The reliability of the New Testament – a response

Amidst my surfing of Christian blogs, I came upon one that asked, “How can a rational person trust the New Testament?”  Ever the contrarian, I responded that one cannot rationally trust the New Testament (NT), and offered a few reasons why, among them:

1.) The original manuscripts do not exist;
2.) There are well-documented instances of textual corruption (errors, additions, deletions, etc.);
3.) Some of Paul’s epistles are verified forgeries;
4.) To trust the NT requires trusting the Old Testament, which makes it far more problematic given the state of modern scientific knowledge.

I also noted that these were but a “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questioning NT reliability.

Milestoneworship (I don’t have the name of the actual author) responded graciously to my post, thanked me for the questions, and promised a rebuttal, which was recently posted.  In the spirit of dialogue and debate, below I offer my response.  None of this will be new to students of the Bible, but hopefully the small crowd of onlookers who happen upon it will advance their understanding in some beneficial way.

From his response, it is clear that Milestoneworship has a more nuanced appreciation of history and NT difficulties than the average lay Christian, many of whom would respond with the typical apologetic fare of “fulfilled prophecy” or “the Bible is an accurate historical record.” I note, however, that he has not disputed any of the four points above; therefore, I presume he grants them.

To begin, Milestoneworship slightly misrepresents my position, which, to be fair, had not been wholly spelled out.  He writes,

However, Robert’s “all or nothing” tone in his claim reflects a lack of understanding of the scholarship concerning ancient historical documents.  It seems that Robert is suggesting that just because there are elements of controversy within the accounts of events in the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole is invalidated.

Well, not quite.  To an inerrantist, invalidating part of the NT would invalidate all of it, but I never assumed Milestoneworship held such a belief, so that was never my position.  On the contrary, my actual position is that the NT’s problems, from a historical point of view, are far more fundamental than a few “elements of controversy.”  I’ll demonstrate what I mean by examining a few of Milestoneworship’s NT claims.  To start with, consider this:

Yet, when we approach the accounts given in the New Testament, we have at least five seperate accounts of the basic events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the four Gospels and the Pauline account in I Corinthians).

Milestoneworship has chosen his words carefully.  Technically, what he says is true, but the impression I’m sure he wishes to convey differs from the facts in several important respects.  Yes, the gospels are indeed separate (I’ll deal with the Corinthians creed in a bit), but are they independent, and more importantly, do they recount truthful history? On both counts, the question can only be no.  Surely, Milestoneworship is aware of the synoptic problem, which concerns the obvious literary overlap between Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  The problem is such that, in the words of Christian NT scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, “It is quite impossible to hold that the three synoptic gospels were completely independent from each other.”  In other words, the authors copied material.  What did they copy from?  Many scholars believe from Mark, along with another document no longer in existence.  Matthew and Luke come later, contradict each other in some ways, and contain information not originally included in Mark, such as the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances (our earliest copies of Mark end at 16:8).  John, which comes later still, parallels only 8% of the synoptics, contradicts them in several important respects, and was rejected as heretical by many early Christians.

So what we see with the gospels is progressive literary embellishment, a sure sign that we are not reading so much as history but legend.  This becomes even more obvious when we read the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles.

The striking thing about these epistles is how little data they contain of Jesus’s life.  From them alone, one would never know that Jesus was born a virgin, performed miracles, raised the dead, was crucified at Calvary, and subsequently buried in a tomb.  Paul never quotes any of Jesus’s sayings, never places him in any historical settings, sources his knowledge to God or the scriptures, and answers questions which Jesus had (supposedly) already settled.  What possessed to Paul to claim that the Romans never punish the righteous, but only the wicked?  I Corinthians 15:3-8, to which Milestoneworship presumably refers, is but a creed with only minimal reflection in the gospels, and the gospels in it.  In sum, Paul’s epistles are theological statements, only affirming what Christians believed, and raise serious doubts about the historicity of the NT gospels.

