Many in our secular culture have been trained to think that the Bible’s history, miracles, and description of Jesus are unreliable and even ridiculous. They consider a biblical Christian to be ignorant, unable to think rationally. Consequently, the Gospel doesn’t even make it onto the unbeliever’s radar screen.
Apologetics can respectfully challenge and help him set aside his “unreliable and ridiculous” mindset toward the Bible so the saving Gospel can then be explained, defended, and considered. We see an example of this in Acts 26 where Paul is labeled “out of his mind” and “insane,” to which he replies, “I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable.” Paul then continues to make the case for the historical reality of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which “did not happen in a corner” immune from investigation.1
Why People Think the New Testament Is Unreliable
Unfortunately, many have bought into this falsehood: Textual criticism (scholarly historical research) has confirmed that the New Testament does not accurately represent the real historical Jesus. Specifically, they argue with these points:
- The original New Testament writings no longer exist
- All we have are copies of the originals (or copies of copies…)
- None of the copies date earlier than the 2nd century
- These copies contain thousands of differences (called variants).
All this, they say, makes it impossible to believe we have anything close to the originals and thus no reliable history or description of the actual Jesus.
The result has been numerous “scholarly” books (and movies and documentaries) to “prove” that Jesus could not be who the New Testament claims while also stating with an air of infallibility that the real Jesus was a mere man who, over several centuries, grew by legendary proportions until he became equal to God the Father.
But many have responded with honest and accurate research2, revealing the lack of scholarship in hostile approaches and making a clear case for a reliable New Testament record. Here’s how objections can be answered:
“The originals don’t exist.”
True. But textual criticism has well-established tests that determine the degree to which the existing copies reflect the originals. Almost every single New Testament textual critic (including non-Christians) puts the accuracy of the existing copies at 98-99.5%. That is, if one were to compare the copies to the originals, they would be an almost perfect match.
“There are so many variants.”
Yes, human scribes are human. They made mistakes and changes while copying, resulting in thousands of variants. The question is not the number, but the kind of variants. “In nearly every single case, discrepancies between copies are due to spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, different renderings of proper names, substituting proper names in place of pronouns, and changes in word order – none of which affect the text’s meaning.”3 For example, replacing “He” with “Jesus” for clarification is a variant, but changes nothing.
“What about the time gap?”
The time gap between original New Testament writings and the oldest copy is fifty years or less, while the time gap for other ancient writings4 is far greater – 200 to 1,350 years. Scholars rarely question whether the copies of these other writings reflect what was originally written; they remain convinced. How much more so with the New Testament where the time gap is so minimal that many of the originals were likely circulating side by side with early copies, allowing for comparison.
“The Telephone Game!”
People like to compare the number of New Testament copies written over several centuries to the Telephone Game. In this game, a message is whispered from one person to another, so by the time the message is finally heard and retold by the last person, the message has changed significantly, resulting in some good laughs. Here is supposedly a solid argument that older accounts and copies of the life of Jesus must be quite different from the original ones. But there is one major problem: There are no differences between the earliest and latest copies. Whether they are from 125 A.D. or 550 A.D., they are identical in everything they say about the words and works of Christ. There is no evidence that Jesus “evolved” over time.
“Ignored letters and gospel accounts.”
Yes, there are other writings, such as The Gospel of Thomas, that the Church has rejected that give a different understanding of Jesus. But they are ignored and rejected for an obvious reason. None of them originate earlier than 250 A.D. That is, they could not have been written by the apostles, their companions, or eyewitnesses of the real Jesus. These other accounts (with a different Jesus) are rejected because they clearly are not reliable compared to what was “handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2).
Beginning with a False Assumption
It is important to note that antagonistic scholars begin with a flawed assumption or belief, forcing them to ignore the clear reliability of the New Testament. The assumption is this: Miracles cannot happen. Beginning here, they have no choice but to argue that the New Testament is inaccurate and filled with myths, even though the historical evidence, including eyewitness records, testifies otherwise. And try as they might, they cannot point to any historical record or evidence that challenges the records known as the New Testament. There is nothing from the 1st century that even suggests that the real Jesus is something other than what Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter consistently put forth, men who provide supporting evidence.
Thus, textual criticism – sound historical research – does not undermine reliability at all. The exact opposite is true: The historical records we call the New Testament faithfully report what the apostles actually saw and heard regarding Jesus. Christ and the apostles defended biblical truth, including its history, and they dismantled opponents’ objections.5 They have instructed the Church throughout history to do the same with gentleness and respect.6 We can say to the unbeliever, “Let me respectfully challenge you in your false worldview, and let me lovingly make the case for the reliability of the New Testament record. And ultimately, what I want you to understand is who Jesus really is, what was done to Him and by Him, and what all this means for the rebellious sinner who repents and believes: complete and free forgiveness.”
Reverend David Thompson
Faith Lutheran Church
San Antonio, TX
1In talking to the non-Christian, we are not initially trying to establish the Bible’s inerrancy. That can come later. Instead, we want him to hear what that inerrant Word says about the historical person and work of Christ, for it is this message that creates faith (Romans 10:17). But to get him there, we may first have to establish that these accounts are historically reliable and therefore worth hearing (Acts 26:25-26).
2For example, F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Eerdmans, 2003); John Warwick Montgomery, History Law and Christianity (NRP Books, 2014); Craig Parton, The Defense Never Rests (CPH, 2003).
3Mark A. Pierson, Making the Case for Christianity, ed. Korey D. Maas and Adam S. Francisco (CPH, 2014), p. 54.
4Like the writings of Homer, Plato, Tacitus, etc.
5For example, Matthew 9, 15, 22; Mark 2, 3; John 8, 9; Acts 4, 5, 9, 17, 22, 26.
61 Peter 3:15; 2 Corinthians 10:5.