As we have seen in the previous two weeks’ studies, it is abundantly clear that the gospel writers intended their accounts to be read as eyewitness reports of the life and ministry of Jesus.
As Peter reminds us, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
Luke and Mark, while not directly eyewitnesses to Jesus himself, were both in close proximity to eyewitnesses and give abundant reason to suggest their accounts are true. We saw that the gospels successfully pass a number of tests which demonstrate that their claims stand up the scrutiny.
However, it is not merely enough to know that their claims pass the tests of plausibility. For even if they are plausible, there are number of factors which could challenge that assessment:
- What evidence is there that the Bible has not been changed over time?
- Are the claims made by biblical writers able to corroborated by others?
- Do we have anything in the gospels that seems to contradict known evidence from other sources in the time period?
- Do the gospels themselves seem to contradict each other?
- Couldn’t the accounts have been written later by someone with accurate knowledge of the historical situation and make up the parts about Jesus?
Evidence from the Inside
These—and many more—questions have been considered by scholars for centuries. When Strobel was ready to research the question for himself, he turned to a scholar named Bruce Metzger. Metzger was one of the premier scholars of New Testament studies of the 20th century. His work is cited in pretty much every modern textbook on the subject.
Metzger’s charge was to convince Strobel that the documents in the New Testament available for us to read today are accurate to the original autographs. If they have been tampered with or otherwise altered over time (for example, by taking a mere man named Jesus from Nazareth and elevating him to the level of God), then we could never be sure they were truly the words penned by the original authors. They would not be trustworthy.
As an aside, many pastors and laypersons alike take the faulty notion that we could never know this information apart from a sort of “blind faith” in God’s Word. Of course, we should have faith in God’s Word. But it would be a mistake to think that this faith is a way of knowing that God’s Word is true. Faith, rather, is a way of trusting something. This is what the Greek word pistis means.
We place our faith (trust) in what the Bible says. We also happen to have good reason to know that what the Bible says is true (more on that as our study progresses). The point is that faith is not the antithesis of reason, but neither it is the definition of reason. A Christian with a firm foundation will have a trust that is based upon facts.
Where Are the Originals?
A common—and fair—question for the Christian to ask is, “If we’re concerned with what the original manuscripts said, where are they?” It is worth taking some extra time to unpack the assumptions behind this question and lay the groundwork for the process of what is called “textual criticism.”
As a young Christian, unfortunately without any context for knowing how we got our Bible in the first place, I remember having a rather nonsensical picture enter my mind when thinking about where the Bible came from. If I had to describe it, it would be something like, Bibles falling from heaven long ago and populating the shelves of your local Christian bookstore.
Of course, that’s absurd, and I really want to think I knew so back then. But I had never been told otherwise! Truthfully, it always confused me. Where did the Bible come from? How did it get from God’s “mouth” to me? Is there a heavenly printing press of some sort?
To answer this, we first must zoom out. The Bible—or to be even more specific—the Old and New Testaments—is not a single book compiled by a single author (unless we are talking about God, who inspired it). These are collections of “books”—and when we say book, really, we mean historical documents—written by various authors, over a long period of time, across a wide geographical region in the ancient Near and Middle East.
At some point, each of these historical documents had an original penman; a real human being, moved and inspired by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:16-21)! It was the job of “scribes” in the Hebrew culture to copy these documents (referring mainly to the Old Testament) as well as early Christians after the resurrection. As the authoritative documents spread, they began to be copied and even translated into other languages.
We are now two millennia removed from the events of Jesus’ life. As you can imagine, it would be impossible to know what happened to those first documents that the biblical writers penned (referred to by scholars as the “autographs”). However, we do have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to manuscript evidence (in other words, copies) for the Bible.
And—it should not be at all shocking that the original manuscripts of Scripture are lost; this is the case with most other documents from antiquity. But the more copies we have, especially which originate from varying geographical sources over a long period of time, the more likely that the original message has survived untainted because it could be cross-checked across time and location.
The early Manuscript Evidence for the Bible is abundant, particularly in comparison to other ancient works of literature. While the Bible boasts around 5,600 Greek manuscripts (and thousands (~19,000) more translated into other languages), there is only a handful of copies for some of the closest competitors.
