The Historical Reliability of the New Testament

Rich Martinez

 © 2002, R. Martinez. All rights reservedcontact.gif


Significant scholarly attention has been devoted to the historical examination of the New Testament, specifically with respect to establishing it as a reliable historical document. Undeniably, the vast amount of material, in the form of manuscripts, archaeology, and authorial phenomenon provides an invaluable glance into the depths of events surrounding the historicity as well as the development of the New Testament. My contention is that without establishing historical credibility for the New Testament, we have no grounds to postulate any sort of belief in it as a reliable source. According to Norman Geisler, professor of theology and apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, "without a reliable New Testament, we have no objective, historical way to know what Jesus said or did. We cannot establish whether he was God, what he taught, or what his followers did and taught" (Geisler, 1999, p527). With that said, it will, then, be my attempt to provide a thorough presentation of the evidence that is with us today, while juxtaposing, adding, and infusing the book's original content with the scholarly research that has gone before us.

Manuscript Evidence: 

The number of extant New Testament manuscripts far out-weighs the number of classical ancient manuscripts available to us today, such as Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome; Josephus' The Jewish War; and Homer's Iliad. According to NT scholars, there are well over 5300 partial and complete New Testaments Manuscripts, which includes approximately 10,000 Latin translations; 9000 Ethiopian, Slavic, and Armenian translations. In sum, the number of extant partial or complete manuscripts at our disposal total approximately 24,000 (Strobel, 1998, p63). 

In contrast, concerning the classical works of antiquity, the length of time between the originals' and their subsequent copies' is roughly 500 - 1000 years. Whereas, the length of time between the original New Testament writings or autograph's, and extant copies is approximately 200 years. Thus, no other ancient texts are as well preserved as the New Testament. 

For instance, Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome, the "first six books exist today in only one manuscript, and it was copied about A.D. 850. Books eleven through sixteen are in another manuscript dating from the eleventh century" (p.60). In addition, only approximately half of Tacitus' Histories and Annals remain today. Josephus' The Jewish War, were written in the "tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries. There is a Latin translation from the fourth century and medieval Russian materials from the eleventh or twelfth century." (p.60). Furthermore, Homer's Iliad, has by far the most extreme spatial distance between its original autograph (850 B.C.) and its subsequent extant copies, which presently date to the second and third century A.D. and following. That's a 1000 year gap between the original's and their copies. Moreover, the Iliad was considered by many in its day to be the equivalent to our bible today. The way the Ancient Greek's treated the Iliad is comparable to the way Christians treat the Bible today - with reverential respect. 

It's interesting that whereas the New Testament receives much criticism from critical scholarship, the Iliad and many similar works receive virtually no criticism whatsoever. The phenomenon occurs in that, the total number of NT manuscripts as well as the historicity behind the text is by far, much greater and weightier than any ancient classical piece of literature that has come down to us through the ages. It can be empirically verified that, "the text of the Bible has been transmitted accurately. In fact, there is more evidence of the reliability of the text of the Newt Testament as an accurate reflection of what was initially written than there is for any ten pieces of classical literature put together. We may rest assured that what we have today is a correct representation of what was originally given" (McDowell, 24). Moreover, "If one will judge the New Testament documents with the same standards or tests applied to any one of the Greek classics, the evidence overwhelmingly favors the New Testament. If a person contends that we have a reliable text of the classics, then he would be forced to admit we have a reliable text of the New Testament" (24).

If we were to examine the dating of Plato and Aristotle's writings, the gap between the original autographs and subsequent copies is significant - 1000 years. There is an interesting phenomenon about this. Most liberal scholars would not argue over the accuracy or content of ancient classical works, but their perspective in regards to the NT is quite different. They are quick to find fault and criticize the NT more easily than they are to support it. If they were to suspend their tainted view's and examine this objectively, they would realize that this is nothing but the result of bias attitudes towards the Bible. In fact, two scholars who lend themselves to the field of Biblical Higher-Criticism had this to say concerning the reliability of New Testament manuscripts, in comparison to other ancient classical works:

1) John A.T. Robinson explains, "The Wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world" (Habermas, 1).