If the gospels are largely ahistorical, as I maintain, it would explain another anomaly for Christianity: their utter lack of attestation in the contemporary historical record.  Jesus’s miraculous deeds are well-known to us now, but they were apparently so unremarkable then that no one took written note of them.  And what of the events surrounding his death, such as the resurrection of all those dead saints who walked around Jerusalem and “appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53)?  An every-day occurrence, it seems.  Some apologists have suggested that no historian of that era would scarcely be concerned about another itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the Roman empire, but in fact there were such historians.  Chief among them, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo was a Jewish philosopher and historian living in the early first century Middle East (25 BCE – 47 CE) whose theology would be familiar to any Christian.  For example,

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.

About Jesus, nary a word can be found among Philo’s more than fifty works.

So, if the NT gospels aren’t historical, from whence the stories about Jesus?  As NT scholar Robert M. Price has shown, mostly from the Old Testament.  Through extapolating and re-interpreting scripture, the gospel authors weaved their Jesus narratives.  As Price describes, “Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.”  This explain such gospel oddities as Matthew’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, from Zechariah 9:9, while Luke and John have him riding on one.

Milestoneworship continues his case for NT reliability with the following:

However, with such a variety of accounts, and the close dating of these accounts to the occurence of the events recorded, historians have virtually agreed on three factual events that the Gospels record:  1)the discovery of an empty tomb three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 2)the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 3)the disciples belief in the resurrection.  I argue that the best explanation of these events is the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.

I consider this to be a moving of the goalposts, so to speak.  The question before us concerns the overall reliability of the NT, not a specific claim made within it.  But since support of the latter can assist in making the case for the former, I’ll nonetheless address it.

Milestoneworship’s argument is one popularized by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  The facts presented here may indeed be agreed upon by historians, but that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead.  This is a theological statement, not a historical one, as NT scholar and historian Bart Ehrman pointed out to Craig in a formal debate on the topic.  And as Richard Carrier has shown, it is far, far likelier that Jesus survived, to give but one possible outcome (theft and misplacement are a couple others).

The above response is but a partial case against the reliability of the NT.  Much more could be said about the anonymity of the gospels, their possible authorship well into the second century, formation and disputes over the NT canon, parallels to previous religions and deities, the tremendous amount of early Christian apocrypha which testifies to a wide diversity of belief, and so on.  It is a fascinating subject, but one that is extremely historically clouded, as well.  To be sure, Christian apologists have their responses to each of these objections, and more, just every other faith does with respect to its traditions and holy texts.  But when neutrally evaluated, the reliability of the NT cannot be established by any rational standard.

7 thoughts on “The reliability of the New Testament – a response

  1. You’re right in noticing that I didn’t address your four basic claims regarding the reliability of the New Testament. I did kind of use them as a jumping off point for other things that I think are more germane to the discussion of reliabilty, but since you’ve mentioned these points again, I’d like to breifly addres them.

    For point #1: C’mon, really? We have no original manuscripts of any ancient document. By your logic, we can’t know for sure that Alexander the Great lived, or that Augustus ascended to the throne after his father was killed, or any historical fact that is presented in ancient accounts. All we have are copies, albeit very old copies, of the original texts of these events.

    I know of no legitimate ancient historian who holds your view about the necessity of original manuscripts as a validating point. In reference to textual variants, The New Testament is by the far the most unified ancient document in existence. Of the hundreds of different ancient copies that we have of the New Testament, there is less than a 1% textual variant between them; most of these discrepencies being grammatical. When one considers that the next best preserved document, The Illiad, has a five percent textual variant, it is indeed reasonable to conclude that we have a very reliable representation of what the originals said.

    I’m prepared to concede that the authorship of some of the epistles are questionable. However, authorship is not an arbiter of truth claims. If the Devil himself came from the bowels of Hell and told me that the sky was blue, the sky is still blue, though he has a reputation as a father of lies.

    As to the acceptance of the Old Testament as a verifier of the new. I see no such necessity. Ancient Greeks believed in their gods and goddesses so much that their historians even interspersed human interactions with gods into their historical texts (a youth’s interaction with Pan after the battle of Marathon – recorded in Heroditous). By this reasoning, none of their historical texts would be considered reliable, because they had a tremendous mythological heritage.

