Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 11, 2010

Habermas on the New Testament’s Reliability

I have several hundred digital books in Logos Bible Software.  That means that there is quite a bit of e-material that I haven’t explored!  Every now and then I take a moment to explore a Logos resource that I’m not already familiar with.  I recently came across an apologetics book in my Logos library called Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why I Believe.  This book is a part of the Normal L. Geisler Apologetics Library available through Logos.

The title of the Book makes me uncomfortable.  I believe in Jesus Christ because the Holy Spirit has brought me to faith in him.  The book’s 16 chapters are divided into six parts, and part six is called, “Why I Have Chosen to Follow Christ.”  Again, I’m not at all comfortable with the idea that anyone previously “dead in … transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) can claim to have “chosen to follow Christ” when conversion is the Holy Spirit’s work (1 Corinthians 12:3).  Lutherans confess with Luther in the Small Catechism (Creed, Third Article), “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

Sometimes the field of Christian apologetics (the defense of the faith) can be presented in that improper sense — that somehow we must use rational arguments to lead people to make a logical, reasoned decision to come to faith in Jesus.  But that’s not how Scripture presents conversion, and that’s not how apologetics ought to work.

In this writer’s opinion, apologetics is more like deconstruction.  Many “experts” today promote the assumption that the writers of the Bible never intended to record literal history, or that the Bible is the final product of decades of editing, or that the transmission of Scripture over time has resulted in an unreliable text.  When a Christian points out the facts surrounding the Bible’s transmission and how the facts contradict popular assumptions, those assumptions are knocked down so that the unbeliever must come face-to-face with the factual, historical gospel message.  Apologetics ought to tear down false assumptions so people hear the gospel presented as fact and not religious fiction.

To be sure, knocking down false assumptions will not necessarily convert someone.  I once had a participant in a Bible Information Class come to the realization that Scripture was historically reliable — he even acknowledged it to his friend who had invited him — but he still would not become a Christian.  Why not?  Becoming a Christian would mean that he was also acknowledging that his non-Christian relatives were heading for hell, and he didn’t want to have to make that statement, regardless of the facts.  Knowing the facts (sometimes called historical faith)  is not the same thing as trusting in the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection for our salvation (saving faith).  But emphasizing that the Christian gospel is historical fact will help people understand that Christianity is not a religious fairy tale.  Its claims and message are based on the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God incarnate who came into his fallen creation to redeem us from the punishment our sin has merited.  My hope would be that “apologetic deconstruction” paves the way for an honest and fair presentation of the Christian faith — and, therefore, a golden opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of those who hear the gospel message presented to them as fact.  In other words, apologetics may help us secure an opportunity to present the gospel to someone who previously brushed aside our message.  Our desire is to find avenues to present law and gospel to the souls God has placed in our lives.

With this perspective in mind, I would like to share a lengthy excerpt from the aforementioned book, Why I Am a Christian.  While I cannot give a “thumbs-up” approval to the whole book for the reasons I’ve already stated, some portions of the book contain useful information for an honest presentation of the Christian faith.  The quotation that follows comes from chapter six, which was written by Christian apologist Gary Habermas.  The chapter is titled, “Why I Believe the New Testament Is Historically Reliable.”   It is the first chapter in part four, called “Why I Believe the Bible Is the Word of God.”  Given the misinformation about the New Testament’s transmission that is so prevalent today, Habermas lays out the facts for those who want to know the real story behind the Bible.  The first part of the chapter maps out a traditional strategy for presenting the New Testament’s reliability.  Habermas goes on in the rest of the chapter to advocate a different (but very useful) approach, but his basic overview of customary information about the New Testament is quite helpful.  I hope you find that to be the case!  And if it helps you present the factual gospel message to someone else, it will be well worth your time!

Customary Strategies

Typically, defenses of the reliability of the New Testament have emphasized several items: the superior manuscript numbers, early dating of these copies, as well as the authoritative authorship and dating of the original compositions. I will respond briefly to each, since they all still have an important part to play. Since these defenses have received much attention, however, I will only highlight a number of relevant issues.

Manuscript Evidence

To start, are we even able to ascertain whether the text of the Bible is that of the original authors? While this issue relates strictly to the reliability of the text rather than to the historicity of its contents, the issue is still important in the overall scheme of this discussion. Generally, several qualities enhance manuscript value, assisting textual scholars in arriving at the best reading of the original text. The strongest case is made when many manuscripts are available, as close in time to the original autographs as possible. Wide geographical distribution of the copies and their textual families are likewise crucial. Of course, having complete texts is essential. 