Homer’s Iliad, the runner-up to the Bible, for example, has only around 650 Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which is dated to almost 1,000 years after its original composition (800 BC).
One might want to object that Homer’s Iliad is a work of fiction, and therefore is not comparable. But whether or not the work is fictional is a different question. What we’re concerned with is the survivability of the message based on the criteria laid out above.
The respected Roman historian Tacitus wrote his Annals of Imperial Rome in ~AD 116. According to Metzger:
“His first six books exist today in only one manuscript, and it was copied about AD 850. Books eleven through sixteen are in another manuscript dating from the eleventh century. Books seven through ten are lost. So there is a long gap between the time that Tacitus sought his information and wrote it down and the only existing copies.”
And broadly speaking, the reliability or accuracy of these documents is not in question.
Obviously, the difference between the number of manuscripts boasted by the New Testament and these other examples, the closest from antiquity, is staggering.
Put another way, the biblical documents are historical gold. They are everything a historian of the ancient world could hope for. Even if one did not approach a study of these documents with any religious bias whatsoever, purely on their being ancient historical documents, they are remarkably sound.
The oldest manuscript we have is a fragment of the gospel of John, dated to between AD 100 and 150. Other paleographic experts agreed with the original dating assessment, which was done by C.H. Roberts. We have many , many other manuscripts from the first few centuries AD. Metzger explains:
“We have what are called uncial manuscripts, which are written in all-capital Greek letters…Today we have 306 of these, several dating back as early as the third century. The most important are Codex Sinaiticus, which is the only complete New Testament in uncial letters, and Codex Vaticanus, which is not quite complete. Both date to about AD 350. “A new style of writing, more cursive in nature, emerged in roughly AD 800. It’s called minuscule, and we have 2,856 of these manuscripts. Then there are also lectionaries, which contain New Testament Scripture in the sequence it was to be read in the early churches at appropriate times during the year. A total of 2,403 of these have been cataloged. That puts the grand total of Greek manuscripts at 5,664.”
If you consider the Latin, Ethipoic, Slavic, and Armenian manuscripts, the grand total comes to about 24,000 in existence. Of course, it is worth noting that these are not full manuscripts — for example, many of them are just fragments of one or more sections of Scripture.
What is important is that, altogether, scholars are not aware of any doctrine that would be significantly (or even minimally!) affected by any differences that arise in these copies.
What Differences Are There?
Some skeptics have made it their mission to convince unsuspecting Christian laypersons that the biblical manuscripts have thousands upon thousands of errors in them, and are therefore less trustworthy.
Bart Ehrman is a noted scholar of the New Testament, and has even co-authored books with his mentor, Bruce Metzger, who is providing much of the content for this lesson. Notably, Ehrman is quite possibly the most outspoken and notorious atheist alive today!
In his popular book Misquoting Jesus, he writes the following:
What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways….There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
This is quote a popular quote from the book that has found its way around the Internet. On its own, it seems compelling, especially if this is the first time you’ve encountered such a claim. What’s less popular, though, is a second quote that is taken from the same book:
Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another.
Do you see the big difference? The second claim almost entirely knocks the teeth out of the first! Of course, a Christian who has been told all her life that the Bible has no errors (without proper qualification of what that actually means) may still be shaken by this. There is a time and place for that discussion to be had.
But Ehrman’s point is salient: Not even one discrepancy in the manuscripts has anything to do with the theological beliefs of the writers. This means that across this mountain of manuscripts, the message remains in tact.
Variant readings (attributed to copy errors, scribal insertions, etc) exist on the order of thousands. However, not a single one affects a doctrine of the historic Christian faith. Most of them are a matter of word order, misspellings, etc.
What the Manuscript Evidence Gets Us
In case it is not clear what this really means when it comes to the trustworthiness of the Bible, there are three important facts to consider:
- The message of the Bible was not changed over time. There is no evidence at all that another gospel crept into the manuscript copies over time, or created an embellished portrait of Jesus. The same message that the biblical authors believed and wrote is the very message we read today.
- The process by which we make these determinations is called Textual Criticism. Using a variety of criterion, we are able to make reasonable determinations about the text, included what items seem to be genuine.
- The other side of Textual Criticism, though, tells us what items may not be genuine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so we must be honest with the data.
