Declaring War in the Heavinlies

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The Reliability Of The New Testament

Adam D.A. Morsch
“The Reliability of the New Testament”
APOL120_C01_201120: Harold Walker
March, 16th, 2011

    The idea of finding a reliable core, a strong foundation to believe and accept in the New Testament has been the topic of many discussions, lead scholars to years of studying  documents, manuscripts and translating ancient texts, and has been the source of many men’s lives work to show that the New Testament is not just a story but in deed a source that can be held up to the strongest of scrutiny. Today there are between 5,378 and 5700 Greek manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament in existence.[1] Of these documents a few thousand contain all or portions of the Gospels.
    Between the period of 1830-1880 many manuscripts were collected and information was put together.  Textual families of manuscripts known as Alexandrian and Byzantine as well as Western and Caesarean were commonly known.  The Alexandrian manuscripts were considered to be the more ancient of the manuscripts available of that time thought to be the “best reading”.[2]  In the following years as the world headed toward the mid nineteenth century, the uncial manuscripts of Bezae, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, Sinaitcus and Ephraemi came to light.  These manuscripts date between the forth and fifth centuries and possibly give us the ability to reconstruct the Greek text all the way back through the 4AD.[3]According to Jack Lewis’ “Text On the New Testament”; “By 1881 there were about 1,500 Greek manuscripts and fragments known.  Then in the twentieth century, an entirely new category of manuscript material came to light- the papyrus materials that in some instances date to the beginning of the third Christian century.  About ninety-one items now fall in this category, and they give the hope of knowing the status of the text in the third century for the part of the New Testament they represent.  These, with other materials that have come to light, make up the total of more the 5,378 manuscripts and fragment s of the New Testament now known.”[4]
    The next question that falls in logical sequence when looking at the vast amount of writings, and translations, is “How can we know what the writings or manuscripts really said?”  Lets take a look for a minute at the Gospels because the Gospels along with the book of Acts are the most “Historic” of the twenty seven books in the New Testament.  According to Mark Roberts PhD the author of Can We Trust the Gospels? He says that the New Testament has been translated into 1,541 languages.[5]  However this is not a countless number of evolving translations, it is being translated like our English translation from the Greek.  Scripture today as has always is a direct translation from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. 
    The Gospels were written sometime in the second half of the first century A.D. on to scrolls of papyrus (rough paper like substance), however it wasn’t durable these autographs degenerated .  That is why people who valued the contents of these document became professional copyist who we know as scribes.  Scribes were taught an art of copying to minimize errors and maximize accuracy.[6]  However it is highly probable that many of the first copies of the Gospels were not made by scribes but by qualified amateurs. 
    In Robert’s book he outlines four great standards for evaluating manuscripts.  These standards are: Antiquity, multiplicity, scholarly methodology of textual criticism and quantity and quality of textually ambiguous passages made up of variants. Lets first look at antiquity.[7]  Obviously the older the manuscript the better because it decreases the possibility of changes through copying.  What abut multiplicity?  It would certainly make sense to have many manuscripts then just a few to determine the original wording.  Thirdly, trustworthy scholarly methodology of textual criticism; we want those who are known as textual critics to use reliable methods, show objectivity in their conclusions. Lastly if the existing copies of scripture have variations in them it would be hard to determine what they originally said but if the differences were minute then our confidence would be a lot stronger.
    How old is old?  The oldest manuscript we have according to Rodgers’ is P52, (a short of a conversation with Pilate) which has been dated to 125AD[8] He then goes on to mention, P4, P45, P64, P67 and finally P75 which he says come from latter parts of the second century and the early part of the third.  However according to Jack Lewis “P75” is the best representative of the original text.[9]
    How do we how do they get from point A to point B and can they stay between the lines?  Are the methods that the text critics use to determine the New Testament text reliable.  For us to ask if the New Testament is Reliable we need to know if those who are translating the material and are editing it are reliable.  To some that is a very scary question because now we are taking the words out of God’s mouth and putting it in to man’s hands.  Many people are not comfortable with that. How does man really stand up?  First thing they do is collect all of the manuscripts, the inscriptions, the fragments, and all the ancient translations and writings of the early church fathers.  Then they evaluate the manuscripts.  They look for “variants” ( versions of scripture that differs in some respect from other forms) and try to determine which readings are the most original.  They look at the internal and external evidence.  Internal evidence being all evidence coming from the writing and the text; external evidence being any evidence coming from outside sources, (numerical, antiquity and relationships among the manuscripts etc.) Roberts’ writes “If you were to take two different teams of text critics and ask them to work independently on a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, they would agree more than 99% of the time.”[10]  This leads us in to the question on quantity and quality of textual variants.  It has been said by skeptics that there are more variations then words in the New Testament but that is only because of the vast numbers of manuscripts that we have available to us. It is always in our favor to have more variations because of having a greater number of manuscripts thus containing a lager total of words, then having only three or four manuscripts with a much smaller word count but only 3 variants. [11]