In light of these criteria, the New Testament is the best attested work from the ancient world. First, it has by far the greatest number of existing manuscripts. Ancient classical works are attested to by very few full or partial manuscripts—usually less than ten. In comparison, over five thousand full or partial Greek manuscripts of the New Testament exist. Thousands of additional texts exist in other languages, especially Latin. This overwhelming number of copies yields a much stronger base for establishing the original text.

Concerning the date between the original writing and the earliest copies, ancient classical works generally exhibit gaps of at least seven hundred years. The interval significantly lengthens to twice this amount (or longer) with certain works by a number of key writers such as Plato and Aristotle. In contrast, the Bodmer and Chester Beatty Papyri contain most of the New Testament, dating about 100–150 years later than the New Testament, using an approximate date of A.D. 100 for its completion. The Codex Sinaiticus is a complete copy of the New Testament, while the Codex Vaticanus is a nearly complete manuscript, both dating roughly 250 years after the originals. These small gaps help to ensure the accuracy of the New Testament text.

Further, significant portions of some ancient works are missing. For example, 107 of Livy’s 142 books of Roman history have been lost. Of Tacitus’s original Histories and Annals, only approximately half remain.

The fact that there is outstanding manuscript evidence for the New Testament documents is even admitted by critical scholars.2 John A. T. Robinson succinctly 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.”3 Even Helmut Koester summarizes:

Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half a 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 separated by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs 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.4

The result of all this is an incredibly accurate New Testament text. John Wenham asks why it is that, in spite of the “great diversity” in our copies, the texts are still relativity homogeneous. He responds, “The only satisfactory answer seems to be that its homogeneity stems from an exceedingly early text—virtually, that is, from the autographs.”5 The resulting text is 99.99 percent accurate, and the remaining questions do not affect any area of cardinal Christian doctrine.6

Authorship and Date

The above described quality of manuscript data shows that the New Testament manuscripts were careful copies of what the original authors produced. However, this does not necessarily guarantee that the contents of these writings are historically accurate. The traditional strategy has been to argue that the Gospels and Acts were written by eyewitnesses, or those writing under their influence, thereby ensuring as much as possible the factual content. A somewhat more cautious position is that these five books were at least influenced by eyewitness testimony.7

Evangelical scholars often date each of the synoptic Gospels ten or so years earlier than their critical counterparts, who usually prefer dates of roughly A.D. 65–90. There is widespread agreement on placing John at roughly A.D. 95. This places the writing of the manuscripts thirty-five to sixty-five years after the death of Jesus, close enough to allow for accurate accounts.

Perhaps the most promising way to support the traditional approach is to argue backward from the Book of Acts. Most of this book is occupied with the ministries of Peter and Paul, and much of the action centers in the city of Jerusalem. The martyrdoms of Stephen (7:54–60) and the apostle James (12:1–2) are recorded, and the book concludes with Paul under arrest in Rome (28:14–31). Yet Acts says nothing concerning the deaths of Paul and Peter (mid-60s A.D.), or James, Jesus’ brother (about A.D. 62). Moreover, accounts of the Jewish War with the Romans (beginning in A.D. 66) and the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) are also strangely absent. Further, the book ends enigmatically with Paul under house arrest, without any resolution to the situation.

How could the author of Acts not mention these events or resolve Paul’s dilemma, each of which is centrally related to the text’s crucial themes? These events would even seem to dwarf many of the other recorded occurrences.8 It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the author did not record these items simply because they had not yet occurred. These omissions argue persuasively for an early date for the composition of Acts, before the mid-60s A.D.

If it is held that Luke was written prior to Acts but after Mark and Matthew, as perhaps most critical scholars do, then all five books may be dated before A.D. 65. It is simply amazing that Acts could be dated A.D. 80–85 and the author not be aware of, or otherwise neglect to mention, any of these events.9

Additional Support

Extra-biblical sources are another avenue worth pursuing when determining whether the New Testament texts speak reliably concerning historical issues. While less frequently used by scholars, a number of ancient secular sources mention various aspects of Jesus’ life, corroborating the picture presented by the Gospels.10 The writers of these sources include ancient historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Thallus. Jewish sources such as Josephus and the Talmud add to our knowledge. Government officials such as Pliny the Younger and even Roman Caesars Trajan and Hadrian describe early Christian beliefs and practices. Greek historian and satirist Lucian and Syrian Mara Bar-Serapion provide other details. Several nonorthodox, Gnostic writings speak about Jesus in a more theological manner.11

Overall, at least seventeen non-Christian writings record more than fifty details concerning the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, plus details concerning the earliest church. Most frequently reported is Jesus’ death, mentioned by twelve sources. Dated approximately 20 to 150 years after Jesus’ death, these secular sources are quite early by the standards of ancient historiography.

