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“What does it mean to say the New Testament is ‘Historically Reliable?’”

By Eric Chabot, CJFM Midwest Representative  

Over the years I have seen more than my share of articles and books written on what is called "The Historical Reliability of the New Testament."

The irony is that hardly any of them have actually defined what "historically reliable" even means.

I recently finished Michael Bird’s book The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus.  In it, he mentions  the issue of ‘historically reliability.’ He says:

“What is more, when we say that the Gospels are historically reliable, we do not mean that they were intended to be judged by the standards of modern historiography or that they are the ancient equivalent of what it would have been like to follow Jesus around with a hidden video camera. They are historically rooted in the memories of the earliest eyewitnesses. ”

“While I think the overall historical reliability of the Gospels is vitally important, lest we treat them as religiously laden fiction, we should not import anachronistic and modernist criteria of historical reality into our treatment of the Gospels and make it a condition for theological validity.”

This is helpful. Bird is mostly talking about genre criticism and eyewitness memory. But let’s take it a bit further. I think most, if not all  the following issues come up when people think of what we mean by ‘historically reliable.’

1. Archaeological/External Evidence: Are the people and events mentioned in the New Testament based on real, ‘historical’ people. Did they exist? Have we found archaeological confirmation of many of the geographical locations, cities, events? There has been quite a bit written on this topic. I have included some posts on my own blog on this issue:

Archeology and the Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Peter S. Williams

84 Confirmed Facts in the Last 16 Chapters of the Book of Acts

59 Confirmed or Historically Probable Facts in the Gospel of John




Craig Evans: Is the Bible Reliable?

2. Is the New Testament based on ‘eyewitness testimony?’ Of course, we need to ask what book we are talking about here. The Gospels? Paul? There still is a lot of ignorance about this issue. Here are some resources on this topic:

Are the Gospels a Reliable Eyewitness Account of the Life of Jesus?

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

Why We Should Expect Witnesses to Disagree

Who wrote the Gospels? Dr. Timothy McGrew

The Hearsay Objection: How Can the Gospels Be Eyewitness Accounts If They Include Things the Writers Didn’t See?

Why Should We Trust the Gospels When Eyewitness Testimony Is So Unreliable?

Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony? The Test of Personal Names

Can A Witness Be Trusted If He Can’t Be Cross-Examined?

3. Can we offer responses to every single ‘apparent contradiction’ in the New Testament? Here, people like Bart Ehrman makes this out to be a big ticket item. It is an ‘all or nothing’ issue. Once again, there has been more than enough responses to this issue as well.

Ten Principles When Considering Alleged Bible Contradictions: James Warner Wallace

Old News! Approaching Contradictions in the Gospels

Michael Licona on ancient biography and harmonizing Bible contradictions

4. Can we expect people to accept something as ‘historically reliable’ if we have documents recording resurrections, people walking on water, etc?  Can the historical method ever allow for any explanation that isn’t a natural explanation? This is a methodological issue that is still being debated. Mike Licona talks about that here.

5. Has the New Testament been faithfully transmitted? In this case, the question is whether the New Testament has been faithfully transmitted. In other words, what does textual criticism have to say about this issue? Here are the following sources:

Norman Geisler: A Note on the Percent of the Accuracy of the New Testament Text

Inerrancy and the Text of the New Testament: Assessing the Logic of the Agnostic View by Daniel Wallace

Dr. Daniel Wallace: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered

Can We Construct The Entire New Testament From the Writings of the Church Fathers?

Is the Bible Today What Was Originally Written? By Andreas J. Köstenberger

An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts

A Response to Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: Dr. Thomas Howe

Wallace, Daniel B: The Gospel According to Bart: A Review of Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

So these are some of the things that come up when discussing The Historical Reliability of the New Testament. Let’s make sure we are defining our terms!

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