'...the New Testament is unreliable'

by Rev Luci Heyn, Curate of this United Benefice.


‘People often say … the New Testament is unreliable.’

"The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book...more than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few are chosen for inclusion." p. 231 ‘The Da Vinci Code’, Dan Brown.

Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of quoting Dan Brown in church but this short quote from The da Vinci Code gives us a valuable insight into why ‘People often say … the New Testament is unreliable’. At a time when it seems fashionable to be cynical about the New Testament’s reliability, this is an issue we need to address, whether we are Christians, called to defend the New Testament’s validity as, an integral part of our faith, or, if we are just exploring the Christian faith, and are wrestling with this topic for the first time.

This morning I want to go right back to basics in terms of looking at what the NT is before exploring some of the main concerns that are raised in relation to its reliability. But for Christians it’s not just about our ability to prove the NT’s reliability, it’s about the New Testament’s continued relevance in our lives and how we respond to it. However, I’m keen for this not to be a completely standard ‘talk from the front’ this morning so, before I start to identify what I’ve found to be common concerns about the NT, I’d like you to first discuss with your neighbours, for just a couple of minutes, the kinds of questions that you have had for yourself, in relation to the New Testament, or perhaps issues you’ve discussed with people you know who are exploring the Christian faith. These may or may not tie in with what I’ve prepared and – if they don’t – well, I’ll have to come back to you on those points!

What is the New Testament?
The NT is formed from four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, a series of 21 letters (or epistles) and the Book of Revelation.

As a whole:

  • It records how prophecies from the Old Testament were met in Jesus.
  • It summarises his teaching.
  • It records his death and resurrection.
  • It shows us how his followers became aware of who Jesus was just as today our eyes and hearts can be opened to his significance.
  • In Acts we are told the story of the birth of the church followed by a collection of letters which describe some of the early experiences – both good and bad – of the churches that were established through the missionary activity of Paul and his colleagues. These letters still have much to teach us about how we should put Christ’s teaching into practice and how we should operate as a Christian community today.
  • Finally the apocalyptic Book of Revelation – one of the most puzzling books in the Bible – which describes Christ’s return.

The elements that form the New Testament were not written purely as a historical record, nor were they written as a biography of Jesus Christ. It was written with a particular purpose in mind – to build up the belief of believers and to convert unbelievers.

Common concerns about the New Testament’s reliability:
The books and letters of the New Testament were not written immediately after Christ’s death – how can we trust that the stories weren’t amended by the authors? It is now widely agreed that Mark’s gospel was the first of the gospels to be written, dating back to approx 30 years after the death of Jesus. Paul’s writings even earlier, some only 20 years beyond Jesus’ death. So, whilst not being written immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the time elapsed between those events and the letters and gospels being written fell within the life time of those who’d accompanied Jesus. In fact, Paul refers to this in 1 Corinthians 15 when he described the numbers of witnesses who were still alive at the time he was writing.

Clearly eyewitness accounts were important in terms of passing on the Good News with authority and credibility. The culture of the time expected it. At the time of choosing a successor to Judas, Acts 1: 21 tells us that the replacement disciple had to be one of the men who had accompanied them from the beginning. Jesus not only chose the disciples to accompany him during his ministry, and to be witnesses to his death and resurrection, but to be the keepers and sharers of his teaching. As those eyewitnesses (including the women, those who were actually there at Christ’s death and the first to know of his resurrection), became fewer in number, and the early church grew, there became a need to record their accounts. Whilst it is thought that most of Jesus’ closest followers formed some kind of written account of his life, only two of these gospels (John and Matthew) are part of our New Testament today with Mark and Luke being close associates of Paul.

The transmission of the stories in an oral form would have been very familiar to Jewish converts who were used to learning their faith stories in this way. Christ’s own lively, relevant and authoritative style would have been memorable; it would have stuck in the minds of those who heard it directly and we can expect its freshness would have continued as it was passed on. All the gospel writers, even the two direct eyewitnesses, would have drawn on the stories of a wide selection of those who’d shared all or part of Jesus’ ministry.

Why are there differences between the gospels? To what degree is each gospel writer editing their material?
A policeman friend of mine once told me that witness statements that matched too closely are always viewed with suspicion! We’ve all had the experience of witnessing an event to then hear other accounts which don’t tie in with our own recollection. This can explain some of the differences between the four gospel accounts. It may be more helpful to think of them as four portraits, each focussing on different facets of Christ. The contexts into which they were writing was also different – for example Matthew’s was writing primarily to Jewish converts and, so for Matthew, strongly portraying Christ as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophesies was very important.