Altogether, these non-Christian sources mention that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, performed miracles, led disciples, and that many thought he was deity. These sources call him a good teacher or a philosopher and state that his message included conversion, denial of the gods, fellowship, and immortality. Further, they claim he was crucified for blasphemy but rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, who were themselves transformed into bold preachers.12

A number of early Christian sources also report numerous details concerning the historical Jesus. Some, such as the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, date from A.D. 95–110, or just ten years after the last New Testament book.13

Information of a different sort can be derived from archaeological artifacts. While few provide direct confirmation of Jesus, they do provide helpful background information. Places such as the Bethesda and Siloam pools, the foundations of Herod’s temple, possible locations of Pilate’s Praetorium, and the general vicinity of Golgotha and the Garden tomb all enlighten modern readers. Much information has been gained about ancient Jewish social customs, and many details have been revealed concerning the cities, towns, coinage, commerce, and languages of first-century Palestine.14 A. N. Sherwin-White has furnished a remarkable amount of background information corroborating many details of the trial of Jesus, as well as other legal scenes in the New Testament.15

In a few cases, more specific data is available. For example, the Latin inscription “Titulus Venetus” helps to illumine Augustus’s census. A Latin plaque mentions “Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judaea.” The bones of a first-century A.D. crucifixion victim, Yohanan, tell us much about the gruesome spectacle of crucifixion. The Nazareth Decree, perhaps circulated by Emperor Claudius between A.D. 41 and 54, threatens tomb robbers with death.16

In summary, those who use traditional strategies to support the historical reliability of the New Testament assert that superior manuscript evidence shows we have essentially what the authors wrote. By linking closely the authors and composition dates to the events themselves, it is argued that the writers were in the best position to know what actually occurred. Additional data are provided by extra-biblical and archaeological sources, showing that, when these details are checked, the New Testament fares well.

A surprising amount of traditional data corroborates the life and teachings of Jesus. Many questions remain, to be sure, but the available evidence indicates that believers are on strong ground when reporting the general reliability of the New Testament reports of the historical Jesus.


2 For information on New Testament manuscript evidence, see John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 33–38; F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 16–18; Henri Daniel-Rops, ed., The Sources for the Life of Christ (New York: Hawthorn, 1962), chap. 4 (by Daniel-Rops), 41–42.3 Robinson, Can We Trust? 36. Atheist Antony Flew agrees in Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, ed. Terry L. Miethe (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 66.4 Helmut Koester, History and Literature of Early Christianity, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), vol. 2, 16–17. Koester goes on to explain that this manuscript “richness” and “wealth” even raises difficulties not encountered in the classics, regarding families of manuscripts, their derivation, and readings.5 John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 180.6 Ibid., 186–88.

7 In recent decades, a number of scholars have supported some of these options for the authorship of the Gospels and Acts. For examples, see John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 181–82, 191, 196–97; R. A. Cole, The Gospel according to St. Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 28–50; Robert Gundry, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982); C. Stewart Petrie, “The Authorship of ‘The Gospel according to Matthew’: A Reconsideration of the External Evidence,” New Testament Studies 14, no. 1 (October 1967): 15–33; Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 15–22; E. J. Tinsley, The Gospel according to Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1965), 2–4; Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke (Waco: Word, 1972), 8–10; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), vol. 1, chap. 7; Raymond E. Brown, New Testament Essays (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1965), 129–31; Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 8–35; R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 11–20; F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 19; Robinson, Can We Trust? 71–94; Bruce, The New Testament Documents, chap. 4; Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986); Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 4th rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 43–53, 81–84, 113–25, 252–83.

8 This is not an argument from silence, in light of the similar items (in both content and geography) that the author does record.

9 See Robinson, Can We Trust? 71–73; Gundry, Matthew, on the date of Matthew; Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” in Reasonable Faith, ed. William Lane Craig (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 206.

10 While it is true that secular references to Jesus are generally brief and sometimes derived from Christian sources, it does not follow that they should be largely ignored, as is often their fate.

11 For specific details, see Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1996), esp. chap. 9. Compare R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986); F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974); Edwin Yamauchi, “Jesus outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus under Fire, ed. Michael Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

12 For details, see Habermas, The Historical Jesus, chap. 11.

13 See J. B. Lightfoot, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1891, 1956). A discussion of these and other early sources can be found in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, chap. 10.

14 France, Evidence for Jesus, chap. 4; Bruce, New Testament Documents, chap. 8.

15 A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University, 1963; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978).

16 Habermas, Historical Jesus, chap. 8.

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