Authenticity of the New Testament.
Christianity’s opponents frequently claim that the New Testament documents are not to be trusted. However, an examination of the currently-available evidence shows that in reality they are far better attested than any comparable documents of the period. The main points are briefly summarised below; more detailed discussion of these may be viewed by clicking on the links.
- 1. Background to the dispute.
- For many centuries the NT documents were seldom questioned: but by the beginning of the 20th century ‘higher critics’ claimed to have demonstrated that the New Testament accounts were the result of a gradual process of adaptation over a period in excess of 100 years. However, more recent discoveries have caused scholarly opinion to revert to the view that these documents are indeed contemporary with the apostles.
- 2. The best-documented document of them all.
Before we consider the content, we need to be satisfied that the text we have today is an accurate reproduction of the original. Opponents of Christianity frequently claim it is not: but this, quite literally, could not be farther from the truth. On every historical criterion, the text of the New Testament is vastly better documented and corroborated than any other document of these times. In the words of Sir Frederick Kenyon, director and principal librarian of the British Museum:
“… the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
- 3. Testimony of early church sources.
- These are authorities who had close, well-defined connections to the apostles and other first-generation Christians and were ready to die for their testimony. According to these sources, the Epistles of Paul predate the NT gospels. The apostle Matthew wrote the first of the NT gospels, followed by Mark (Peter’s interpreter). Luke, a travelling companion of Paul, wrote his gospel later, with Acts as a sequel. The last of the NT gospels to be written was that of the apostle John.
- 4. Dating of the NT documents.
- At present, the general concensus appears to be AD 63-70 for Luke and AD 60-ish for Mark. John is still generally dated to the end of the apostle’s life, around AD 90. More recent publications now suggest that Mark should be dated c. AD 50, Matthew c. AD 55, Luke c. AD 59 and Acts c. AD 63. Some scholars, including J.A.T. Robinson and Thiering are now arguing that John may even predate Mark. All these dates clearly place the gospels within the lifetimes of the first generation Christians and eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.
- Sceptical scholars have disputed the authenticity and dating of some of the NT epistles: but the following epistles of Paul are generally accepted even by sceptics, and opinions on their dates normally agree to within a few years of the following:
- AD 51 I Thessalonians
- AD 52 II Thessalonians
- AD 53 Galatians
- AD 55 I Corinthians, II Corinthians
- AD 57 Romans
- AD 60 Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon
- AD 61 Philippians
- 5. How Were the New Testament Books Chosen?
- In the early days of the church there was no conscious effort to create a new body of officially recognised Scriptures. The process of defining the New Testament did not begin until the mid 2nd century; by which time the emergence of a variety of later writings, some spurious or heretical, necessitated action. Although a final decision was not reached until the 4th century, it is clear there was a general concensus on most of the books by the end of the 2nd century. All those included are generally accepted as originating within the community of first-generation Christians: in contrast with those omitted, which mostly date from the second-century, or are of doubtful authenticity.
- 6. Were the Gospels Copied from Each Other?
Although John differs completely from the others in its overall presentation and content, large portions of Matthew, Mark and Luke are so strikingly similar that it is generally agreed they have drawn upon common source material: hence these three are generally referred to as the ‘synoptic’ gospels. Opinions have differed, however, as to the nature of this interrelationship.
One theory is that Matthew and Luke drew from Mark’s gospel: but there is no theory based upon the hypothesis of simply copying one gospel from another that properly accounts for the observed similarities and differences.
- 7. Sources Behind the Gospels.
Since Luke openly acknowledges the existence of earlier verbal and written sources, it seems probable that the synoptic writers could have used these as a framework for their own accounts. These documents have not survived, and the question of how they were organised remains a matter for speculation. However, popular theories that claim they differed radically in substance from the gospels run contrary to the available historical evidence; and tell us more about the personal assumptions of their proponents than the real, historical Jesus.
- 8. If The Gospels Quote Other Sources, Does This Affect Their Validity?
- If earlier collections of Jesus’ sayings did exist there seems no reason at all why the gospel authors should not have quoted them, provided they were satisfied with their accuracy. There is ample evidence that they had first-hand knowledge of the facts, and that the accounts presented are, in their view, a true and reliable portrayal of the life and ministry of Jesus. This is supported by linguistic analysis, evidence of personal perspectives within the text itself and a wealth of historical and cultural detail that would have been unknown to later writers.