The “New Testament”—History or Myth?
“The New Testament can be described today as the best-investigated book in world literature.” So said Hans Küng in his book “On Being a Christian.” And he was right. Over the past 300 years, the Christian Greek Scriptures have been more than investigated. They have been more thoroughly dissected and more minutely analyzed than any other literature.
1, 2. (Include introduction.) (a) To what treatment have the Christian Greek Scriptures been subjected over the past 300 years? (b) What strange conclusions have been reached by some investigators?
THE conclusions reached by some investigators have been bizarre. Back in the 19th century, Ludwig Noack in Germany concluded that the Gospel of John was written in 60 C.E. by the beloved disciple—who, according to Noack, was Judas! The Frenchman Joseph Ernest Renan suggested that the resurrection of Lazarus was likely a fraud arranged by Lazarus himself to support Jesus’ claim of being a miracle worker, while the German theologian Gustav Volkmar insisted that the historical Jesus could not possibly have come forward with Messianic claims.1
2 Bruno Bauer, on the other hand, decided that Jesus never existed at all! “He maintained that the real creative forces in early Christianity were Philo, Seneca, and the Gnostics. In the end he declared that there never had been a historical Jesus . . . that the genesis of the Christian religion was late in the second century and was from a Judaism in which Stoicism had become dominant.”2
3. What opinion about the Bible do many still hold?
3 Today, few hold such extreme ideas. But if you read the works of modern scholars, you will find many still believe that the Christian Greek Scriptures contain legend, myth, and exaggeration. Is this true?
When Were They Written?
4. (a) Why is it important to know when the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures were written? (b) What are some opinions about the time of writing of the Christian Greek Scriptures?
4 It takes time for myths and legends to develop. So the question, When were these books written?, is important. Michael Grant, a historian, says that the historical writings of the Christian Greek Scriptures were begun “thirty or forty years after Jesus’ death.”4 Biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright cited C. C. Torrey as concluding “that all the Gospels were written before 70 A.D. and that there is nothing in them which could not have been written within twenty years of the Crucifixion.” Albright’s own opinion was that their writing was completed “not later than about 80 A.D.” Others come up with slightly different estimates, but most agree that the writing of the “New Testament” was completed by the end of the first century.
5, 6. What should we conclude from the fact that the Christian Greek Scriptures were written not too long after the events they record?
5 What does this mean? Albright concludes: “All we can say is that a period of between twenty and fifty years is too slight to permit of any appreciable corruption of the essential content and even of the specific wording of the sayings of Jesus.”5 Professor Gary Habermas adds: “The Gospels are quite close to the period of time which they record, while ancient histories often describe events which took place centuries earlier. Yet, modern historians are able to successfully derive the events even from these ancient periods of time.”6
6 In other words, the historical parts of the Christian Greek Scriptures are worthy of at least as much credence as secular histories. Certainly, in the few decades between the events of early Christianity and their being recorded in writing, there was no time for myths and legends to develop and be universally accepted.
7, 8. (a) Who were still alive while the Christian Greek Scriptures were being written and circulated? (b) What must we conclude in line with the comment of Professor F. F. Bruce?
7 This is especially true in view of the fact that many of the accounts speak of eyewitness testimony. The writer of the Gospel of John said: “This is the disciple [the disciple that Jesus loved] that bears witness about these things and that wrote these things.” (John 21:24) The writer of the book of Luke says: “Those who from the beginning became eyewitnesses and attendants of the message delivered these to us.” (Luke 1:2) The apostle Paul, speaking of those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, said: “Most of [them] remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep in death.”—1 Corinthians 15:6.
8 In this connection, Professor F. F. Bruce makes a keen observation: “It can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened. . . . The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ but also, ‘As you yourselves also know’ (Acts 2:22).”7
Is the Text Trustworthy?
9, 10. As far as the Christian Greek Scriptures are concerned, of what can we be certain?
