Tag Archives: New Testament Reliability

Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew? – #5 Post of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Although the author did not record his name within the text itself (a common practice in the ancient world), the first book found in the New Testament (NT) has historically been attributed to the writing of Matthew, a tax collector and one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.  Although some NT scholars doubt the authorship of Matthew, there are good reasons to believe that he was, indeed, the author of the first gospel.

There are at least two lines of evidence that can be rallied to the defense of Matthew: (1) the superscription of the ancient manuscripts and (2) the patristic witness.

A superscription is text added to an ancient manuscript by a scribe for purposes of identification; it acts as a title.  According to NT scholar D. Edmond Hiebert, the first gospel’s “identifying superscription, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew,’ is the oldest known witness concerning its authorship.”   Scholars believe the superscription was added as early as A.D. 125 and the “superscription is found on all known manuscripts of this gospel.”   This fact is a powerful testimony to the uniformity of evidence with regard to the authorship of Matthew.

The second line of evidence is the patristic witness.  The early church fathers were unanimous in crediting the gospel to Matthew.  Hiebert claims, “The earliest is the testimony of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, dating to the first half of the second century.”

Following Papias is Irenaeus “who wrote his famous Against Heresies around A.D. 185.”

The next church father to attribute authorship to Matthew is Origen, who wrote in the early third century.  He is quoted by Eusebius, who wrote in the early fourth century.

Finally, Eusebius himself, in the early fourth century, documents that Matthew wrote the first gospel.

There is an unbroken witness to Matthew as the author of the first gospel going back to at least the middle of the second century, and there is no contradictory witness found in any of the church fathers.

Due to the fragmentary nature of documentary evidence in the ancient world, our ability to trace back authorship to within 100 years of the original writing of the first Gospel is exceptional.  Surely this presents a persuasive case for Matthean authorship.

A Law Professor’s Analysis of the Gospels – Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, we discussed Simon Greenleaf’s conclusion that the Gospel writers’ testimony about Jesus Christ should be considered true, based on the canons of legal evidence, an area in which he was an undisputed expert.  Some skeptics, however, have argued that the standards for judging the credibility of the Gospels should be much higher than what Greenleaf has proposed.  It is to this question we now turn.

Greenleaf makes a strong case for the kind of evidence that skeptics should be requesting, with regard to the Gospel narratives.  Here I provide his detailed thoughts:

It should be observed that the subject of inquiry is a matter of fact, and not of abstract mathematical truth.  The latter alone is susceptible of that high degree of proof, usually termed demonstration, which excludes the possibility of error, and which therefore may reasonably be required in support of every mathematical deduction. . . . In the ordinary affairs of life we do not require nor expect demonstrative evidence, because it is inconsistent with the nature of matters of fact, and to insist on its production would be unreasonable and absurd. . . . The error of the skeptic consists in . . . demanding demonstrative evidence concerning things which are not susceptible of any other than moral evidence alone, and of which the utmost that can be said is that there is no reasonable doubt about their truth.

In the case of the Gospel narratives, “A proposition of fact is proved, when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence.”  What is competent and satisfactory evidence?

By competent evidence is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved it requires; and by satisfactory evidence is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt.  The circumstances which will amount to this degree of proof can never be previously defined; the only legal test to which they can be subjected is their sufficiency to satisfy the mind and conscience of a man of common prudence and discretion, and so to convince him, that he could venture to act upon that conviction in matters of the highest concern and importance to his own interests. . . . When we have this degree of evidence, it is unreasonable to require more.  A juror would violate his oath, if he should refuse to acquit or condemn a person charged with an offense, where this measure of proof was adduced.

Greenleaf rejects the call for apodictic proof in the case of the Gospel testimonies because nobody ever requires this kind of evidence when it comes to the affairs of human history.  We only require enough evidence to show that the events were probable.  Even in courts of law, where the jury must determine whether a defendant is to die for his alleged crimes, the bar for conviction is no reasonable doubt.

When the accounts of Jesus’ life are subjected to the rigors of legal analysis, they fare quite well.  Greenleaf urges his readers to set aside their prejudices and take a look at the evidence.  If they do so, they will be left with no reasonable doubt.

