Is the New Testament a reliable source for the historical claims of Christianity?
Brian Holdsworth discusses the reliability of the Bible.
I often hear from skeptics and atheists on my channel who say that there’s no evidence for the things that Christians believe about Jesus. As soon as they are presented with the volumes of written material about the life and miracles of Jesus, including those of the New Testament, the immediate response is that those sources are inadmissible because they are written by Christians and this makes them biased and, therefore, unreliable.
The first problem with this objection is that it doesn’t follow. Just because someone believes the things that they’ve recorded, doesn’t mean that they aren’t telling the truth. In fact, that’s a pretty strange objection.
If I were an objective observer of the events of the events of Jesus’s life, and I witness miracles and his resurrection from the dead, I wouldn’t just record those events and then remain neutral. I’d likely become a follower of Jesus.
Saying you won’t believe in something without evidence and then refusing the evidence on grounds that it supports a position that contradicts your assumptions and then claiming that there is no evidence because you’ve refused any possible evidence that could be offered is a sure sign that the only thing that will satisfy you is your own prejudices.
The fact that there are hardly any sources about Jesus that talk about him the way tepid currents within secular society today talk about him is because our version of Jesus, the kind, semi-socialist, hippy, is not the Jesus of history. That version of Jesus is a modern invention fabricated from our own biases.
If Jesus really did the things that are claimed about him, then of course there wouldn’t be sources for him that just describe him as a groovy nomadic teacher and medicine man. The fact that nearly all the sources we have for them, which are substantial, describe him as a miracle worker, is evidence that… he actually was a miracle worker and a herald of the Kingdom of God.
Witnesses don’t take the time to document things that they aren’t convinced happened. So if someone were to witness the miracles of Jesus, and not be a hostile witness, they would, inevitably become a Christian which is why it’s logically incoherent to expect a non-Christian source to document the life of Jesus and include evidence for his divinity.
Dismissing historical sources of Jesus because those writers couldn’t help themselves but become his followers is like dismissing claims about Socrates because the primary sources we have for his unsurpassed wisdom are his students, like Plato. It’s like you’re saying, I won’t believe those sources until they confirm my presuppositions.
The second objection stems from this idea that the New Testament has been relentlessly copied through the centuries which created thousands of variants in the texts which means they can’t be relied upon to tell us what the original writers recorders.
And this might sound incriminating at first glance until you understand what it means. Unfortunately, when people hear something like this, they tend to conjure up an image of children playing the telephone game which always produces a message that is distinct from the original. And, even more embarrassingly, I’ve heard this illustration used by skeptics to make their case.
In the game of telephone, you get a message secretly transmitted by one person at a time with no outside accountability or scrutiny. So this means that at any point in the chain, one person has complete control over the transmission of the message. If they are malicious or careless with it, it won’t be passed on accurately.
But in the case of the early manuscripts of the New Testament. They weren’t copied and then the original destroyed and nor where they copied once. They were likely copied multiple times which could have produced several variants but if a particular source has 10 copies and one of them has a variant, all we have to do is compare it to the others to see if they have it too and if they don’t, then we know that it’s a variant. Even if the original manuscript is lost, you can piece together what it said by the copies that were made from it in this way.
Something else to consider about the variants is that, according to Professor Dan Wallace and other Biblical scholars, 75% of them are spelling mistakes, 15% are variations of synonyms which don’t compromise the meaning, 9% are variants that do impact the meaning, but are from later translations and can be compared to earlier ones, and about 1% are variants that do impact the meaning from early manuscripts. But, of that 1%, none of them affect the essential doctrines of Christianity, which Bart Ehrmen, who is often the source of skeptical positions, admits himself.