However, when it comes to the recording of important information, there’s a reassuring sense of resonance between the gospels. The story of the resurrection is a good example. An initial read would suggest that significant variation but a sequence of events can be followed. Most importantly, all Gospels tell us that Christ had the ability to appear and disappear at will and that he initially only appeared to his followers.

So, in spite of the highly emotional state of those few eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and how each one of them would have interpreted what they say differently, there is an almost surprising consistency in the basic message.

Once written down, the New Testament has been translated so many times. How can we be sure that changes have not occurred in translation?

The first gospels were written in Greek. Whilst there are some 5000 fragments of Greek New Testament in existence, scholars estimate that there could have been as few as 50 complete New Testament’s and only a very small minority remain today. This is not surprising because, in its early history, the New Testament did not exist in the complete form we know today. Instead individual books would have been circulated.

The New Testament was rapidly translated into many other languages (there are 8000 portions of the New Testament in Latin in existence) and, even if we were dependent on pulling references from the early Christian writers and from other non-Greek languages, it would be possible to reconstruct the New Testament almost entirely without reference to the original Greek text. However, when we take into account the number of Greek New Testament fragments, and the fact that new translations have appeared consistently through the early centuries of the Christian church, the reliability of the transmission of material is strong compared to other writers of a similar era.

And what of the scribes who wrote out these early scripts – can we trust that they didn’t introduce their own adjustments? The answer is, yes, changes were often introduced but scholars can identify these ‘enhancements’. Westcott & Hort in 1881 on completion of their landmark recreation of the complete New Testament (in Greek) working from the earliest fragments that have been found, commented that the differences between these early texts only accounted for around 1000th of the New Testament.

Why were certain books chosen to be part of the New Testament and others left out? What about recently discovered ‘gospels’? The earliest ‘canon’ dates back to the 2nd century and the form which we know today came into being as early as 367 AD (Athanasius).

So how were the works chosen?
All works were ‘proved’ by particular criteria:

  • The rule of faith – they had to be orthodox on matters of belief and practice.
  • Apostolic tradition – had to originate from an apostle or an associate of an apostle. Authorship of some of the letters in particular were difficult to prove and it’s only recently that scholars have agreed that the pastoral epistles (Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy) were not written by Paul.
  • Extent of use. Books chosen were seen to be useful in terms of building up the early church and were therefore read widely within Christian communities.

In the last century other non-canonical gospels have been discovered, Thomas being one of the most famous – as I mentioned earlier, it is thought that most of the close followers of Jesus would have written their own ‘gospels’. The fragments of these gospels have been very small in number and have not been considered as significant because:

  • Some appear to sensationalise events (for example the number of miracles), out of balance with the other four gospels, suggesting inconsistency.
  • Some (like Thomas) are Gnostic in style, implying that Jesus’ message was only for those who achieved special knowledge, not the ‘good news’ for all that we understand the Christian gospels to be.

So what should be our response?
For Christians, the New Testament is not an historical document. Yes, it looks back and captures the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection but it’s much more than that. As Christians, we believe that the New Testament can change lives. It teaches us about the life of the man that, if we believe like his followers did, that he was the Son of God, he offers us ‘life in abundance’. An abundant life comes through assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have the hope of eternal life. Life viewed this way can be very different.

I’d like to close with a poem which shows the continuing power of the Word, in spite of worldly cynicism. After this there will be a few moments of silence to reflect on what your own response may be before we continue with our service.

The Bible

I do not love this book because it is
black enough to please Puritans,
holy enough to scare demons,
thick enough to stop bullets,
heavy enough to squash flies;
but because sometimes when I read it
I am moved
deeper than tears.

I do not love this book because
they say it is the very words of God,
and polish every dot and comma,
like golden ornaments
in an idolatrous temple;
but because sometimes when I read it
God speaks in a strange tongue
deeper than words.

I do not love this book because
the passionate preacher
beats the truth out of it
with his blunt fist
and sharp ideas
(for some use the book
to support their opinions,
as others might use it
to support their tables).

But I do love this book
because sometimes when I read it
I am disturbed by a truth
deeper than thought.

And when I read of Jesus,
then I know,
that he is the Truth,
the living Word of God,
whose Spirit moves my soul.

© Peter Dainty, taken from ‘The Electric Bible’, 2005, Kevin Mayhew Publishers

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