The Historical Reliablity of the New Testament

The Historical Reliablity of the New Testament

The Historical Reliablity of the New Testament

Can you trust an ever changing medical report for treatment? Would you trust a history book if it changes every day? You will not and rightly so. How do we, then, trust the New Testament, which has been copied numerous times before it reached us? George A Paul looks at these issues in his extensive and in depth article on the Historical Reliablity of the New Testament.

Can you trust an ever changing medical report for treatment? Would you trust a history book if it changes every day? You will not and rightly so. How do we, then, trust the New Testament, which has been copied numerous times before it reached us? Many would say we can’t trust them as people would have made mistakes while copying. Before we conclude this we must ask, what kind of evidence we need to declare, “We can trust the New Testament” and how much evidence is enough evidence. In his book Introduction to Research in English Literary History, military historian Dr. C. Sanders offers criteria for establishing the reliability and accuracy of any piece of  literature from antiquity.  There are three basic tests that Sanders identified for deciding if an ancient document is reliable:

1.       Bibliographical Test
2.       Internal Test
3.       External Test.

We will examine and study each of these tests we look at the first test, The Bibliographical Test.

The bibliographical test seeks to determine whether the existing or extant copies of a document are reliable reproductions of the wordings of the original document and the time interval between the original and the copy in existence. In order to do this we ask…….

1.   Do we have the original text or autograph written by the author? The answer would be no, we do not have the original or the autograph written by the apostles or their associates.

2.   Do we have copies of the original text? How many copies do we have? We ask this to compare them with one another to know the reliability of textual transmission over long period of time. Compared to other ancient books, we have an abundance of copies of the New Testament, numbering to 5664. We can use this to compare and know the textual reliability and variation.

3.  What is the time difference between the original and the earliest existing copy? If the earliest copies we have were written hundreds or thousands of years after the original then lot of changes could have been made and we would not know it. A short interval of time would increase our assurance of reliability of copies by comparing the earliest to the latest copy. The time difference between the original and the earliest existing copy is 50 years this reduces the probability of changing the text.

4. Where were the copies found? If all were found in one place then collusion or secret agreement or cooperation for an illegal or deceitful purpose is possible. If the copies are far removed by time and location such collusion is not possible. The copies were found in Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Italy etc. This reduces collusion and in fact would make collusion very difficult and impossible

5. What is the variance in the copies? Can we construct the original text from the existing copies? If there are significant differences when we compare all the available copies then the original cannot be constructed. But if the differences and variance is minor and few then the original can be constructed. It is true that there are some variations in the many thousands of manuscripts available but the vast majority are very minor spellings, differences in phraseology, etc. (modern translations often note the differences in footnotes) Only 1/2 of one percent is in question (compared to 5 percent for Homer’s, Illiad). Moreover people who find fault have a funny way of counting, if one single word is misspelled in 3,000 different manuscripts, this is counted as 3,000variants or reading.

6.  What would be the percentage of accuracy in such construction? About accuracy we have to ask can we construct Plato’s Dialogues accurately with just 7 copies and the oldest existing copy is from 900 A.D, that is 1300 years after Plato wrote Dialogues. This evidence would not be sufficient even to say that Plato actually wrote the Dialogues, but if we ask, can we construct the New Testament accurately from 5664 copies? The answer would be yes.

This is what Norman Geisler studying the abundance of available copies, concluded when he said….  “The importance of the sheer number of manuscript copies cannot be overstated. As there are no known extant (currently existing) original manuscripts of the Bible. Fortunately, however, the abundance of manuscript copies makes it possible to reconstruct the original with virtually complete accuracy.” Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986, p. 386.

More over Geisler and Nix say, “The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts that any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book-a form that is 99.5 percent pure.”

“Westcott and Hort, in the 1870’s, state that the New Testament text remains over 98.3 percent pure no matter whether one uses the Textus Receptus or their own Greek text which was largely based on Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus.

James White, on p. 40 of his book The King James Only Controversy states: “The reality is that the amount of variation between the two most extremely different manuscripts of the New Testament would not fundamentally altar the message of the Scriptures! I make this statement (1) fully aware of the wide range of textual variants in the New Testament, and (2) painfully aware of the strong attacks upon those who have made similar statements in the past.”

The truth of the above analysis can also be seen in this chart.   




