evidence that has been presented here can be multiplied. To be sure we do not have the answers to every single ‘problem’ that is raised but that is due rather to a lack of available extra-biblical evidence than to a defect in the text itself. As more information comes to light so the case for the reliability of the scriptures is strengthened, not diminished. Truly, we acknowledge what the Lord Jesus said in prayer to His Father, ‘Thy word is truth’, John. 17. 17.
Indeed if the New Testament scriptures are in truth the word of God and divinely inspired, then we would expect that on whatever level we might examine them, in terms of history, geography, botany, climate, or anything else that we might have a particular interest in, they will be accurate. One might argue that this is asking too much of an ancient text which, after all, is not a history book. However, this is not just any book and critics are continually looking for reasons to deny the validity of its message and more particularly its personal claims upon them. However, the closer we scrutinize the text the more we find that the New Testament is not just accurate in a general, broad-brush sense, but that this accuracy extends to the tiniest of details.
The Gospels are not legends which grew up over a long period of time and grew wings, the end result bearing little resemblance to what actually happened, but rather the careful presentation of the testimony of selected eyewitnesses to the events that they record.
Tyndale Hall material is useful. Their latest Bible and Church Conference 2010 DVD entitled ‘The Authentic Gospels’ is an excellent defence of the canonical Gospels, and a scholarly response to those who write off the Bible. A lot of people are highly influenced by specious books by writers such as Dan Brown that quote extensively from the so-called lost gospels of Thomas, Judas and Mary. This DVD shows the validity of the canonical Gospels in terms of eyewitness/manuscript and historical data. This is worth watching.