9 Is it possible that these eyewitness testimonies were accurately recorded but later corrupted? In other words, were myths and legends introduced after the original writing was completed? We have already seen that the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures is in better condition than any other ancient literature. Kurt and Barbara Aland, scholars of the Greek text of the Bible, list almost 5,000 manuscripts that have survived from antiquity down to today, some from as early as the second century C.E.8 The general testimony of this mass of evidence is that the text is essentially sound. Additionally, there are many ancient translations—the earliest dating to about the year 180 C.E.—that help to prove that the text is accurate.9
10 Hence, by any reckoning, we can be sure that legends and myths did not infiltrate into the Christian Greek Scriptures after the original writers finished their work. The text we have is substantially the same as the one that the original writers penned, and its accuracy is confirmed by the fact that contemporaneous Christians accepted it. Can we, then, check the historicity of the Bible by comparing it with other ancient histories? To some extent, yes.
The Documentary Evidence
11. To what extent does external documentary evidence support the historical accounts in the Christian Greek Scriptures?
11 In fact, for events in the lives of Jesus and his apostles, documentary evidence apart from the Bible is quite limited. This is only to be expected, since in the first century, Christians were a relatively small group that did not get involved in politics. But the evidence that secular history does provide agrees with what we read in the Bible.
12. What does Josephus tell us about John the Baptizer?
12 For example, after Herod Antipas suffered a resounding military defeat, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in 93 C.E., said: “To some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God.”10 Thus Josephus confirms the Bible account that John the Baptizer was a righteous man who preached repentance and who was executed by Herod.—Matthew 3:1-12; 14:11.
13. How does Josephus support the historicity of James and of Jesus himself?
13 Josephus also mentions James, the half brother of Jesus, who, the Bible tells us, did not initially follow Jesus but later became a prominent elder in Jerusalem. (John 7:3-5; Galatians 1:18, 19) He documents James’ arrest in these words: “[The high priest Ananus] convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others.”11 In writing these words, Josephus additionally confirms that “Jesus, who was called the Christ” was a real, historical person.
14, 15. What support does Tacitus give to the Bible record?
14 Other early writers too refer to things mentioned in the Greek Scriptures. For example, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ preaching around Palestine met with a wide response. When he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, his followers were confused and disheartened. Soon afterward, these same disciples boldly filled Jerusalem with the message that their Lord had been resurrected. In a few years, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire.—Matthew 4:25; 26:31; 27:24-26; Acts 2:23, 24, 36; 5:28; 17:6.
15 Witness to the truth of this comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who was no friend of Christianity. Writing soon after 100 C.E., he tells of Nero’s cruel persecution of the Christians and adds: “Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself.”12
16. What historical event referred to in the Bible is also referred to by Suetonius?
16 At Acts 18:2 the Bible writer refers to the fact that “[the Roman emperor] Claudius had ordered all the Jews to depart from Rome.” Second-century Roman historian Suetonius also refers to this expulsion. In his work The Deified Claudius, the historian says: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”13 If Chrestus here refers to Jesus Christ and if the events in Rome followed the pattern in other cities, then the riots were not actually at the instigation of Christ (that is, Christ’s followers). Rather, they were the Jews’ violent response to the faithful preaching activity of Christians.
17. What sources that were available to Justin Martyr in the second century supported the Bible account of Jesus’ miracles and his death?
17 Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, wrote in reference to the death of Jesus: “That these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.”14 In addition, according to Justin Martyr, these same records mentioned Jesus’ miracles, regarding which he says: “That He did those things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.”15 True, these “Acts,” or official records, no longer exist. But they evidently did exist in the second century, and Justin Martyr confidently challenged his readers to check them to verify the truth of what he said.
The Archaeological Evidence
18. What support does archaeology give to the existence of Pontius Pilate?
18 Archaeological discoveries have also illustrated or confirmed what we read in the Greek Scriptures. Thus, in 1961 the name of Pontius Pilate was found in an inscription in the ruins of a Roman theater at Caesarea.16 Until this discovery, there had been only limited evidence, apart from the Bible itself, of the existence of this Roman ruler.
19, 20. What Bible personalities mentioned by Luke (in Luke and Acts) have been attested to by archaeology?
19 In Luke’s Gospel, we read that John the Baptizer began his ministry “when . . . Lysanias was district ruler of Abilene.” (Luke 3:1) Some doubted that statement because Josephus mentioned a Lysanias who ruled Abilene and who died in 34 B.C.E., long before the birth of John. However, archaeologists have uncovered an inscription in Abilene mentioning another Lysanias who was tetrarch (district ruler) during the reign of Tiberius, who was ruling as Caesar in Rome when John began his ministry.17 This could easily have been the Lysanias to whom Luke was referring.