    Lets look for a minute at some of the key components in the Gospel of John.  There are many critiques of the fourth Gospel that say John was not the author of this Gospel, that the events in this Gospel are not to be taken literally, or that the Gospel is filled with errors.  However the fourth gospel when closely examined can be a key apologetic affect.  Lets look at John’s attention to geography and topography.  In John 1:38 the Bible says “This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”  John clearly distinguishes the Bethany where John the Baptist was baptizing and the Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  They were over 30 miles apart.  The Bethany in John 1:38 was by the Jordan river, and the Bethany where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead was 1.5 miles east of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives over 30 miles away.
    In John chapter 4 John was specific in his details of where Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well. John was able to specifically place it at Sychar where Jacob’s well was, not only showing specifics but showing a familiarity with Samaria and its geography. John specifically mentions Golgotha; (place of the skull); the location Jesus’ crucifixion was with in specification to the wall of the city. John 19:17-20.  John 8:20  These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple.  John 10:23  And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.  (Attached to the original temple of Solomon was "the porch of judgments" where king Solomon had constructed a large hall 50 cubits long and 30 cubits wide because of the enormous porch in front. Originally there was cedar from floor to ceiling. This was the hall of judgment where the king would make judgments and exercise justice. John 21:1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberius.[12]  The obviously were not places made up in John’s head, they were real places, that Jesus was really at and his reliability to detail makes the reader feel all the more comfortable in accepting the reliability of the text as truth.
   John didn’t only pay close attention to location but he also paid attention to the time frame in when things happened.  John shows a special concern for the order in which events occurred. In John 1 the term “the next day” appears frequently: 1:29, 1:35, 1:43.
John 2 contains the statement “on the 3rd day” 2:1  and then the phrase in 2:12 “after this (this suggests an event that follows the incident in 2:1-11).  The healing of the son of the royal leader is preceded by the indicator of chronology in the reference to “two days” 4:43 John specifies the hour when the healing occurred.  The reference to time are not very specific and require interpretation but they do show concern for the writer in a general sense for issues of chronology.[13]  
    John had a very good understanding of what the social and class structure was like.  This just further goes to show that the author was not some removed person writing of a time in which he was not a part of.  He was a witness to and in and of.  He was there, he gave full description of the land, he paid close detail of the moments and the minutes and he knew how people were treating each other.  He knew of the hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans. He knew of the low opinions the Jew’s held of women. He knew of the Sabbath regulations and their effects on Jewish life; also that some needs over road Sabbath regulations. Maybe most importantly he knew of the contempt the Pharisees held for ordinary people.
    John has a purpose in his Gospel he has a mission statement that he ends the book with in John 20:30,31: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.[14]
    John uses the word “aletheia: s a Greek word variously translated as "unclosedness," "unconcealedness," "disclosure" or "truth". The literal meaning of the word ἀ–λήθεια is, "the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident" and it also implies sincerity, as well as factuality or reality.” 25 times.  For John truth is something believers are “to do”. A knowledge of truth sets one free from spiritual bondage. 8:32 “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Leon Morris writes “It would be strange in the extreme if a writer who placed unusual stress on the truth were to sit loose to the truth in a book written about Jesus as the truth.” [15]
    So far we looked at the strength we can find in the text and the manuscript, and the historical strength we can find in the writing of the Gospel of John alone but what developments has modern science to offer us if any?  Can we lean on archeology to give us any support that Jesus existed, that the New Testament of the Bible and the things written in it have any truth? 
    According to Dr. Paul Barnett in Is The New Testament Reliable? He claims that the oldest and most direct archeological link to Jesus Christ is a coffin made public in 2002 bearing the Aramaic words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”.  According to Barnett the writing style for brother of Jesus was different then for the rest of the words, but apparently that was not all that uncommon and doesn’t negate the find. The ossuary was found in Caesarea .  In 1990 according to Barnett an ossuary was discovered inscribed with the words in Aramaic “Joseph son of Caiaphas”.  This would bring direct historical evidence to the head priest who was the leading force behind Jesus’ crucifixion.[16]
    According to Roberts’ “The Synagogue in Capernaum was found but it only dated to the fourth century A.D how ever after further excavation a 2nd Synagogue was found beneath this synagogue and was uncovered and the remains of the 2nd Synagogue is believed to be the one that Jesus taught in along the north west shore of the Sea of Galilee.[17]  The Dead Sea Scrolls today are still probably the most important archeological find concerning the Bible, although they have no direct link to the New Testament or the Life of Jesus they clearly show the atmosphere of Biblical times and the messianic prophecy’s Jesus was yet to fulfill. Archaeology helps us confirm the accuracy of the Old and the New Testaments.  Likewise, archaeology helps verify the accuracy of the New Testament writings.  Just as important, it can demonstrate the fulfillment of many of the incredibly precise prophecies about Jesus that took places hundreds of years after the prophecies were written.  Finally the New Testament can verify that the prophecies and their fulfillment were not contrived after the fact. [18]



