Is The New Testament Reliable? (Answering Atheist Questions)
I am an atheist and I have a few questions I collected from an atheist program called the PineCreek Podcast with Doug Letkeman. I would like to ask you, if you don't mind, to give me some perspective. The choices for your answers are: 1=Strongly Agree, 2=Agree, 3=Neutral/I Don't Know, 4=Disagree, 5=Strongly Disagree. Sound Good? Here are the questions: 1. The NT authors sometimes misquote the OT. 2. There is contemporary evidence for the life and ministry of Jesus. 3. The Gospels report events that we would expect to be recorded by others. 4. The Gospels present eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. 5. Luke was a companion of Paul who carefully recorded some of the history of Jesus. 6. Differences in Gospel accounts, lend credibility of the reliability of the Gospels. 7. The thousands of manuscripts of the NT point to its historical reliability. 8. The Bible provides a consistent message from Genesis to Revelation. 9. There are errors and mistakes in the Bible other than spelling/grammar. 10. The evidence we have in the NT could exist even if Jesus didn't rise from the dead in bodily form.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
This has taken a little time. Sorry about that. Here are my responses to your questions. I have attempted to give fuller reasons where I anticipate you taking stronger exception. I may have guessed wrong, so please feel free to ask questions or even to offer challenges where you feel I have said too little. Thanks!
1. The NT authors sometimes misquote the OT: The New Testaments’ quotations (NT) of the Old Testament (OT) are often taken, not from the Masoretic text, which was copied between the 7th and 10th centuries (AD), but from the Septuagint, which was translated in the 2nd century (BC). For this reason, what often seem to be misquotations are not, but are simply quotes drawn from a more popular text in use at the time. Thus, in short, no I do not think that the NT author’s are intentionally or otherwise misquoting the OT. Therefore, my answer would probably be a 5.
2. There is contemporary evidence for the life and ministry of Jesus: The first century evidence for the life and teaching of Jesus is, historically speaking, fairly impressive. His life and his deeds, as well as death, and even his reputation as a teacher, are plentifully attested in a number of late first century, as well as early to mid second century, non-Christian sources. Additionally, strong evidence exists from the early extra-biblical sources which lie behind the NT texts themselves. These would be the early source materials which the NT authors used to create the gospels. By analogy, the number one atheist scholar in the country, Bart Ehrman, thinks that these sources, which are found in our modern Bibles, are among the strongest evidences we have for the life and ministry of Jesus. He concludes: “And so it is quite wrong to argue that Mark is our only independent witness to Jesus as a historical person. The other six accounts are completely or partially independent as well. For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world.” (Did Jesus Exist? pg. 78) So my answer here would be the same as Ehrman’s: a confident “1”.
3. The Gospels report events that we would expect to be recorded by others: The Gospels do indeed record events which would have been recorded by others, because they obviously did. Seutonius, Tacitus and Josephus speak of an impressive and important collection of the basic gospel data. Also, we have the pre-Markan passion story, the early Matthian source (M), the early Lukan source (L) and the Gospel of Thomas (T) which all demonstrate this matter firmly. Finally, there is the fact that Luke himself describes a large number of early writers who undertook to write gospels which have now been lost to us. Again, Ehrman writes: “As we will see more fully in a later context, one needs to approach everything that the Gospel writers say gingerly, with a critical eye. But there is no reason to suspect that Luke is lying….He knew of ‘many’ earlier authors who had compiled narratives about the subject matter that he himself is about to narrate, the life of Jesus.” (Did Jesus Exist? pg. 79) And so once again, I would have to answer with “1”.
4. The Gospels present eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus: Most critical NT scholars do not accept the idea that the gospels record early, eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus. Some hold that John, for example, was not John, the son of Zebedee, who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry, but was a second century elder in the
early church. However, I personally see no reason to think that the gospel accounts do not reach back to eyewitness testimony. For one, there is nothing in the gospels which contradicts external, secular reports of the Easter faith. Rather what we find there harmonizes well with various secular mentionings. Furthermore, with the exception of John, those who wrote would not have immediately garnered trust, were it not for some kind of known, early contact with the Jesus tradition. Matthew, for example, had previously been a tax collector and would have been seen as an ex-traitor to the Jewish people. Also, Luke was a physician, and would have been viewed as a snake oil salesman in the eyes of his audience. Finally, Mark had abandoned the cause of the gospel in the context of an early missions trip with Paul. So the gospels were not exactly authored by a “Who’s Who” list of stars in the early church. It therefore seems that something other than their personal reputation would have vouchsafed their authenticity. And what better safeguard than that the writers were themselves recipients of the gospel according to the disciple’s own account. I am therefore inclined to say: “1” or “2”.