20 In Acts we read that Paul and Barnabas were sent to do missionary work in Cyprus and there met up with a proconsul named Sergius Paulus, “an intelligent man.” (Acts 13:7) In the middle of the 19th century, excavations in Cyprus uncovered an inscription dating from 55 C.E. that mentions this very man. Of this, archaeologist G. Ernest Wright says: “It is the one reference we have to this proconsul outside the Bible and it is interesting that Luke gives us correctly his name and title.”18
21, 22. What religious practices of Bible record have been confirmed by archaeological discoveries?
21 When he was in Athens, Paul said he had observed an altar that was dedicated “To an Unknown God.” (Acts 17:23) Altars dedicated in Latin to anonymous gods have been discovered in parts of the territory of the Roman Empire. One was found in Pergamum with the inscription written in Greek, as would have been the case in Athens.
22 Later, while in Ephesus, Paul was violently opposed by silversmiths, whose income was derived from making shrines and images of the goddess Artemis. Ephesus was referred to as “the temple keeper of the great Artemis.” (Acts 19:35) In harmony with this, a number of terra-cotta and marble figurines of Artemis have been discovered at the site of ancient Ephesus. During the last century, the remains of the huge temple itself were excavated.
The Ring of Truth
23, 24. (a) Where do we find the strongest proof of the truth of the writings of the Christian Greek Scriptures? (b) What quality inherent in the Bible record testifies to its truthfulness? Illustrate.
23 Hence, history and archaeology illustrate, and to some extent confirm, the historical elements of the Greek Scriptures. But, again, the strongest proof of the truth of these writings is in the books themselves. When you read them, they do not sound like myths. They have the ring of truth.
24 For one thing, they are very frank. Think of what is recorded about Peter. His embarrassing failure to walk on water is detailed. Then, Jesus says to this highly respected apostle: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 14:28-31; 16:23) Moreover, after vigorously protesting that even if all the others abandoned Jesus, he would never do so, Peter fell asleep on his night watch and then denied his Lord three times.—Matthew 26:31-35, 37-45, 73-75.
25. What weaknesses of the apostles do Bible writers frankly expose?
25 But Peter is not the only one whose weaknesses are exposed. The frank record does not gloss over the apostles’ bickering about who was the greatest among them. (Matthew 18:1; Mark 9:34; Luke 22:24) Nor does it omit telling us that the mother of the apostles James and John asked Jesus to give her sons the most favored positions in his Kingdom. (Matthew 20:20-23) The “sharp burst of anger” between Barnabas and Paul is also faithfully documented.—Acts 15:36-39.
26. What detail about Jesus’ resurrection would have been included only if it was true?
26 Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the book of Luke tells us that it was “the women, who had come with him out of Galilee,” who first learned about Jesus’ resurrection. This is a most unusual detail in the male-dominated society of the first century. Indeed, according to the record, what the women were saying “appeared as nonsense” to the apostles. (Luke 23:55–24:11) If the history in the Greek Scriptures is not true, it must have been invented. But why would anyone invent a story portraying such respected figures in such an unflattering light? These details would have been included only if they were true.
Jesus—A Real Person
27. How does one historian testify to the historical existence of Jesus?
27 Many have viewed Jesus as he is described in the Bible as an idealized fiction. But historian Michael Grant notes: “If we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.”19
28, 29. Why is it significant that the four Gospels present a unified picture of Jesus’ personality?
28 Not only Jesus’ existence but also his personality comes through in the Bible with a decided ring of truth. It is not easy to invent an unusual character and then present a consistent portrait of him throughout a whole book. It is nearly impossible for four different writers to write about the same character and consistently paint the same picture of him if that character never really existed. The fact that the Jesus described in all four Gospels is obviously the same person is persuasive evidence of the Gospels’ truthfulness.
29 Michael Grant quotes a very appropriate question: “How comes it that, through all the Gospel traditions without exception, there comes a remarkably firmly-drawn portrait of an attractive young man moving freely about among women of all sorts, including the decidedly disreputable, without a trace of sentimentality, unnaturalness, or prudery, and yet, at every point, maintaining a simple integrity of character?”20 The only answer is that such a man really existed and acted in the way the Bible says.
Why They Do Not Believe
30, 31. Why do many not accept the Christian Greek Scriptures as historically accurate despite all the evidence?