A Law Professor’s Analysis of the Gospels – Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I recently read a short book entitled The Testimony of the Evangelists by Simon Greenleaf.  Greenleaf was one of the most respected American jurists of the nineteenth century.  He taught law at Harvard University and wrote a judicial classic, Treatise on the Law of Evidence. This work was used as a standard textbook for the latter half of the nineteenth century in American law schools.

The Testimony of the Evangelists is Greenleaf’s analysis of the four Gospels using the principles of legal evidence, an area in which he was an undisputed expert.  Put simply, Greenleaf treated the Gospel writers’ testimonies as if they were being presented in a courtroom.  How would they stand up?

In Greenleaf’s own words, “His business is that of a lawyer examining the testimony of witnesses by the rules of his profession, in order to ascertain whether, if they had thus testified on oath, in a court of justice, they would be entitled to credit and whether their narratives, as we now have them, would be received as ancient documents, coming from the proper custody.”

Greenleaf systematically applied the rules of evidence to the Gospel writers and found them to be entirely credible.  How did he do so?  He first argued that the documents themselves, as originally composed 2,000 years ago and reproduced from that time down to the present day, met the legal standards of admission in a court of law.  He then explained the kind of evidence needed to show that the authors of the documents were trustworthy in their testimony.

It is universally admitted that the credit to be given to witnesses depends chiefly on their ability to discern and comprehend what was before them, their opportunities for observation, the degree of accuracy with which they are accustomed to mark passing events and their integrity in relating them.

After careful historical analysis, Greenleaf finds that each Gospel writer meets these criteria, and thus their testimony about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus should be judged true, based on the canons of legal evidence.

Some skeptics have charged that the standards for judging the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts should be much higher than the canons of legal evidence.  We will examine Greenleaf’s response to this challenge in part 2 of this post.

How Do Textual Critics Choose Among New Testament Manuscript Variants?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Textual critics are the scholars who study the manuscript evidence for the New Testament and determine which readings among the various manuscripts are likely to be the original (see previous post for background).  Although the vast majority of the variants are simple spelling or word order errors made by copyists, there are some variants in the manuscripts that are more significant.

Textual critics use some basic criteria to help determine which readings are most likely the original and which variants were added or modified by copyists.

The first category of criteria is external.  External evidence has to do with the kinds of manuscripts that support a reading.

The first criteria is the age of a manuscript.  Generally, the older the manuscript, the more likely it contains the original text.

Second, the number of manuscripts that support a reading must be taken into consideration.  If we only have a variant reading in a single manuscript, it probably was not in the original text.

Third, the geographical range of a textual variant must be considered.  If a variant reading can be found in manuscripts from many different locations, it is more likely original.  A reading found in manuscripts from only one geographical region is more suspect.

Fourth, many, but not all, textual critics favor the readings from the Alexandrian family of manuscripts, as opposed to the Byzantine and Western families of manuscripts.  Why?  They argue that the Christian scribes in Egypt were more careful copyists.

The second category of criteria is internal.  Internal evidence has to do with the actual words of the text.

The first criteria has to do with intrinsic probabilities, probabilities based on what the author of the text most likely would have written.  Textual critics study the vocabulary, writing style, and theology of an author and see if the textual variant is something that author would have written.  If the text in question is completely different in style, vocabulary, and theology, it renders the reading somewhat suspect.  The opposite is, of course, true.

The second internal criteria is called transcriptional probability.  This criteria asks whether a textual variant is more or less likely to have been created by a scribe or copyist.  Copyists generally tended to harmonize texts that appeared contradictory and expanded upon shorter texts.  So when there are two variants to be compared, the shorter one which does not attempt to harmonize is to be preferred.  Another way to state this is that readings which are more difficult to explain and which are shorter in length are usually preferred.

None of these criteria can be applied in isolation, but these are the kinds of questions that textual critics ask.  It is obviously not an exact science, but most of the time these kinds of questions can lead scholars to the most likely reading of a text.  In fact, no essential doctrines of Christianity are in question because of textual variants.  There is almost no question that we have the words of the original authors in 99+% of the text of the New Testament.

If you’re interested in some of these variants, many of them are found in the footnotes of most English Bible translations.  Check them out for yourself!

