Are the New Testament Writings Reliable?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 1:1-4

Were the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and are they faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ?

“The Case for Christian Faith” I am looking forward to talking to you about that. Let me tell you why and what is my hope. I hope that believers listening now will have their faith strengthened and confirmed, their hope and joy quickened. I hope that they will celebrate the Christian faith, live it out and share it. For others who may have had less exposure, maybe I can open up its riches, answer some questions, remove obstacles. Some listeners may be committed to other belief systems.

What I want for you is a fresh consideration of Christ and his claims. If you have them, maybe you’ll challenge some of your doubts, change your mind, and find Jesus as the way and truth.

For myself, I’m one seeking to be a follower of Jesus and a witness to his love and power. I’ve had my share of ups, downs and failings, but through the years Jesus has made himself real to me.

Here’s the question I’m exploring with you: Is this faith a faith that warrants your full confidence and commitment? Think first about this issue. “Are the New Testament writings reliable, especially the four Gospels?” That’s a basic question because that’s where we learn of Jesus. In fact, almost all that we know of Jesus comes from these four Gospels. I’m so grateful that there are four of them.

Evidence from History

Let’s look at some evidence from history. Were the Gospels really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Strictly speaking, these Gospels are anonymous. But we have the uniform testimony of the early church that for the first three it was Matthew the tax collector, Mark the companion of Peter, and Luke the beloved physician. There are no known competitors for the authorship of these three Gospels. Their origin is never in dispute.

The case with John’s Gospel is a little different. It’s agreed in the ancient world that John wrote it, but the question with some is, “Which John?” Papias in 125 A.D. refers to both, but it’s not clear if they are the same or separate persons. Papias says that Mark carefully recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations and that Matthew had preserved the teaching of Jesus.

Irenaeus, 180 A.D., says about each that they’re based on either direct or indirect eye-witness testimony. As with all New Testament books, he traces them back either to an apostle or to an apostolically guided community. There’s no good reason for assigning authorship of these Gospels to anyone else.

Did they arise during the First Century A.D.? Sometimes you hear people say, “Oh, these Gospels are really written hundreds of years afterwards.” But the scholars who study these things, all stripes of them, agree that Mark was written in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, and John in the 90s.

The New Testament letters, of course, are much earlier. Some come from the early 50s. And they contain creeds and hymns that had been long used, passages like Philippians 2 and 1 Corinthians 15. All of these are first-century documents, hardly leaving room for legendary accretions as some people have proposed.

So right now, is the New Testament that we now have substantially like what was first written? There’s an amazing abundance of extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that go back to very early times. There are copies of the New Testament in Greek dating from the fifth century A.D. They come from widely different places around the Mediterranean world.

So if you have a text that reads the same in Rome, in Alexandria and in Antioch you have a clear indication that this reading was part of the original text. New Testament scholars today estimate that we have more than 99 percent certainty that what we have in the New Testament today is precisely like the original writings.

Did the writers preserve a faithful record?

Now, did the writers preserve a faithful record? Some say, “Look, these things weren’t written down until quite awhile after Jesus’ death and resurrection.” That’s true. They circulated first by oral tradition. But it was very common in that part of the world in those days that students of rabbis and teachers would preserve very faithfully what their teachers had taught them. The ideal disciple was described as a “limed cistern,” somebody so retentive that anything poured into that cistern would not leak out, not even a single drop. And the ideal disciple, the faithful learner, who cared about his master and wanted his teaching to be preserved would be very careful about memorizing the things that his teacher had said.

Perhaps someone asks, “Were these writers honest? Would they really tell the truth?” There’s no evidence anywhere in the Gospels of any intent to deceive.