2) "Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek… The only surviving manuscripts of classical authors often come from the Middle Ages, but the manuscript tradition of the NT begins as early as the end of II CE; it is therefore separate by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs [originals] were written. Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors" (Habermas, 1).

New Testament Manuscripts vs. Classical works of Antiquity

(McDowell, 45) 

Internal Evidence - a) reliability of the witnesses

External Evidence - a) ancient historians B) archaeological support

The accuracy of a text or manuscript is contingent on several factors, one being of course, how close it was written to the original autograph's. It presupposes for instance, that a fourth century manuscript will contain less scribal errors than an eighth century manuscript would contain. This simply means that the more time that lapses between the original texts that were written and their subsequent copies, the less accurate the text will be. However, it should be stated that with the total number of extant NT manuscripts at our disposal today, in conjunction with the science of textual criticism, we are now better able to reconstruct what the original manuscript's might have looked like. According to Norman Geisler, "…the present Greek text [modern versions]…is probably over 99% accurate in reproducing the exact words of the autographs" (Geisler, 1986, p346). Moreover, if we did not have any manuscripts today, we would be able to produce a copy of the NT based on the writings' of the early church fathers. According to Peter Wegner, "It has been said that the church fathers quoted the New Testament so extensively that if all our other sources o the New Testament were to be destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the church fathers' quotations alone" (Wegner, 227). 

Many individuals think the New Testament is not a valid source because it was written by imperfect human beings, implying that there are too many errors in it, which make it an unreliable document or source. A few things should be mentioned about this. It is a proven fact that there are approximately 200,000 textual variants within the 24,000 extant NT manuscripts available to us today. By definition, textual variants are 'the differences in text between one manuscript and another. The textual differences or scribal errors in the verses below are known as "Textual Variants." These errors occur when a scribe is translating from one copy to another. For instance, in taking the following example, we will say that A, B, C, D represent a verse of scripture taken from different manuscript families:

Manuscript A = Jesus Christ Died fro us.

Manuscript B = Christ Jesus Died for us.

Manuscript C = Jesus Christ Died for su.

Manuscript D = Jesus Christ Deid fo us.

It's fairly obvious from the example provided above that certain scribal errors were made from the original text it was copied from. Using this simple example allows us to see how Textual Critic's are able to reconstruct what the original documents of the New Testament would have looked like, prior to any New Testament copies being made. 

It should be mentioned, however, that the 200,000 textual variants contained in the NT, "represent only 10,000 places in the New Testament. If one single word is misspelled in 3000 manuscripts, this is counted [by Biblical scholars] as 3,000 variants" (Geisler, 1986, p361). For instance, the word "Deid," which we know is "Died" could have appeared in over 3000 manuscripts, which would thus account for 3000 variants out of a total of 200,000 variants. Norman Geisler stated that "Textual scholars Westcott and Hort estimated that only one in sixty of these variants has significance. This would leave a text 98.3% percent pure." This means that out of the total number of variants within the New Testament, the text is 99% accurate and clean from any major doctrinal errors. In comparison to other ancient books, the New Testament is by far the most accurate. For instance, Bruce Metzger estimated, "that the Mahabharata of Hinduism is copied with only about 90% accuracy and Homer's Iliad with about 95%" (Geisler, 1991, p533). By comparison he estimated the New Testament is about 99.5% accurate. 

Let us now turn our attention to the archaeological finds of the New Testament. This should further substantiate for us not only the historicity but its basic reliability as well. My contention is that the common thread throughout the historical and archaeological literature clearly demonstrates the soundness of the New Testament as a valid piece of scholarly work.

Archaeological Evidence

According to the science of apologetics, archaeology predominately falls within the category of external evidence. Providing archaeological evidence is important because it helps establish the historicity of the New Testament. The NT would not be a reliable document if the contents or message of it were accurate but the historicity behind it was not. In other words, if we come to the conclusion that what Jesus said in the NT was God's Word, but then discover the places he visited were not real places, then, at this point we would have to seriously question whether what he said was God's Word or not. Thus it would be fair to say, then, that the integrity of God's Word should be questioned if the New Testament cannot support itself with reliable archaeological evidence.