Is There Evidence for the Empty Tomb?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have been having an interesting discussion with a gentleman on the issue of the empty tomb.  We’ve touched on some of the evidence, but I decided to present a brief synopsis of William Lane Craig’s arguments for the empty tomb (from Jesus Under Fire).  Here goes!

  1. The historical credibility of the burial story supports the empty tomb.  If the burial story is accurate, the site of Jesus’ tomb would have been known to Jew and Christian alike.  Anyone could have, and would have, just marched to the tomb and produced the body.  In fact, the burial story is widely recognized as a historically credible narrative.
  2. Paul’s testimony implies the fact of the empty tomb.  The sequence in 1 Cor 15 is death- burial – resurrection.  Surely this sequence implies a tomb, or else where would Jesus be buried?
  3. The presence of the empty tomb narrative in the pre-Markan Passion story supports its historical credibility.  Scholars believe that Mark’s sources from which he wrote his Gospel contained the Passion story of Jesus.  Therefore, this source material would have been very old and date back to right after Jesus’ death (about A.D. 37).
  4. The use of the “first day of the week” (Mark 16:2) instead of  “on the third day” points to the primitiveness of the tradition of the empty tomb.  Scholars believe that the “third day” motif found in the New Testament developed later in Christian preaching.  The fact that Mark leaves those words out speaks to a very early date for the material in Mark.
  5. The nature of the narrative itself is theologically unadorned and nonapologetic.  Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and straightforward.
  6. The empty tomb was discovered by women.  Given the low status of women in 1st century Jewish society and their inability to serve as legal witnesses, it would be nonsensical for the New Testament writers to fabricate the story of the women finding the empty tomb.  The most reasonable explanation is that they really did.
  7. The investigation of the tomb by Peter and John is historically probable.  The visit of the disciples to the tomb is attested both in tradition (Luke 24:12, 24; John 20:3) and by John himself.
  8. It would have been virtually impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty.  When the disciples began to preach the resurrection in Jerusalem and people responded, and when the religious authorities stood helplessly by, the tomb must have been empty.
  9. The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.  Matthew tells us in Matt. 28:15 that the Jewish opponents of Christianity did not deny that the tomb was empty.  They claimed the disciples stole the body.
  10. The fact that Jesus’ tomb was not venerated as a shrine indicates that the tomb was empty.  It was customary in Judaism for the tomb of a prophet or holy man to be preserved or venerated as a shrine because the bones of the prophet lay in the tomb.  The only reason Jesus’ followers would not have venerated his tomb is because it was empty.

Aside from those 10 reasons, there is very little evidence.  🙂

Did First Century Christians Believe in Miracles Because They Were Pre-Scientific?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I just finished reading a wonderful book by New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.  In his chapter where he discusses the miracles recorded in the Gospels, he had this to say about the scientific objection to miracles.

In short, the scientific objection to the credibility of miracles is that the discovery of the natural, physical laws by which the universe operates has proved them impossible.  Those who hold this view sometimes go on to explain that people used to believe in miracles because they had only a primitive scientific understanding.  The Christian doctrines of the virgin birth and resurrection, for example, could spring from just such a pre-scientific milieu.  Only a moment’s thought is required, however, to realize that people of every age have known that two human parents are needed for conception and that death is irreversible! (emphasis mine)

Well put, Dr. Blomberg.  Well put.

Is Historical Evidence Convincing to Skeptics of Christianity?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Only if the skeptic is open to the existence of a God who can intervene in the affairs of the world.

I have discussed the historical reliability of the New Testament with many skeptics over the years.  The skeptics I typically speak to inevitably dismiss or downplay much of the historical evidence that I present.  They argue that ancient writers didn’t understand the difference between history and myth, that mythical stories of gods were rampant in the ancient world, that ancients were credulous and unsophisticated, and so on.

As soon as I respond to one of these arguments, they have another one along the same line.  It turns out, however, that the reason most of them don’t believe the Bible is historically reliable is because they don’t believe the miracles included in the Bible could possibly have occurred.  They don’t believe the miracles could have occurred because they don’t believe a God exists who can perform miracles.

Obviously, if no God exists who can perform miracles, then miracles cannot occur!

On the contrary, those who are open to the God of Christianity existing often find the historical evidence to be quite impressive.  Why?  Because they believe that a God who can perform miracles might exist.  They may not be totally convinced, but they don’t dismiss it out of hand.