Date Written

Earliest Copies

Time Gap

Number of Copies


Gallic Wars

100 – 44 B.C.

c. 900 A.D.

c. 1000 years




384 – 321 B.C.

c. 1100 A.D.

c. 1400 years



The Jewish War

37 – 100 A.D.

c. 900 A.D.

c. 800 years




9th Century B.C.

c. 400 B.C.

c. 400 years



The Histories of Herodotus

485 – 430 B.C.

c. 900 A.D.

c. 1300 years



History of Rome

64 B.C. – 17 A.D.

c. 300 A.D. (partial)c. 900 A.D. (mostly)

c. 300 years c. 900 years

1 partial19 copies



428 – 347 B.C.

c. 900 A.D.

c. 1300 years


Pliny the Elder

Natural History

23 – 79 A.D.

c. 850 A.D.

c. 800 years



Annals of Imperial Rome

55 – 118 A.D.

c. 1100 A.D.

c. 1000 years



History of the Peloponnesian War

455 –400 B.C.

c. 900 A.D.

c. 1300 years


The New Testament

Matthew to Revelation

50 – 100 A.D.

c. 114 (fragments)c. 200 (books)c. 250 (most of N.T.)c. 325 (complete N.T.)

c. 50 yearsc. 100 yearsc. 150 yearsc. 225 years


Keeping these facts in mind historically and textually the New Testament is 800 times more reliable then Plato’s Dialogues. If we have to compare the reliability of the text by studying the textual variants, we have to study the text from earliest surviving copy to the latest surviving copy of the document. We cannot do this with any ancient book except the New Testament as we are in darkness about the historical and textual transmission of all the ancient books. The closest we can come is 300 years for Livy’s History of Rome and with Plato’s Dialogues we are in darkness for 1300 years as there isn’t any bibliographical evidence for 1300 years. Yet no one would say, “Plato’s Dialogues were creation of a person living in 900 A.D”. Compared to any ancient book we can trust the historical and textual transmission of the New Testament since the oldest surviving copy of N.T dates to 114 A.D. with a time gap of just 50 years from the original. More over additions and deletions are more probable and possible in 1300 years than in 50 years. So we can conclude that the New Testament is more reliable than any ancient book and if one can accept the textual and historical reliability of Plato’s Dialogues with out any evidence for 1300 years from the time it was written then one should accept the New Testament which has 800 times more bibliographical evidence. In light of this it would be reasonable to accept the New Testament as a historically reliable document and it would be fideism to accept all other ancient books including dialogues as historically reliable.

So we see that the New Testament clears Bibliographical test with flying colors. With out having the original, having only the copies, with all variants in text and after 2000 plus years, “today” if we could be 99.5 percent accurate in constructing the New Testament then we have to conclude that the transmission was accurate and that the original was 100 percent pure.

Internal Evidence Test

Suppose a doctor works with an assumption, “all are sick until proved healthy”, would you consult such a doctor? If you do you will be sick by default. What about a judge who assumes, “all are guilty until proved innocent”? Such a judge will condemn you even if you’re innocent. I think we would all agree that a doctor and a judge who functions with such assumptions must be sent to an asylum. The same is true for any book, it must be assumed and accepted

as healthy until sickness is detected and it must be acknowledged and approved as innocent and righteous until found guilty, this is the assumption we bring to our second test, The Internal Evidence Test.

In the Internal evidence test one must listen to the claims of the documents under analysis and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.   In the Bible no contradictions have been proven and many alleged contradictions have been cleared by archaeology and systematic understanding. A lack of systematic theology has led to the confusion of many.

One of the chief issues in internal evidence is whether or not we have eyewitness testimony. The New Testament accounts of the life of Christ were written by eyewitnesses or by people relating the accounts of the eyewitnesses of the actual events. Luke 1:1-3 2; Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:3; John 19:35; Luke 3:1. So you might conclude that this certifies the accuracy of what the witness retained and wrote down.

Another issue in the internal test is the consistency of the reports. If two writers present testimony that is contradictory, doubt is cast on the integrity of one or both records but Norman Geisler in ‘When Critics Ask’ says: The Bible is without mistake, but the critics are not. All their allegations of error in the Bible are based on some error of their own. Their mistakes fall into the following main categories.