It should be noted that there are many liberal archaeologists that separate their historical discoveries from the message of the Bible. In other words, they are quick to accept their archaeological findings as accurate and consistent with the Biblical text, but are slow to believe in the message that is laced throughout. For instance, Israel Finkelstein, co-director of excavations at Tel Megiddo and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University said: "The most obvious failure has been the abuse of the Old Biblical archaeology by semi-amateur archaeologists. I refer to the romantic days when a special breed of archaeologists roamed the Middle East with a spade in one hand and the Scriptures in the other. These were the times of desperate attempts to prove that the Bible was correct" (Koukl, 2). My only concern with statements like this are, 'how does one go about choosing what he or she should or should not believe concerning the contents of the scriptures?' In other words, the history as well as the meaning behind the Bible is either correct or incorrect; it cannot be one or the other. The intent of the New Testament writers was not to establish the credibility of Jesus apart from the places or events of history they `wrote; in contrast, their intent was to record history as it unfolded before them. 

According to Josh McDowell, "Sir William Ramsay is regarded as one of the greatest archaeologist ever to have lived. He was a student in the German historical school of the mid-nineteenth century. [For instance] he believed that the book of Acts was a product of the mid-second century A.D." (McDowell, 109). However, after doing considerable research for more than 30 years, he discovered that Luke was a more accurate historian than he realized. Ramsay said, "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the greatest of historians" (Ramsay, 222).

For centuries, historians thought that Luke was inaccurate concerning the historicity behind his writings, but archaeologists have recently come to the conclusion that Luke was an extremely accurate recorder of history. F.F. Bruce, of the University of Manchester commented on the accuracy of Luke: "Where Luke has been suspected of inaccuracy, and accuracy has been vindicated by some inscriptional evidence, it may be legitimate to say that archaeology has confirmed the New Testament record" (Bruce, 1969, p331). For instance, Luke's usage of the words "part" or "district" were originally thought to be inconsistent with archaeological finds; that is, until archaeologist discovered the exact opposite: "Archaeological excavations, however, have shown that this very word, meris, [part or district] was used to describe the divisions of the district. Thus, archaeology has again shown the accuracy of Luke" (Free, 320). E.M. Blaiklock, professor of Classics in Auckland University, concludes that, "Luke is a consummate historian, to be ranked in his own right with the great writers of the Greeks" (Blaiklock, 89). 

Consequently, if we consider Luke to be a reliable historian, then, we should not only accept the historicity behind his writings, but along with accepting this we should adhere to the message he sought to convey to us through his writings.

Here are a few archaeological discoveries that help support and establish the historicity of the New Testament as a reliability and trustworthy document:

1) Pool of Bethesda - "Some significant excavations near St. Anne's Church…were conducted a hundred years ago. These excavations uncovered the remains of an ancient church which marked the site of Bethesda" (Bruce, 1985, p94).

2) Millstones - Excavations at Capernaum unearthed a significant number of first-century millstones. According to Josh McDowell, "so many were recovered that it appears the inhabitants took advantage of the plentiful volcanic rock to make and export mills to other areas" (McDowell, 114). Luke 17:35, "There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken, and the other will be left." Luke 17:2, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to stumble, it is better that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea."

3) Galilean Boat - In January of 1986 two brothers discovered on the shores of Galilee an early Galilean boat, which dated from 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. It was apparently used for fishing, and transporting goods. (Wenham, 116)

4) Pilate - In 1961 two Italian archaeologists discovered an inscription that read: "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberium to the Caesareans" (Wenham, 116).

5) Caiapha's Tomb - "In 1990 the tomb of a wealthy family was found near Jerusalem, and it appears to be the tomb of the high-priestly family of Caiaphas, referred to in the Gospels. It contained ossuaries (stone boxes for the bones of the deceased) one of which is inscribed with the high priest's full name: JOSEPH BAR CAIPHA" (Wenham, 18).

6) Peters Home - Archaeologists have excavated a first-century house in Capernaum, which they believe may have been Peter's home. (Wenham, 116).

7) James, The Brother of Jesus - An ossuary box was recently discovered by a Jewish Collector - on the box it says in Aramaic, "James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Finally, we should consider the testimony of the internal witnesses (authors), as they provide for us significant internal evidence for establishing credibility, which is of utmost significance in our pursuit of laying the foundation for the historicity/reliability of the New Testament.