My advice to any Christian who is discussing the historical reliability of the Bible with a skeptic is to pause and ask the skeptic if they believe in the real possibility of a God who can intervene miraculously in the world.  If they don’t, you need to drop back and discuss that issue first.  Otherwise, you may very well be wasting your time.

Did the New Testament Writers Record Fact or Fiction? Part 8

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In this series of posts, we have shown that the NT writers claimed to be eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses; we have shown that we have multiple witnesses, and we have shown that the eyewitnesses were trustworthy.  How?  They included embarrassing details about themselves  and difficult details about their subject of worship, Jesus; their accounts contain divergent details, just as we would expect from independent witnesses; and they wrote about historical facts that have been thoroughly corroborated by ancient non-Christian writers and modern archaeology.

There is one final piece of evidence that you should consider, though.  I think it is one of the strongest historical evidences we have.

Here it is.  The apostles, some of whom wrote portions of the NT, were all killed for their beliefs, except John.  According to Christian tradition, Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified upside down – both of them killed in Rome.  James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, was thrown off the top of the Jerusalem temple and stoned to death.  The other apostles met similar fates.    Before they died, they were beaten, stoned, imprisoned, mocked, and persecuted, mostly because of their professed beliefs in Christ.

I was having lunch with a couple of bright engineers a few years back, and we started discussing religions, Christianity in particular.  They challenged my belief in the NT documents by saying that many people have created religions in order to gain fame, fortune, and power.  They thought it was quite possible that the NT writers were merely doing the same.  I asked them if they knew what happened to the apostles after Jesus died, and they did not know.  When I shared the facts above, they became silent.  Fame, fortune, and power eluded all of these men while they were alive.  Their lives would have been far easier if they had just kept quiet.

Maybe the apostles weren’t in it for the money, so to speak.  Maybe they had been lied to or deceived.  Maybe they just died for their false religious beliefs like so many other fanatics do.   Many people die for their religious beliefs, don’t they?  The Muslim fanatics on 9/11 certainly died for their beliefs.  Aren’t the apostles just the same?

No, they aren’t.  There’s a fundamental difference between the disciples and the 9/11 extremists.  The 9/11 fanatics died for contemporary beliefs that reflected someone’s modern-day interpretation of the Qur’an, a book which was written 1,400 years ago.  They had no way of knowing if the source of that book, Muhammad, was telling the truth or not.  They weren’t there to see it.  They believed based on what they had been taught by their contemporary religious teachers.

Not so with the disciples.  They all went to their deaths claiming that they saw Jesus risen from the dead.  But they knew this, not based on information delivered 1,400 years after the fact, but based on their own two eyes!!  If Jesus did not rise from the dead and the NT is a pack of lies, then the disciples knew it.  They were there.

But if they knew Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we must explain why they willingly went to their deaths.  Many people die for a false belief, but nobody dies for a false belief they know is false, especially not 12 different people!  The martyrdom of the apostles is strong evidence for the truth of the historical resurrection of Jesus.  There exists no other theory which can adequately explain their behavior.

I conclude this series with an extended quote from Chuck Colson, who is often asked about why he believes that Jesus rose from the dead, which is the central event and miracle of the NT.  Here is Colson:

Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up, perpetuated by the closest aides to the President of the United States, the most powerful men in America, who were intensely loyal to their President.  But one of them, John Dean, turned state’s evidence, that is, testified against Nixon, as he put it, “to save his own skin,” and he did so only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on – two weeks!  The real cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks, and then everybody else jumped ship in order to save themselves. Now, the fact is that all that those around the President were facing was embarrassment, maybe prison. Nobody’s life was at stake.

But what about the disciples?  Twelve powerless men, peasants really, were facing not just embarrassment or political disgrace, but beatings, stonings, execution.  Every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead.

Don’t you think that one of those apostles would have cracked before being beheaded or stoned?  That one of them would have made a deal with the authorities?  None did.

You see, men will give their lives for something they believe to be true – they will never give their lives for something they know to be false.

The Watergate cover-up reveals the true nature of humanity.  Even political zealots at the pinnacle of power will, in the crunch, save their own necks, even at the expense of the ones they profess to serve so loyally. But the apostles could not deny Jesus because they had seen Him face to face, and they knew He had risen from the dead.

