Post Author: Bill Pratt
In two previous posts, Darrell argued that the Greek New Testament (NT) that we have today is almost identical to the twenty-seven books that were originally written. These two posts can be found here and here. In this post and following posts, I want to establish an answer to the obvious next question. If the NT we have today is almost identical to the one originally written, that’s nice, but how do we know that what was written originally wasn’t a bunch of lies?
In other words, did the NT authors record fact or fiction? Were they trying to record real history or were they making up a story to convince people to follow them? Maybe what was written was so far removed from the real events that myth and legend overtook the truth. In order to get an answer to this question, we will use some of the same criteria that historians employ to determine whether a document is reliable – whether the authors can be trusted.
The first thing we want to know about a historical document is how close to the events it was written. The NT authors were primarily writing about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, who died around the year A.D. 33 (this fact is well-attested by ancient non-Christian historians). If we are to trust the accounts written about his life, then the closer the documents are to A.D. 33, the better we can trust them.
So dating the original NT books is extremely important. Note that we are talking about dating the original writings, not the manuscript copies that exist today. Even though we don’t have the originals, we can still use historical analysis to deduce roughly when they were written.
One additional reason that dating the books is important is due to the nature of legendary development. We’re all probably familiar with the way legends can develop about an event, given enough time. In fact, history is full of strange and outrageous stories of Jesus or the apostles doing bizarre things (e.g., Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having a child). The one thing these legends have in common is that they developed many generations and often hundreds of years removed from the time Jesus and the apostles lived.
For clarification, we are not talking about the development of lies or fabrications about an historical event, but the development of legend, which is defined as the outgrowth of a period of oral transmission of a tradition until the original facts have been lost.
In fact, historians have shown that it takes a minimum of three generations for legend to substantially corrupt core historical facts about an event. Usually, more than 3 generations are required, but there are no examples of legend significantly crowding out truth in 1 or 2 generations.
Why is this? As long as the eyewitnesses of an event are still alive, or their children, they will correct any legend that taints the true story. When the eyewitnesses and their children start to die, there are fewer people left to correct falsehood, so legend can creep in. This fact about history will prove useful in assessing the NT.
Next post, we will continue looking at this important question.