30 Since there is compelling evidence for saying that the Greek Scriptures are true history, why do some say they are not? Why is it that many, while accepting parts of them as genuine, nevertheless refuse to accept everything they contain? It is mainly because the Bible records things that modern intellectuals do not want to believe. It tells, for example, that Jesus both fulfilled and uttered prophecies. It also tells that he performed miracles and that after his death he was resurrected.
31 In this skeptical 20th century, such things are incredible. Regarding miracles, Professor Ezra P. Gould notes: “There is one reservation which some of the critics feel themselves justified in making . . . that miracles do not happen.”21 Some accept that Jesus may have effected healings, but only of the psychosomatic, ‘mind over matter,’ type. As for the other miracles, most explain them away either as inventions or as real events that were distorted in the telling.
32, 33. How have some tried to explain away Jesus’ miracle of feeding the large crowd, but why is this illogical?
32 As an example of this, consider the occasion when Jesus fed a crowd of more than 5,000 with just a few loaves and two fishes. (Matthew 14:14-22) Nineteenth-century scholar Heinrich Paulus suggested that what really happened was this: Jesus and his apostles found themselves attended by a large multitude that were getting hungry. So he decided to set a good example for the rich among them. He took what little food he and his apostles had and shared it with the multitude. Soon, others who had brought food followed his example and shared theirs. Finally, the whole multitude was fed.22
33 If this is what really happened, though, it was a remarkable proof of the power of good example. Why would such an interesting and meaningful story be distorted to make it sound like a supernatural miracle? Indeed, all such efforts to explain away the miracles as other than miraculous pose more problems than they solve. And they are all based on a false premise. They start by assuming that miracles are impossible. But why should that be the case?
34. If the Bible really does contain accurate prophecy and accounts of genuine miracles, what does this prove?
34 According to the most reasonable standards, both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures are genuine history, yet they both contain examples of prophecy and miracles. (Compare 2 Kings 4:42-44.) What, then, if the prophecies are genuine? And what if miracles actually did occur? Then God was indeed behind the writing of the Bible, and it really is his word, not man’s. In a future chapter, we will discuss the question of prophecy, but first let us consider miracles. Is it reasonable in this 20th century to believe that in earlier centuries miracles did happen?
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Why would the Bible report that Jesus’ resurrection was first discovered by women if this did not really happen?
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Modern Criticism Found Wanting
As an example of the uncertain nature of modern Bible criticism, consider these remarks by Raymond E. Brown about the Gospel of John: “At the end of the last century and in the early years of this century, scholarship went through a period of extreme skepticism about this Gospel. John was dated very late, even to the second half of the 2nd century. As a product of the Hellenistic world, it was thought to be totally devoid of historical value and to have little relation to the Palestine of Jesus of Nazareth . . .
“There is not one such position that has not been affected by a series of unexpected archaeological, documentary, and textual discoveries. These discoveries have led us to challenge intelligently the critical views that had almost become orthodox and to recognize how fragile was the base which supported the highly skeptical analysis of John. . . .
“The dating of the Gospel has been moved back to the end of the 1st century or even earlier. . . . Perhaps strangest of all, some scholars are even daring to suggest once more that John the son of Zebedee may have had something to do with the Gospel”!3
Why should it seem strange to believe that John wrote the book traditionally credited to him? Only because it does not fit in with the critics’ preconceived ideas.
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Just Another Attack on the Bible
Timothy P. Weber writes: “The findings of higher criticism forced many lay people to doubt their ability to understand anything [in the Bible]. . . . A. T. Pierson expressed the frustration of many evangelicals when he stated that ‘like Romanism, [higher criticism] practically removes the Word of God from the common people by assuming that only scholars can interpret it; while Rome puts a priest between a man and the Word, criticism puts an educated expositor between the believer and his Bible.’”23 Thus, modern higher criticism is exposed as just another attack on the Bible.
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This altar in Pergamum was apparently dedicated “to unknown gods”
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Ruins of the once magnificent temple of Artemis of which the Ephesians were so proud
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The Bible honestly reports that Peter denied knowing Jesus
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The Bible candidly records the “sharp burst of anger” between Paul and Barnabas
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The consistency of the portrayal of Jesus in the four Gospels is a strong proof of their genuineness
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Most modern critics take it for granted that miracles do not happen