Were they consistent with each other? Yes. But because they are written by different individuals with a distinctive slant and a unique emphasis, they do enable us to see the life and ministry of Jesus from varied perspectives. With Matthew it’s the theme of fulfillment. With Mark, it’s the Gospel of action and the “Messianic Secret.” With Luke, it’s the Gospel of the love of God, of the true man Jesus, the Savior. With John, it’s Jesus’ self-witness as one with the Father. They are consistent in that they all focus on Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior. They all tell about his life and teaching, his death and resurrection. And all share a personal faith in the risen Christ.

“Were they promoting themselves? Did they have an axe to grind in this?” Well, they hardly presented themselves in a favorable light, did they? If you read the Gospels, no one among the disciples emerges as a hero. They bungle. They don’t get the point. They don’t understand Jesus, and they have rash ideas about what should be done. In the crisis they lose heart. They run away. They’re discouraged. And after his crucifixion they’re afraid and go into hiding. This is surely not an attempt to glorify any of the disciples. There’s only one shining figure in the gospel and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ himself to whom all of these writers are seeking to bear witness.

Now what was their purpose in writing? Listen to Luke’s words,

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us [apparently many people had tried to do this], just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, [very meticulous research] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus [probably a distinguished Gentile], so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Luke 1:1-4, nrsv

These Gospels were written to awaken faith in Jesus Christ where that was not present and also to strengthen and confirm it where people had begun to believe. John writes about his Gospel, “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Evidence of Power

All right, that’s the evidence from history. What about the evidence of power? Karl Barth has a marvelous statement about the Bible. “The whole truth is,” he writes, “that holy scripture in its utterly insignificant appearance has more power than all the rest of the world.”

It’s a book which has power to turn the tables on the critical enquirer. “You sit on the bank and throw your line over its waters baited with your questions, and you may pull out some pretty little fish and possibly go home and write learned treatises; but one fine day something uncanny in the Bible swallows your hook and pulls you into the water for a life-and-death struggle. You venture to judge the Bible and up to a point it submits to your judgment, and then you may find the roles reversed and you are in the dock and the Bible is the judge pronouncing sentence on you.” (Craig, p. 3).

It has the power, friends, to make Jesus Christ real to us. I love these words of E. Stanley Jones,

I do love this Book, for these words take me beyond the words to the Word. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and this book tells me of him. So I go through the Book to the Person and I water his feet with my tears of gratitude.”

And it has power to transform us when we read it. Perhaps you’ve heard about Jacob de Shazer, a U.S. pilot captured by the Japanese, tortured, threatened with imminent death, suffering hunger, cold, and dysentery. In May 1944 he was given a Bible. “You can keep it for three weeks,” said the guard. De Shazer grabbed it, clutched it to his chest and began reading. Scarcely sleeping, he read it through several times, memorizing key passages. On June 8, coming to Romans 10:9, he received Jesus Christ as his Savior. And, transformed by the Word of Scripture, he became a missionary to Japan. This is what the Bible does.

How to Find Out for Ourselves

Now how do you find out for yourself about the Bible? Well, not by listening to me or anybody else talk about it, but reading it, listening carefully to it, pondering it, savoring it. But always, friends, when you do that, remember to pray for God by his Spirit to enlighten you because that’s what all of us need if we’re to grasp the message of the Bible. We read that Jesus opened the understanding of his disciples so that they could understand the scriptures. And as you open the Bible and pray for the Spirit to guide you, God’s Word will become real to you. But you need also to prepare to live by what you learn. It’s not enough to listen to it. We’re to heed and obey it.

Once Billy Graham, apart by himself before an early crusade in California, was wrestling with the question, “Is the Bible reliable? Is it God’s Word?” It was a long struggle, finally bringing him to this: “I don’t understand everything about it, Lord, but I’m taking the Bible as your Word and I’ll base my life and ministry on its authority.” The rest is history. His ministry has introduced millions to Christ and the gospel, basing every message on the Scriptures.

Personal Witness

And for me the Bible, for over 60 years has been my bread, my life, my hope because it points me, as E. Stanley Jones said, to Jesus Christ my Lord.