How do we know we can trust the New Testament?
Sam Harris, an American author, neuroscientist, philosopher and the co-founder and chief executive of Project Reason, a non-profit that promotes science and secularism wrote, “…religious faith is the belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient evidence.” 1
Another notable atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who mentioned Moses ben Maimun, a Jewish philosopher from the 1100’s said, “However, he fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors – none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion – cannot agree on anything of importance.” 2
It can be hard to know where or even how to begin to respond when you are confronted by comments like those above; comments that attack Christianity that are made by intelligent, respected, and highly educated people.
Now don’t be confused. The atheists, as much as they might like to believe, don’t hold the market on intelligence. Maybe you have seen a poster of Lincoln, Franklin, Jefferson and other prominent people that states atheism is good enough for them. There are dozens of posters that claim, or imply, the most intelligent among us are atheist in their belief. I already addressed this in another post. For now, I just want to explore the claims of Harris and Hitchens that Christianity lacks evidence, or historical record, and agreement.
The historical record
In 303 A.D., Roman Emperor Diocletian passed three edicts that addressed his fear Christianity was undermining the covenant between the people of Rome and their gods. These edicts or laws had a devastating effect on Christianity in the 3rd century.
First, all Christian churches were to be demolished. Second, all manuscripts, scrolls, books, letters, etc. that promoted Christianity were to be destroyed. Third, all Christians were to be killed. This continued for 8 years till 311 A.D., when Emperor Galerius declared on his death bed religious freedom, ending the persecution of Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire. Well, at least on parchment.
What if Diocletian had been successful in destroying the gospel records; the accounts recorded, copied, and transcribed for the specific purpose of furthering the good news and sharing the gospel with fellow believers?
If we were to compile all the quotes from the early church fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and many others, we would have a total of 36,289 quotes. We have enough to reconstruct all but eleven verses of the New Testament. Geisler and Turek put it this way, “…you could go down to your local public library, check out the works of the early church fathers, and read nearly the entire New Testament just from their quotations of it.” 3
Obviously, Diocletian was not successful because we have ample records that survived this attack on Christianity. How many examples? How many compared to other classical works?
Number of manuscript copies:
Plato – 7 copies
Tacitus, (a Roman historian) – 20 copies
Demosthenes, (a Greek statesman from Athens) – 200 copies
Homer, (author of the Iliad) – 643 copies
I could list others, but by far Homer, followed by Demosthenes, has the most supportive copies we can compare for accuracy with 643. 4
But the question is now, how many copies of Scripture do we have? Kenneth Samples, author of Without a Doubt wrote, “…more than 5,000 individual Greek manuscripts that contain all or part of the New Testament exist.” 5 Samples went on to say that we have another 8,000 copies in languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Slavic, Ethiopic and of course Latin. Altogether we have about 13,000 manuscripts, books, pages, and fragments to compare.
Other researchers have put the total over 25,000. David Limbaugh just published his book, Jesus On Trial wrote, “The evidence, however, is changing all the time based on new discoveries. Geisler recounts that when he began writing on this topic in the sixties, there were about 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts…and now there are closer to 5,800. The number of New Testament translations into languages of nearby countries – Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, Latin, Coptic and others – totals about 19,300.” 6 Add that to the Greek copies, then we have some 25,000 New Testament manuscripts.
If we went with Samples lower estimate of 13,000 and he was only half correct, we would still be left with well over 6,000 copies. That would be ten times the number of copies we have for Homer’s Iliad.
No credible historian claims we have other ancient works that outnumber what is available for the Bible. And this, despite the attempts of some Roman dictators to destroy Christianity and its followers.
Agreement in evidence
Hitchens claimed above that the authors of the New Testament could not agree on anything of importance. Let’s set aside for a moment what Scripture and other Christians say about Jesus, and see what others, those outside the Bible, some even hostile to Christianity, say about Jesus.
In A.D. 66, the Jews in Palestine rose up against the Roman rule. Rome sent General Vespasian to put down the rebellion and regain control of the area. A year later, General Vespasian was laying siege to the town of Jotapata in Galilee. Near that town was a young Jewish rebel who opted to surrender. Over time, he won favor with General Vespasian and returned to Rome with General Titus after he (Titus) destroyed the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.
This young man was named Flavius Josephus, and he eventually served as a historian for the Roman emperor Domitian. Josephus wrote ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ and in book 18, chapter 3, section 3 he wrote, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.” 7
In the first 150 years after the birth of Christ, if we include Josephus, there are ten non-Christian writers that mention him in their works. Looking at and then piecing together what the non-Christian sources say about Jesus we have the following list:
1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
2. He lived a virtuous life.
3. He was a wonder worker.
4. He had a brother named James.
5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God. 8
Keep in mind, the above list is complied from non-Christians and even those hostile to Christianity. A list void of those who believed in Christianity. To claim the gospel writers cannot agree on anything of importance is absurd when we have a list of non-Christian sources that make a case for the person of Christ. I will add as an end note, if we include the number of Christian authors who mention Christ within 150 years of his birth, and add the ten non-Christian sources, the total is forty-three sources. Then if we look at the number of Christian and non-Christian sources that mention Tiberius Caesar in the same 150 year period the total is ten. 9
Hitchens says the authors of the New Testament cannot agree on anything of importance, yet you can see from the above list, even those who were not Christians and hostile to Christianity, agreed on elements of great importance, which are substantiated by the overwhelming number of copies we have of the New Testament.
1. Harris, Sam. The End Of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. Print.
2. Hitchens, Christopher. god is not GREAT– How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007. Print.
3. Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004. Print.
5. Samples, Kenneth R. Without a Doubt. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004. Print.
6. Limbaugh, David. Jesus On Trial. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2014. Print.
7. Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Blacksburg: Unabridged Books, 2011. Print.
8. Geisler, Norman. Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004. Print.
Lack of Evidence for the New Testament by James Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.knowingforsure.com/.