Christianity is a historical faith: it relies on the accuracy of facts presented in the New Testament.  If it were proven that the events of the New Testament were false, particularly the Gospel accounts of the life and resurrection of Christ, the basis of Christianity could not survive.  It is therefore very important for Christians to understand the reasons for accepting the historical reliability of the New Testament.  Let’s examine the reasons to believe that the documents that our modern New Testament translations are based on are accurate to the original documents.

The documents containing the written account of the Gospels were not written down as the events occurred; they were written as eyewitness accounts in some cases, and passed as oral history and documented by another in other cases.  So one criticism against the accuracy of the Bible comes from a misunderstanding about the oral tradition of preservation of history during the times of the Bible. 

A tempting analogy is to the game of “telephone,” where a phrase is whispered from one person to the next, along a line of people, and at the end of the chain, the phrase is always much different than it started.  Thinking of it this way, it seems unlikely that our Bible could be reliable.  But this is not an accurate analogy to the way history was passed orally.  Part of the rules of “telephone” is that the phrase can only be spoken once, and only received from the person directly ahead in the chain.  The accurate preservation of oral history was an ingrained part of the culture of the day, and children were taught at a very early age to accurately memorize large amounts of text.  Facts can and were frequently verified by multiple sources “ahead in the chain” to insure accuracy, and the “phrase” would be repeated as many times as needed to get it right.

If we grant, then, accuracy of the oral preservation of history, then can we feel confident that the New Testament we have today reflects the original documents from which these oral and eyewitness histories were transcribed?  There is reason to think so.  Firstly, even though we do not have the original documents, there are more copies of the manuscripts of the New Testament which have been found, nearly 15,000 in Greek and other languages.  This far exceeds any other surviving written works of antiquity; the next closest is the Iliad by Homer, which only has 643 manuscripts.  (Incidentally, the lack of original documents also helps prevent idolatry.)

Secondly, we have very early dated manuscripts, copied from the originals within a very short period of time.  Undisputed manuscripts have been dated between A.D. 117-138, and some others that are in some circles disputed are dated between A.D. 50-70.  Even the confirmed documents with a larger gap between the original document and the copied manuscripts are vastly smaller than other surviving antique written works; the Iliad is next with a gap of about 500 years.

Finally, even had these manuscripts not been found and made available, the content of the New Testament could be reconstructed by examining the works of the early church fathers.  These men quoted the New Testament so much that all but eleven verses are found in their works.  So even without the multitude of manuscripts available for confirmation, the New Testament is also available through the written works of these men. 

The large number of copies, the early date of the copies to the originals, and the confirmation of the quotations of the church fathers each provide very good evidence which combined strongly suggests a very high level of accuracy in the transmission of the New Testament from the time it was first compiled until now.

If it is granted then that the texts available today are accurate of what was originally recorded about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, are there reasons to feel confident about the reliability of these recordings to have reported the truth of what actually happened?  There are several reasons to think so, by examining the testimony of the witnesses of the events recorded in the New Testament.

Firstly, the New Testament books were written before A.D. 100; early church fathers wrote letters containing most of the New Testament by this date, so the originals had to be earlier.  There is also reasoning to believe that most of the documents were written before A.D. 70; Jesus predicted that within the current generation, the temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:2,30) and it came to pass in A.D. 70.  Since there is no mention of this monumental event and fulfillment of Jesus prediction in the New Testament, a reasonable conclusion is that the New Testament was written before this took place.  Moreover, some of the New Testament could have been written as early as A.D. 40 or 50.[1]  This is an extremely small window of time between the event and its record, within the lifetime of the witnesses to the events, and could easily be verified by a skeptic.  With this small of a gap, it is reasonable to grant that the documents of the New Testament contain early testimony.

So what about eyewitnesses; are there any, and should their reports be considered reliable?  The New Testament contains many passages in which multiple independent authors claim to have witnessed the significant events in the life of Christ (Acts 10:39, 1 John 1:1-2, 2 Peter 5:1 to name a few).  These witness reports can be arguably considered accurate for several reasons.

For one reason, while each of the gospel accounts describe similar events, there are differences in the details of the accounts.  This is a confirming indicator of accurate independent testimony because if the authors had been involved in collusion to make up the events of the New Testament, we would expect their reports to be much more identical to one another.

Secondly, there is much corroborating evidence in the details of the New Testament reports that give credibility to them as reliable historical documents.  Luke and John, for example, both provide over 140 accurate eyewitness details concerning culture and geography of the times that, together with more than 30 references to real people, corroborated by secular sources like Josephus, make it reasonable to think the rest of their testimony is accurate as well.[2]

A third reason to believe that the testimony of the eyewitnesses was unembellished and accurate is because there were included embarrassing details about the witnesses themselves.  For example, Peter denies Christ while Jesus was on his way to the cross (Matthew 26:33-35), and others doubted that Jesus had risen, some even after they saw him (Matthew 28:17).  If the disciples had conspired to deceitfully record the Gospel accounts, they would surely have left out these embarrassing events, instead making themselves out to be more heroic founders of the faith.

Because of all these reasons, it is logical to trust the historical accuracy of the reports of the New Testament.  If the writers of the New Testament had in fact conspired to create the religion and wrote the New Testament around this plot, we should expect to see a document that would be very much different from what we actually have.

[1] Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004), 235-243.

[2] ibid. p. 256-270