    I happen to find much of the Old Testament reliable, but I don’t see that as a literal necessity to validate the three historically accepted claims regarding the core event of Christianity. We can quibble about which details are not legitimate, but unless these core tenets are disproven, I can’t, as a rational person denounce my belief in the supernatural resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

    All that aside, I do like that in your response you actually refer to legitimate New Testament scholars instead of folks like Harold Bloom, who in the realm of New Testament critism is about as a reliable as Kent Hovind in the area of scientific inquiry.

  2. A few points to ponder…

    ”Independent Accounts.”

    Robert does a good (understandably brief) explanation of the Synoptic Problem, as to how Matthew was dependent upon Mark, and Luke was dependent on Matthew and Mark. Since Mark was the priority Gospel, we should review it carefully, as to its independence.

    Mark is written in chiasmic form—a literary device intentionally framed. This would be similar to our writing the history of George Washington in iambic pentameter. While not necessarily removing history from the account—one has to carefully assess how much of the story was driven by Mark’s use of this device.

    For example, did Jesus curse the tree, enter Jerusalem, and then come back to view the tree, or was this simply a modeling of chiasm? Secondly, Mark utilizes midrash as a way to tell the story. Re-telling Tanakh stories in a new manner, centered around Jesus. Another example—the clearing of the Temple of Mark 11:15-19 is based upon Nehemiah 13:8-9, Hosea 9:15, 2 Maccabes 4:32-34 as well as Jeremiah 7:11, of course. Did it historically happen? Not very likely, given the size of the temple, and the function of what was going on. (The temple area was the size of 12 football fields with tens of thousands of people. What is more likely—Mark creating chiasmic midrash, or one person is able to bring this area to a grinding halt?)

    Need we mention the extensive use of Psalm 22 in creating the crucifixion scene? I think not. While I have not personally gone through it all, a friend of mine has created a commentary on Mark, demonstrating every single story can be linked to a Tanakh event. Every single one.

    Further, Mark uses a keen sense of irony raising questions as to whether he is writing sarcasm or actual events. (“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Who was the first listed disciple and the last listed disciple? Yet who betrayed Jesus first? Who betrayed Jesus last? Or think of the seed falling on the stony ground in Mark 4. Did Jesus rename anyone a “stone”? Hmmm. Or the Centurion saying “This was the son of God”—a despicable foreigner seeing what Jesus’ own followers do not.)

    The “independent accounts” spring off what could be fanciful fiction! Next, look at the order of the writing.

    1) Paul does not record a miracle, sermon, or parable of Jesus. Nothing on Nazareth. The 1 Corinthian 15 alleged creed has the wrong order of appearances post-resurrection (no gospel account follows this order) fails to list the women, and lists two appearances (James and “500”) unrecorded. As pointed out, Paul even re-argues points already allegedly made by Jesus! (greatest commandment, divorce.) Not to mention a long argument about resurrection without mentioning Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter.

    It is odd, if this “creed” of 1 Cor. 15, was so old, why all the subsequent gospels essentially abandoned it. Someone was changing history.

    2) Next we have Mark. An empty tomb, but no post-mortem appearances, and no disciples believing.

    3) Next we have Matthew, using Mark. Introducing Soldiers (a myth), a Seal, and the disciples seeing Jesus. Matthew even begins to create apologetics for what the Jewish leaders could be saying.

    4) Luke, using Matthew, wisely dumps the soldiers. However, Luke needs the church to start in Jerusalem, so he modifies Mark and Matthew’s statement of “Go back to Galilee” to “Remember what he said in Galilee.” Luke has additional appearances.

    5) John, based on oral tradition influenced by the Synoptic Gospels, has the unique incidents of Mary Magdalene in the Garden, Doubting Thomas and the fishermen by the sea. (Of Galilee, by the way, in support of Matthew, but contrasted to Luke.) Since the rest the Johannine account is so varied, we would expect the crucifixion and resurrection accounts to be as well. They are.

