Is the New Testament story about Jesus reliable?

The reliability and historicity of the New Testament (NT) and indeed the Bible as a whole, is important. If the NT is not reliable then our knowledge of Jesus and the lives we live based on that knowledge could be built on shaky ground. Can we take the NT records seriously? After all, we are dealing with very ancient documents of which the originals have long since disappeared. The writers come from many walks of life, from fisherman to statesmen and there are a number of literary styles.
It is written consciously against an historical background, for in it are recorded names, places, time of days, time of year, day of the week, who the Roman officials and Jewish leaders at the time were and also what festivals were taking place. It sets the events within known historical parameters which can be checked out. Indeed the NT fits with the known first century laws and customs and Jesus’ life is also recorded by Roman historians as fact.
The NT documents were written within living memory of the events and thus there were plenty of people who could have challenged the accuracy of the descriptions laid down and the claims that were made.
The NT books were likely to have been written on paper (papyrus) with ink (2 John 12), and since the life expectancy of papyrus is not great the documents with apostolic authority would be often copied and widely circulated. In addition, if we only have copies (and many of them fragments) and not originals, then their reliability will to some extent hinge on how much the manuscripts we find agree with each other, how many there are of them and the time gap between copy and original.
David Jackman writes that “the number of early NT manuscripts, in whole or in part, is estimated as about 4000, so there is a vast resource of material by which to check potential scribal error…. If it is argued that a larger number of manuscripts may produce a larger number of possible errors, it also provides a much surer safeguard by which to identify them.” (1)   F.F. Bruce (2) also points out in contrast that there is comparatively meagre manuscript evidence for the classical Greek and Latin authors of the equivalent historical period (see below (3)).
 
Ancient writing
Thucydides’ History
Caesar’s Gallic Wars
Tacitus’ Histories
The four  Gospels
Date of original
460-400 BC
58 – 50 BC
100 AD
65 - 90 AD
Oldest surviving copy
900 AD + a few 1st century fragments
850 AD
800 AD
200 AD one fragment 130 AD
Time between original & copy
1300 years (fragments 400)
900 years
700 years
< 300 years
(earliest fragment 60 years)
No of ancient copies existing today
 8
 10
 2
many hundreds
We can have therefore more confidence in the NT documents than in some classical literature for which classical scholars claim unquestionable authenticity.
Translations were made for the early Church, and their existence today means scholars can cross-check and compare and get a clearer understanding of the underlying Greek. The original is also quoted in other non-biblical writings.
So, “far from the Bible having been changed or distorted down the centuries, it has been amazingly preserved with all the textual scholarship of the past 100 or more years” (1).
The documents telling us about Jesus would seem to be reliable, but the truth of Jesus and his claims needs to be seen to be worked out in the lives of his people – the Church.
 
(1) Opening up the Bible : by David Jackman published by Hodder and Stoughton 2003   p. 77,78
(2) Are New Testament Documents reliable? by FF Bruce published by IVP 1943 p 16,17
(3) The Case Against Christ by John Young published by Hodder and Stoughton 1986 p 87


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