No, you can take it from an expert in cover-ups – I’ve lived through Watergate – that nothing less than a resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and is Lord.  Two thousand years later, nothing less than the power of the risen Christ could inspire Christians around the world to remain faithful – despite prison, torture, and death.

Jesus is Lord: That’s the thrilling message of Easter.  And it’s an historic fact, one convincingly established by the evidence – and one you can bet your life upon.  Go ahead researchers – dig up all the old graves you want.  You won’t change a thing.  He has risen.

Are the Gospels Simply a Retelling of the Mithras Mythology?

Recently, one of the commenters on our blog alleged that the documents of the New Testament simply repeat common themes, ideas, and facts that were widely circulated in the ancient world.  Perhaps you have heard others make this claim, such as the folks who created the Zeitgeist video.

One of the most popular arguments is that the stories about Jesus are just recycled mythology that originated from the Mithras legends.  If it could be shown that numerous specific details in the Christian gospel accounts had been copied from prior mythology, then the promoters of this idea would have something.  But is that the case?  No.

There are many internet sites and books that debunk this idea, but I commend this article at PleaseConvinceMe.com to those who want a brief, but highly informative response to this challenge.

Did the New Testament Writers Record Fact or Fiction? Part 7

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Continuing from part 6, we will examine more evidence for the trustworthiness of the NT writers.

A fourth question about the NT writers’  integrity: are any of the historical facts they mention corroborated by other sources?  Here the NT writers really shine.  During the first and second centuries, there were many historians who were writing books and letters.

We still have many manuscript copies of these writings.  Not only do we have copies of ancient documents, we also have archaeological finds from this time period.  Since some of the NT writers described people, cities, languages, landmarks, and topography, we could check these things out to see if the NT writers were accurate.

First, the book of Acts contains numerous historical facts that can be checked out.  One researcher, Colin Hemer, found that at least 84 historical facts found in Acts can be confirmed by independent evidence.  84 facts!

According to modern-day Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White: “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. . . . Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd.  Roman historians have long taken it for granted.”  In other words, the book of Acts is used by professional historians to study Roman history.

In that same book of Acts that contains rock-solid history, Luke also records 35 miracles.  We need to give Luke the benefit of the doubt, don’t we?  Using other sources to check his facts, Luke has been proven a first-rate historian, so it is eminently reasonable to believe the miraculous accounts he recorded in the days of the early church.

Luke’s reputation as an historian carries over in the Gospel of Luke.  Just read Luke 3:1-2  and tell me Luke didn’t care about getting the facts right.  He practically begs his readers to check his facts.  World-famous historian William Ramsay studied Luke’s historical accuracy for 20 years and concluded: “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.  Luke is an historian of first rank.  [He] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”

Now pay close attention.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection contain all the same general facts as Mark, Matthew, and John.  Therefore, they should also be trusted.  In fact, the Gospel of John has also been dissected for historical accuracy and was found to have at least 60 independently corroborated historical facts correct.

There’s more.  We have copies of manuscripts from 17 ancient non-Christian writers who corroborate many of the basic historical facts mentioned in the NT.  These include people who were hostile to Christianity.

Additionally, archaeologists have discovered the ruins of virtually every major biblical city and we actually have the ossuary (bone box) that contained Joseph Caiaphas’ bones!  He was the high priest who sentenced Jesus to death.  Volumes have been written which chronicle the archaeological evidence matching the names of people and places recorded in the Bible, but we don’t have space to discuss it all.

The bottom line: wherever we can check the historical facts written into the books of the NT, they show themselves trustworthy.  Does this prove everything the NT authors’ claim?  Of course not.  But it is still strong evidence that they were reliable recorders of what they saw.

In this series of posts, we have shown that the NT writers claimed to be eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses; we have shown that we have multiple witnesses, and we have shown that the eyewitnesses were trustworthy.  How?  They included embarrassing details about themselves  and difficult details about their subject of worship, Jesus; their accounts contain divergent details, just as we would expect from independent witnesses; and they wrote about historical facts that have been thoroughly corroborated by ancient non-Christian writers and modern archaeology.

There is one final line of evidence that will conclude this series of posts.  You won’t want to miss it.