5. Luke was a companion of Paul who carefully recorded some of the history of Jesus: The notion of Luke being an early traveling companion of Paul goes back to particular allusions to the fact found in the book of Acts. Richard Carrier notes in his impressive volume, Not The Impossible Faith, that the use of the first person plural in early sea voyage material is a known literary device in first century literature. Carrier is simply not to be trusted on this point. Not the Impossible Faith was never peer-reviewed but was self-published through an independent press. Of course that doesn’t guarantee that his work is wrong. But when it conflicts with what Bart Ehrman, and others, generally thinks of Luke (see above), it becomes a doubtful point to argue. Furthermore, these notions turn out to be nothing but a scholarly fiction, when you chase them down. So, I’m not convinced that Luke is anything different from what he claims. Again, my answer would be shared by critical and fundamentalist scholars alike. I would choose “1”.
6. Differences in Gospel accounts, lend credibility of the reliability of the Gospels: Differences in gospel accounts have more recently been spoken of in scholarly circles. Bart Erhman thinks that they demonstrate a problem at the very core of the gospel witness. Mike Licona disagrees. He holds, with others, that the gospels resemble the literary genre of Greco-Roman biography (the life of an eminent person) and thus that the sorts of differences we see in the gospels show up in other ancient biographical sources as well. For example, in Plutarch’s Lives, there are times where Plutarch describes the same event twice. The re-descriptions often come complete with varying details and even reordered historical events. In such cases, reharmonizations can be difficult. But these problems are not viewed by Licona (or others) as signs of ahistoricity. Rather, they are understood as typical of biographical sources of the period. Hence, my answer here is going to be a qualified “1”. The reason is that in most cases, differences between the gospels can be resolved by analogous examples from Greco-Roman biography. But in some cases, we simply don’t know what to make of the material we are seeing. Nevertheless, I agree that slight differences do tend to defeat collusion theories and increase historicity. Multiple attestation is in fact an earn mark of authenticity. So, we’re generally safe here.
7. The thousands of manuscripts of the NT point to its historical reliability: Concerning the manuscript evidence for the NT, I do agree that we are looking at some substantial material. In fact, I have written a pretty thorough article on this subject. So, I’d recommend that you either view the video or check out the article. That will save me some time in my answer here, which is once again, a confident “1”.
8. The Bible provides a consistent message from Genesis to Revelation: Concerning the consistency of the message of the Bible, Jesus himself claimed that it was consistent (cf. Jn 5:39). He then banked the reliability of his teaching on this point and others on the foundation of the proof of his resurrection. My answer is therefore going to be simple: So long as the resurrection can be demonstrated to be historical, we are looking at a biblical message that must be consistent: All of scripture is meant to identify and speak of Jesus. It therefore contains a consistent message, despite outstanding disagreements amongst theologians and scholars. I have written on proof of Jesus’s resurrection here. Feel free to read it and offer any more questions. Answer: “1”.
9. There are errors and mistakes in the Bible other than spelling/grammar: Concerning mistakes and scribal errors in the Bible, I do believe that these have occurred. This is self evident from the massive project modern scholars have undertaken in establishing the text of the NT. However, as I note in my article on textual issues, the concept of inspiration does not apply to copyist transmissions. It only applies to the original texts themselves. So, we can once again specify with a “1”.
10. The evidence we have in the NT could exist even if Jesus didn't rise from the dead in bodily form: Lastly, I do not believe that it would have been possible for the early Christian movement to have begun if Jesus had not risen from the dead. Hence, I do not believe that the evidence could have been produced apart from a miracle. So I answer “1”.
So thanks for writing Terry. And I hope to talk again soon. Feel free to share my responses with Doug and the Pinecreek Podcast family. Thanks.
Ben Fischer <><