This particular example is intriguing, because it does have very many hallmarks and characteristics that would be consistent with a Jesus story. This leads some to conclude that the story is genuine and actually happened, but it was inserted by a later copyist and is not original to John.
Evidence from the Outside
As we have seen, the evidence from within the biblical manuscript evidence is abundant that the message from the original autographs has been faithfully transmitted and is available to read in your Bible.
However, there is a way to strengthen the case even more: outside—or, corroborating—evidence. Corroborating evidence can support the primary evidence in a case. It makes it stronger, and can come in many forms, including additional testimony.
As strong as the documentary evidence for the gospels is, the case could be made stronger if we were able to find evidence from outside the NT which corroborates it.
There is a trap to fall into here, though, that we should avoid. There seems to be a de facto assumption that evidence from within is immediately suspect and therefore is not worthy to be considered. If this were true, it would impossible to determine anything historically.
The outside evidence is important, but it is not required in order to view the New Testament documents as being historically and / or theologically reliable. To do so betrays the assumption that the biblical data is untrustworthy. Usually, that assumption is the result of some anti-supernatural bias that wishes to dismiss the text of the Bible prima facie. This is unsound historical methodology and should not be applied to Bible or any document of ancient history.
Josephus and Others
Strobel invites Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, a scholar of Hebrew, Hellenistics, and Mediterranean studies, to speak on the corroborative evidence surrounding the gospel accounts.
He begins by appeal to the Jewish Historian named Josephus. Josephus’ contribution to the corroborating evidence is considered highly important, because he is generally considered to be an excellent historian with a proven track record. Moreover, he is a “hostile witness” because, as a Jew, he was not exactly motivated to paint Jesus in a positive light.
There are at least two possible references to Jesus in Josephus’ writings. One passage is very hotly contested, and may or may not be authentic. The other has not been disputed. The first reads:
‘He convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.’
The other passage has some obviously authentic Josephus, but also some seeming Christian interpolations (slight edits to frame the quote more positively).
All told, Yamauchi summarizes:
Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.
That this level of information is available about a carpenter from Nazareth from a trusted historical source outside of the Bible is staggering confirmation of the core claims of the gospel.
The Roman historian Tacitus is a hugely important advertise witness for the resurrection of Christ. His writing demonstrates minimally that a movement of people cropped up surrounding a crucified man, and gives specifics that there are called Christians and were being tortured and arrested for their beliefs.
Pliny the Younger (governor of Bithynia in Northwestern Turnkey) wrote about Christians that he arrested chanting “as if to God” around AD 111.
Again, Yamauchi comments on the sigininfance of this information. Pliny’s reference:
…attests to the rapid spread of Christianity, both in the city and in the rural area, among every class of persons, slave women as well as Roman citizens, since he also says that he sends Christians who are Roman citizens to Rome for trial. And it talks about the worship of Jesus as God, that Christians maintained high ethical standards, and that they were not easily swayed from their beliefs.
This provides external confirmation that what the Bible claims about early Christian belief in the resurrection and deity of Jesus was consistent within historical groups beginning to spread across the ancient world.
Early Jewish commentary (other than Josephus) gives little detail about the person of Jesus, since he was considered a heretic. What it does give us is that Jesus was a healer and miracle-worker (though these things were relegated to sorcery) and shows that not all of the sages had made their mind up about him in the earlier Rabbinic period.
Amazingly, there is even evidence from across various historical sources that corroborate the biblical description of the darkness and earthquake that took place during the crucifixion of Jesus.
In fact, Per Yamauchi, here’s the basic outline of what we could learn about Jesus apart from any biblical evidence at all:
We would know that first, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64; and seventh, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshiped him as God.
Altogether, the evidence external to the New Testament builds a staggering portrait of the life and work of Jesus that is entirely consistent with what the primary sources (i.e., the gospels) claim.
Taken together, this study leads to a few awesome conclusions:
- The biblical writers claim to be eyewitnesses, and give reason to think their claim is true
- The manuscript evidence suggests that the words written by the gospel writers have been preserved by God for all to read today
- This evidence is consistent with extra biblical sources who corroborate the important details of Jesus’ life, at a time when it is virtually impossible to find information about someone who is not a highly significant political or religious leader