  • Paul Barnett PhD, Is The New Testament Reliable? Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
  • Borland A. James PhD “Re-Examining New Testament Textual-Critical Principles And Practices Used To Negate Inerrancy” Jets 25/7 (December1982): 499-506
  • Burk R. Denny PhD “Is Inerrancy Sufficient?” Southwestern Journal of Theology Volume 50 Number 1 (Fall 2007): 76-91
  • Birger Gerhardsson PhD, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Baker Publishing Group, 2001
  • Lea D. Thomas , “The Reliability of History in John’s Gospel” Jets 38/3 (September 1995) 387-402
  • Lewis P. Jack “The Text of the New Testament” Restoration Quarterly, Harding Graduate School of Religion: 65-74
  • Ralph O. Muncaster PhD, Can Archaeology Prove The New Testament? Harvest House Publishers, 1973
  • Mark D. Roberts PhD, Can We Trust the Gospels? Good News Publishers, 2007
  • Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000

[1] Jack P. Lewis, “The Text of the New Testament” Restoration Quarterly Harding Graduate School of Religion: 65.
[2] James A. Borland, “Re-Examining New Testament Textual-Critical Principles And Practices Used To Negate Inerrancy” Jets, 25/4 (December 1962): 499-506
[3] Jack P. Lewis, “The Text of the New Testament” Restoration Quarterly Harding Graduate School of Religion: 67
[4] Ibid
[5] Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Illinois, Good News Publishers, 2001), 26.
[6] Ibid, 27.
[7] Ibid, 28.
[8] Ibid, 29.
[9] Jack P. Lewis, “The Text of the New Testament” Restoration Quarterly Harding Graduate School of Religion: 70
[10] Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Illinois, Good News Publishers, 2001), 33
[11] Ibid, 33.
[12] Thomas D. Lea, “The Reliability Of History In John’s Gospel” Jets 38/3 (September 1995): 397
[13] Ibid, 398.
[14] Ibid, 399.
[15] Ibid, 400
[16] Paul Barnett, Is The New Testament Reliable? (Illinois, InterVarsity Press 1986), 160
[17] Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Illinois, Good News Publishers, 2001), 152
[18] Ralph O. Muncaster, Can Archaeology Prove the New Testament (Oregon, Harvest House Publishers, 1973), 10