Is the New Testament Reliable? An Answer in 11 Numbers.
Is the New Testament reliable? Can we know what the original documents said, and can we trust that the authors were telling the truth? Here are 11 numbers which help explain why I trust the New Testament.
1. 5,800+ manuscripts
There are over 5,800 handwritten copies (manuscripts) of parts of the New Testament in its original language (Greek). The number jumps to around 24,000 manuscripts if you count other languages. This helps explain the next number: 99.
2. 99% of the original
We don’t have the original copies of the New Testament. What we do have are thousands of manuscripts which allow scholars to piece together the original. With that many manuscripts, scholars have reconstructed the original, with 99% of the text being certain and 1% of the text still in dispute. When it comes to the 1%, there are two or more different ways of reading a passage of Scripture, so we’re not sure which reading goes back to the original. With 99% of the text solidly reconstructed, we can be confident we know the New Testament’s original message.
Is the New Testament reliable? “With 99% of the text solidly reconstructed, we can be confident we know the New Testament’s original message.”
3. 95 (AD), the date of the last book
The books of the New Testament were written between the 40s and 90s in the first century A.D. The final books were written by Jesus’ apostle John in old age, somewhere between A.D. 90 and 95. This puts the writings of the New Testament in the first century, and within the lifetime of eyewitnesses who would have been there to know what happened.
4. 66 books
The 66 books of the Bible provide a grand narrative woven throughout the centuries and eventually forming a tapestry with the likeness of Jesus. In Jesus, we see that so many Old Testament themes (e.g., the sacrifice of the beloved son, the Passover lamb, the sacrificial system, the temple veil, the suffering servant, redemption, kingdom, covenant, etc.) provided pictures of Jesus and his ministry to come. Jesus was conscious of this connection and quoted Old Testament prophets to show how they pointed ahead to him (e.g., Matthew 12:40; Mark 14:62; Luke 4:16-21; 24:27).
5. 62 (AD), the probable date of Acts
This date seems significant because of what came before it. Let me explain: Acts narrates the early church. In so doing, it tells numerous stories, including the story of the first Christian martyr (Stephen) and the first apostle to be martyred (James the apostle). It primarily focuses in on the ministries of Peter and Paul as the gospel spreads all the way from Jerusalem to Rome. Acts ends with Paul in Rome, awaiting trial around A.D. 62. It doesn’t mention the deaths of Jesus’ brother James (A.D. 62) or of Paul or Peter (late 60’s), or the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70).
This makes it likely that Acts was written in the early 60s (although a case can be made for mid-60’s). In his 2-part work, Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke before Acts (Luke’s Gospel was Part 1, Acts was Part 2). Luke likely used the Gospel of Mark as a source in writing the Gospel of Luke.
Is the New Testament reliable? “This puts two Gospels (Mark and Luke) prior to A.D. 62, placing them within 30 or so years of the events themselves.”
So, this puts two Gospels (Mark and Luke) prior to A.D. 62, placing them within 30 or so years of the events themselves. Prior to being written down, these stories would have circulated as the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) by a population which was used to memorizing and passing along what they learned.
6. 12 post-resurrection appearances
After Jesus died, numerous people claimed to see Jesus alive. His apostles saw him multiple times, talking and eating with them. At one time, there were over 500 who saw him alive at one time, and Paul challenges the readers to check it out because, at the time of his writing, most of the 500 were still alive and could verify what they saw. At least a couple separate sightings were by skeptics of Jesus, and seeing Jesus alive marked their turning point. Altogether, we are told of 12 separate appearances by the risen Jesus after his death, and there were likely more (Acts 1:3).
7. 10+ non-Christians writing about Jesus
Within 150 years of his life, at least 10 non-Christians wrote about Jesus, showing that they believed him to be a historical figure. These include Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, as well as Jewish sources such as Josephus and the Talmud. Although these writers did not believe in Jesus, we gather some important corroborating facts about his life from their writings, such as that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he performed supernatural acts, and his followers worshiped him as God.
8. 10 apostles martyred
According to church tradition, of Jesus’ original 12 apostles, 10 were killed for their faith in him (except for Judas the traitor and John who likely died a natural death). It’s true that some of these stories were written down earlier than others (and therefore more likely to be historical), while other stories were written quite a bit later and seem to have legendary add-ons to the stories. So, we can’t know for sure that all 10 of these stories are authentic. However, with the persecutions against Christians that rose in these early decades, their martyrdoms fit the era as well as the resolve we see them display in the book of Acts (e.g., Acts 5:29).
Is the New Testament reliable? “What makes the martyrdoms of the apostles significant is that it shows they were completely convinced that the resurrection story they’d been telling people was legitimate.”
What makes the martyrdoms of the apostles significant is that it shows they were completely convinced that the resurrection story they’d been telling people was legitimate. They, of all people, would have known whether it was true or false. And, if they weren’t sure of it, it’s hard to see why they would have willingly gone to their deaths (some being quite brutal forms of death) trying to persuade people that Jesus was risen.
9. 5 years between resurrection and 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
No one quite knew what to do with the news. Paul, a religious leader notorious for putting Christians in prison, had himself become a believer in Jesus. Between 2-5 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul traveled back to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there. There, he received their summary of the gospel (an early creed which he quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7): Jesus had died, was buried, and rose from the dead, all to fulfill the Scriptures. Then he appeared to numerous people, proving he was alive.
Is the New Testament reliable? “The story of Jesus dying and rising from the dead didn’t arise on a different continent hundreds of years after Jesus lived.”
This means that the story of Jesus dying and rising from the dead didn’t arise on a different continent hundreds of years after Jesus lived. Rather, Paul went to Jerusalem (the city where Jesus had died) and received this information within 2-5 years of the events themselves.
10. 3 denials
The New Testament contains some embarrassing details about its own authors. For example, hours after assuring Jesus that he would never disown Jesus—even if he had to die for it—during Jesus’ trial, Peter got scared and denied three times even knowing Jesus. Similarly, Paul never whitewashed his violent past (1 Corinthians 15:9) or even his sinful present tendencies (Romans 7:14-20). The apostles who told the gospel stories in the first place painted themselves as doing brainless things: falling asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray for him, constantly fighting amongst themselves as to which of them was the greatest, being repeatedly corrected by Jesus for not understanding what he was trying to say, and refusing to believe the women who told them Jesus had risen from the dead.
Is the New Testament reliable? “The apostles who told the gospel stories in the first place painted themselves as doing brainless things.”
These men were far from perfect, and their honesty about themselves makes them seem like trustworthy guides to the events. When people intentionally tell lies, it’s usually for one of two reasons: to get out of trouble or to make themselves look good. The apostles got neither of these out of telling the gospel stories.
The number one applies to the New Testament in more than one way. When it comes to the number of ancient manuscripts, the New Testament comes in first place, having more hand-written copies than any other ancient writing. It also comes in first when it comes to how close the earliest manuscript is to the original document (for example, we have an ancient fragment of the Gospel of John written some 30 years after John wrote his Gospel). The Bible in general is the world’s number one bestselling book. Perhaps most importantly, the New Testament is written about history’s number one influential person: Jesus.