    6) Then we have the Gospel of Peter, recording the actual resurrection, with a voice and a vision and Jesus being assisted from the cave.

    7) We have the Acts of Pilate, telling the tale of two (2) of the individuals who were raised from the Dead at the time of Jesus’ death, and what they did, in addition to Pilate’s report on Jesus’ death.

    8) We have the Acts of Peter recounting another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the Eleven at some time during the Early Church Period.

    9) The Letter of Peter to Philip indicating another post-resurrection experience (similar to Paul’s).

    If you want five (5) “independent” accounts—isn’t nine (9) even better? But something happens along this line. At some point from 1 to 9, people start claiming myth. Some claim it at 5, others at 4, others at 6. The question we have: what is the method by which we start to determine when “myth” creeps in to the story? Why do many Christians stop at John as being “truth” and not include the Gospel of Peter or other subsequent stories? What method can we use to include John? Couldn’t we stop at Luke? Or Matthew? Or Mark?

    The answer is everyone (regardless of theistic belief) reaches a point of saying, “That is not history; that is myth. That is not reliable.” Some of us reach it sooner than others.

  3. The reason that I can accept the accounts I’ve presented as reliable has to do with the amazingly close dating to the events they discuss. As we know, in the early Christian community, if someone presented something controversial, there was a public argument about it. If the Gospel writers were way off base in their portrayal of what happened, there would have been some kind of rebuttal, probably by Christians, but possibly by the Jewish establishment, regarding what happened. Evidence from eyewitnesses would have been cited to refute these claims.

    Since these books were written in within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, it is very rational to assume that the writers were worried about including only the details of the story that were basically agreed upon. This is one of the reasons that the Gospel accounts are noticeably non-dramatic, whereas the later, and more legendary Gnostic accounts of the resurrection, add lots of mythology and detail.

    Think of if this way, if I told you that Osama bin Laden was himself present at the 9-11 attacks, you would undoubtedly question my claim, because there were thousands of people there and not one report of his appearance. My claim would be considered ridiculous and quickly refuted by evidence. If however, I waited 200 years and presented this information, it might take hold for a period of time until it could be refuted, because no eyewitnesses to the event were still alive. The Gospels are acceptible because they stood up to contemporary scrutiny, while the Gnostic Gospels are not as acceptible because they were written many many years after all eyewitenesses had died.

    This is the situation that exists within the context of the Gospels. If the Gospel writers were openly presenting unrealistic claims to a Jewish culture who had little disposition to believe in a bodily resurrection before the end of the earth, and the details of the event were fabricated, that culture would have destroyed those claims with eyewitness evidence. The fact is, no such revolt occured concerning those three resurrection claims that I hold to; instead we find of accounts of cover-ups or other possible explanations of these events. My argument, a la Ockham, is that the simplest explanation of these facts is best. Jesus miraculously rose from the dead.

  4. Unfortunately, Jeremy Killian, there are three (3) unanswered questions about the Gospel accounts. We don’t know:

    1) When they were written;
    2) To whom;
    3) By whom.

    Making the “eyewitness interrogation” concept difficult, if not impossible, to prove. If one follows the majority of biblical scholarship, Mark was written at or near 70 CE. This makes Mark (and consequently Matthew and Luke) 35-40 years after the death of Jesus. How many “eyewitnesses” were still alive over that time period?

    Worse, the Jewish war had occurred, killing over 1 million Jews. Primarily in Judea, and most extensively in Jerusalem. How many “eyewitnesses” would have lived through the war?

    I am not certain how we quantify “amazingly close dating.”

    Secondly, we have to look at the society receiving these accounts. The gospels were historiography—a mixture of history and polemic for the reader to ascertain the meaning more than the actual events. These accounts were written to specific recipients with specific problems.