1.       Assuming that the unexplained is not explainable
2.       Presuming the Bible guilty until proven innocent
3.       Confusing our fallible interpretations with God’s infallible revelation
4.       Failing to understand the context of the passage.
5.       Neglecting to interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones
6.       Basing a teaching on an obscure passage
7.       Forgetting that the Bible is a human book with human characteristics
8.       Assuming that a partial report is a false report
9.       Demanding that NT citations of the OT always be exact quotations
10.   Assuming that divergent accounts are false ones
11.   Presuming that the Bible approves of all its records
12.   Forgetting that the Bible uses non-technical, everyday language
13.   Assuming that round numbers are false
14.   Neglecting to note that the bible uses different literary devices
15.   Forgetting that only the original text, not every copy of scripture, is without error
16.   Confusing general statements with universal ones
17.   Forgetting that latter revelation supersedes previous revelation

When we read the bible with out committing the above mentioned mistakes and considering the following points mentioned below we will find the bible to be consistent than any other book.

1.       Language gap
2.       Cultural Gap
3.       Geographical Gap
4.       Historical Gap
5.       Complete agreement on the main points
6.       Complete agreement on significant details supporting the main points.

When one interprets the bible forgetting the above mentioned points they would say there are contradictions in the bible.

May be an example would be of great help than all these principles. In Matthew 27: 5; and in Acts 1:18; we read different accounts about the death of Judas. Matthew records the death by hanging and Luke in Acts say, he fell down and his body burst open.

Some scholars conclude this to be divergent irreconcilable accounts but a careful reading taking all the above criteria will clarify the issue. If the branch from which Judas hung himself was dead and dry – and there are many trees that match this description even to this day on the brink of the canyon that tradition identifies as the place where Judas died – it would take only one strong gust of wind to yank the heavy corpse and split the branch to which it was attached and plunge both with great force into the bottom of the chasm below. There is indication that a strong wind arose at the hour Christ died and ripped the great curtain inside the temple from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51)  So we see these accounts are not contradictory, but mutually complementary. Judas hung himself exactly as Matthew affirms that he did. The account in Acts simply adds that Judas fell, and his body opened up at the middle and his intestines gushed out.

For a skeptic we can cite examples of accurate interpretation until Christ returns, but because of space and time this would suffice. Consequently from 17 principles of error, 6 rules of study which we have to apply while reading any ancient text and an example, we can conclude 1. There are no contradictions in the bible. 2. The New Testament passes the internal consistency test.


External evidence test

If I state, I parked my car under the tree then upon investigation one must find a tree and under it must be my car which opens with the key I have. If you don’t find my car parked under the tree then one must not assume that I don’t have a car, there can be other reasons why the car isn’t there under the tree. ex: it could have been stolen. Exactly the same test can be applied with any statement in the bible and this is our third test known as External Evidence Test.

External evidence test asks whether other historical and archaeological materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents themselves.

Affirmation by historian and Citations by the church fathers as external evidence: the affirmation by historians would be like friends, enemies and strangers, speaking about my grandfather’s death. If all contemporaries of my grandfather and people living immediately after the incident say the same thing but in different ways and styles about my grandfathers life, death and burial then one has to conclude, he lived, died and was buried. But suppose after 200 years a kid who is 10 years old declares, “I did not see your grandfather neither I saw him die,” therefore “your grandfather did not exist neither he died nor was he buried”, should one believe the kid? The person who denies my grandfather’s existence, death and burial because of the kids testimony would be harebrained.

Exactly in a similar manner several authors of antiquity wrote about Jesus as a person of history. Among them were Tacitus, Josephus, Seutonius, and Pliny the Younger. Over here I would just mention two examples of the historians and for more information you can check the links.

Cornelius Tacitus (A.D 55-120): One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome is a primary source for much of what is known about life in the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. In this treatise, Tacitus describes the great fire of Rome during the reign of Nero and the emperor’s subsequent persecution of the Christians there.  He states: “Nero created s

capegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called ‘Christians’….Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate” (Annals 15:44). Another historian

Flavius Josephus who lived in A.D 37-100 was a first century Jewish historian and general, who took part in the Jewish revolt against the Romans. Writing about Jesus he said….    “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” Antiquities of the Jews, book XVIII, Chapter 3.3.