Internal Evidence

In order to determine whether the written record of the New Testament is credible or not, we need to examine the authorship behind the text. According to Aristotle, "The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, and not arrogated by the critic himself" (Montgomery, 29). In other words, we should objectively listen to the claims of the gospel writers apart from any preconceived bias attitudes we might have adopted from our culture or ancestors. "The New Testament accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus were recorded by men who had been either eyewitnesses themselves or who related the accounts of eyewitnesses of the actual events or teachings of Jesus" (McDowell, 52). The following two scriptures exemplify the closeness of the recorded gospel events, which is by virtue an "effective means of clarifying the accuracy of what is retained by a witness"(52).

LUKE: Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. Luke 1:1-4

PETER: For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. (2 Pet 1:16)

In opposition to authenticating the gospel message, it is fair to say that if the writers of the NT desired to fabricate their message, then, they probably could have done it through more clever means. For instance, the story of the women at Jesus' empty tomb, -- one would think -- should have been left out of the NT; which is to say that if the writers were trying to establish a credible witness among the Jewish and political leaders of the day, they would not have included this story. According to Alister McGrath, "The inclusion of women in such a significant role would have seemed incomprehensible to the male dominated society of contemporary Palestine" (McGrath, 93). Moreover, "Judaism dismissed the value of the testimony or witness of women, regarding only men as having significant legal status in this respect" (93). The fact is, however, that the gospels record women instead of men, who describe the story of Jesus' empty tomb, which further substantiates the gospel writers as credible witnesses. In essence, they did not surreptitiously record events to establish credibility; in contrast, they simply wrote history as it unfolded before them. 

Finally, according to Will Durant, who has spent his life analyzing records of antiquity, says the literary evidence indicates historical authenticity regarding the New Testament: 

Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they recorded many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed - the competition of the apostles for high places in the kingdom, their flight after Jesus' arrest, Peter's denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to His possible insanity, His early uncertainty as to His mission. His confessions of ignorance as to the future, His moments of bitterness, His despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ remain reasonably clear, and constitute the mot fascinating feature in the history of the Western man" (Durant, 3:557). 


The study of history has been invaluable in providing direction, continuity, and significance to human events as they unfold inexorably in space and time. Over the past two centuries, scholars have amassed a plethora of empirical evidence reinforcing the fundamental tenets of the New Testament. We have seen that it is by far the most accurately translated ancient piece of literature that has come down to us through the ages. It is substantiated by the reliability of the internal witnesses, such as Luke, Peter, and Paul. Moreover, recent archaeological finds have further established the credibility of the New Testament as a reliable document. It has been my position throughout this paper that the empirical evidence provided throughout, will only add in the aggregate sense to the NT's value and message. Moreover, the NT has successfully stood the test of empirical scrutiny, and will continue to endure throughout. 

What is of ultimate significance and of eternal consequence for us, however, is the message the New Testament conveys to its reader. To consummate the relationship between the divine or, better, the New Testament and humankind, let us consider the echoing words Augustine encountered many centuries ago: "Tolle, Lege" -- that is -- "Take up and Read!"


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Bruce, F.F. Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament: Revelation and the Bible. Edited by Carl Henry. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969.

Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th rev.ed. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eardmans Publishing Co., 1985.

Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ: In The Story of Civilization series, Vol.3. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944.

Free, Joseph P. Archaeology and Bible History. Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press Publications, 1950, 1969.

Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction To The Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Habermas, Gary. Why I Believe The New Testament Is Historically Reliable. 2001.

Koukl, Gregory. Archaeology, the Bible, and the Leap of Faith. 31, Jan 2001.

McDowell, Josh. The Best of Josh McDowell: A Ready Defense. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993. 

McGrath, Alister F. An Introduction to Christianity. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997. 

Montgomery, John W. History and Christianity. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1971 (summarizing Aristotle, Art of Poetry, 1460b-61b).

Ramsay, W.M. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953.

Strobel, Lee. The Case For Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.

Wenham, David, and Steve Walton. Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels & Acts. Vol. 1. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999.

Rich Martinez is a graduate student in the field of New Testament Studies at the Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, NY.