    Further, the First Mediterranean culture would not hold to our 21st century scrutiny of “facts.” I strongly recommend (if you haven’t already) picking up a book by Bruce Malina to investigate the differences in culture. The culture itself would not have expected an actual account—far from it. They would expect the authors to write what Jesus would have said–not what Jesus actually said. They wanted assurance as to the eventual hopeful return and apocryphal release from Roman oppression.

    It is also important to note these documents were written to “in-groups”—not intended for “out-groups.” (See Malina) In other words, they were not written for non-Christians; they were to bolster pre-existing Christian beliefs. These were not histories intended to tell the world what Jesus said or did on a certain Monday afternoon—these were tales to encourage the other Christians in their belief.

    I would also note the extreme problem of the fictional motifs found throughout Mark, which is left unaddressed.

    Thirdly, we need to look at who wrote these accounts. Even presuming traditional authorship, only Matthew and John would be eyewitnesses; Mark and Luke are not. However, the problem is introduced as to why Matthew (a supposed eyewitness) would follow so closely with Mark (a non-eyewitness). As well, Matthew “inserts” himself into the story of Levi (Matthew 9:9); something no other gospel has.

    These problems are significant enough that Bauckham, in strongly defending the eyewitness basis of the gospels, says Matthew cannot be an eyewitness account.

    Even if Matthew was written by the disciple, he would not be an eyewitness to the birth of Jesus (more on that in a minute) nor the death of Jesus. Notice how Mark claims only the females saw the crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41) and Matthew (the alleged eyewitness) when copying Mark agrees. (Matthew 27:55-56). Luke, the NON eyewitness, in seeing the problem of how could anybody know what happened if no one is there, changes the story. He includes “all those acquainted with Jesus” in Luke 23:49.

    John, being so different elsewhere, not surprisingly does not follow Matthew, the other supposed eyewitness. He has the beloved disciple there and Jesus making statements to the disciple unrecorded in the other gospels. Two further points, according to John 19:35 and 21:24 the author of the gospel is not the eyewitness himself, but rather is receiving the information from the eyewitness. And (slightly humorous) you may also note the author of the Gospel of John does not know Jesus’ mother’s name. He thinks Mary’s sister is named “Mary.” John 19:25. Not Jesus’ mother. Sounds like Mrs. McCave. (Googlewhack it; its worth it.)

    So who do we go with in this eye-witness account? Mark and Matthew—no disciples at the crucifixion? Luke—all the disciples there but nothing about talking to the beloved disciple? John having everyone up close and conversational?

    And this is just one of many, many problems.

    Or let’s talk about the birth of Jesus. On four occasions Mark calls Jesus “Jesus the Nazorean.” (I’ll deal with the fifth in a moment.) Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67 and Mark 16:6. Mark further hints Jesus came from Capernaum. Mark 2:1.

    Along comes Matthew faithfully copying Mark. Matthew has a problem—in order to fulfill a prophecy (in Matthew’s head) he wants Jesus born in Bethlehem, but we have this troublesome statement of “Jesus the Nazorean” and what to do with it? *snaps fingers* Simple enough—have Jesus born in Bethlehem, but move to Galilee. And, to resolve this “Nazorean” thing at the same time, claim Jesus came from a small village called “Nazareth.” Matthew 2:23. Bingo. Problem solved.

    Right? Well, not really. See the etymology of Nazoraios does not allow it to mean a person who comes from Nazaret. To translate to English, a person from Nazareth would be a “Nazarethean.” Or, looking backward, a person called “Nazorean” would be a person from “Nazeara.” In today’s day, we call people from New York “New Yorkers.” To analogize, making “Nazorean” from a person from “Nazaret” would be the same as calling a person “New Yoer” from “New York.”

    [Dealing with the fifth instance in Mark, being Mark 1:9, where the author says Jesus came “from Nazareth of Galilee” I believe the “from Nazareth” was an addition after Matthew had circulated. Part of the reason is that Mark never uses a double designation—he never says, “from Atlanta of Georgia”—he would either say “from Atlanta” or “of Georgia” but not both.]

    Also, Matthew uses the Greek form of progymnasmata in describing the birth of Jesus—a form designed to sensationalize the birth of Jesus.