Citations by the church fathers

Of the four Gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. This includes 268 by Justin Martyr (100-165), 1038 by Irenaeus (active in the late second century), 1017 by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 155-ca. 220), 9231 by Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254), 3822 by Tertullian (ca. 160s-ca. 220), 734 by Hippolytus (d. ca. 236), and 3258 by Eusebius (ca. 265-ca.339; Geisler, 431).

Clement of Rome cited Matthew, John, and 1 Corinthians, and 95 to 97. Ignatius referred to six Pauline epistles in about 110, and between 110 and 150 Polycarp quoted from all four gospels, Acts, and most of Paul’s epistles. Shepherd of Hermas (115-140) cited Matthew, Mark, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Didache (120-150) referred to Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Papias, companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, quoted John. This argues powerfully that the gospels were in existence before the end of the first century, while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive.

Sir David Dalrymple was considering the large amount of New Testament evidence when someone asked him, “Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries? After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded: “Look at those books. You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.” Dalrymple, as cited in Leach, Charles. Our Bible. How We Got It. Chicago: Moody Press, 1898, p. 35, 36.

So from the testimony of historians, church fathers and Sir David Dalrymple construction of the entire New Testament from the church fathers expect 11 verses we can conclude,  1. Bible is a book well attested by friends and foes, 2. Jesus Christ and Christianity was not an invention of men 3. It shows and confirms that the entire New Testament was available to the church fathers right from the time it was written but the originals could have been lost when the antagonist burnt the book we revere.

Archaeology as external evidence:

Archaeology is the scientific study of the physical evidence of past human societies recovered through the excavation. Archaeologists not only attempt to discover and describe past cultures, but also to formulate explanations for the development of cultures. Example: If archaeologists excavate a monkey that has a genetic match with Darwin then the evidence would prove that Darwin’s grandfather was a monkey. The same rule would be true for the history mentioned in the Bible.

One must not just excavate but must find a match in the bible. There can be many excavations that have nothing to do with the bible, and there can be excavations that match or disprove the bible. We can confidently say that there aren’t any archaeological evidence that has disproved the history as found in the bible but there are numerous which confirm.

While discussing about archaeology one must bare in mind the fact that the New Testament is not a pure history book, however history is mentioned to the extent it serves the message of the Bible and such mention of history is asserted to be accurate, with no margin of error (Acts 1:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). So one must not expect to find a systematic history in the bible as one finds in a history book but, if archaeology confirms with out contradicting the history mentioned in the bible then Bible would be a historically reliable book. With this logical assumption let’s examine the archaeological evidence of the bible.

Sir William M. Ramsay (1851-1939) an eminent archaeologist had been educated at the universities of Aberdeen (Scotland) and at Oxford. In his theological pursuits, however, he had fallen victim to the radical theories of German critics like F.C. Baur. He came to question the historical accuracy of the New Testament. He thus decided that he would do on-site research in some of the Bible lands—where he fully expected to disprove the Scriptures in numerous particulars. Accordingly, in 1890 he set out on his adventure. Once held that Luke’s writings were not historically sound. His own subsequent investigation of near-eastern archaeology forced him to reverse his position and conclude that “Luke is a historian of the first rank.”

Here’s what some of the great archaeologists and students of archaeology had to say about how material remains of past human life and activities affected the Bible.

Nelson Glueck – “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted a biblical reference.”

William F. Albright – “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament traditions.”

F.F. Bruce – “Where Luke has been suspected of inaccuracy, and accuracy has been vindicated by some inscriptional evidence, it may be legitimate to say archaeology has confirmed the New Testament record.”

Merrill Unger – “Old Testament archaeology has rediscovered whole nations, resurrected important peoples, and in a most astonishing manner filled in historical gaps, adding immeasurably to the knowledge of biblical backgrounds.”

Miller Burrows – “Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics. It has shown in a number of instances that  these views rest on false assumptions and unreal, artificial schemes of historical development … The excessive skepticism of many liberal theologians stems not from a careful evaluation of the available data, but from an enormous predisposition against the supernatural.”

It is not just what people had to say, archeology confirms the crucifixion.

