Is the New Testament Credible?

Dear @Logan_Gates, thank you for your time to shade some light for us. I have few questions outlined below.

  1. Many scholars argue on which letters or books of the bibles are credible in the new testament and the question pretty much lies on the “Why Trust the Bible.” Some people blame translational errors. How do you respond to that. I realize it is not an easy question but since we have you, I asked.

  2. What are your thoughts about sola scripture vs the rest. The scripture itself tells us that not everything that Christ did or that was done is recorded in the bible. If it was, no book would contain it. Where is the compromise, and if there should even be a compromise.

  3. The disagreement on the number of books in OT (orthodox vs catholic vs protestant), how do we go about it.

Thank you so much.
God Bless You

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Dear Dan,

Thank you for your questions! They are questions that are foundational to the Christian faith, because they deal with the foundation of Scripture itself.

To your first question, if I understand you rightly, you’re asking particularly about the charge that some make that there have been translational errors in the Bible – particularly with the New Testament, you specify – and so we cannot trust it as a result. Some raise this objection under the impression that the Bibles we hold in our hands today are a translation of a translation of a translation, etc., which makes us think of the game “telephone” and how unreliable a message is if it has been passed along over and over. This, however, is simply not how modern translations of the Bible work. When it comes to the major translations like the NIV or ESV, they are the product of a committee of scholars who go back to the earliest manuscripts we have found (in ancient Greek, in the case of the New Testament) and who base their modern translations off them. There is no chain of translations in this case. From all the reading I’ve done (and I’ll include some sources at the bottom), it seems the scholarly consensus is that the New Testament documents were all originally written in Greek, so in terms of “translation” there is really only one translation that is happening – from koine Greek into the modern day language. Often what accounts for differences between different translations is that they’re using different early manuscripts – sometimes because we’re continuing to discover earlier manuscripts, and sometimes because there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to which manuscripts are the earliest or most authoritative; but again, most modern English translations will add little footnotes if there are variant readings. The vast majority of these variants are of little or no substantive importance (often relating to things like word order or spelling), but the ones that are perhaps more significant (like the alternate ending to Mark’s Gospel, or the scene of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel) are noted (or footnoted) in most modern translations.

Now, it’s worth saying that the earliest manuscripts we have found are not the “autographs” – that is, the original writings of the actual authors. Among the earliest manuscripts we have are the Rylands Papyri (with manuscripts of John’s Gospel from around 100-150 AD) and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (the earliest from around 150AD), which I actually had the chance to handle for myself in Oxford’s Sackler Library while I was a graduate student. Given that John was probably written around 90AD, this means that these manuscripts are not the originals, but rather copies, and in this case, perhaps copies of copies. But, we have good historical reasons to trust that these copies are reliable and faithful to the original documents. One such reason is that history shows us how the Jews, in transmitting the Old Testament, had an elaborate, careful process to make sure there weren’t scribal errors. It was God’s word after all! The possibility of human error isn’t something we’ve just realized in the 21st century. Josh McDowell’s ministry has an article about that process here. A second historical reason that attests to the reliability of that very careful process is what we learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before they were discovered and catalogued, there was significant scholarly doubt regarding the reliability of the Old Testament in particular – we simply didn’t have very many old manuscripts of it. The Dead Sea Scrolls was a uniquely early collection of Old Testament manuscripts that showed themselves remarkably consistent with the Old Testament manuscripts we had from centuries later. In this sense the Dead Sea Scrolls served as a sort of “case study” attesting to the reliability of the Jewish scribal process, giving us a “before” and “after” a period of transmission and showing us surprising consistency, even across hundreds of years (which gives us valid reasons to trust that in the span of 60 years, say, in between the writing of John and our first manuscript, there weren’t the kind of changes some people suspect).

But a third reason why the “copying” process doesn’t trouble most ancient historians is that, in the case of the New Testament, we have so many copies! This is significant because, if someone were to try to “change” the New Testament documents, you would have to collect all the existing copies, destroy them, and then reissue your version. You’d have to try to make sure that not a single earlier manuscript escaped; otherwise, people could recognize the changes you made in your version. Something like this seems to have happened with the variant copies of the Qur’an under the caliph Uthman. But there is no such history with Christianity. Instead, the abundance of early manuscripts of the New Testament, in various languages across a wide geographic spread, tells historians that actually it would have been very hard to gather up all the versions and change them all. We do see some variants among the early manuscripts, but by and large these only serve to strengthen our confidence in the original version. To illustrate, we could imagine I asked a hundred people to copy out by hand this paragraph I’m writing now. There would certainly be some errors (especially since we don’t have the rich scribal tradition inherited from the Jews!), but it’s very unlikely all the errors would be the same. People would make errors in different places, but that would mean for any given error in one copy you’d then likely see the correct version in the other ninety-nine copies, so you could see the error for what it is. Scholars tell us there are as many as 24,000 early manuscripts of the New Testament from the first few centuries of Christian history. That huge number helps historians be more confident that the version of the Bible we have in our pews is indeed the version that was penned by the New Testament authors themselves.