    Then we come to Luke. He reads Matthew, shakes his head at the Greek use, as well as the problems, and manufactures a whole new birth story. Instead of having Jesus live in Bethlehem and move the Nazareth—he reverses the story and has Jesus live in Nazareth and be born while vacationing in Bethlehem. Drops all of Joseph’s encounters with the angels, and inserts Mary’s. Dumps the non-historical Slaughter of the Innocents, and inserts some shepherds. And a tale about Jesus when he is twelve that is curiously similar to the petulant Jesus-child of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

    I could go on and on regarding the differences between all of these “eyewitness accounts” but this is sufficient for a start.

    As to the Jewish community destroying those claims with “eyewitness evidence”—why would they? There were numerous apocryphal prophets traveling at that time. In fact, the Qumran community would appear to be far more dangerous to the established Temple authority than Christianity was! (Don’t forget, according to Josephus, James, the brother of Jesus, was well-respected by the Pharisees during this time!)

    The Jews were at war with the Romans—what did they care about some claim of some fraction about some resurrection resulting in an end-times? This was one of many. As long as it did not get in the way of their temple activities, nor did it incite the Romans against the Jews—there would be absolutely, positively no reason to “debunk” Christianity.

    Also, one must note that Christianity did NOT take hold in the very “eyewitnesses” who this is claimed would do the debunking—it become an outreach to Hellenized Jews and Gentiles within a short period of its creation.

    Why do Christians think anyone would bother with debunking Christianity? The Jews?—had their hands full with the Romans. The Romans?—had their hands full with the Jews. No one would have bothered! It is significant to note Pliny the Younger, by the early Second Century, didn’t even know enough about Christianity to know whether it was illegal or not! (Remember, he was basically the Attorney General for Rome at one time.)

    Here’s an interesting experiment. For a moment, take Acts of Apostles out of the equation. Now provide me a source indicating Jewish leaders oppressed Christianity as a whole. (Not singular Paul incidents.) Christians presume Acts is history, and then prove it is history by such a presumption.

    Jeremy Killian: Since these books were written in within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, it is very rational to assume that the writers were worried about including only the details of the story that were basically agreed upon.

    Sure, in our 21st century mindset. But would it have been at the time? What did the culture expect? What did an “in-group” expect from another “in-group” member? How was history recorded? Were these histories? Simply claiming they were, and saying, “They would write like we do” fails to grasp the great investigative study and joy of depth of knowledge available.

    I should also ask why the method must be “within the lifetime of witnesses.” We all agree Genesis was not written within the lifetime of the events—yet Christians hold it canonical. Why must the New Testament books be written “within a lifetime” yet the Tanakh not be? Secondly, is “within the lifetime” ALWAYS included? The Gospel of Peter could easily have been written “within the lifetime.” The Gospel of John could NOT be written “within the lifetime.” Is there consistency within the method?

    A final note regarding Ockham’s Razor. It is not “the simplest explanation is the most likely.” Rather, it is “don’t add unnecessary components to an explanation.” Let me demonstrate this by a couple illustrations.

    Imagine we are discussing earthquakes with two (2) possible explanations:

    1) Tectonic plates moving on a liquid rock surface bump each other, causing movement.

    2) Magic fairies push tectonic plates moving on a liquid rock surface to bump each other, causing movement.

    This is the beard Ockham’s Razor shaves best. There is no reason for “Magic Fairies push” in the second explanation and can be eliminated. Now imagine we are talking about internal combustion engines:

    1) Gasoline is forced in an enclosed container and then ignited, causing an explosive rush of air, forcing a piston to propel in the opposite direction, moving a lever in coordination with other pistons to cause propulsion.

    2) Magic fairies make it work.

    Because these are alternate explanation, Ockham’s is inapplicable. (Further, even though the second explanation is far simpler, I suspect we both agree it is wrong. *grin*)

    We are talking about events in history. They happened as they did—whether simple or not. I agree we can still use Ockham’s, in looking for solutions, but the imperative point is that we include ALL data. In looking for the historical basis of the Canonical Gospels, we must take into account the discrepancies, the timing, the other non-canonical works, the writings at the time, the history of the world about them, etc.