In 1878 a stone slab was found in Nazareth with a decree from Emper or Claudius who reigned from 41-54 A.D. The stone slab confirms what Matthew says in 22:11-15; after resurrection the soldiers were asked to lie by saying, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.” This news could have reached the governor’s ears and by some means, reached all the way to Rome. The emperor, Claudius sent word back to Palestine. His “d

ecree,” originally written in Latin and translated into Greek, was posted in, of all the places, even in the obscure village of “the Nazarene.” The inscription read,


The inscription states that graves must not be disturbed nor bodies to be removed. The punishment on other decrees is a fine but this one threatens death and comes very close to the time of the resurrection. This was probably due to Claudius investigating the riots of 49 A.D. He had certainly heard of the resurrection and did not want any similar incidents. This decree was probably made in connection with the Apostles’ preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and the Jewish lie that the body had been stolen.

We can cite many such examples and testimony from archaeology and archaeologists which can run into thousands of pages but brevity would not allow that. So this would suffice to prove that archaeology has always confirmed the Bible as a reliable book.

Prophecy as an external evidence test:

The definition of external evidence would allow us to use fulfilled Prophecy as an external test. We can check if there are any prophecies mentioned in the bible and if the prophecies and if they are fulfilled then Bible can be accepted as a prophetic book, based on the fulfilled prophecies. Moreover if there is a prophecy that hasn’t been fulfilled it will and may be fulfilled in the future and because of the internal evidence test we can’t argue against the Bible from unfulfilled prophecy. Any mention of contradictory record of prophecy will be a mistake of the prophet who prophesied and not a mistake in the Biblical record because the bible also records prophecies of false prophets and calls them as false. Deut 18:18-22; Jer 28: 15-17; applying this principle if we study biblical prophecies we see that they have been fulfilled to the dot.

Below are two such examples of fulfilled prophesies we can mention such fulfilled prophesies in thousands but because of conciseness two would suffice.

The prophecy in Luke 20:43,44; the destruction of the temple was fulfilled literally in A.D. 70

In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus Predicts that Chorazin and Bethsaida will incur a great judgment then Tyre and Sidon, and that Capernaum will suffer a worse fate then the city of Sodom. This prophecy was fulfilled literally the record of which is given by George Davis in his Bible Prophecies Fulfilled Today.

Davis says, “Earthquake destroyed Capernaum about A.D. 400 and doubtless Chorazin and Bethsaida perished at the same time.

Davis expands this and says  An Ancient Bethsaida’s situation on the shore of the Sea of Galilee had been so beautiful that about A.D 700, King Albalid 1 of Damascus decided to build a magnificent winter palace on the site of the ruined city. For fifteen years his workmen labored erecting the palace. Then King Albalid died, and the great palace was never completed. As the centuries rolled by, the palace became mere ruins. Today about all that remains of its former grandeur are some foundations stone and some unfinished mosaic flooring. Archaeologists have covered up this mosaic with sand, lest it too should be carried away by vandals, and thus all traces of the palace should be lost.

Davis explains the situation of Capernaum: For long centuries the synagogue lay buried under the earth like the rest of the destroyed city….. A man conceived the idea of restoring the ancient synagogue from its ruins. At length part of the walls of the building were re-erected, and a number of the pillars were put in the places. Then the unexpected happened. The architect of the partly restored synagogue suddenly died- just as King Albalid had died centuries ago before his palace in Bethsaida was completed.

Davis concludes the prophecy with these comments:  “not one word of judgment was pronounced on the city of Tiberias by out Lord. It has been partly destroyed several times but it has always been rebuilt.” The fulfilled prophecies conclusively show the bible to be a prophetic book given by God. Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense (ch7). George Davis, Bible Prophecies Fulfilled Today.

The above evidences are overwhelmingly sufficient to say,  1. The New Testament was accurately transmitted and copied. 2. The New Testament is historically reliable then any other ancient book. 3. The New Testament was extant as in the present right from the beginning. 4. The New Testament is prophetic book. 5. We can trust the present Bible completely and put our faith in it and in the God of the Bible.


Sanders, Introduction to Research in English Literary History (New York: Macmillan, 1952),144ff.
Norman Geisler & Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations, p254.
A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986. ISBN: 0-8024-2916-5.
Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands A verdict volume1.
Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations chapter 12.
Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense
Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations chapter 12.



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2 Responses

  1. gud work ,may GOD bless you

  2. This team is doing amazing works, … thank you.
    Your are truly blessed, … thanks be to the Lamb of God!
    Brother Jerry Thomas, I’ve been listening to several of your discussions, debates and explanations of the holy scripture and feel you are helping me see more of Jesus truth – thank you, Mr. Jerry Thomas!

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