I hope this is helpful Dan, at least as an answer to your first question! I’m not a Biblical scholar, so I’ll refer you to the experts for your own reading. I would check out books like, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg, Can we Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams, and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. At the more popular level, Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ has been a classic for me, as well as Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Here’s also a neat little video a friend of mine put together on this question here.

I’ll see if I can get to your other questions later this week!

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Definitely is. Thank you so much. Will dive into the resources.

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Hi Dan,

You’re right that John 21:25 says that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” If I understand you right, you’re raising the question, how did the books for the New Testament get chosen? Would any book that talked about Jesus’ deeds be included? How do we decide what the “scriptura” is in “sola scriptura”?

I love this question because it gets us thinking not just about the Bible as a historical document (although it is!) but also about the idea of the Bible being “God’s Word.”

A book that’s been key in my thinking through this is a volume edited by DA Carson called Scripture and Truth, which came out back in the days when there were a lot of conversations about what does it mean that the Bible is “inerrant” (still an important question today!). That book introduced me to the idea that Christians should take their view of the Bible, from Jesus’ view of the Bible. After all, if Jesus really was God – we need to take seriously what he had to say! And Jesus had things to say about the Bible. Of course, “the Bible” for Jesus was the Hebrew Scriptures, so we’ll have to start there.

When we look at what Jesus said about the Hebrew Scriptures, we see he had an immensely high view of them. He says things like “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), he tells us that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law” (Matthew 5:18-19). Jesus says that David, in writing the psalms was “speaking by the Holy Spirit” (Mark 10:36). We see Jesus quoting from all the major sections of Hebrew Scriptures – Torah, Psalms, Prophets (even lesser prophets like Jonah!) – and throughout treating it as God’s word and utterly authoritative.

But we also see Jesus anticipate the writing of another Scriptures. In John 16, he tells the disciples about the coming of the Spirit. Now, because we know the Spirit comes to all believers, we know that much of what Jesus says in this passage applies to all Christians. Nevertheless, I think a good case can be made that one part of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit was meant for the apostles especially; Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). In this verse, many have argued that Jesus is giving the apostles a special authority to write a new Scripture; he is promising that the Spirit will guide the apostles in a particularly special way.

I think by way of evidence that this is what Jesus meant, we can see that the New Testament authors saw themselves and one another as writing Scripture. Paul writes, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 2:13, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit.” We know Peter saw Paul’s letters as inspired Scripture; in 2 Peter 3:16 he writes, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” We see, in turn, Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 quoting from Luke 10:7 and treating it as Scripture, “For the Scripture says… the laborer deserves his wages.”

As the early church discerned which texts were included in the Bible, one of their key criteria (based on passages like this one) was whether the text could be traced to the testimony of an apostle, who had seen Christ risen from the dead. It’s worth noting that this would include the writings of Paul, “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9), as well as books like Mark, which though not written by an apostle were based on an apostle’s testimony (Peter in this case). The early church also looked at criteria such as non-contradiction (whether the text fits with the Old Testament), catholicity (whether the text was accepted across the whole Christian world, and not just a particular region), inspiration (whether there is evidence of self-attestation as inspired text), and how early the text was written. The canonization of the New Testament did not happen at Nicea in 325 under Constantine’s heavy hand – as is sometimes said – but was rather a gradual process culminating with Synod of Hippo in 393AD. But to see an early example of this process in progress, check out the Muratorian Fragment possibly dating from as early as 170AD, which included a list of 20+ books now in the New Testament. It was encouraging to my faith to learn that, even from the perspective of the most skeptical scholars today, the earliest accounts we have of Jesus are those that are in the New Testament. The other books that didn’t “make the cut,” like the Gospel of Thomas, were all written later (sometimes much later) and don’t meet the other criteria the early church used. I’m finding the more I learn about the history of the Bible, the more confident I am becoming about its historical validity, as well as its validity as the Holy Scripture that God, by his Spirit, sovereignly put together.

In terms of your question on the differences in terms of the versions of the Old Testament used by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, here’s a response written on that coming from a Protestant perspective. I believe, again, a guiding principle for us is what Jesus would have considered the Hebrew Scriptures to contain.

I hope that’s helpful, Dan. Thanks again for your great questions. Sorry for writing you a book!

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Thank you Logan. I asked a tough subject, thank you for the detailed answer.

God Bless

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