    We cannot look for just the “simplest” explanation.

  5. Jeremy, you wrote,

    For point #1: C’mon, really? We have no original manuscripts of any ancient document. By your logic, we can’t know for sure that Alexander the Great lived, or that Augustus ascended to the throne after his father was killed, or any historical fact that is presented in ancient accounts.

    The point about missing the original manuscripts is directed more toward the inerrantists, but it remains important when discussing the veracity of the NT’s claims. Recall, the Bible is said be a divine communication to earth’s inhabitants from the creator of the universe, establishing the means by which one may gain eternal life! Isn’t it thus important to know precisely what Jesus and the apostles said? Christians make theological truth claims, and have spilled a lot of blood defending them, based on this or that scripture. But what if that scripture was in fact changed by a scribe, monk, or apologist? Can you being to see the slippery slope? The founders of Islam and Mormonism at least had the sense to claim their scriptures are perfectly dictated, to avoid precisely this problem.

    Of the hundreds of different ancient copies that we have of the New Testament, there is less than a 1% textual variant between them; most of these discrepencies being grammatical.

    This is a favorite apologetic claim, often referenced to Bruce Metzger, though Metzger no where states this. It is also based on dated and faulty scholarship.

    In any case, the figure is based on the fact that the vast majority of ancient NTs in our possession come from one particular strand of manuscripts, the so-called Byzantine manuscripts, which are dated latest of all the four types and have undergone the most harmonization. It also considered the most corrupt by textual critics, when compared with the earliest, best copies of the NT documents.

    But majority does not equate to accuracy. Another complication is that only about 8% of our NT manuscripts cover the entire NT; most are fragments of documents, some containing but a few lines of text.

    In The Text of the New Testament, textual scholars Kurt and Barbara Aland compared NT verses among seven major critical NT editions for agreement, disregarding spelling errors and verses off by one word. What they found was that there is overall verse agreement of only about 63%. (p. 29)

    I’m prepared to concede that the authorship of some of the epistles are questionable. However, authorship is not an arbiter of truth claims.

    Then what is the arbiter of truth claims? If a manuscript was canonized, that makes it true?

    I happen to find much of the Old Testament reliable, but I don’t see that as a literal necessity to validate the three historically accepted claims regarding the core event of Christianity. We can quibble about which details are not legitimate, but unless these core tenets are disproven, I can’t, as a rational person denounce my belief in the supernatural resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

    If the Old Testament is not reliable, it casts major doubt on the claims made on behalf of Jesus. If there was no Adam and Eve, for example, then there is no original sin, so what need of Jesus? And insofar as Paul based his theology on fiction, it should be dismissed too. This all makes the claim that God miraculously resurrected Jesus from the dead even less likely, regardless of whether you believe in the supernatural. Perhaps it was a demon in the guise of Jesus, sent by Satan to deceive from the true religion, which is Islam.

    This is all a very fascinating topic, and I’m glad I can discuss it with you, more so because it has encouraged DagoodS to chime in, whose perspective is always informative.

  6. Thank you DagoodS for these great responses to Jeremy. Yes, they save me some time, but more importantly, they constitute a wealth of information!

    In regards to dating and authorship of the gospels, I was curious if you’ve read this recent article by Richard Carrier. To me, it’s a fascinating look at just how foggy and uncertain our knowledge is on the subject. I truly had no idea.

  7. No, I hadn’t read it. Thanks for the link. I generally don’t get too excited about dating the Gospels (although I absolutely agree with Carrier’s pain on the difficulty in even narrowing down a range.) What I find are the Christians most interested in setting dates, are using arguments similar to Jeremy Killian’s in trying to get it into the time of the “eyewitness.”

    Since I think the argument is irrelevant (as no one would have questioned the “eyewitnesses”) it doesn’t matter whether the gospels were written in 70 CE or 130 CE or even beyond in addressing this particular point.

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